No Offence

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Maggie flies the flag for the Ewart Library in Dumfries

Maggie Craig is more than just a Scottish author.

Novelist, historian and feature writer, Maggie’s groundbreaking and highly acclaimed Damn’ Rebel Bitches: The Women of the ’45 is the recognised authority on female involvement in the Jacobite Rising of 1745. The companion volume, Bare-Arsed Banditti: The Men of the ’45, has also been well received. Maggie Craig is also a contributor to the Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women and the author of numerous newspaper and magazine articles. Her romantic fictional works include The Stationmaster’s Daughter, The Bird Flies High, A Star to Steer By, The Dancing Days, One Sweet Moment and Gathering Storm. She is one of those authors who just seems to be able to turn paper into gold and is considered a prize by the country’s literature events organisers who clamber over each other to fill her diary with visits to their venue.

Above all, Maggie is a storyteller and has the ability to faultlessly deliver her tales to mesmerised audiences at her popular author events. A playful sense of humour helps to put audiences immediately at ease but it is her natural skill for telling it like it is – communicating fact and fiction in perfect balance – that commands resounding applause.

It is with great pleasure to introduce such a high calibre author to this humble blog.

As usual, Maggie speaks her mind on a difficult subject for authors: no offence, of course.

Over Christmas I read Greenmantle by John Buchan, and loved it. It’s a rip-roaring yarn and I couldn’t put it down. Our hero is Richard Hannay, fresh from his adventures in The 39 Steps and an injury sustained at the 1915 Battle of Loos. He and his perfectly-named friend, Sandy Arbuthnot, are seconded by the British Government for a secret mission behind enemy lines. The dastardly Germans are planning to divert British resources from the Western Front by encouraging holy war in the Arab world. Buchan spells it Jehad.

Hannay’s mission takes him across Germany and on to Istanbul, still called Constantinople back then. He and Sandy Arbuthnot keep their adversaries in the dark by shouting across the Bosphorus to each other in broad Scots. Yet, like the real life Lawrence of Arabia, Sandy is a man very much at home in this part of the world. He can easily pass as a local and often chooses to do so.

Buchan tells us that “you will hear of him at little forgotten fishing ports where the Albanian mountains dip to the Adriatic. In the caravanserais of Bokhara and Samarkand he is known, and there are Shikaris in the Pamirs who still speak of him round their fires. Sandy was the wandering Scot carried to the pitch of genius.”

It’s beautiful, isn’t it? The romance of far-flung and mysterious places. So it’s all the more shocking when Buchan hits you from time to time throughout Greenmantle with derogatory names for and attitudes towards people of races other than his much-admired “white man”. The anti-semitism is almost casual, as it is in The 39 Steps. At one point Hannay muses that, after his years in South Africa, he has no trouble getting other people to work hard. “I wasn’t a n*****-driver for nothing.”

I gasped audibly at that one, which is written out in full in the book, a modern edition. My immediate reaction was that they should have edited it out. Then I thought about it. That would have been to rewrite history. Buchan was a product of his class, education, experience and time. He wrote his book a hundred years ago, when attitudes were very different. This doesn’t excuse those attitudes but it might help us to view them in their historical context.

Writing this in 2015, I don’t feel that I can write what we now call the n-word out in full. A generation or two ago, it could be used to describe the colour of sewing thread in the drapery department of the Co-op. What offends us changes according to place, time, upbringing, beliefs and society’s attitudes. A generation or two ago, the word bastard was one of the most terrible names you could call somebody. Nowadays, “you wee bastard” can be an expression of affection.

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MAD AS A HATTER: The hugely talented Dumfries and Galloway photographer Kim Ayres caught Maggie in a playful mood during a recent trip to Wonderland.

My children are mightily amused by the handful of reviews I’ve had which damn a whole book because some of my characters occasionally swear. To which my riposte is, if one of those characters is a 19th century grave-robber or an 18th century Redcoat, the chances are that neither of them are going to say, “Oh, bother,” when  they’re in the grip of furious anger or have just dropped a hammer on their foot.

You can show characters swearing without putting the words on the page. He let out a string of oaths, each coarser than the last. That can work but sometimes you need to use the actual words. They have impact, if not over-used. They can shock another character, demonstrate the mood he or she who curses is in, add colour, give the reader a jolt.

When I give library talks I occasionally meet older readers who are genuinely offended by a character in a book, as they invariably phrase it, “taking the Lord’s name in vain.” Sometimes I want to gently tell them that society has moved on, that very few people in the country we both live in see it that way anymore. I never do. The offence they have taken is sincere and they’re entitled to feel it.

Back in the dim and distant, when all right-thinking people knew that a ship should always be referred to as she, and to have a feminine version of occupational nouns was not necessarily an insult, we had a fearsome conductress on our school bus. She was determined that we should travel to and from our day’s learning like civilised human beings. There was to be no jumping up and down on the seats or bad language. I cherish still the way she put that: “There’ll be no bloody swearing on this bus.”

For more information on Maggie, visit her blog: http://www.maggiecraig.co.uk

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3 thoughts on “No Offence

  1. I totally agree with this. Swearing is, whether we like it or not, a part of everyday life. And for anyone who feels the occasional swear word in a novel is unacceptable, I wonder what they think of television. Few programmes are free of them, many contain barrowloads with nearly every second word beginning with ‘f’.

    Nevertheless, I agreed with comments by some of those interviewed on television over the cause of the recent events in Paris. With free speech does come responsibility. The same applies to writers. So whilst we want to convey authenticity, there is also a responsibility to be mindful of readers and their sensibilities.

    Though there is always the off switch, and the choice of whether or not to buy or read a book. And, as Maggie Craig points out, what is and isn’t acceptable changes with the times. To delete or alter words used by authors like Buchan (and many others) dilutes authenticity. We need to be sensible enough to differentiate between acceptable use at the time of writing, and nowadays.

  2. magwoo says:

    As ever, Maggie Craig’s comments hit to the bone. Whatever offence we may or may not feel at particular words, expressions or attitudes displayed, to alter the words of another degrades both the original writer and the subsequent reader. What is on the page is what is intended. It is also of its time and circumstance and to change it tinkers with history.

    What would ‘Greenmantle’ be without Sandy Arbuthnot’s ‘white man’s’ character? How would we understand how life has changed if the attitudes Buchan describes had been expurgated? Would the book feel as authentic and fresh if somebody had cleaned it up, denying us a glimpse into the minds and social mores of a century ago? What Buchan wrote comes naturally and anybody familiar with the period and its writing would recognise that something was misplaced.

    Of course we need to recognise that life and attitudes have changed. Where sensitivities in a particular circumstance are acute, we must also tread lightly. Often enough PC restrictions, even if often over-stressed and ill-placed, drive people wild. Writers know this, and where they choose to offend they know, or should know, that repercussions will follow. But it is also their responsibility to carry the can, whether of toxicity or obfuscation, if they pick it up.

    I wonder if we would be even talking of ‘Greenmantle’, essentially just a great ‘Boys Own’ adventure story, without the flaws we perceive from today’s perspective?

  3. Maggie Craig says:

    Interesting to read both comments. Thanks for making these points. I’ve had another comment recently online from someone who loves my books but wonders why I have to use “foul language”. The reader further suggests that there are plenty of other words to use, which deprives me of words somewhat!

    How would a character be the same person if he didn’t use the words he uses? It’s the character who’s using the words and I’ve chosen them for him – not always, sometimes they just speak to you in that spooky way – to show his mood, his background, the world in which he lives and all the rest.

    Given that my use of this perceived foul language is not blanket coverage, I’m bemused. Personally, I’m more offended by other things that go on in the world.

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