Songbird

Lewes

Listening to a robin sing this morning, I kept looking amongst the branches until I spotted a red breast fluttering near the crown. Spring sunshine was pouring over Lewes’s suburban lawns and ruinous Abbey grounds. I hadn’t heard something so beautiful and unforced in a very long time. ‘A bird sings because it has a song’ or so the saying goes.

East Sussex is geographically far removed from my home in Aberdeenshire. Its the southern end of the green isle, but it felt familiar today only warmer, prettier and less remote.

Standing on Lewes Castle grounds, I remember being an eight-year-old boy, accompanying my mother to Aberdeen’s zoology building. I would bring along my binoculars and pack lunch box to RSPB meetings: a meal composed of ham sandwiches, crisps and two bourbon chocolate biscuits wrapped in tin foil.

We drove there in a poky blue Volvo and the conveners always had southern English accents. I always remember this because they were markedly different from the kids and teachers at my local school. Bird watching shaped my early childhood until the age of ten. But it stayed there for some reason, like many sweet things that drift away in the pursuit of conformity.

Gone are the speckled breasts of thrushes, goldfinches and robins. Living in a big city estate with no garden, birds have become crows roosting over defecated cars. Unlike my RSPB years, I don’t hear any songbirds when I leave the house in the morning. I only hear the caw-caw-cawing of scavengers and a 24/7 motorised world.

Isn’t it funny how far south you have to travel just to remember how things used to be.

Aye Right

As part of this year’s census people in Scotland will be asked if they understand, speak, read or write in Scots. The census counts everyone in Scotland once every ten years and I was initially surprised that the Aye Can website referred to ‘Scots’ as a language. Gaelic in my opinion is Scotland’s only independent tongue whereas Scots is a broad term for a loose confederation of dialects. Scots is a Germanic language and has evolved from Old English and Norse to be spoken throughout the land although not exclusively, as speaking in a Scottish accent is not the same as speaking in Scots.

Having spent the majority of my life in the North East of Scotland, I am already familiar with one of the richest Scottish dialects in Doric. The 18th century poet Allan Ramsey (1686-1758) was the first to apply the name Doric as an alternative name for Scots. In the 18th century, Scots was compared with the rustic peasant tongue of Ancient Greece, spoken in Doria, while English, the official language of the new British state of 1707, became associated with Attic, the standard language of the city states.

In post-industrial Scotland, the Doric label crept northwards and is now commonly associated with the Grampian region. Despite living in rural Aberdeenshire for over twenty years, I can’t speak in Doric or even read it properly as this wonderfully impenetrable article by Robbie Shepherd will duly illustrate. With my Anglo-Irish parents holding sway, I grew up from my Mother’s knee speaking English and often felt estranged from my peers and elders who did spik in the mither tongue.

As a product of North Sea oil, I found myself being brought up as a British migrant child in the part of Scotland no one really cares about. Geographically isolated and deeply unfashionable, I remember going to primary school and watching oil rigs pump billions into the nation’s economy from my class window. With oil barely receiving a mention in Thatcher’s memoirs, I can recall studying History at two of the country’s oldest universities, one of them being Aberdeen, and hoping to learn about how my region shaped our nation’s fortunes.

But Aberdeen rarely ever featured in my lectures and text books. All the great battles, figures and political incidents took place in the social and economic heartbeat of Scotland’s Central Belt. While the misty romances of Gaeldom provided the poets and tourists with a chocolate box vision of the Highlands. Even when the North East should have become more relevant in the latter end of the 20th century, it appears going offshore every two weeks in Thatcher’s Britain is nowhere near as romantic as ‘goin down pit’.

On being asked whether I speak or read in Scots, I can recollect the social differences in dialect from my childhood years in a commuter village south of Aberdeen. Even my Scottish peers spoke in a far softer tone than the raw Aberdeen dialect we regularly encountered at football matches and school activity weeks. Children from my school would dismiss kids fae Aberdeen as ‘toonsers’ and their accents were frequently mocked for being uncouth and poorly spoken.

Obviously I was too young to understand the social class dimension behind these childish views.  The oil boom of the late 1970s had transformed a previously isolated region, and resulted in a steady influx of non-Scots speakers into the area. Although miles away from the coastal strip of oil rich villages, the Doric tongue continues to baffle outsiders in the traditional braes and communities of the North East. As a student I remember labouring in the summer around the time of last census in the market town of Stonehaven. While obviously out of place, I struggled to keep up with the broad dialect of the labourers in the yard. The old men manning the vans would comically refer to me as a lanky ‘guffy’, and curiously enough this is a derogatory term for an Englishman.

Despite being born and raised in Aberdeenshire, I persistently felt like an outsider during my three month stint in the yard. And while any attempt to speak in Doric would have made me an imposter, I am relieved globalisation has not completely extinguished the ancient tongue of the North East. For while I cannot speak in Scots, I long for it continue regardless of whether it is a language or not.

Your mind is the scene of the crime

After moving to South Hackney two years ago, I have enjoyed a peaceful inner city existence and never felt in any danger. Occasionally teenagers can be seen loitering around the canal bridge and feral kids play improvised football against the recycling bins. But this if anything provides a sense of gritty character to an otherwise dull residential neighbourhood.

While the grim Stalinist appearance of the estate and being surrounded by human storage containers is depressing at times, I have never had any reason to be fearful. Well at least until the coalition government’s new crime website was launched this week. The location based website provides an interactive map of reported violent crime, burglary and anti-social behaviour on every street in England and Wales.

Almost immediately I punched in my postcode and against my better judgement, I found myself living in a crime hotspot. Everyday I walk over the canal bridge on Shepherdess Walk and feel perfectly safe. But the government website reveals a different story.

There are incidents of burglary, vehicle crime and drug dealing on what I had previously assumed to be an idyllic thoroughfare. Clearly the teenage hoods on the bridge have been up to no good. Further inspection of the website reveals there were 2134 reported incidents of crime in my postcode area in December alone.

Should I be too scared to leave the house now? The chances of me being a victim of crime appears to have increased since I discovered what goes on outside when I’m indoors. Even though I should be terrified of my crime ridden estate, I have yet to even spot a litter bug during my two-year stint in Hackney.

Such horrifying statistics are in stark contrast to what I experienced in rural Aberdeenshire as a child. After pouring over the dark side of inner city life, I initially began to reflect back upon how kids from my village would play football after school instead of drug dealing or car theft.

While times have changed since the 1980s and the rise of the internet and games consoles has probably contributed towards more kids staying indoors, I remember how my peers indulged in criminal activity of their own. Every year local school kids would construct massive hay bases in nearby fields and cause thousands of pounds worth of damage.

Most eight years old’s are unaware of the economic value of a hay bail and are unlikely to have a crisis of conscience when they turn one into a straw heap. As a result, local farmers would angrily come charging after us in their tractors once they realised their cherished field had descended into a William Golding novel. The thrill of the chase begins when you are young and I fondly remember scrambling over stone dyke walls escaping from irate Doric farmers as a school boy.

Crime like love is in the eye of the beholder and while stealing strawberries and pea-pods from an allotment patch might have seem like harmless fun to a country village boy. Is it really any different from local youths in Hackney stealing Mars Bars and Coke cans from a 24 convenience store? Enid Blyton would have loved my village escapades and my childhood experiences of crime seem incredibly idyllic in hindsight.

While urban youths are frequently demonised in the media, I can empathise with bored teenage youths loitering around shops in sub-zero temperatures. Dimly lit streets and high rise buildings judge their offspring cruelly in the absence of wide green spaces. In light of the newly publicised figures, I should perhaps tread more carefully along the streets of Hackney but likewise so is the fear of me becoming another government statistic.