In and out of print – The politics of language

Published

Tom Leonard, who retires as Professor of Creative Writing in September, recalls his editorship of GUM, and gives his views on news reporting

It’s forty years ago in 1969 that I was student editor of Glasgow University Magazine and attempted to publish in its pages a little group of dialect poems I had newly written called Six Glasgow Poems. But the university printer refused to print them, probably because the language used by the characters in the poems included swearwords. So I xeroxed the poems onto sheets using the SRC photocopying machine, and put Six Glasgow Poems as an insert into every single copy of the new GUM that went out. Shortly after their clandestine appearance between the pages of GUM, the poems were published as a booklet which went into reprint after a couple of months, and Six Glasgow Poems have remained in print in one publication or another more or less ever since.

The poems at the outset met with a strong positive response. But it was an equally strong negative response from some self-appointed guardians of the nation’s literary culture that actually astonished me. Not only were these poems “bad English” according to these snooty outraged ones, they were “bad Scots” into the bargain—which apparently was even worse.

I didn’t at all realise the full political nature of what I had become involved in, and the forces that I had now engaged with and would be engaged with over the next four decades, about the hierarchy of different language varieties in Britain in terms of power and status; and the politics of the society that this situation reflected.
Editing GUM had introduced me a little to the world of student politics. At any rate I attended a couple of SRC meetings, though my only memory is of being wholly taken aback by the way people would stand in a debate and totally slag somebody off, which accused might be sitting a few yards away nonchalantly reading a newspaper or talking to a pal. It seemed an extraordinary way of behaving.

Politics as generally understood by the term didn’t mean much to me at the time, I was much more interested in the exciting things that had been happening in American poetry in the sixties, developments that influenced me in finding my own voice as a writer. I did as editor of GUM try to get some kind of political debate going about the Middle East, as much to enlighten myself as anybody else. I let it be known I would give equal space to two students if they could put the separate Israeli and Arab points of view regarding the latest events of war there and its aftermath, to explain what it was all about. Nobody took me up on the offer.

The end of my editorship of GUM after a year was also the end of my first spell at Glasgow University. I hadn’t passed enough exams to be able to continue. I loathed the exam system and had parodied it in a GUM editorial with a collage of quotes implicitly comparing the university exam system in Literature with one whereby as one psychologist had written “mental hospitals actually make people worse, by classifying harmless eccentrics as lunatics and teaching them the appropriate role behaviour”. Later I analysed the metaphor “the language of the gutter” and what attitudes that metaphor stood for and perpetuated.

The culture and linguistic expression of university exams I thought not only intrinsically and narrowly middle-class in a way as to make someone like myself from a working class background feel alienated; it was a structured defence-formation against the subversion nature of the creative spirit itself: “Being versus Having, that’s the battle that’s been going on since the year dot; and every time an artist’s scored to win the match for Being, the shouts haven’t died down but the critics have equalised.

But the critics still have to fight it out amongst themselves to decide who scored the equaliser, and the university functions by “training” people in spotting who did.”
I was trying just to work things out about my own language and culture and its evident oil and water conflict with the language and culture of official institutions. Language was a political matter; I was forced to confront, and to try to articulate more clearly.

I had begun to be aware of “the news” as the most omnipresent language construction in people’s everyday lives, effortlessly forming their casual opinion of what was going on in “the world”. I began to listen to different broadcasters. With the outbreak of the Troubles in Ireland, Bloody Sunday found me comparing the language and choice of words used by different reporters in different newsbulletins from the BBC, from RTE — Irish Radio — and from AFN, the American forces network. Different broadcasters focused on different primary images: one of a priest trying to save a shot victim, another of crowds supposedly starting the trouble.

The different effects created by these choices were clear evidence that the notion of an “objective” news presentation was baloney. A news bulletin was, and is, a language construct. It is not a sort of vacuum in the aether into which Truth rushes and sorts itself out in order of moral and political significance. But that cosy legend has an attractive pull. After all the BBC is the best broadcasting company in the world. Doesn’t the BBC itself say so?

I had moved on. I had come to recognise that “managing the language environment” is a crucial and central function of government, and that the idea of genuine separation does not stand up to scrutiny. That trusty old friend, the “objective voice of truth” had a part to play in instilling confidence, as a poem of 1976 I wrote sent up:

this is thi
six a clock
news thi
man said n
thi reason
a talk wia
BBC accent
iz coz yi
widny wahnt
mi ti talk
aboot thi
trooth wia
voice lik
wanna yoo
scruff. if
a toktaboot
thi trooth
lik wanna yoo
scruff yi
widny thingk
it wuz troo.
jist wanna yoo
scruff tokn.

That was how the poem began. The full poem has been in the GCSE syllabus in England and Wales now for about nine years. I sometimes joke when introducing it at readings, that if I had realised this poem was going to make me the money it has, I would have written one about the one o’clock news as well.

The English syllabus at least recognises the poem as part of a debate about the status and power of nonstandard languages in Britain, of region and/or class; in Scotland it would never have made it onto the syllabus without disappearing into some sterile treadmill about “the Scots language”.

“Managing the language environment” reminds me of a trip I made with my wife and family to the then Soviet Union in 1989, a year before the Communist system was destined to collapse. We had a couple of days in Moscow, three days in what was then called Leningrad, and nine days in Yalta in the Ukraine. The airport used in the Ukraine was at Simferaporol—the place from where, about 84 years earlier, my wife’s Jewish forebears, on her mother’s side, had fled the progroms.

We didn’t get the chance to explore Simferaporol. But what I do mostly remember about that holiday, apart from a visit to Chekhov’s house, was my attempt in Leningrad to listen to the hotel radio. From one end of the radio wave band to the other there was only one station to be heard, which I gathered to be Radio Moscow. The rest of the band was silent, as creepy and eloquent a silence as one could ever hear.

How different in our own country. The airwaves awash with “rolling news”, the most popular radio stations interrupted every fifteen minutes by “news updates”. It is virtually impossible to get away from “the news”. Even standing in a bank or post office queue, a plasma screen as likely as not is likely to be bearing down on one with the rolling 24×7 output of Sky News, or BBC 24. And yet — what do I hear?

I hear silence.

Recently at a benefit for the displaced and injured in the bombing of Gaza this January, I told the audience it would be a more ethically appropriate and efficient way of finding out what was happening in the Middle East if one stuck one’s head in an aluminium bucket, than it would be if one listened to the BBC news. With one’s head in a bucket one would at least be aware that all one could hear was silence—whereas listening to “the” news, or reading our valiant Fourth Estate, the real silence about what was going on would be one of which the reader would be unaware—indeed presentation would be such as to obscure the fact that “silence” was the principle most relevant ingredient.

But things have changed, again. We have the Internet, and there is an amount of power to bypass and even ignore the Official Word, and the official absence of word. There are other sources of information. Such access one can be certain that some people in power do not welcome. The criminilisation of such access would only continue that policy of suppression of dissent whose history comfortably extends back into the nineteenth century and beyond. “The Mob” (ie the populace) is not to be trusted. More databases!! More DNA!!

Always there is the simple decisive courage of ordinary people, who just will not have it. The courage of the creative against the negative, of people putting others before themselves, knowing and believing that all other people are as fully human as they are. It’s quite a simple thing, in a way.

Such is the example of the Israeli Mordechai Vanunu, who, being totally opposed to nuclear arms and finding that the nuclear plant he was a technician in was making them, exposed this state secret to British journalists. For this he ended up serving eighteen years in jail, much of it in solitary.

The students of Glasgow University to their great credit elected him Rector, though he was unable to attend the installation ceremony in 2005, still being refused permission to travel abroad. So there was a ceremony of appointment “in absentia”, his rectorial robe draped over an empty chair. I wrote a poem for the occasion and read it from the platform. I dedicated it to Mordechai Vanunu, but it’s not just about him, it’s about all of us as human, I think.

Being a Human Being
for Mordechai Vanunu

not to be complicit
not to accept everyone else is silent it must be alright

not to keep one’s mouth shut to hold onto one’s job
not to accept public language as cover and decoy

not to put friends and family before the rest of the world
not to say I am wrong when you know the government is wrong

not to be just a bought behaviour pattern
to accept the moment and fact of choice

I am a human being
and I exist

a human being
and a citizen of the world

responsible to that world
—and responsible for that world