I am eternally grateful that the stroke I suffered on 18 July 2004 did not take away my power to speak, reason and understand – in short, to enjoy language.
Since that date I have met many stroke survivors who have serious speech problems as a result of their stroke. These can include relatively minor weakness of the facial muscles we use to construct speech, or, more seriously, aphasia which affects the ability to read, to speak and to understand the spoken word to a greater or lesser degree.
Words are so inextricably bound up with personality and character, the sum total of what it is to be human, that to lose even a fraction of the power and subtlety of language is a major tragedy. “Words, words, words,” says Hamlet to the fawning courtier, Polonius, when he asks “What do you read, my lord?” But words are not to be treated lightly. George Orwell knew this when he described Newspeak in Nineteen Eighty-Four. To reduce the nuances of language is to reduce the power and complexity of thought. Control the power and complexity of human thought and you reduce the ability of citizens to criticize and comment on those who govern them. But enough of that – for most of us, there is a simple enjoyment in words used well which we should treasure while we have it.
Scots have a rich oral and literary tradition, which is especially strong here on Deeside. Yesterday we attended, with friends, an event celebrating local writing in English and Doric on the theme of Christmas. Billed as a “literary Carol Concert”, the words were interspersed with music and the singing of carols. The event was sponsored by our local bookshop Yeadons and was also designed to promote the St Margaret’s Arts Project which is centred on the regeneration for community use of a former episcopal church in Braemar. About a hundred of us crowded into the intimate, rather chilly, surroundings of Crathie Kirk to enjoy this feast of the spoken word. Christmas readings included everything from poems commissioned for the event and tales of the humour and fellowship of life in rural Aberdeenshire to a retelling of the details of the famous football games and other social contacts between Scottish and German troops in the no-man’s land between the trenches of the First World War.
The event was followed by mulled wine and mince pies at Balmoral Castle, plenty of laughter and a rather treacherous journey home on icy roads. Where else, except here on Deeside, could you combine music, memorable prose, village humour, a visit to the queen’s estate and a bit of skidding on black ice on one wintry afternoon in December?