Thursday, 24 June 2010

Chinese medicine

Periodically I visit an acupuncturist for aches and pains. He’s a charming Chinese man who finds it a little hard to get his tongue round the English language, but he has a gentle manner, a lovely smile, and he fixes me every time.

Until recently I knew relatively little about him other than that he came to the UK eight or nine years ago and he’s in his forties, married with two children. Then, last time I went to see him, I asked him how he came to be a doctor. This is what he told me:

‘When I was a teenager two of my grandparents died, one on each side of the family. I was upset not just because I loved them, but because they needn’t have died. But where we lived there wasn’t the medical help that would have saved them.

‘My father was a teacher and he wanted me to follow him in his career. But when it was time to leave school I decided that I wanted to study medicine so I could do my bit to make sure my other two grandparents lived good long lives.

‘I got a place at university but when I arrived there I discovered they were teaching Chinese medicine. I’d done science at school and this was a whole new way of thinking. I hated it. I went home at half term – a nine-hour bus journey – and when I got there I burst into tears. I told my parents what the matter was, and my father was horrified. “You can’t quit,” he said. “You’re the first member of our family to go to university. Not just that, you’re the first person in the neighbourhood to go. Everyone here is so proud of you. Think of the shame.”

‘What could I do? I stuck it out and five years later I graduated, having studied both Chinese and Western medicine. I’d worked hard and I came top in my year. The head of my department was very pleased with me and wanted to give me a job, a good one. But it was 1990 and the previous year I’d organised the local support for the Tiananmen Square protesters. The head of the university was a party man. He wouldn’t allow me to be given the job. Instead I was sent to a big hospital in another region.

'It was all right there. I was left alone and I liked the work. I ended up setting up and running a whole new department in the hospital. But I didn’t like the politics and when the chance eventually arrived to come to the UK I jumped at it.’ Here he stopped and gestured at the little treatment cubicle. ‘I don’t have a big job now,’ he said, ‘and I don’t earn a lot of money.’ Then he smiled. ‘But I am free.’

Next time I go to him for treatment I will see this delightful man in a completely different light. Such is the power of stories.

Friday, 18 June 2010

The Bay of Cod

Tarskavaig is in sunlight this morning. Out across the water the Isle of Rhum looms from a misty sea. Tarskavaig, or the Bay of Cod, is a crofting township on a hillside in the southwestern corner of Skye. A scattering of twenty or thirty houses, it has a village hall with a spectacular view north to the Cuillins, where we played last night.

This is day five of the Troot Tour, so-called because my two fellow musicians, fiddler Pete Clark and accordionist Gregor Lowrey, are fanatical fishermen. By day they fish (a non-fisherman, I walk, swim or write), and by night we play for our board and lodging.

So far we’ve been to Kilchrennan, Inchnadamph, Tongue, Ullapool, Plockton and Tarskavaig. Tonight we head for Inverie on the Knoydart peninsular, accessible only by boat from Mallaig, or via an eighteen-mile hike from the nearest road. These place names, anglicisations of Gaelic or Norse or, in some cases, combinations of both, lend extra movement to our itinerary; a sense of the continual swirl of people and language throughout the north of Scotland, the invasion, displacement, resettlement, emigration and immigration that has been going on here since neolithic times.

Running through much of that, a constant, if constantly changing, thread is the music we play. Many of the tunes are several hundred years old, and most are named for people or places – for example, Niel Gow’s Lamentation for James Moray Esquire of Abercairney, or the Sound of Sleat (the body of water that separates southern Skye from the mainland). Almost anything we play has a direct, identifiable connection with place, which is where the soul of the music comes from. This deep rooting in the landscape is why it touches the people who have grown up with it so profoundly.

In Fort William, on the way north, we gave an impromptu half-hour concert in the dining room at the old folks’ home where Pete’s partner’s father is now resident. As we started to play, one old dear got up and began to waltz, solo, round the dining room, blowing kisses to the other residents. The staff all came out of the kitchen. The manageress and a young carer danced a Gay Gordons, weaving between the tables. An old chap sang a song about Stornoway. Sitting at the piano, facing the wall where no one could see my watery eyes, I thought of my own stroke-ridden father, hating the short spells he spent in a similar establishment so that my stepmother could have respite.

Yesterday afternoon we gave another short concert, this time for the pupils at Plockton School, which is also the national traditional music academy. Fifth and sixth formers, they tapped their feet and nodded and smiled in recognition at the tunes we played. This is their music, these teenagers, just as much as the octagenarians in Fort William. Like the place names, it means something to them that goes way beyond mere melody or tempo. That’s where its strength lies and that’s why it will survive.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Being still

I have twice interviewed Yann Martel at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. The first time, in the smallest tent in Charlotte Square, was six weeks before Life of Pi won the Booker Prize. The second, in a packed main tent, was five years later, on publication of the beautiful illustrated edition of the same book. On that occasion, we talked mainly about his then work-in-progress, finally published this month as Beatrice and Virgil. But what I had forgotten until the other day was something else he mentioned at that time – his literary assault on Stephen Harper, the Canadian Prime Minister.

Since April 2007 he has been sending Harper a new book every fortnight ‘to encourage stillness’ as he eloquently puts it; although it’s really because he can’t bear the idea that his country is led by a man who doesn’t read or value culture. The first book he sent was The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy. This week the list stands at Book 83, Caligula by Albert Camus. He has vowed to continue his campaign so long as Harper remains in office. The whole thing, including the replies – or lack of them, is documented at

In a less public arena, I also do my bit to encourage people to read, mainly by going into secondary schools to talk to teenagers about my books. Most of the time it’s a more rewarding experience than Yann Martel’s. An eager face, an intelligent question, a dreamy look – it doesn’t take much for me to know that my audience have momentarily let go their cool, forgotten who they are and entered my realm of stories and the imagination.

Very occasionally, though, it doesn’t work. Earlier this week I had a group of eighty fourteen year-olds for the after-lunch period. Maybe it was the fizzy drinks and sweets, maybe they were demob happy at the thought of the impending summer holidays, maybe it was the thunder in the air, or maybe there were just too many of them, but they were bouncing off the walls. Neither I, nor the four teachers present, could get them to settle. They were attentive for a little while as I read, but as soon as I began to talk or ask them questions, there were outbreaks of fidgeting, giggling and whispering.

Was I boring them? I wondered, soldiering on and trying to keep my temper. Possibly, though it was a routine I’ve performed dozens of times before to good effect in other schools. By the end, feeling thoroughly grumpy, I told them they were the most unruly group it had ever been my misfortune to address, which was true, although also slightly unfair because there were those who had listened despite their less well-behaved neighbours.

As I left I had to remind myself that even one listener, wide-eyed in that moment of self-forgetting – or stillness as Yann Martel would call it, makes it all worthwhile. I hope his persistence with Stephen Harper pays off.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Speaking in tongues

One of the perks of being on the board of the Edinburgh International Book Festival is that I get an early look at the programme and the chance to put my name down for the events I would like to chair.

This morning, as I was looking through the list, two books in particular caught my eye. Without giving away secrets (the programme is embargoed until the day of the launch, June 17), I can say that although their subjects are separated by four hundred years, both deal with events that, according to their authors, have been hugely significant in shaping the English language.

The first is the publication of the King James Bible, whose elegance, lyricism and sheer linguistic brio set a wholly new standard of English which still, to this day, is seldom bettered. The other is the emergence of a 1500-word version of English that is now, thanks to Microsoft, becoming the lingua franca of the world’s two billion non-native English speakers.

The sublime and the ridiculous, one might think. How can one weigh post-Shakespearian, early Jacobean mastery of our uniquely rich language with some weird post-modern hybrid – a kind of pidgin cyberese? Aesthetically, of course, one can’t. It would be like comparing the work of Trollope with a Tweet.

But usage, in the evolution of language, is everything. And where the literate classes in the early 17th century were probably numbered by those households that possessed a bible, today computers are well within the grasp of the semi- or even barely literate; and anyway, literacy, or rather lack of it, has never been an obstacle to the spread of new linguistic mutations.

Furthermore, there are now more non-native than native speakers of English in the world - something, I believe, that is to be celebrated. Languages thrive through being spoken, and our own is lucky to have become almost universal, while also being deep-rooted and robust enough to survive any number of mutations.

What is much more to be feared is the loss of language, and here the numbers are terrifying. Apparently, of slightly more than 7,000 living languages on earth, just over 500 (seven per cent) are now nearly extinct, meaning they have only a few elderly speakers still living. But nearly half of those 7,000 have less than 3,000 speakers, which means, some suggest, that there are more than 3,000 vulnerable languages which are very unlikely to survive the next hundred years.

With these will go a sense of self and belonging, of history and culture, of personal and communal identity – as oppressors down the ages have known only too well. So we should be grateful for the incursions of Microsoft and others into our beloved English. It signifies that the language we speak is still very much alive.