On the Tangents website in 2006, John Carney when writing about one of his favourite authors, John Murray, claimed: “He does for Cumbria what Shena Mackay does for South London. He captures something strange amidst the outwardly normal. He has an ear for how people speak, and an eye for how we act. He clearly is torn between love and hate for the homelands he exiles himself in.”
John Murray could be said to be a Cumbrian writer in the sense that he was born and grew up in Cumbria, and wrote about Cumbria and its people while living in Cumbria among its people. John’s Cumbrian writing is not really about a sense of place. He has never really gone in for long descriptions of the local landscape, or described endless walks he has taken over deserted terrains. We are spared that sort of nonsense. He does his rambling on the page, and wears that as a badge of honour: “I divagate, I ramble, I meander”. He is wont to argue that “the best roads, both real and the imagination, divagate and branch, without warning into unexplored, inimitable riches.” And another of his maxims is that “digressions are the staff of life”.
John’s Cumbria is not the Lake District of popular tourism. Indeed there hardly seems to be any mention of the Lakes at all in his great comic novels. To generalise madly, John’s use of Cumbria in his books is to have some character growing up in the industrial West (Workington, Whitehaven, Maryport etc.) of the county, with them or others ending up living in the rural North of the county, usually on a smallholding in what John calls the Debatable Lands. This presumably repeats part of the pattern of John’s own life.
His use of Cumbrian themes extends to the occasional use of dialect, often for comic effect, which may make the going tricky for some, but in fact his books have never seemed to be a difficult read here. His way of doing this is to weave translation to and from Cumbrian dialect into the text, using what he calls “impertinent phonetic and punning distortion” and invariably emphasising the Nordic roots of Cumbrian dialect, suggesting someone in Norway would manage nicely with what he would hear in the Debatable Lands.
Here’s a quote from John’s The Legend of Liz & Joe (which includes a story told in translation from Cumbrian dialect) explaining how all this works: “So it is that my translation includes selective extracts from the dialect original, the latter being embedded and bracketed at appropriate points, as a constant reminder of the source from which the translation came.”
As well as using dialect John also vigorously upholds the Cumbrian tradition of telling tall tales. His novel Radio Activity revolves around the world’s biggest liar competition, which really is held annually in Santon Bridge. A tall tale about nuclear power is told by one Tommy Little, an odd hippy shepherd from Bewcastle, the Herman Hesse of the Debatable Lands, who renders his mendacity with veracity, and puts on a perverse display of virtuosity, a little like Floorboard George Gastin, the Pilgrim Ghost, in Jim Dodge’s Not Fade Away.
A similar structure is used by John in The Legend of Liz & Joe where his narrator Joe Gladstone is writing a short story in Cumbrian dialect for a competition. His entry is a send-up of New Labour authoritarianism. It features the excellent Fenton Baggrow as the rebel in a far-fetched tale, set initially a decade hence in 2017. The government has decided to use Cumbria as a test area for the compulsory visible wearing of braces by men at all times, to raise the moral tone, improve citizenship skills, etc. That is deliberately ludicrous, of course, but who would have predicted what has happened so far in 2017, so who are we to sneer at the “disorientating outlandishness of his satire.”
Fenton fights a lone battle and gets to tell the premier in person: “You manage to rule the country by behaving like a school prefect ... this monitor approach, this back door control, by the school sneak? Is it just bare-faced bullying, by any other name?” Fenton, spurning braces and sporting an antique kid’s snake belt he got off eBay, is “fearless in his flagrant flouting that it was almost as if he wished to provoke the authorities into a brutal over-reaction (a basic if nut acnied Knee-o Trutskyisht manyeuver, even if Fenton issel wuss allus mare ev an oot an oot Noth Cummlan Hannykist).” You see, that is how John does it. Go on say it aloud! It’s great fun.
The book ends with Joe being told that this approach to writing is not to everybody’s liking, which is rather poignant as it is the last book in this sequence of John Murray novels, the last novel we have from him. That may have something to do with his long-term publisher, Flambard Press, folding with the end of its Arts Council funding.
Joe hears how the competition’s judges “had disliked its insolent meandering and jumping about in narrative terms, not to speak of that insufferably show-off geographical jumping about. Worst of all was the insistent and gratuitous political thrust; the disrespect towards decent old-fashioned patriotism. Far too often this was aggravated by the rude, at times, outrageous, language in some of the puns. All in all they really disliked the way Joe Gladstone used the dialect to do things it wasn’t supposed to do; the way it focused sarcastically on national, even world events, instead of restricting himself to local ones.”