Posted 7 months ago by John

A Year of Conversation has been very busy for Book Week. There are the four Book Week Conversation Podcasts on Reading, Childhood, Home and Language
and there is the introduction to the Book Week Scotland book of submitted stories, Blether. Below is the introduction, which was also adapted for The Herald (21 November 2019). The book itself is testament to the importance of the blether in all human inter-actions, a point made in the poem, ‘I come from a distant land’ by the Syrian Women’s Group:
Everything is different
My voice has tghayar (changed)
Weak and hesitant/I want to speak out
Bas shu Isa? Shu Ighalat
(But what is right? What is wrong?)
I am angry nothing byeshemi (flows).
If language ‘flows’ anywhere, it is in blethering. In fact, that is perhaps how we should decide how fluent someone is in a foreign language: can you blether in it? Why were we never taught how to do that? One of the pieces in the conversations site that has made the strongest impression this year is ‘Conversation against all odds: the story of Nicaraguan Sign Language’ by Marieke Schouwstra. It shows how the need to blether in the playground formed a new language. As a parable about our need to communicate, it should be required reading. Seek it on this site. Now, here is the introduction to the Blether book.
Chambers ‘Scots Thesaurus’, in its section on ‘Chit-chat’, tells us that ‘to blether’ means ‘to talk foolishly, loquaciously or idly’; and that ‘a blether’ is someone who does just that. It also provides any number of alternatives: bluiter, buff, clytach, gibble-gabble, haiver, jibber, slaver, trattle, witter, yaag, yaff, yammer and yap. The message is of a culture that is suspicious of ‘empty vessels’ and any speech act which is not clear about its purpose. There was a time in Scotland when such attitudes had a corrosive effect on young people’s confidence. Now, we can make light of these namings – invent others to match them, as writers do here, with, for example, the ‘double-blether’ and the ‘tag-team blether’.
For, somehow, ‘blether’ has escaped its strictures. Yes, it can still carry a sense of emptiness, carelessness or tedium, but it also carries warmth and intimacy. In fact, if someone asks you the meaning of ‘blether’, just give them this book. It will show them how flexible blethering is: you can do it at the berries, in a supermarket, sharing a meal, on a journey with a friend or while walking your dog – even while your mother is about to pray. ‘Dae ye need tae dae it right noo, Maw? Will ye no take a wee bit lunch first?’ Perhaps it wasn’t in Lindz McLeod’s mind, but in the humour of the Scots and in the ‘set up’ of ‘Squeak’, I’m reminded of Holy Willie’s ‘blethering’ to God.
Blethering, while you’re doing something else, is one of the most common features of the blether, something it shares with gossip. Linguists now propose that gossip – let’s call it blethering in this instance - played a significant part in the development of language itself. Language is seen here as ‘vocal grooming’ in which larger social groups can be maintained without the labour intensive acts of mutual flea-picking. The other day, for example, at the newsagent’s, the person before me ushered me forward with the words, ‘I’m just waiting here for a blether.’ The blether has no need of a focus or a shape, although Grace Murray in ‘Mibbie Aye, Mibbie, Hooch Aye’ creates, in eight short lines, a community drama of wildfire proportions. Nowadays, as we read elsewhere in the collection, ‘vocal grooming’ has access to a wide range of outlets, from the traditional letter to social media.
Blethers, the book shows, can be intrusive (the unwanted questions) and they can be distressing (the unwanted voices), but more than anything, the stories, scripts and poems here show how often the intimacy of a blether can cradle a deeper conversation – the sharing of a confidence or a hesitant revelation -  until the moment feels right to share it. It will surface, albeit after a deep breath, through commonplace shared exchanges. Sometimes, in these circumstances, the narrative will end, as it does in Laura Clay’s ‘F, M, Other’, at the point when ‘a whole new conversation’ begins, ‘one that might go on for a long time.’
I’m writing this introduction because I’ve been working on a project about conversation for quite a while now and during that time my awareness of the importance of conversation has steadily increased. Conversation is something that nurtures communication, empathy and engagement; it is central to the arts, to education, to the worlds of mental health, old age and the ‘loneliness agenda’; and clearly it needs to set up home in the shoutfest of politics.
‘In my opinion, the most profitable and most natural exercise of our mind is conversation,’ wrote the great French essayist Montaigne. It seems remarkable that this richness is available to us all, in some form, from the moment a mother or a father speaks to a foetus until our final breath. We need, more than ever, given the challenges we face, to pay it attention. That is why the aims of A Year of Conversation 2019 are to celebrate conversation, to initiate conversation and to explore conversation. All of these happen within these pages and beyond, into all the activities of Book Week; a demonstration that, though some may wish to shrink the world, we remain a conversational nation. A Convers[n]ation.
You may see ‘conversation’ as a Sunday word for ‘blether’. To me it does suggest a deeper engagement – an openness to change. But that is, in no way, to underestimate the power of the blether. I know from reading this collection, that I am not alone in having received letters from my mother, where she’s written, eventually, that she was just ‘wittering on’. Yet that ‘wittering’ or ‘blethering’ about the hum of life was the most precious conversation to me. For what often underpins conversation is the blether, the warm touch, the familiar. This book shows how deep that touch can be.
Tom Pow
Creative Director
A Year of Conversation

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