Learning the Gàidhlig

Saturday saw me and around a dozen others embark on the first of five Saturday morning lessons in Gàidhlig, run by the estimable Ceòlas organisation. This is not, I’m afraid to report, my first attempt to learn some Gàidhlig, having attended courses last year in which, despite the best attempts of a notable and patient teacher, aided by a few catch-up viewings of BBC Alba’s 1990s Speaking Our Language, I must confess that little sank in long-term (practise does make perfect and, of course, the reverse is also true). Indeed, for most of us present, this was at least a second go.

The Western Isles generally is a stronghold of the language, and we learned that Uist is currently regarded as holding the gold standard for how to speak it properly (like anywhere else, Gàidhlig has dialects and different accents). With some 52% of the population of the islands still using it as a native language, you can hear Gàidhlig spoken just about everywhere other, of course, than where you are yourself: islanders use it with each other but tend to switch to English if they don’t know who you are (there is little that is sinister about this; it comes more from a desire not to cause embarrassment). So, chances to practise can be fairly rare unless you are assertive; and, like learning any other language, while knowing what to ask is one thing, understanding the reply that you get is another thing entirely. Our teacher this week, Liam, a young US-Canadian probably in his late 20s, arrived in Scotland in 2008, finding his way to the islands sometime later, learned Gàidhlig by immersion and is profoundly knowledgeable about the language and about its scholarship. I can see the attraction: with immersion, you don’t get to rely on your English or have others rely on it for you – and sink or swim is always a good way of learning how to do more than just keep your head above the water.

The difficulties of learning any language vary from one to another. The Gàidhlig alphabet has only 18 letters (no ‘j’, no ‘k’, no ‘q’ and nothing beyond a ‘u’), leading to a variety of interesting ways to combine different consonants; and, although it uses the Latin alphabet, it seems best not to rely on familiarities for how they should sound but to see them in their own context. Gàidhlig has a verb-subject-object word order, in contrast to the English (and French) subject-verb-object; and, while it shares with a lot of European languages both cases and nouns being either masculine or feminine, this is not predictable (‘morning’ (madainn) and ‘night’ (oidhche) are feminine whereas ‘afternoon’/’evening’ (feasgar) is masculine; whereas in French ‘matin’, ‘jour’ and ‘soir’ are all masculine while ‘nuit’ is feminine). Beware of false friends. Indeed, my strategy this time around is to try and learn how phrases sound and learn them by rote, not to try and learn them by reading them out. And don’t get me started on the complexities of lenition.

After five weeks I’ll be hoping that a few more words and phrases stick than asking people what their names are and how they are; and ‘Turned out windy again’. Indeed, they already have, with two more ways to ask ‘how are you’ than the standard, one of which translates as ‘how’s your trim?’ a phrase originating in seafaring which ought (and may well do) have some localised English equivalents (English does of course have an expression about dis/liking the cut of someone’s jib). Perhaps there is indeed more in common than divides us.

Repairing to the Polochar Inn afterwards for a spot of lunch, the young woman who served us was (of course) bilingual and happy to reward our attempts to use our Gàidhlig. She grew up largely speaking English to her mum (who was from Edinburgh) and largely Gàidhlig to her father (an islander); and was learning French and hoping to study Italian. Much depends on the individual, of course – but what a start in learning, and in understanding others, comes when you grow up in the home with two ways of asking others what they know, and of intrepreting their answers.

Book review: Midwinter Break

I read Cal, Bernard MacLaverty‘s second novel, when it emerged back in 1983 drawn by the title of the work and the early literary development of an understanding of what Pete McCarthy later came to describe as the philosophy of never passing a bar which has your name on it (itself a rare, but not completely abstract, event for me; the inn in the wonderfully-named Perthshire village of Calvine having passed up the opportunity, calling itself the Struan Arms instead – something missed there, I feel).

Back then, I immediately went on and picked up Lamb, MacLaverty’s similarly sparsely-titled debut work from 1980, and enjoyed the staccato, if somewhat bleak, prose. But there’s not been a lot to go on since – Midwinter Break, released in August this year, is MacLaverty’s first novel for 16 years and only his fourth in a career spanning 35 years (there have also been short stories). Both Lamb and Cal were short novels, and Midwinter Break‘s trees-cut-down-per-volume-sold ratio is also going to be pretty low.

MacLaverty’s tale follows Stella and Gerry, a retired couple from Belfast now exiled in Glasgow, taking a long weekend in Amsterdam. From the outset, the setting is clear: a couple who, while still rubbing along together pretty well, nevertheless find habits and foibles in the other grating and a source of grit in the gearbox of the relationship. For Stella, it is Gerry’s excessive whiskey drinking and his continual bantering and search for humour; for Gerry, it is Stella’s contrasting sense of propriety, organisation and orderliness, perhaps, stemming from her religious faith which plays a major part in the development of the novel and about which Gerry is also notably, and openly, sceptical. They bicker; but they also laugh and share closeness and intimacy. They talk but, substantially, only about superficial things. In short, they are absolutely normal.

As MacLaverty develops his theme, it becomes clear that this midwinter break could see a break in their relationship. Or, just perhaps, it could also see a break in the routine to which they have become accustomed and which might, alternatively, see each of them re-commit to the relationship. This is not just a novel about how people grow old together and stay together – Stella and Gerry have a shared past which gives them a strong bond and foundation – but how even long, and strong, relationships require to be refreshed if they are to remain that way.

Told alternately by following each character on their travels through Amsterdam and then extensively through dialogue in their scenes together, and with other characters being largely incidental, MacLaverty forces a relentless focus on the two protagonists. This is not implemented in a claustrophobic way but in one which heightens the reader’s awareness of the state of their relationship and maximises our sympathy for each. MacLaverty draws gentle, extremely sensitive and well-rounded portraits of both Gerry and Stella, presenting each of them in an even, non-judgmental way. To accomplish that, he needs to be able to write women characters and it is to his credit as an author that Stella in particular has real voice and resonance. The dialogue is convincingly accurate, as it needs to be given its importance to the structure of the novel, with the exception of a couple of places in which Stella’s annoyance at Gerry’s banter was less apparent than it ought to have been given her subsequent reactions.

This is a slow-paced novel and some readers will find its gentle tone and lack of action – essentially an ordinary, older couple pottering around a foreign city looking for inspiration – too gentle and too one-paced. Gerry and Stella do not seek to confront a consciously failing relationship by argumentatively thrashing things out in an anonymous hotel room; their being in Amsterdam is not to undertake a ‘fix or bust’ resolution although it is clear that at least one of them is grasping for a better outcome. This is real life, in which the minutiae of characters successfully making their way through their day are allowed to take centre stage.

In holding up successful long-term relationships as ones in which people consciously take the steps to (re-)learn to communicate properly, and with honesty, MacLaverty has done a favour to all of us still looking for that key. There might be nothing particularly new in that – but, it seems, such a lesson is in need of being continually re-learned.

As dusk falls

I’ve recently been in Mazury, Poland’s lake district, where I’ve been helping my partner pack up her house following its sale (this is the sixth house move I’ve been involved with in little more than six years, a process of now rapidly-diminishing returns!).

The weather was mostly damp and cool, although autumn is well underway and the colours of the trees, even against a grey sky with little sunshine to lighten, are beautiful. My subject here is a small lake at Wilkasy, near Gizycko (which Germans know as Lötzen: Wilkasy has a few signs advertising rooms, with Zimmer Frei alongside the Polish Pokoje), unusually not connected by waterways to other lakes and thus with few tourist yachts and, with a shoreline dominated by swamp and mud, it is not so popular with wild swimmers either. Those in the know tell me that it is, therefore, great for fishing and there are a few small boats moored at the side of the lake. As winter sets in, and ice covers the lake sufficient to walk on, they will be frozen in, marking time until the spring thaw.

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Here, looking north, the desolation of the derelict, sunken, wooden landing stage, set against the background of the messy, untidy curve of the reed beds, the soft tone greys providing an absence rather than the presence of colour, other than the yellow hint of a set sun reflected in the water, delivers a lonely scene of a contrastingly calm stillness. To complete the picture, a rook in the forest on the far shore utters a few of its deep, evisceral KARK! calls, half-warning, half-assertive of self, as it settled into its night’s roost.

As for the soundtrack, a soft piano would seem to suit – perhaps, given the picture, the sonorous calls of Satie’s Les Trois Gymnopédies, or, to lighten the mood a little, some soft jazz. All I can think of, however, is Phil Collins and In The Air Tonight – not because it fits the particular mood I have been painting, or because I particularly like the song, but because RadioZET, our listening station of choice when in Poland, has, amongst a mix of popular Polish artists and today’s auto-tuned stars, a continuing and deeply obsessive fixation with 1980s power ballads. Think Tina Turner denying that we need another hero while Bonnie Tyler is continuing to hold out for one; think Foreigner wanting to know what love is, as well as Journey admonishing us not to stop believing (though that one also has a more recent connotation of which I’d perhaps rather not be reminded now!), alongside all the other US bands badged under what we used to know as AOR (adult-oriented rock); think the soundtracks to Footloose and Dirty Dancing. And, on this visit, think Phil Collins feeling ‘it’ coming in the air tonight. No fewer than four times in less than one week, that I am aware of, and when the radio tends only to be on for less than an hour at a time, is a little bit much to take. The 1980s, punk energies abandoned and the old guard, initially hiding behind the settee as a riot of anarchic popular vandalism took over at least the music press, starting to be confident enough to reassert itself, was (and with a few honourable exceptions) really the decade that popular music forgot. And don’t get me started on Rod Stewart, after all these years, asking us (afresh) if we think he’s sexy. But, after all, perhaps RadioZET is just en vogue. Nightmare thought.

Back to packing up stuff, I think. In a different room where my music folder might, if I’m lucky, provide me with a few new, more acceptable earworms.