I've practised as a doctor for more than half my life and for most of that time I was a GP. In my professional life I've observed people and their differing relationships, and been privileged to be involved in many of their personal stories. Most of these, I couldn't possibly share ... but I can now make up stories of my own.
Five months of coronavirus and the arrival of our first grandchild ( now emerging from lockdown) has limited my blogging ability. No great inspiration to share this month, just the news that I’m learning Dutch online, the garden is in good fettle, and I am 50,000 words into my current work in progress ( novel number four). Hoping to find something fascinating to write about in September.
A writer friend has recently written an amusing story about the use of plain English, which has set me thinking of my own use of words when I speak but also when I write. I like to think I use plain English in my novels and stories and I consciously avoid words which might be considered highfalutin or pompous ( unless a specific character demands it). English is such a generous language, with so many options and alternatives, that’s sometimes easier said than done.
Language continues to develop and change; regional variations and accents are now more encouraged, email etiquette alters the way we communicate, and then there’s texting and tweeting!
Many of us change our language according to circumstance. There’s an interesting chapter in “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings”, where at the end of Chapter 29, Maya Angelou describes how her Black (always a capital B in the book) childhood associates “learned to slide out of one language and into another without being conscious of the effort”. She explained by saying that at school, in a given circumstance they might respond with “That’s not unusual’ but in the street, meeting the same situation, they easily would say “It be’s like that sometimes.”
In speech many of us alter our choice of words, tone or accent according to circumstance. It was a family joke that my Yorkshire born mother, renowned for her perfect Queen’s English, slipped into a Yorkshire twang half-way up the A1 when we drove north to visit grandparents. I have the ability to do the same. I guess changes might be less obvious in the written word but they still occur.
Despite my desire for plain English I love to find unusual new words and Twitter is a great source of such discoveries. Susie Dent, she of Dictionary Corner fame, posts excellent new-to-me words, as does Robert Macfarlane who finds pleasure in his lost words. There’s even a Twitter site named New Words. These lost and found, new words are not always usable in everday life but I’ve recently found one that suits be well and it is to tartle (19th century Scots). Apparently if you’ve ever had to introduce someone while totally blanking on their name, you’ve tartled. I tartle all the time.
Another new found gem that’s cropped up is a percontation – a 16th century suggestion for indicating a rhetorical question, sometimes called an irony mark. Sadly I can’t find a percontation to use on my keyboard but I’ve given you a picture of one to see at the top of this post.
I lean on the edge of my bunk and look at the tangerine sitting in a chipped bowl. It sits next to a dying pot plant, on a stained Formica table. The sad old plant, left by a previous resident, has crispy brown spikes instead of leaves. Should have given it water. The dear little orange fruit, weary and wrinkled, doesn’t look happy. There’s a dusting of green near the scab, where a stalk once connected it to tree and family.
I’ve given my tangerine a name; Roni is the last from a net of orange fruit donated by well-wishers. Can I bear to eat him now he has the name of my friend and I can talk to him?
I remind Roni about the perfect plump oranges on the fruit farms back home and the sweet and sour cherries for which our region was famous. I try to persuade him I am happy to be here in the Interim Hostel. They say I’m safe in this western city, far from home but despite the relief of survival I’ve forgotten happiness.
I salivate with the bitter-sweet thought of the fruit we once grew and packed in nets for the market-place. I taste salt in my mouth at the clinging memory of the oily fishing nets on the floor of the treacherous boat I travelled in. That fruitless journey started with a desperation and hope. Cold, scared and starving in the stinking vessel I longed to feel the juicy tang of any fruit, sweet or sour, in my grating throat.
Hope has faded to numbness since being in this bleak and temporary home; desperation grows. I’ve lost my connections; I am dusty and worn. Once Roni has gone there will be nothing.
Trembling to reach out, I peel away his mouldering jacket before pulling his inner segments apart and gagging on the first dehydrated, tasteless mouthful. The second bite is softer with a little more juice. In the third my tongue finds two small seeds. Biting the first releases a harsh taste. I spit the other kernel from my mouth and bury it in the soil of the dead pot plant, swallowing what fruit remains.
About to pour water on the plant pot I hear voices outside and go to the door where I find next week’s food box waiting on the landing. Wonder if it contains any seeds of hope?
And breathe is a short reflection on the peace of a garden in these times of lockdown. Here is a slightly modified version of the poem published on the Poetry Wivenhoe website on their Anti-Covid-19 poems page. A different, new poem has been posted daily on this site since the end of March 2020, and mine is on day 53.
The house breathes quietly around the reading man.
Rafters expand; they creak in the heat of the sun.
He closes his book. he opens the french windows;
the outside air is unseasonably warm.
He stands and listens to the birdsong,
louder than he has ever heard.
The cuckoo calls and the blackbirds trill;
they own this air and only share with butterflies and bees.
He looks for planes flying in the higher sky,
sees no contrails, no noughts and crosses on the bluest blue.
The quiet new world, he thinks. He returns to his book
Spine poetry can be a good distraction in these times of social isolation – it’s a form of ‘found’ poetry, creating a poem from any words you find around you. Here the words were found on my bookcase, on the spines of books. Just read the titles …