Learning a language

I was standing at the long bar in the Museo de Jamon in Madrid,  half-lifting an arm, half-opening my mouth in a vain attempt to catch the bartender’s eye when the Spaniard beside me, either out of pity or irritation, told me that to activate a waiter in Spain you simply called out Oiga, and forthwith demonstrated how it was done.
Oiga. The bartender responded immediately. No offence taken; none given.
The man went on to tell me that he could identify the nationality of  people by the way they entered a bar. The English, he said, stop as soon as they’ve crossed the threshold, look round sort of helplessly, fiddle with their tie (this was long ago when men wore ties), wait to be told what to do next.
So the next time I was in a bar I walked straight to the counter and tried out the Oiga gambit. The waiter seemed quite comfortable with it (although I wasn’t!).
To me it was like shouting  Oi to a perfect stranger.  Probably a class thing. A middle-class language thing…. I wonder if you would be good enough to pass the salt, please….sorry to trouble you, sorry to disturb the universe….

poppies spain PRINT good

When we were having a stroll in the Spanish Pyrenees one summer, we passed/were passed by other walkers and, as is the way of hill walkers, greeted/were greeted with a friendly Hola. So we decided to perfect our pronunciation of this one word greeting, replicating the Spanish stress, tone, intonation and pitch rather than simply saying  Hola with the English stress etc.  of  Hello.
It was surprisingly difficult. It made me think how much information you convey with a simple greeting. About class, age, personality, sexuality…..

Going back to my schooldays, I remember my excellent French teacher, Miss Yuill, telling us about the mysterious French sense of humour where foreigners were concerned.
” It was a picnic, ” she said, ” une pique-nique, beside a field of poppies on the hillside above the beautiful town of Collioure, famous for all the artists who painted there…..how many of you have heard of Matisse?……Good. Picasso?……. André Derain… There is something so special about the bright, clear light in Collioure.  Derain, who was Matisse’s friend, said that ‘Collioure has no shadows’. Can you imagine such a pure light?”
She paused, and gave a little smile, remembering.
” Anyhow it was a beautiful, warm sunny day, ” she went on, ” and we were having a picnic and Jean-Pierre had just passed me one of these French cakes that are so light, so delicious… ” She smiled again, then frowned.  “When  out of the blue,  à l’improviste, a wasp descended on the back of my hand and I leapt to my feet and shook it off and cried out ‘Dites donc! Un guêpe!’ And you know what? Everyone laughed. Yes, everyone laughed and I was so embarrassed, so hurt…..And you know what they found so funny? You know why Monique and Jean-Pierre and all these lovely people laughed at me?”
She paused and looked down  at her hands. We waited. She sighed and looked up.
Une guêpe. Silly old me. Not un guêpe. Une guêpe. Une guêpe!”
The class was silent. She sounded so angry with herself.  Or with her remembered self. All that time ago. Thirty, forty years. And still so hurt. Still so angry.


Signs are usually brusque, devoid of humour or humanity –  rather like a sergeant-major’s barked commands to a nervous squad of raw recruits – LIFT….DINING ROOM ….TOILETS …BAR….SWIMMING POOL……SHOP…..SLOW DOWN….. TURN LEFT….. LEVEL CROSSING … EDIT…ADD MEDIA….. PUBLISH…. VIEW POST…… CLICK HERE….. STOP..
It comes as a pleasant surprise therefore to find signs that by their form and style amuse and surprise and entertain:




sign v


A very ironic johnknoxy sign seen in Edinburgh outside the Modern Art Gallery. It reminded me of the  archetypal Scottish joke ……On Judgment Day. as  the souls of the damned were whirling through the abyss down into the all-consuming  flames of hell, they cried out, ” O Lord, we didnae ken, we didnae ken!” and in response this mighty voice from above boomed out, “Weel,  ye ken noo!”

sign ok

but on the other hand……a cheerful and jaunty reassurance above the entrance to the Modern Art Gallery – I think both signs are the work of Martin Creed whose good-natured philosophy is very binary or dualistic or whatever.

sign bm



A polite apocolyptical global warning sign in a student kitchen……


Byres Road sign

A very Scottish sign seen in Glasgow’s Byres Road. Scots are addicted to pies. And bridies. There is word that a left-handed bridie is being developed in Forfar with the thumb-hole in the pastry casing placed correctly for a left-handed grasp.

sign rr   A wonderfully creatively welcoming door in an Amsterdam hotel which believed in giving the place personality, soul, a sense of humour, human warmth sign nn The Conscious Hotel, the same surrealistic hotel whose doors  give you such a warm, poetic  introduction to  Amsterdam. ” Your breakfast is 100% organic and there are plenty of healthy choices but we won’t force you to survive on nuts and berries. At Conscious hotels, you make the choices that are right for you. Except for wearing socks with sandals. Then we might say something..”
Or as Saussure famously said: “In language there are only differences. Even more important: a difference generally implies positive terms between which the difference is set up; but in language there are only differences without positive terms. Whether we take the signified or the signifier, language has neither ideas nor sounds that existed before the linguistic system, but only conceptual and phonic differences that have issued from the system. “

5 characters in search of a narrative

Embra g

Tracy is not a gardener. Tracy is an actress. She belongs to a group called Teatro Al  Fresco. She is rehearsing for a play. The play is called  “Trabajo Trabajo Trabajo”.  It is a comedy about a Spanish girl who finds work in a foreign country as a gardener although she has a degree in Physics. Tracy does not have a degree in Physics. Tracy does not have a degree in anything. She is a very good dancer. In the play she has to dance a flamenco. The audience love the way she dances. They clap their hands hard in time to her Spanish steps.

Embra hh

Ben’s bootlace has come undone. Ben is a bouncer. Ben and Amalia live in a flat in King Street. Amalia is a nurse. She is from Portugal. Ben is finding it difficult to tie his bootlace because he is fat. He is a very popular fellow. He makes people laugh because he has a sense of humour. He is also a very good dancer. Amalia and Ben are very happy together. They have a son called Donald. Donald is three years old and is bright as a button. Donald is also the name of Ben’s daddy. Ben’s daddy  is a fisherman. He has a funny way of talking. He calls ‘fish’ ‘feesh’. Ben and Amalia go once a year to Portugal for a fortnight. They like it very much there. It is beautiful and the people are very kind to them and Amalia is so happy to be ‘home’ again.


Trev is a labrador. Trev has 2 sisters and one brother. He is owned by Amalia and Ben but when Amalia and Ben are working or on holiday Trev is looked after by Tracy. Trev is very fond of Tracy and Tracy is very fond of Trev. When Trev sees Tracy his tail wags like mad. He wants so much to please. You can see it in his eyes. Most of all Trev is fond of Donald. Trev is very patient with Donald. They play together. Donald throws away his ball and Trev runs after it and brings it back and drops it at Donald’s feet. He sits and wags his tail and waits. Donald throws the ball again. He laughs and claps his little hands as Trev brings the ball back and drops it at his feet. They never grow tired of playing this game with each other. Trev is Donald’s best friend. Donald tells him things. I like ice-cream, Donald says and Trev listens, fascinated.

lanz 5rt

Donald is at his happiest in Portugal. Portugal is sea and sun and donkeys and waking up early and running down to the beach and oranges. He feels sad when he thinks of Trev then other things crowd out  his little mind, like ‘Why do people think I’m a girl?’ and ‘Why did I have to eat that horrible fish?’ and ‘Will they let me go out in the boat?’ and ‘Trash osh montsh  – what does that mean?
So many questions, so many unanswered questions…..


It is 6 am  and Donald is bending over backwards to greet the sun. Donald who used to have a boat now has a croft. Instead of herring and mackerel and cod he now has hens and ducks and sheep. And a horse. It is a hard life but it is what he is used to. He has no wife to share things with but that doesn’t bother him. He has grown used to his own company over the years, doesn’t like it much but has grown used to it.

hors 1c

Donald’s horse hasn’t got a name. Crofters don’t do animal names but

(to be conti

Language Love

You’re such a snob!


When Ariadne left me in mid-sentence and began throwing stuff  pêle-mêle  into cases and holdalls and bin liners, I asked her where it had all gone wrong, just what had I done to ruin what was, for me at least, a perfect marriage, and she paused long enough to say with unbelievable bitterness, “You’re such a snob. ”

I was knocked over. Bouleversé.

But I have  nothing against people who are of a different class, creed or race from myself, ” I protested. ” In fact –  ”

Not that sort of snob, ” she interrupted impatiently. “ You’re a language snob. That’s your problem. Our problem.  Pass me that case.

I was dumbfounded. Asombrado.  Décontenancé.

Just because I can’t stand people who say ‘ Between you and I…‘, ” I told her, ” and ‘He was laying down…’ and ‘there are less people…’ and ‘ she’s disinterested in what I say…’ and ‘ he could of went yesterday..’ and  ‘in this day and age’  and begin everything they say with ‘basically’ or ‘actually’ and 

But before I could say any more, she was off, taking with her my first editions of Graham Greenes novels, all my  Picasso’s blue period  prints and most of my  CDs of Beethoven’s greatest hits.

*   *   *   *   *




J’avais vu ce grafitto philosophique gribouille  sur un mur en France mais sans quelqu’un  la c’etait un peu bizarre, ca manquait quelquechose – alors mon ami a pris ce photo avec moi dedans pour lui donner un corps de signification.
Le ‘moi'(ou le ‘je’) qui existe mantenant est totalement different alors le ‘je’ qui existait la n’existe plus.


i love dylan

Altarwise by Owl-Light

Altarwise by owl-light in the half-way house
The gentleman lay graveward with his furies;
Abaddon in the hangnail cracked from Adam,
And, from his fork, a dog among the fairies,
The atlas-eater with a jaw for news,
Bit out the mandrake with to-morrows scream.
Then, penny-eyed, that gentlemen of wounds,
Old cock from nowheres and the heaven’s egg,
With bones unbuttoned to the half-way winds,
Hatched from the windy salvage on one leg,
Scraped at my cradle in a walking word
That night of time under the Christward shelter:
I am the long world’s gentleman, he said,
And share my bed with Capricorn and Cancer

– Dylan Thomas

One critic has dismissed this poem as being ‘wilfully obscure’.
It sounds good though.
Especially that opening line.
And ‘ the atlas-eater with a jaw for news’
I like that.
And the dying fall of that last line……
And the alliteration..

Anyhow it’s not only meaning of the words that attracts  you to a song,
or a poem,
it’s the melody, the rhythms, the sounds;
the meaning of the words is often subsumed in their sounds.
Listen to a few readings of Thomas’s stuff –
Richard Burton (he’s terrific),
Dylan himself, Anthony Hopkins, Peter Bellamy,
(not so  good, too thespian, too sonorous)
and you come to realise that what you are listening for/to
is not the intellectual meaning
but the sensual music.

A bit like Bob Dylan,
forging strange meanings from metaphors
that gave their component parts new life,
an appeal to the ear as much as to the intellect.

Dylan! What a genius you were!

Apples, Oranges and Apostrophes

I popped into my local Supermarket for some fresh fruit and vegetables the other day. There was a sign saying APPLE’S AND ORANGE’S REDUCED so I added two bagfuls of them to the plum’s, pear’s,  pepper’s and potato’s  already in my trolley then walked the length of the checkouts till I found a reasonably short queue. When it came to my turn, the check-out girl just looked at my basket then pointed to the sign above the till:  FOR CUSTOMERS WITH FIVE OR LESS ITEMS

Sorry, she said. You’ve got six items.

You’re sorry, I said. Listen. That sign doesn’t mean anything. It’s not even proper English.

She shrugged. The COMPLAINTS desk’s over there she said, pointing. Next.

The woman at the Complaints desk listened to me very politely then called for the manageress who also listened to me very politely.  Language wasn’t static, she told me.  Old rules sometimes have to give way to modern usage. Anyway, five items can be seen as a single unit in which case ‘less’ is perfectly appropriate.

So the customer isn’t always right? I asked her.

It all depends on the context, she said. And smiled sweetly.

Even though it is more expensive, I now do my shopping at Marks & Spencers, queueing quite happily with all the other pedants at the till that says FIVE ITEMS OR FEWER.

Good grammar is worth paying for.




Words have sounds and rhythms which reinforce their meaning: ‘flip-flop’ echoes the sound and rhythm made by that particular type of footwear….and ‘thud’, ‘bang’, ‘crash’  etc. are obviously words that echo the sound they represent; words like ‘shuffle’, ‘flutter’ imitate movement as well as sound…..
‘Ping-pong’ sounds even better the other way round      –     gnip-gnop gnip gnop  gni….oops…pick it off the floor…there it is…there, under the chair…
Likewise  the word – SPLASH – is an  ideogram of the event it signifies:
1) The  initial  sibilant  –  S – replicates the hiss of the stone cutting through the air (SSS);
2) then  comes the plosive – P –  as the stone breaks  the surface of the water (SSS – P);
3) the labial –  L –  pictures  the stone gliding under the sutface  (SSS-P-LLL);
4) The concluding – ASH – is the plume of spray sent up by the stone as it disappears into the water (SSS – P – LLL- AAASHSHSH).

‘glides’   has the sounds to suggest after an initial thrust, effortless motion in/on/through water  –     G….. LLL….IDE….SSSSS

and it sounds even better in French:

Le cygne chasse l’onde avec ses larges palmes
et glisse………………

And  finally I remember from my schooldays when we had to learn poetry by heart, Alfred Lord Tennyson’s

” the moan of doves in immemorial elms,
   and murmuring of innumerable bees. “

Fail, fail again, fail better

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? and other  such questions                                                                                                                             


where to go and what to do once you’ve got there

was  a problem even for ginger rogers and fred astaire

a question for which these fabulous dancers

never found any answers

what to do once you’ve stopped dancing

and romancing?

well all i can say

is that if  they

such a skilful pair of dancers

never found the answers

what sort of chance have i?

0h i try god  knows why

but i do, how i do

i  try again then…

yes  i fail,  fail again

but you know what?  Having climbed the mountain,

having reached the peak, what is there left to do but descend?


*   *   *


As yi grow aulder,  yi begin tae  relate mair tae auld,  past-their-sellby-date things,  like
                                   landlockt boats


Tae escape ma fiftieth birthday
A took ma mind fir a bit o a daunder
(or it took me)
awa doon tae Corra’s snaa-white sanns,
whaur ilka simmer,
happier nor Larry,
da nebbie selkies sun dersels
an dere,
half-happit i da lang dank gerss
wis dis desfrukit skeleton o a boat…………

It brocht tae mind
first wan o Johnny Donne’s deep wee poems
‘…bit ayways at ma back A hear/ Time’s tumtitumtum hurryin near..’
- dat wan -
syne wan o Norrie MacCaig’s twa-fag verses
- ‘So Many Summers’ it wis cried -
aboot a desfrukit boat jist like dis yin,
wedderwarpt, gapplankt,

A sat doon on da boat an lit masel a fag.
Wis he sayin dat time teems us aa?
Abdy an aathin?
Du an me as weel as da boat?
A hae ma doots.  A dinnae think so.
I do not think so.
A feel kinna like 
yin o thon bren-washt terorists -
gin A gang
A'll tak abdy an aathin wi me.

Onywye as soon as A got hame
A lookt up 'So Many Summers'.
It wisnae ataa da poem A hud in mind.
Da poem A hud in mind
wis dis yin.