guest post by Alan Wilkinson
My favorite Brit is back. (We first introduced Alan to the Writing Wyoming blog back in August of 2016 with A Jobbing Writer.)
Today Alan's talking about what he calls impersonation--or capturing voices in writing--something he does exceedingly well.
I never set out to be a chameleon, and when it was first suggested that I might be one I wasn’t happy. It was the late Malcolm Bradbury, founder of the United Kingdom’s first M.A. program in creative writing, who pointed out to me that I seemed to have a gift for “impersonation,” adding that it might be an issue.
That was back in 1989. I had recently completed a degree in American Studies, the third year of which I spent in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Back home, in my final year, I pointed out to my departmental head that I’d spent most of the year abroad attending writing classes (and cleaning windows around town in order to feed my family). I requested that I be allowed to submit a creative final-year dissertation. God bless him. He said yes, and I gave in ten short pieces, all based on my experiences in The Land of the Free, and mostly narrated in an American voice. Over the next year or two managed to publish seven of those stories in literary quarterlies.
I was still engaged with American tales when I started my M.A., and that’s when Professor Bradbury puffed on his pipe and opined – during a workshop when I was under the microscope - that there was “of course” the issue of impersonation. I don’t recall that he offered a solution, and there the matter rested.
Recently, a friend who has been interviewing me for a project on writers, their methods and lifestyles, asked me whether I had learned about impersonation while doing my M.A. at the University of East Anglia. Absolutely not, I replied. And, as I considered the question, it occurred to me that it went back much further than that.
As child, my siblings and I copied the adults around us. There were five of us: three older ones, born before the War, two more of us post-1945.
We spoke like well brought up middle class children because, despite living in public housing, we had a well-spoken father.
His mother – who raised us in those formative years – was the daughter of a ship’s captain; her father-in-law was a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. We were constantly lectured about grammar, pronunciation and usage.
I was the youngest. Until I was six I hardly mixed with other children. Then we moved to a new neighbourhood, teeming with kids who met up to play on the open spaces that now surrounded us. I joined them for games of football, cricket, cowboys-and-Indians. And they mocked me, for sounding posh.
Naturally, I did what children of newcomers (we might say immigrants) have always done. I copied the locals. I learned some colourful expressions; I learned to swear. My father harrumphed and told me I sounded like a “gutter-snipe,” a “street urchin” and suchlike. But I loved this Cockney argot. I got pretty good at it – and I could switch it on and off.
By the age of nine I was picking up Americanisms from the TV, as were my mates. It was cowboy talk, mostly, with a smattering of Highway Patrol. Ten-four.
In the early 1960s we suddenly became aware of our own regional accents. Thanks to the Fab Four we all introduced Liverpudlian words and phrases into our daily talk, glibly punctuating our conversation with words like “wack,” “gear,” “fab,” “chip butty” and “I’m gonna comb me hur.”
And so it went on. I simply loved the music of those words. I was utterly convinced that I came from a place (outer London) with no accent, no character to its language, no inflection - and I wanted all of those. At 18, 19, 20, I spent hours, late at night, listening to French radio to study the accents and cadences of a language I longed to master. I would still give my eye teeth to be word perfect. I learned Spanish and adopted all manner of linguistic affectations when it suited me. But whenever the conversation turned to football (soccer) I invariably lapsed into Cockney. I still do.
When I started writing – vignettes from the factories I worked in – the dialogue was frequently in a Yorkshire or Cockney voice, occasionally Geordie (that is, from the north east of England). It depended on who I was working with at the time. But my authorial/narrative voice, by contrast, was generally in the elevated diction of the authors I was reading: P G Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh, G K Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Henry Fielding, Charles Dickens, Daniel Defoe. I developed a liking for long sentences.
But in conversation with friends my talk – theirs too – was still laced with Cockney, or with a new vocabulary we’d picked up from 1930s gangster movies: “You dirty rat!” delivered, naturally, from the side of the mouth. It was fun. It made life more interesting.
When I developed my passion for American writing it was as if I had another language to learn – which in truth I did. I wanted first to decode it, then to speak it, like a native. So I practised. Finally, finally, my ability to imitate paid off. I remember a proud moment when I was one of a team of 14 writing for a TV soap. In conversation, the producer remarked, “Let’s face it, you’re the most authentic Yorkshire voice on the show.”
Over the past 25 years, as a self-employed writer, a lot of my bread-and-butter work has involved gathering and writing other people’s stories – either as part of a corporate history or as a straight ghost-written project. The ability to capture their words, and the musicality of their native tongues, the inflection of their voices, the cadences, and to translate it all to the page, has been a crucial part of the service I can offer - and the way I make my living.
And I must stress that it’s more than a service. In many cases it’s an homage, a measure of my own respect for a person’s character, as reflected in the way they speak. So yes, call me a mimic. I’m okay with that.
Alan Wilkinson lives and works in Durham, England, where he has had to tune into yet another regional accent - although he still struggles with such local constructions as ‘He’s went’, or ‘I telled him.’.
He has recently published a first novel, Cody, The Medicine Man and Me, (available here) and is currently working on the biography of a Welsh Member of Parliament (retired).
Next up will be a reflective piece on his life-long attempts to establish an intimacy with the landscapes he loves.