In the last couple of years there was a lot of debate about which Scottish books and writers should be taught in Scottish schools as part of the set texts for the Higher English exam. If I had had a vote, Matthew Fitt’s ‘But n Ben A-Go-Go’ would’ve been in my top three choices for the prose element. Published to much acclaim in 2000, to describe it as a sci-fi novel, set in Scotland, and written in Scots would be accurate but doing it a great disservice as it is so much more. Fitt shows a mastery of language as well as giving a sharp commentary on Scotland then, now, and as it may well be.
Sci-fi is quite rare in Scottish writing, Iain M. Banks and Ken McLeod being the most notable purveyors, but in this case it is the perfect vehicle for what Fitt wants to achieve. The book is set in the year 2090, and melting polar ice-caps have caused ‘God’s Flood’ which has left Scotland mostly submerged except for a few ‘Parishes’, floating cities named after Scottish towns, which are all attached by cables to the now sunken town of Greenock. Living in such close proximity has led to the rapid spread of illness, and a new super virus, Senga, is the latest danger on a long list to threaten inhabitants, and which makes actual sex, as opposed to virtual, too risky.
If all of this sounds unremittingly bleak, then the novel is far from that. There are wonderful touches of knowing humour in the book, with references to ‘a Jeremiah Menzies plastipoke’, the ‘Evelyn Glennie Music Faculty’ and Oasis’s ‘Goodbye Planet’ World Tour. But, fittingly, most of the comedy is black in hue, and Fitt’s vision of the future is bleak, with Global Warming taking a terrible toll, a totalitarian government in control, and those who are ill contained rather than cured.
As with Anthony Burgess’ ‘A Clockwork Orange’, a dystopian future setting allows the unusual use of language even more impact than it may have had otherwise, fitting a world we are not used to. In the case of ‘But n Ben A-Go-Go’, the language is an incredibly rich mixture of Scots from all over the country, and it is easy to imagine that in the years between now and when events take place there will have been such a cross-fertilisation of dialects and phraseology. If you live in Scotland there are many words you’ll recognise no matter where that may be, and that allows you to put the ones you don’t into context. This is close to what Hugh MacDiarmid was aiming for with his promotion of the use of ‘Lallans’ which he foresaw as being a hybrid of Scots dialects as well as some English. Here’s just one great example of what to expect from Fitt’s prose:
“Puggled. Snochterin. Paolo’s broo wis creeshit, the oxters o his battle tunic mawkit wi swite. The craitur’s guff wis on his claes. Owre his hauns. The caircass, no ten yaird’s doon the brae, wis awready stertin tae ming in the foreninn heat.”
For a musical interlude, I’m going route one this month with a song from Fitt’s fellow son of Dundee, and one who used Scots to great effect in his songs. This is a great example of his work, it’s the late, great, Michael Marra with ‘Hermless’:
Matthew Fitt, along with James Robertson, founded Itchy Coo which publishes books in Scots for children and young people, and he has been at the forefront of promoting Scots as a language to be used in Scottish schools, and not left in the playground. As he says at the end of the handy ‘How To Read But n Ben A-Go-Go’;
“Once the initial culture-shock – of seeing words your granny liked tae use and your mither tellt ye no tae use in the unusual setting of a modern novel set in the future – subsides, the reader should be able to relax and enjoy the story.”
You will enjoy the story, and it will take less work than you think, but that generational shift is important to note; the fact that many of us will recognise that for decades speaking in our own language, and that of our forefather and mothers, was not only discouraged but was often punished. That can’t be right, and we should make sure that situation, for all sorts of reasons, never happens again.
Photo used with permission: Marnie Faulkner
All of these columns can now be found in one place over at Indelible Ink.
Next Month’s Novel: The term ‘Tartan Noir’ is one which has taken hold in recent years, so much so that there are festivals devoted to nothing else. For a while there has been a bit of sniffiness at this branch of genre fiction, but it’s the case that some of Scotland’s best writers are to be found proudly sitting under that banner.
One of the very best, whose work has arguably had more effect on recent Scottish writing than any other, is Christopher Brookmyre. Dark, funny, and savage, his debut novel, ‘Quite Ugly One Morning’ is the perfect introduction to his own take on Tartan Noir.