THE COLLEGE is still in Long Vacation until Martinmas Term begins the new Academic Year on 1st October. Meanwhile I have been communing with the spirit of Sir Walter Scott as advance copies of my new abridgement of his classic Ivanhoe goes out to reviewers. The above photograph was taken by the publisher, Gavin MacDougall of Luath Press here in Edinburgh, beside the portrait bust of Scott by Chantrey. The only thing missing from it is a speech bubble; with Sir Walter saying, “You’ve done what? ”
What I have done, I would reassure him, is to conserve the thundering storyline of Ivanhoe, while jettisoning the mass of extraneous matter which accumulated around it and which took the original up to a colossal 195,000 words. Out went thousands of commas and more colons that any of my surgical colleagues remove in a clinical lifetime. Conserved, however, are Scott’s superb evocation of the sights, sounds, smells and conflicts of 12th Century England in the reign of Richard Coeur de Lion. At 95,000 words now, the book is the length of a modern novel and will hopefully appeal to the younger audience for whom Scott has appeared, well, just too long.
Anyway, the book will be launched at Bonham’s in October and at the new Visitor Centre at the Wizard’s home of Abbotsford near Melrose.
I was actually there last night with my Australian colleague Prof. Will Christie of the University of Sydney, to look over the place and to hear a talk by Sir Max Hastings on his forthcoming book on the Second World War. The big house itself is festooned with scaffolding as the Abbotsford Trust carries out the first, and long needed, restoration since Scott acquired the place in 1812; it is scheduled to reopen to the public in June next year.
Travelling to and from the Borders with my Australian friend was most helpful in three ways: first, good conversation eats up the miles; second, it triggered my own memories of his country, first as Ship’s Surgeon on the P&O liner Canberra as a very young and green (especially in storms) medical graduate. I would come back later as the visiting Turnbull Scholar at the University of Melbourne; finally, it was also useful just to hear his cultured Aussie accent, because next Monday, in a studio in London, I have to become an Australian woman…
Last month there arrived an offer I couldn’t refuse. It came from Alexander McCall Smith and was an invitation to record an audiobook of his latest novel. The dramatis personae of this work require the reader to articulate the variegated tones of a Highland Scot, An Uppercase Englishman, a Connecticut Yankee - and a lady of Perth, their Perth. The only help I have for the latter is a recollection of Aussie speech patterns and my copy of that linguistic classic Let’s talk Strine. Published in the mid-60s by Alastair Ardoch Morrison (good Scottish mame), the book anthologised his humorous column on Australian speech in The Sydney Morning Herald under the pseudonym Affabeck Lauder* (an even better Scots name.)
Legend has it that the idea came from a book-signing in Sydney by that great Edinburgh-born novelist Muriel Spark. As usual on such occasions, she was seated at a desk in a bookshop, as a queue of customers approached to have their copies autographed and dedicated. Eventually a lady approached and laid a copy before Ms Spark who waited, pen in hand.
“Emma Chissit,” said the customer.
'To Emma…' wrote Muriel in the book, “And how are you spelling Chis…”, said she, breaking off as realisation dawned that she was actually being asked the cost…
It’s not just the accent; it’s the content that’s also delightful. When Canberra arrived in Fremantle all those years ago, we got the passengers off, spruced up the ship and ran the lines ashore to receive TV in our Wardroom, the officers’ mess. On came the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s morning News; and on to it came the Junior Minister of the Environment. He was to give his reaction to the sensational discovery, off the west coast of Australia, of a colony of a wallaby variant - let’s call it the Simpson’s Wallaby. These marsupials had been thought to have been hunted out generations ago; yet here they were, mums, dads, joeys, all hopping happily about..
“G’dy,” boomed the Minister to the nation, “All of us, scientists, politicians, ornery blokes, owe a bonzer debt of gratitude to the team for their rip-snorter discovery that this animal’s aloive & well. I’m here t’dy to say that your Government will myke absolutely bloody certain - that the Simpson’s wallaby never becomes extinct agyne. Thank you.”
All that said, this College has benefited mightily down the years from the Australian colleagues who have spent time with us. Their inbuilt ability to take wry sideways look at the habits & customs of the Old Country and to call a spade a spyde, has been a refreshment to us all. And if that country can operate successfully as a unified Federal entity, the individual States having appropriate autonomy while leaving defence, international relations etc., to the central government, can Scotland not do likewise ?
We shall see…
*Alphabetical order (!)