Tag Archives: Gaelic

“Whisky Fir Dummies”: Why was this Edinburgh Fringe show title banned?

Before the lawyers: Whisky For Dummies

(A version of this piece was also carried on Indian news website WeSpeakNews)

Yesterday, I got sent a press release from Scots comic Alan Anderson. Last year at the Edinburgh Fringe, he performed a show titled Alan Anderson: Whisky Fir Dummies. This year, his show is billed in the Fringe Programme as Alan Anderson: Whisky Fir Dummies 2.0 with the come-on that there will be “free whisky tasting during every show”.

Except, Alan says, the show will not now be titled that because US publishers John Wiley & Sons have a series of ….. For Dummies books and they have threatened to sue him.

Alan claims in his press release that much of the terminology used in the show is from the Gaelic language and, in Scots Gaelic, the show title itself Whisky Fir Dummies means “Whisky, man pacifier”.

I have no idea if this is true or not. It sounds unlikely and potentially like a publicity stunt.

But, whatever the truth of the translation, Alan Anderson says John Wiley & Sons’ lawyers have accused him of “passing off” his comedy stage show Whisky Fir Dummies as one of their ….. For Dummies books. They claim it is “likely to result in serious confusion and result in dilution of Wiley’s trademarks”.

After the lawyers: Whisky Fir Dafties

Alan says: “The legal advice given (to me) is that the show title does not infringe Wiley’s For Dummies trademark, nor do any of their UK/EU trademark registrations cover the fields of live whisky tasting or stand up comedy. However as an act of goodwill towards Wiley’s – and to prevent a lengthy and costly legal battle – it was decided to change the show title. This also opens up the possibility of publishing a series of books, CD or DVD of the show titled Whisky For Dafties or better still Copyright Law For Dafties. Sadly however the name change means that the Edfringe.com URL has been changed making it difficult for customers to purchase tickets for the show online.

“As for causing confusion or passing off,” continues Alan, “if you think a large corporation like Wiley’s would put on a whisky tasting show in the basement of an Edinburgh student pub at 9pm during the Fringe then you probably need to read Marketing For Dummies. If having seen the show you still think Wiley’s is responsible then you should probably write How to produce an award winning Edinburgh comedy show for Dummies.”

If true, this tale is yet another an example of a large American company taking leave of its corporate senses and personally I think they should publish Wanking For Dummies (a sure-fire hit for small children in the UK). They obviously know a lot about the subject.

If untrue, Alan’s press release is a contender for the increasingly highly-esteemed Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award.

Either way, he is on to a winner in publicity terms.

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Filed under Comedy, Copyright, Legal system, Marketing, PR, Theatre

The Welsh language is just plain silly and is a clear sign of national insecurity

So, tell me, what is the point of having a blog if you can’t write bigoted pieces based on truth, half-truths and misunderstandings?

For the last couple of days, I have been staying on Cardigan Bay in West Wales.

When you walk in the streets and go into shops in Cardigan – or Aberteifi as it is now pointlessly half-re-named – people are sometimes speaking Welsh not English to each other. It was not until I worked in Ireland that I started to think the propagation of the Welsh language is ridiculously pointless.

If a language is dead, let it die. If it is still alive, it will survive without heavy-handed insistence that it must be used.

What is very relevant to this blog is the fact I am Scottish not English. Remember that my mother’s grandmother did not speak English until, in her late teens I think, she came down from the hills. The image of my grandmother coming down from the hills is one a friend of mine finds peculiarly funny but, anyway, my mother’s grandmother originally spoke Scots Gaelic as her native tongue, not English.

I once spent some time in the Outer Hebrides where I admired and was fascinated by how, in shops, people would speak to each other in sentences that meandered almost randomly between English and Gaelic words and phrases. They used whichever words and phrases came more naturally and fitted better. Sometimes the words were Gaelic, sometimes English; all within the same sentence.

I once had an interview for a job with Grampian Television in Aberdeen which basically transmitted to the Highlands while Scottish Television transmitted to the Lowlands. The conversation came round to starting a number of Gaelic-language programmes transmitted on Grampian (part of ITV) and on BBC Scotland. I said I thought it was silly because such a relatively small percentage of Scottish television viewers – by then almost entirely in the Western Isles with a small smattering in the Highlands – actually spoke Gaelic as their natural tongue.

The Grampian TV executive interviewing me was highly miffed.

“Ah! But you’re English!” he said to me.

“I was born in Campbeltown and partly brought up in Aberdeen,” I told him. “Where were you born?”

“London,” he said.

I did not get the job.

Later, I did a lot of freelance work over many years for HTV in Cardiff – or Caerdydd as it is now pointlessly half-re-named. It’s a bit like re-naming Saigon as Ho Chi Minh City when most of the inhabitants continue to call it Saigon.

As far as I remember, when I started working in South Wales, almost all the local signs were in English. I mean the road signs and the general retail shop signs.

At some point, almost imperceptibly, dual language signs started appearing, usually with the Welsh version first.

At around this time, or maybe a little later, there was an extended period where my full-time freelance work alternated between working for HTV in Cardiff and Tara TV in Dublin.

In Dublin, I could see old, rotting, rusting and ignored street signs in Irish Gaelic. All the current signs were in English. This was the period when the ‘Celtic Tiger‘ was on the rise and the Irish Republic had re-discovered its self-confidence.

It is very relevant that I was once sitting in an edit suite at Windmill Lane Studios in Dublin, directing a trailer for an RTE television programme which included an interview in which someone said a couple of sentences in Irish Gaelic.

“What did he say?” I asked the Irish videotape editor sitting with me.

“No idea,” he told me.

We had three other Irish people come into the suite. None of them knew what the Gaelic words meant. They had all had to ‘learn’ Gaelic at school but, just like British schoolkids who do five years of French at school, they could not speak and could barely understand the language because it was bugger-all use to them in everyday life.

It was at this time – alternating my time sometimes one week here/ one week there/ one week here/ one week there between Cardiff and Dublin – that I began to think the Welsh language was just plain silly.

It was silly because it was a mostly dead language being revived and imposed by a clique on a predominantly non-Welsh-speaking population.

One week, I returned to Cardiff from Dublin to find that the local Tesco store had changed all its signs to dual-language Welsh and English signs. Someone (Welsh) told me in near-disbelief that all the signs at the Tesco store in Abergavenny, where she lived, had also been changed.

“I swear to God, no-one bloody speaks Welsh in Abergavenny!” she told me.

By the time I stopped working at HTV, Lloyds Bank was calling itself Banc Lloyds (it has since re-re-branded itself simply as Lloyds TSB) and other shops and businesses were doing the same: making up their own names in Welsh. Mostly, I suspect, they were English companies trying to be politically correct and liberal, much like that English executive at Grampian TV trying to be so ‘right-on’.

Shortly before Tesco started changing its signs to dual-language Welsh & English, I had been on holiday to Cambodia and, in Phnom Penh, there was a street of hovels and shacks which were all English language ‘schools’. At that time, no-one had any money and there was a very real possibility that the homicidally extreme Khmer Rouge might regain power in the next month or two. But, as in almost all other parts of the world, people wanted to learn English because it was and is the ‘international’ language. If you are an outward-looking country with outward-looking thoughts, you learn English.

My understanding is that, after most of Ireland gained independence from Britain in the early 1920s (let us not get into any pedantic details of dates in Ireland: it will all end in many tears and much wailing), the republicans who ran the country wanted to encourage self-confidence and national pride.

So they called the new country Eire instead of Ireland, painted the red pillar boxes green, changed a few of the royal crests on stone buildings to harps and tried to get everyone to speak Gaelic. The country rotted in inward-looking isolation for decades, admittedly not helped by the fact successive UK governments had every reason to dislike American-born Eamon de Valera and his blindly Brit-hating chums.

But, by the time I worked in Dublin in the mid and late 1990s, the Irish Republic had regained its self-confidence and, although civil servants had to know Gaelic, the English language had taken over all everyday usage except in the extreme west of the country. The few Irish language signs in Dublin were faded and/or rusting.

Irish, like Scots Gaelic, was then and is now effectively a dead language naturally spoken by few people. Though long may they speak Gaelic in Ireland and Scotland. I have nothing against the natural rise and fall of any – indeed, all – languages.

But I am told by Welsh friends that, except in the West and sparsely-populated central highlands of Wales, the Welsh language had pretty-much died out by the late 19th century.

It was re-imposed rather than re-grew in Wales in the late 20th century.

My memory is that extreme Welsh nationalists got publicity in English newspapers by setting off some minor explosions and burning down occasional second homes owned by ordinary English people in Wales.

Then some second-rate people who could not get jobs in media, politics and the local civil service had the bright idea of looking to what their USP was – they could speak Welsh – and they pushed for Welsh-language TV programmes, an entire Welsh TV channel and the use of the Welsh language in the local civil service because, that way, they would have a positive advantage in getting jobs.

The Welsh language was, to an extent, partially revived not by natural growth and usage but by xenophobia and the self-interest of a small clique.

Yes, that’s a very personal view of what happened, but not necessarily totally untrue.

English politicians, frightened of alienating the Welsh, went along with it for electoral gain and you now have a country where people have a TV channel –  S4C – which most of them don’t understand and dual-language signs only half of which most understand – the English language half.

While the rest of the world was moving towards internationally-understood English, a group of self-serving xenophobes in Wales (where English was already established) were pushing for the renewed use of a mostly-dead language known only by some in Wales and nowhere else except some obscure area of Patagonia.

Looking inwards in an increasingly international world is not a good idea. An insistence on trying to spread the Welsh language more widely in Wales is not a sign of national identity. It is a sign of national insecurity.

Right or wrong, that’s my viewpoint. Like I said at the start, What is the point of having a blog if you can’t write bigoted pieces based on truth, half-truths and misunderstandings?

Oh – Abergavenny has now been pointlessly half-re-named Y Fenni.

Really! Give me a break, chaps or – as Google Translate claims that would be said in Welsh – yn rhoi i mi egwyl, chaps.

What sort of sensible language doesn’t have a word for “chaps”?

Dim sense.

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Bad language in Scotland?

Last night I went to a very interesting talk at the British Library by author and publisher James Robertson about The Guid Scots Tongue.

It was a bit like Scots comic Stanley Baxter’s legendary series of Parliamo Glasgow sketches in his 1960s and 1970s TV shows. But with genuine academic credibility.

James Robertson seemed to confirm that Old English developed into Middle English south of the border and into the “Scottish” language north of the border and that, ever since then, people have bemoaned the ‘fact’ that Scots is dying.

I remember Melvyn Bragg saying in his ITV series The Adventure of English that, before Henry VIII, English was a dying language only used by the underclasses. The upper ruling elite spoke Latin and Norman French. But, when Henry decided to split from the Roman Catholic Church so he could knob the wife of his choice, he created the Church of England and commissioned ’The Great Bible’ – the first authorised translation of the Bible into English not Latin. This was distributed to every church in the country and rescued English from its decline and possible extinction.

Last night, James Robertson pointed out that, when King James VI of Scotland took over the English throne in 1603, became King James I of England and brought the Scottish court to London, one of the things he did was to commission the 1611 translation of the Bible into English – the Authorised King James Version of the Bible – which was distributed to every church in England, Scotland and Wales. Ironically, it was never translated into Scottish and this strengthened the hold of the English language in Scotland.

My mother’s grandmother could not speak English until she came down out of the hills. She was born and brought up in the Highlands of Scotland and spoke Gaelic – pronounced Gaah-lick not Gay-lick. She only learned English when she came to the village of Dunning in Perthshire. Or, some might say, she only learned “Scottish” when she moved to Dunning.

Historically in Scotland, after a certain point, Gaelic was the language of the Highlands and so-called “Scottish” was the language of the Lowlands.

I have never believed there was such a language as “Scottish”. To me, it’s clearly a dialect of English (as opposed to Gaelic which IS a different language). Wikipedian debate will no doubt run for decades about it.

If you disagree, haud yer wheesht, dinnae fash yersell aboot it and try no to be too scunnered.

Most languages, dialects and accents are a dog’s dinner of sources. Fash apparently comes from the Old French fascher and ultimately the Latin fastidium. Scunnered apparently has its origins in Middle English. Nothing is pure, not even Baby Spice. Only the French try (unsuccessfully) to keep their language pure.

I was born in Campbeltown near the Mull of Kintyre on the west coast of Scotland. My home town pipe band played on possibly the dreariest song any Beatle ever wrote. When I was three, we moved to Aberdeen in north east Scotland. My parents had friends along the coast in Banffshire where the locals speak to each other in an almost totally incomprehensible dialect which theoretical academics now apparently call Buchan. I call it bloody incomprehensible.

A few years ago at the Edinburgh Fringe, I think I saw a comedy show entitled 100 Shit Things About Scotland though I can’t seem to find any reference to it. Maybe I just imagined the whole thing. But one of the 100 shit things about Scotland I thought I heard was the fact “There are some accents even WE don’t understand”.

Bloody right. Buchan fer yin.

When I was eight, we moved to Ilford in England – it is theoretically in Essex but actually on the outer edge of East London. Over the years, I’ve lost my accent; I never chose to.

So what I’m trying to tell you is I’m interested in language. Perhaps you guessed that.

On the version of the recent Census form distributed in Scotland there is, for the first time, a question about whether you can read/speak/understand not just Gaelic but also the so-called “Scots” language – though how many supposed Scots language variations there might be I cannot even begin to imagine. The words people use in Dundee, Glasgow and Thurso are very different.

There are some great common words. Dreich is almost un-translatable into English in less than an entire paragraph. Crabbit is just a great and appropriate sound. As is Peelie-wallie and many others. But there are amazingly diverse words all over the UK – Perth, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen have wild variations in words, let alone Tyneside, North Norfolk, the Black Country and Devon. They are not separate languages, though.

English is a wonderful language because it has so many variants and has hoovered up so much from other languages – cascade, table and situation are all unchanged in spelling from the original French but pronounced differently. The arrival of radio, movies and then television may have homogenised the English language and be slowly eliminating a lot of dialect and accent variations but, with English now the de facto world language, there are going to be hundreds of variant languages growing up in coming years to rival past pidgin English.

Indeed, this seems to have already happened with BT call centres in India. I don’t know what they are speaking, but it’s no form of English I recognise.

Perhaps I am just mare than a wee bit glakit.

Several times in bookshops, I have picked up Irving Welsh’s novel Trainspotting and looked at the first page then put it back on the shelf. It looks too difficult to read, though lots of English people have, so it must just be wee me. I remember at school in Ilford, for some extraordinary reason, we had to read Sir Walter Scott’s novel The Antiquary and I found it incomprehensible in places; heaven knows what my English classmates made of it. They never said. Must be just me.

When I edited Scots comedienne Janey Godley’s autobiography Handstands in the Darkwhich reads a bit like a cross between Edgar Allan Poe and the movie Gladiator – the two of us had to decide how to write quoted dialogue which could be printed on the page, as she was brought up in East Glasgow where dialect, slang and strong accents prevail. Should we write it with all the dialect words intact or spell words phonetically? Both of those would mean it might be difficult for readers in London, let alone New York or Sydney, to understand.

Eventually, we decided to slightly Anglicise the dialogue but to include Scots words which would be easily understandable to non Scots… and to print some words phonetically so there would be a feeling of accent – for example, we printed the “police” as the “polis” throughout, because that is how it is pronounced in Glasgow and it is a distinct yet not too confusing word. It felt like you were reading genuine Scots dialogue, even though it was slightly Anglicised. I was wary of using the Glasgow word close, which means an indoor stairwell, because, in Edinburgh, it means an outdoor alleyway.

It’s a sare fecht.

Look, I could go on for hours about this. Think yourself lucky it stops here.

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Britain is full of immigrants

Allegedly, the USA is the ‘Land of Opportunity’ where any immigrant can arrive with nothing and create a new life for himself or herself with unlimited potential. But you cannot become President if you were not born in the USA.

What’s that all about?

I have a British friend whose parents were Indian – they arrived and settled here in the UK in the 1950s and 1960s. She told me (and I admit I was surprised) that she had never experienced any racial discrimination in the UK. She never encountered it until she lived in the USA.

It does seem to me – in a vast generalisation – that the US is a land of separated peoples. They define themselves as Irish-American or Swedish-American or African-American and they tend to retain their original nationalities in social clubs and by living together in areas, sometimes ghettos.

In Britain, after a couple of generations, people define themselves as British.

People talk about Britain having a 2,000 year history – since the Romans invaded. But that’s bollocks. The Romans didn’t even control the whole of Great Britain – the main island of the British Isles. They invaded and controlled what is now England, the lower part of Great Britain; for a very brief time they controlled parts of what is now Lowland Scotland (Hadrian’s Wall is south of the current border); they never fully managed to control Wales; and, as many have, they pretty-much gave up at the very thought of controlling Ireland.

Last century, actor Gordon Jackson was the definitive Scotsman. He played the butler Hudson in the original ITV series of Upstairs, Downstairs and, whenever movie-makers wanted a Scotsman in their film, he was their first call. He epitomised Scottishness.

Occasionally I used to work with one of his sons. When he (the son) reached his 40th birthday, he told me that, the older he got, the more Scottish he felt.

“Where were you born?” I asked.

“Hampstead.”

Hampstead is in North London. But then, if you are the son of Gordon Jackson, you are going to feel Scottish. His mother was Scots too and, though brought up in London, they had a holiday home in Pitlochry.

I remember standing in an office in the London Weekend TV tower looking out at a misty, drizzly South Bank and Westminster scene and saying to this Son of Gordon Jackson:

“Now that is dreich.”

“Definitively dreich,” he replied.

Dreich is a Scots Gaelic word which is virtually impossible to define in English. You have to see what it describes if you want to understand it.

There is an interesting theory that the Welsh – or, at least, the people in the middle of Wales, the mountainous parts, the parts that ironically get at bit uppity about being called British and insist on keeping the Welsh language afloat – are actually the only remnants of the original British, pushed back into that western bump of Great Britain by successive invaders from the south, east and north of the island.

The original British were killed-off or bred out of existence perhaps 1,500 years ago.

Basically, everyone in Britain is an immigrant except, possibly, the forefathers of a few Welsh people.

In the legend of the Knights of the Round Table, the point is often forgotten that King Arthur was killed. The invaders, in reality, won. The losers possibly fled West.

My surname is Fleming so, at some point, my forebears came from Flanders/Belgium/Holland. But, despite an uncalled-for English accent, I am Scottish. The Scots and Irish are allegedly Celtic but, to my eyes, are clearly Scandinavian – pale skin, light hair, sometimes freckles. I used to have dark brown hair and a ginger beard. That’s Scandinavian.

The Welsh are said, like the Scots and Irish, to be Celtic; but the Welsh are in generalised physical terms nothing like the Scots and Irish – they tend to have dark hair, for one thing.

The Celts, again in very general terms, came from Central Europe. So they are sort-of German though, when I worked in the Czech Republic, the locals reckoned the Celts had actually come from what is now the Czech area of Central Europe.

The Anglo-Saxon English are from what is now Germany – the result of invasions by the Angles and the Saxons.

A Danish TV director I know, who worked with both me and Son of Gordon Jackson, told me he once drove round Yorkshire and recognised most of the names of the towns and villages: they were either recognisable Danish names or bastardisations of Danish names.

Hardly surprising, given that Denmark ruled most of England for so long.

To be a racist, you need to be ignorant of history. To talk of “racial purity” anywhere requires a deep ignorance of history. To talk of “racial purity” in the UK requires a remarkable level of crass stupidity.

I am old enough to remember TV documentaries about the last Yiddish language newspaper closing in the East End of London. Some of the street signs there – around Brick Lane – used to be in Yiddish; now they are in Bengali. Limehouse in East London used to be a Chinese area. Now there’s a little Chinese area in Soho (artificially created, it has to be said, by ‘Red Ken’ Livingstone). Everything is constantly changing.

The English language has thrived on constant new inputs from foreign languages; it is constantly changing. The ‘British people’ (whatever that means) have thrived on constant new cultural inputs and there is constant, vibrant change. Britain is constantly being re-born. Unlike the USA, we seem to have integrated and assimilated our immigrants over time. Admittedly we have had longer.

Britain, depending on how you define it, didn’t even exist until 1603 (when James VI of Scotland became James I of England) or 1707 (when the Act of Union was signed). The flag which the British Army flew at the Battle of Culloden in 1746 in support of their Hanoverian monarch was not the current Union flag. The current so-called ‘Union Jack’ did not exist until 1801 when another Act of Parliament united the Kingdom of Great Britain and the Kingdom of Ireland.

If/when either Northern Ireland or Scotland breaks from the United Kingdom and becomes independent, then the flag will have to change again.

No-one in Britain is, when it comes down to it, actually British. We are all immigrants. The British are long-dead, except perhaps for a few distant relatives in Machynlleth.

What “Britain” means is a moveable feast.

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Filed under History, Racism

Yesterday I met a man from Atlantis who speaks Japanese

For ages, I have thought there was mileage in a Real People chat show on TV – if you go to any bus queue in any town in Britain and choose any person at random then, with the right questions, that person will reveal the most extraordinary life story.

Life truly is stranger than fiction. Novels are very often watered-down versions of the truth and they have been watered-down simply to make them believable.

I was reminded of this when I was passing through the food department of Selfridges in Oxford Street yesterday and I was offered a free tea sample by a Greek-Bulgarian sales specialist working for the East India Company which was bought by an Indian entrepreneur in 2005 and which opened a shop in London’s West End last year. It turned out the tea-offerer was from the island of Santorini (claimed by some to be the origin of the legend of Atlantis). He told me he spoke six languages including Japanese and Scots Gaelic – which he then proceeded to do.

Speak Gaelic.

It is a tad odd to have a Greek-Bulgarian from Atlantis who works for the East India Company (given its charter by Queen Elizabeth I in 1600) speak Gaelic to you when you are passing through the food department of Selfridges department store.

To surprise me, it would have been enough for him, as a Greek-Bulgarian, just to work for the fabled East India Company because I hadn’t realised it had been re-born.

While being one of the most successful commercial companies ever to exist –  at its height, the company allegedly generated half of world trade and it established Singapore and Hong Kong as trading centres – it also effectively ruled India with its own army on behalf of the British government 1757-1858 and virtually built the British Empire by monopolising the Opium Trade – it was responsible both for the Opium Wars and the Indian Mutiny!

That Indian entrepreneur – Sanjiv Mehta – who bought the name in 2005 and re-started the company last year is a near genius. People are buying recognisable brand names for millions of pounds/dollars all over the world and the East India Company must be one of the most famous names worldwide – it has been around for 411 years – though I’m not sure trade with China will be easy!

So it would have been enough for the tea-offerer, as a Greek-Bulgarian, just to work for the fabled East India Company but, good heavens – perhaps you had to be there – a Greek-Bulgarian who works for the East India Company, comes from the original Atlantis and speaks Gaelic! What are the odds of that combination happening? If you wrote a novel with a character like that in it, people would laugh at how stupid you were for including such a literally incredible character…

What price a Real People chat show?

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