Dream across the water

“I don’t like Sliema, the roads are dirty, and the food isn’t so good”, my blonde Italian hairdresser told me. She had set up a salon with her Bologna-born sister here a few years ago. I popped in after buying moisturiser from a pharmacy and a shaver plug at the ironmongers. “In Italy, you are taxed 75% to set up a business. Here it’s much cheaper, and we get to practice our English.”

She charged me fifteen Euros for my haircut and recommended a new conditioner for my scalp. I promised to return before I depart next week. On visiting Malta in a nomadic capacity, I can converse in English without feeling embarrassed like I do in mainland Europe.

The Maltese are bi-lingual from childhood, and many can speak Italian due to the island’s proximity to Sicily. It didn’t declare independence from the UK until 1964, so the Commonwealth’s influence is profound, and going on routine errands here is disconcertingly easy.

With I-gaming companies flocking to Malta for tax breaks, Sliema has become a magnet for Brits, Scandis and Eastern Europeans, with the pouting Russian diaspora not far behind. The Maltese weather is splendid like a dream, and that’s one reason why so many people are choosing to live here.

Sometimes it feels like a 1980s English town, one juxtaposed alongside baroque churches and honey-coloured streets. During my first few days, I didn’t leave the area, and it felt peculiar seeing British high street brands again: Topshop, Clarks, Mothercare, Daily Mirrors, Twirl chocolate bars, and Sky Sports pubs serving pale ale.

Everything feels so easy here you forget how far you’ve travelled. That by coming here to live here, albeit only briefly, you are an agent of social and financial change – whether you like it or not.

Unlike the historic Maltese capital, this giant wall of construction is only a chain store away from Kentish Town. Cement mixers are continually stirring outside demolished nineteenth-century homes. Locals tell me their rents are soaring well above average salaries. For global capitalism is transitory and predatory. It monetises every square inch with impunity.

Some of these new builds are just shy of a million Euros, but despite them offering picture-perfect views of Valletta, they all look the same on the ground. It’s almost like we’ve given up on creating something magical of our own.

Across the bay in the romantic fortress, where Jesus, Mary and Queen Victoria lay encrusted in honeycomb lime, there is a far greater concentration of religion and art – not to mention imperial military might. I go for daily walks along the moon-cracked shore just so that I can take in the skyline. It’s astonishing something so beautiful has survived the torments of time.

Only then do I forget where I’m from – and you need to forget.

Otherwise, what’s the point?

Between the kingdom of the living and the dead

I don’t how know I get myself into these situations. A mid-summer calamity formed the genesis of my Italian journey. It pains me to think about it even now. How could I have fucked up so badly. It’s an innate part of my personality that incidents of virtually no significance throw me to the stars or plunge me into speechless depressions.

I wish I felt more nervous, it would be more fitting, or perhaps my sense of ease is a reflection of the times. English as an international language, internet on tap and a globalised workforce thriving in the city of London.

On travelling to Venice at sunset, I arrive at dusk with a milky sky sinking behind the Adriatic. Looking at the old maps in my guidebook, it’s remarkable how little the city has changed. How is electricity even possible? For now at least it’s dry and warm. Daily flooding is a hazard I could do without.

Lugging two suitcases and a rucksack on an aquatic waterway with a freshly cropped head, I sat next to Midwestern tourists talking about Becks and Peroni. Their broad Yankee accents were charming and gullible in the kindest possible way. Tourist chatter is something I’ll have to get used to and fast. Accents unlock untapped prejudices reinforced by literature and modern television.

Already my proposed accommodation has been adversely affected because an old Venetian landlady refused my tenancy as ‘English are always drunk.’ I was amused to hear this story. Xenophobia is funny when it’s a white British guy at the receiving end. And let’s face it, protesting that I’m Scottish is highly unlikely to assuage her concerns about my sobriety.

Almost immediately I felt the language barrier in Venice for English is a professional tongue not a social one. Most people here speak it competently out of necessity. Stumbling into deli stores and restaurants, I immediately realised I have to urgently learn some Italian phrases and numbers. It’s tiresome nodding, smiling and handing over excessively large notes.

In my experience, buying petty junk food alone is ruinously expensive in Venice and I don’t want to eat pizza every night because funghi is easy to pronounce. Meanwhile I have to forgive myself for being an island monoglot, I have been hired for English language skills after all.

For now at least, that’s my forte.

GIFs as metaphors

Faulkner

Back in the noughties I used to maintain a Blogger diary and updated it twice a week. What struck me reading it back (now safely offline) is not so much the pretentiousness or negativity, but the extraordinary length I went to describe ordinary things.

Like all early bloggers I had no visual content to illuminate my words and unlike the multi-dimensional apps we broadcast from today, Little Earthquakes was my exclusive space on the internet. During the beta years, there were no status updates, memes or tweets to keep you entertained throughout the working day.

On reading my old diaries, it’s probably a good thing Twitter and Facebook didn’t exist. As while I’ll love dreamy quotes and literary feels until I die, I was a dreadful twentysomething.

Most people’s diaries are excruciating, but there is an unnerving sense I could have done anything and blew it through inertia and self-sabotage. I was a little God in my small way.

Blogger

Nobody uses Blogger anymore but on re-reading my noughties blog I am surprised at the length and indeed the frequency of my updates. The paragraphs were longer, denser and wonderfully inconsiderate of modern formats that prefer reactionary images and videos.

Essentially I was a frontier blogger repeating what had gone on in the analogue era. And by writing in traditional English (words, sentences and paragraphs) my diaries will probably seem incredibly dated to future generations.

**

Visual means of communicating are already taking precedence with journalism reduced to using pre-existing and irrelevant Gifs as metaphors. Like why compose a 600 word blog when you can upload a 6 second Vine instead? The English language has always been in a state of constant flux and smartphone apps are revolutionising how kids communicate with one another.

Funeral Selfie

Last year’s Selfies at Funerals website was superbly funny and became an Internet obsession for about a week. It was almost like the cartoon participants of Selfies at Funerals were an anthropological case study from another planet, but Generation Z are going to write the future and it doesn’t have to include words. As the seemingly trivial ‘selfie’ has an emotional resonance amongst teens that even people in their early thirties don’t understand.

Selfies are insanely silly for the most part – a warm, funny and entertaining way to share our feelings and communicate with one another. Witnessing the birth of a visual language is a fascinating experience. Smartphones have created something innately human and more importantly new. This has never happened before and our selfie obsessed culture is like a web born toddler taking its first steps.

IMG-20140315-WA0004

Visual storytelling is what moves people now and even Twitter’s famous 140 character limit is being invaded by images. Historically pictures have always been easier and quicker for people to understand. They get the message across more vividly.

With smartphones replacing words with photos I am already looking out of date. Indeed it is safe to say that anyone over thirty is now irrelevant. Even those who willingly embrace Snapchat and Vine while composing Emoji poetry are culturally obsolete  Emoji symbol

Emoji

Emoji is a visual alphabet from Japan that originated in 1999 because the Japanese language is not suited to short hand messaging. These “picture characters” are commonly misunderstood for emoticons, which is a portmanteau for emotions + icons we use to supplement our text messages and badly written emails (-:

A subtle difference, but a profound one as Emoji symbols are replacing words altogether. That’s not to say the sentiments or ideas expressed in this way are any less meaningful than writing formally.

Digital problems require new solutions and visual short cuts are inevitable if we spend all our time on smartphones. It’s an economy of scale. Only I’m unlikely to compose my thoughts using Emoji when as a digital immigrant I’ve been brought up to use words, sentences and paragraphs.

Elephant in the Room

Although despite not taking any selfies or writing in symbols you have to adapt to survive. Language has always evolved and mutated over time. Fitzgerald did not write like Shakespeare and Snapchat teenagers are unlikely to publish their diaries with no pictures.

The speed of change is relentless and my noughties blog has dated like an rotary dial telephone in an Apple Store. And you know what? It isn’t even that old. But history is accelerating faster than ever before. Less than a decade can pass and your twenties read like something from a period drama.

Forlorn rags of growing old

Sitting in a transparent glass case, about 120-foot-long, lies Jack Kerouac’s antidote to the forlorn rags of growing old at the British Library. Magnificent with all its creases, sellotaped edges and typos, Kerouac’s soul aspiring work of art commands a gasped silence. A stunning cathartic monument trapped inside an air-conditioned case that I once read On the Road (albeit the edited one – nobody told me at the time) in solemn isolation over a decade ago.

On reading the beat novel as a seventeen-year-old, I recall the fantasy, hedonistic sex and panoramic visions of America. Not something I could truly comprehend as a skeleton youth in northern Scotland, but I fondly recall writing down passages about purple grapes, whore houses, the fire cracking candles  and “looking at the ceiling and wondering what God had wrought when He made life so sad”.

This beautiful elegiac sigh once greeted me in a teenage love letter and formed the basis of a melodramatic Facebook status update many years later. Then as you get older and meet greater minds with even greater books, the Beat Generation feels rather clichéd and predictable. It isn’t either of those things but who doesn’t now yawn when they read about Route 66?

On pouring over the holy beat scroll at the British Library, I reminded myself that writing should be the rhythmic articulation of feeling. A sacred totem against mediocrity, sub-editing and the SEO inspired destruction of the English language, Kerouac’s words remain a soaring inspiration. Written in three weeks, single-spaced without paragraphs and corrected in pencil, his words are soaring, brave and utterly mesmerising. 

In a way you have to start writing before you turn thirty because in your late teens and early twenties you have absolutely no self-awareness. The sediments of your personality are tantalisingly incomplete and unbridled magic can still be spun. Age is a social construct – a conception of behaviour, attitudes and deeds but you do get tired eventually and experience is not always a good thing. It can act in barrier in a way and I suppose it’s an oxymoron to suggest you can rediscover your own naivety?

On this note, I will leave this post to some random American teenager, who unwittingly captured the spirit of On the Road on Facebook and funnily enough no one over the age of 30 could possibly get away this. More’s the pity because on walking around that transparent glass cage, I too want to turn this into something different, get out more often and be in more photographs.

On the Road: Jack Kerouac’s Manuscript Scroll will be on display at the British Library until Thursday 27th December 2012.

Blink

Kindred spirits are often romanticised in modern culture, but Blink is a little more surrealist in tone. A character play set in a world just like our own, Jonah and Sophie talk about a voyeuristic love story and one fitting of a society obsessed with making connections.

Written by English playwright Phil Porter, Blink addresses how virtuality has become the next phase of evolution; a world in which you can fall madly in love with complete strangers before even making a call. An online commune of language, love and dreams created entirely with words and grainy pixels – a fantasy world where you write all the rules.

Running at the Ed Fringe throughout August, Blink relies on two protagonists – an impish northern nerd Jonah (Harry McEntire), who somewhat unconvincingly emerges from a Presbyterian boot camp with a flair for voyeurism. Meanwhile the wonderfully gifted Sophie (Rosie Wyatt) has been looking after her dying father and loses her job in a software company for a perceived ‘lack of visibility’.

It this lack of visibility that crystallises the essence of Phil Porter’s play, where Jonah follows Sophie (with her loving consent) on a webcam and they both take solace from their weird and childlike sense of isolation. It is something they cannot necessarily touch but can only feel. They inhabit a world in where virtual souls find love in the anonymity of strangers.

For you see loneliness doesn’t necessarily stem from being on your own. Solitude can or will inevitably contribute but even those with regular human company can feel lonely. It is the inability to share private thoughts, desires and acute observations with like minded souls that accentuates many people’s sense of isolation.

Like sitting on a bus two rows behind a stranger you’re to painfully shy too approach, the same aches and desires apply and in many ways it can be even more painful. Blink is a story about love. A story about how it’s easier to confess all to a bleeping box on Facebook than it is to call a childhood friend. To lapse into an inexplicable world where you believe the other to be perfect. When you haven’t even heard their voice and as quicksands of love shift, which they always do, you blink and the feeling has gone.

Blink runs at the Traverse Theatre until August 26th and the Soho Theatre from Wed 29 August – Sat 22 September. 

The Pen is Dead

Letter writing is an increasingly rare occurrence these days. With the rise of smartphones, there are simply more convenient ways of expressing our feelings. As a frequent note jotter myself, I despair at the slow disintegration of my own handwriting. Although I do take solace in that I still compose my thoughts in legible English, as the shape of most people’s written ovals, loops and slants has been in terminal decline for decades now.

Writing a letter to your friend has almost become a Victorian anachronism; something quaint and romantic but no longer necessary. Like revitalising dead languages in areas they were never originally spoken, letter writing has become a sentimental way to communicate.

Chatting online is more convenient nowadays but handwriting forces you to slow down, to think, to form your thoughts more carefully. Everybody’s handwriting will die out eventually without regular practice. Each year I witness my handwriting deteriorate and I still scribble my thoughts down on a regular basis. But note jotting doesn’t require anywhere near the same level of discipline as writing a letter.

There is something about pressing the tip of a pen against a page and watching your thoughts form right in front of you. Letter writing is a genuinely cathartic experience and it helps you remember things, unlike any messages you may compose online. There is no undo button in real life.

As a former teenage boy of letters, I feel something has been lost by the instant muses of mobile technology. When composing your thoughts on paper, the writer has to form relationships entirely dependent on their written skills. Letter writing is certainly a more genuine way to express your feelings.

Receiving a handwritten letter in the post will always feel more meaningful than a hastily composed email or Facebook message. In fact putting pen to paper feels almost too personal now. Composing something online is easier because the medium provides a cloak of anonymity that a pen cannot provide.

With the evolutionary demise of handwriting being predicted by some experts, there is a now a romantic movement trying to restore the art of letter writing. The Domestic Sluts are kicking off a debate in London this week about social media and how our letter writing has changed since we started emailing. Does it really matter that we don’t write by hand anymore?

On a practical level it doesn’t matter as our need to communicate has never been driven by romantic sentiment. Once technology is established in people’s lives, it doesn’t go away. Indeed the very existence of a restoration movement suggests letter writing is dead already.

Romantic movements are meaning well but they are niche by their very nature. Letter writing was never meant to be a kitsch lifestyle choice. Letters are now exhibited as period pieces in retrospective galleries, where once they lay on the porch floor awaiting to be torn open. With the rise of modern technology we arguably exchange more messages and communicate than ever before. Progress is inevitable but as our handwriting passions slowly die, it sometimes comes at a price.

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.

Evolving English

If reading your Facebook page doesn’t send you into a murderous rage then obviously you don’t have any issues with the English language. Such is the eclectic range of friends in my feed, I frequently find myself laughing at some of the witty and hilariously stupid updates. One former school friend of mine …wishes this abses would go awa no am nae gan 2 the dentist i hate them al burst it myself’.

Facebook inevitably provided this young Scotsman with counselling and advised him ‘Dina mean to scare u but my fiance’s cousin died from one, burst and all the poison went into his blood and into his brain. Better get it sorted!’ And while that does sound extremely painful, what I found interesting was not his abscesses but the near impenetrable use of the Scots dialect.

On wanting to discover more about phonetics, I decided to go along to the Evolving English exhibition at the British Library.  The concept behind the exhibition is the historical and social origins of the English language from 5th century runes to 21st century ‘txt-speak’.

As a matter of principle I have always written text messages in proper English. Such is my aversion to typing without vowels; I regularly had to endure severe financial penalties throughout the pay as you go era. With a flush new phone contract, I can now compose long messages without having to scratch a voucher card every other day.

For nearly a decade now I have dismissed txt speak with a barely concealed contempt. Some of my prejudices were further exposed in an innocuous conversation with a womanising guy who insisted ‘all girls use LOL’ when they are texting. By doing so he unknowingly confirmed that getting a ‘LOL’ out of a girl is an essential part of the modern courting process.

Lolling along I have considered LOL to be feminine ever since. In stark contrast any self-respecting man using this abbreviation is beyond contempt in my opinion. But why I am being so open misogynistic by inferring only women can get away with such frivolous language? Modern text abbreviations are extremely open to interpretation as this heart warming tweet reveals below.

Considering that nearly two billion people speak varying forms of English, I began to question my own relationship with the language.  Despite having a distinctive regional accent, I have always composed my words according to how I think rather than how I speak.

And while I love reading dialect in stories and poetry, I continue to mock ordinary people who express themselves in txt talk. Following the finest traditions of prejudice, I have always dismissed txt-shorthand as a form of illiteracy and those who use it to be ignorant and lazy.

Although this is to disregard the evolutionary nature of English and texting is just another example of the malleability of the language. Constantly changing and evolving from the 5th century, English has never remained static and while txt speak is subject to serious derision by conservative academics. It isn’t that much different than some of the ludricious office jargon I have to endure on a daily basis, where words such as ‘hyper local’, ‘granularity’ and ‘consumer facing brands’ are considered gospel.

Some of the most cultured and intelligent people I know are prone to a good LOL now and again. Indeed I have a new found affection for people who Laugh Out Loud but for reasons unknown to me I still think men who use it are idiots.

Alas despite being enlightened by the British Library, I refuse to use LOL on grounds of principle. Instead I have an alternative expression of mirth in the form of ‘haha’, which I regularly use when reading about ex-school colleague’s gum problems on Facebook.