I wrote about Anthony Burgess and a visit to his archive in Manchester in The Diplomat’s Fiancé, my previous blog. I’m more fan than expert, drawn as much to his characterful cigar stubs as unfinished manuscripts, so I’ll leave it to the pros to shed more light on his amazing work via the link below. Yet Burgess’s relevance to me in my new guise as The Word Diver seems increasingly obvious – the well-travelled novelist was a fantastic scholar and exponent of languages. In this latest podcast from the International Anthony Burgess Foundation you can learn why Russian was a more suitable language for him to employ when inventing the timeless slang of A Clockwork Orange (‘groodies’ is arguably a much better word for ‘breasts’ than…‘breasts’, for example) as well as hearing some of the music and song he wrote for a stage version of the notorious and much-misunderstood novel. Whether of a literary bent or not, every expat should learn from Burgess’s love of language. While teaching English in Malaya he was fascinated by obscure local dialects. These years on, you won’t be surprised to learn that ‘progress’ sees most Brits in Hong Kong knowing only a pittance of words in (the almost universally spoken) Cantonese.
Since I moved out to the island, where English is less widely practised, I have tried to add the numbers 1-10 and a few more words to my repertoire. It’s still a pathetic showing but, rather than scold me (as they should) the firm-but-fair, all-female staff at my long-distance local in Hong Kong have taken it upon themselves to give me some informal lessons. My iPhone feels like more than the sum of its parts now that it contains some expert tuition from my old allies behind the bar on its voice recorder. I will wait for a more impressive example to come along before relating it back to them, but feel I can share this, my first exclusively Cantonese conversation with you, kind reader.
The Scene: Palm-fringed residential block, a sun-dappled Saturday, 11am
The players: Tired-looking expat carrying a plastic bag of kitchen waste; a weather-beaten woman in a big hat straw hat pushing a handcart, collecting rubbish
Weather-beaten woman: Jou san (morning)
Life-beaten expat: Jou san
Weather-beaten woman: Lapsap? (rubbish)
Life-beaten expat: Lapsap
Weather-beaten woman: M’goi (thank you)
Life-beaten expat: M’goi
Between Burgess and the bar staff I think I might be in for a kicking…