Keaton, Carrington, Milligan: 3

(Warning, Will Robinson : this section seems to veer off at a tangent before returning to (what appears to be) the subject…)

I was struck by a recent and very particular version of our impositions on the customary: the decision by the tourist organisation VisitScotland to adopt the Gaelic word ‘còsagach’ as Scotland’s version of last year’s buzzy Danish comfort word, ‘hygge’, hoping to borrow its aura, as Benjamin would have it, by copycatting.

I should of course rather say ‘adapt’, as it turned out actual Gaelic speakers didn’t quite recognise this usage, saying that ‘còsagach’ tended to mean a damp, mossy place, rather than a cosy nook – a distinction that Tolkein, in the opening pages of The Hobbit, thought very important:

‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.’

In the Guardian article where I read about this, a lecturer in Gaelic, Mark Wringe, is quoted speculating as to whether ‘…someone’s thoughts have been guided by the resemblance in sound between [còsagach] and the English word cosy.’

This sounds entirely possible, making the word choice a sort of translingual rhyming, where the English listener is struck by an implied meaning – much as the word it’s modelled on, ‘hygge’ (pronounced ‘HEWguh’) can be construed as having some irrational relation to huge hugs.

It’s worth considering, then, the way that this sort of choice is full of cultural implications, as well as how such assumptions relate to the authority of interpretation – and indeed to our trio of artists.

On the one hand, you can only do this if the source language (Gaelic) is ‘weaker’ than the target audience (English speakers), because it is a kind of imposition: ‘còsag’ does indeed mean nook, and that can imply cosy – just not to its actual users. It’s a little like a Gael insisting ‘nooky’ means ‘còsagach’, when to an English speaker, it means something quite different.

On the other hand, no Gael would do any such thing. Not only would they speak English as well as Gaelic, they would understand such impositions only work in one direction. That said, it’s the sort of interpretive act the socially bi- and tri-lingual Scots are rehearsing all the time, unlike their monoglot neighbours.

When I was a child, I assumed the local Dundee place name ‘The Sinderins’ had something to do with cinders and flinders and possibly even Cinderella, and only gradually understood – though I spoke Scots – that this was an older pronunciation (and very particular usage) of ‘The Sunderings’: a forking of the road.

If you look at Hugh MacDiarmid’s use of dictionaries when assembling the Synthetic Scots of his great early lyrics, you can see him hovering in a similar way between the listed meanings of a given word (comparing his earlier glosses to his later ones brings this out).

In ‘O Jesu Parvule’, the key word, ‘byspale’ is glossed by MacDiarmid as ‘a child of whom wonderful things are predicted’, as one might expect in a poem about the Christ child. He chooses to gloss over his sources’ emphasis on a ‘Chiefly ironic’ usage, while their further meaning, ‘An illegitimate child’, which might seem of some importance, is not foregrounded:

She’s drawn Him in tae the bool o’ her breist

But the byspale’s nae thocht o’ sleep i’ the least.

What MacDiarmid and VisitScotland and indeed Tolkein are all doing here is a sort of projection: they want their words to mean a certain thing, and they are using what authority they possess to impose that meaning on language. Tolkein, because he is making up an entire world, can define a hobbit and where it lives as he sees fit. MacDiarmid, because he is applying an avant garde agenda to a secondary language, Scots, has a lesser degree of licence. VisitScotland are presumedly hoping to ride out a rather mild storm, mostly on social media.

But they are all trying to create a world through creative interpretation – all three worlds share a root in notions of the folkloric and the romanticised past or those romanticised others – hobbits, rural Scots, Gaels – which, although products or actual inhabitants of the modern world, we do not associate with modernity.

Like what we think of as the Twain-like world of Steamboat Bill Jr., or the Celtic/Mexican surrealism of Leonora Carrington, or the post-war nonsense zone of Goons and Pythons, Big Nights Out and The Boosh, these are all secondary realms, not ‘serious’ or central enough to our concerns, which remain focussed on the impositions of the grand narrative and the contesting claims of our own or others’ narratives.

What interests me in these instances, however, is the possibility that they are not really narratives at all, that they do not believe in or think in terms of their own grandeur or indeed their narrative coherence, but that rather, such stories as appear in their work are no more important than the verbal or visual play which transports their tellers, their viewers and their listeners communally to another aspect of the space we share. As Burroughs said in his introduction to Naked Lunch: ‘The title means exactly what the words say: naked Lunch—a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.’

Such a moment, domestic yet terrifying, can be defined by a term VisitScotland might like to be aware of: the Uncouthy. They were of course really seeking its exact opposite, the Scots word ‘couthy’, but, perhaps because of its unhip associations, suppressed or resisted the term in favour of ‘còsagach’. ‘Couthy’, meaning something more than ‘known’, or ‘familiar’, is itself over-familiar to most Scots as a state of mind represented by The Sunday Post, The Broons, and Oor Wullie. In the old days this sentimentalised, old-fashioned, tartan-and-shortbread Scotland was typified by the likes of the White Heather Club, Bothy Nichts, or Jimmy Shand.

MacDiarmid recognised it in J.M. Barrie, the Burns Cult, and the Kailyaird, and thoroughly despised it. Except that it was, arguably, the commodified version of a previous attempt at world-building: the radical Scots versifying of the nineteenth century People’s Journal, a precedent and corollary to the world he in turn wished to invent, where the same People, having established a communist croissant of Celtic republics stretching from the Shetlands to Cornwall, discussed a Turkish poet’s ‘abstruse new song’ instead of going to the football (here he might have been being at least partly ironic).

We particularly wish to dismiss our antecedents because of their unfortunate propensity for belonging to their own historical period with all its cultural blinkers when we have a brand new guaranteed blinker-less narrative of our own to impose. But the first thing we can’t see for all the light we’re shedding is our collateral removal of all awkward others, those secondary types whose complicated role in our own genealogy hardly seems relevant.

‘Còsagach’, then, is the word VisitScotland tried to hide ‘couthy’ behind, or the nook they tried to tuck it in. But the very attempt draws attention to itself, and is somehow còsagach in its actual sense of clammy, uncomfortable, not right. The Uncouthy might be defined as that state of mind you enter into when you suspect this is happening. It is, in a way, that very thing Keaton, Carrington, and Milligan are constantly, without even trying, drawing our attention to, though for some reason we are rather reluctant to consider it.

Something about such narratives indeed appears to be un-couth. Usually we claim they bore us, or are confusing, or they’re not funny, or not nice – we feel impatient, we have more important things to get on with. Continuity has been disturbed by what appear to us to be epiphenomena, and sometimes, just for a moment, the eye finds itself being horribly drawn to what exactly that is on the end of your fork.

About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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2 Responses to Keaton, Carrington, Milligan: 3

  1. W P says:

    I had never imagined MacDiarmid as being anything but ironic in his “Glasgow, 1960” poem. I smiled tonight re-reading the couplet.

    “Is a debate on ‘la loi de l’effort converti’
    Between Professor MacFadyen and a Spainish pairty”

    MacDiarmid was of course a mass of contradictions and it would take a brave and perhaps foolhardy man to even attempt to circumjack him. The poem is called “Glasgow, 1960” but it was written (or certainly first printed) back in 1935, probably placing the poem’s creation among the busy throng of his 1st and 2nd Hymns, Stony Limits and Scots Unbound. This was a time when he was already abandoning his dense scots lyric work for other equally dense dictionary-bound stuff (though less eclipsingly Scottish). This was also at the height of the self-reflexive Modernist Movement. High Irony was the order of the day!
    I always saw this poem as suggesting that by 1960 the record gates at Ibrox would be to witness a heated debate between the likes of Prof MacFadyen and a Spaniard (and that debate would be spoken in French) about the philosophical basis of “la loi de l’effort converti”. Back in the 1980s I had mistakenly translated this (no Google or Internet… just a tatty old school French Dictionary in a Cooncil Hoose in Ayr) as “The Offside Rule” (to my great amusement back then!) but now seems to clearly translate as “the Law of Converted Effort” which states that “willpower merely strengthens the imagination when it attempts to oppose it…”.Try arguing that point for a moment (even in English) and see where it gets you. My heid is nipping! You suggest MacDiarmid “might have being at least partly ironic”. I suggest he was being 100% ironic and voicing a smiling self-deprecating look at the place of poetry (and himself) amidst 20th Century Scottish life.. I bet CMG was a really funny guy.

    • Bill Herbert says:

      Entirely agree – MacD was impish as well as po-faced, and that poem works through the absurdity of its premiss. My ‘at least partly’ was meant to imply there is still this wholly sincere desire beneath the irony that such things might be so – an impulse that goes through his work and is half-isolated and half-solipsistic, and which in ‘The Man For Whom Gaeldom Is Waiting’ and other poems takes on less intentionally comic overtones, as he becomes both Sean the Baptist and (despite nods to Sorley MacLean and others) the MacMessiah. At least here he’s mostly the very naughty boy.

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