Thursday, 21 June 2012

Small Island, Big Voices

Latest addiction: the British Library's online sound archive, especially the "Survey of English Dialects" category:

"The Survey of English Dialects (SED) was a groundbreaking nationwide survey of the vernacular speech of England... From 1950 to 1961 a team of fieldworkers collected data in a network of 313 localities across England... the informants were mostly farm labourers, predominantly male and generally over 65 years old as the aim of the survey was to capture the most conservative forms of folk-speech."

Apart from the gorgeous rhythms and cadences of the different dialects, what makes this collection so addictive is the contrast between the interviewers' bemusement and the farm labourers' gruff banter:

Hampshire farm labourer: "Locust is good to eat... that used to be sweet."

Interviewer (bewildered/vaguely disgusted): "What's locust exactly?"

Farm labourer: "Well locust is a bean! Locust beans!"

Or take this brilliant recording from Great Snoring, Norfolk:

The only word I understood was "pheasant", but the mere fact that this interview was recorded in a place called Great Snoring, Norfolk, makes it worth listening to.

In fact, I'd recommend the entire collection as a masterclass for dialogue & characterisation. Take this cheerful duo in Shropshire:

Interviewer: And did you have very good food and that?

Farm labourer: Oooh, we used to kill a couple of good fat pigs!

Interviewer: How did you kill a pig?

Farm labourer: Oooh we had a butcher... a butcher going round, like.

Interviewer: And then what did you do to it after it had been killed?

Farm labourer: Oooh we hung it up! ... saltpeter and salt... leave it like that for three weeks then turn it... you got to have saltpeter though.

Interviewer: And how long does it keep?

Farm labourer: Oooh... three years? Push it up the chimney. Get the ham up the chimney.

I'll end with one more line from my favourite recording, the one from Hampshire. It sort of summarises the spirit of the entire survey: 

Interviewer: "What was this tale you were telling me... someone went up to Bedwin or somewhere?"

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