According to 19th century Sussex dialect slang, a bumblebee is a Dumbledore, don’t tell JK Rowling this…
I’ve always found dialects, fascinating. Possibly because I hail from Gods own county, a place rich with a hundred dialects slowly been eroded by times endless march to urbanise us all into some watered down singular tongue. Yorkshire dialects are under siege from TV Movies and BBC English on the radio, and it’s fighting a losing battle in a pattern repeated everywhere. In a couple of generations, no one will know what ‘put wood int oil’ or ‘gan ta fot tov ow stairs’ means. Which is a sad state of affairs, but only to be expected. Dialects are however a rich and wonderful tool for a writer. When done well, it adds flavour and authenticity to dialogue, even if you don’t come from that region or for that matter know much about the dialect. For example, I personally probably couldn’t pick out a Sussex accent from a police line up of southern accents. Just as I suspect most residents of Sussex could not pick out the difference between a Barnsley accent and a Harrogate accent. Sussex however certainly has its own accent, its own dialect and ‘somewhen’ in the past was doubtless a little more insular than it is today with far fewer incomers from ‘Lunnon’ and ‘the Sheeres’, and while it doubtless still exists in some corners of Sussex now, back in the 19th century it was a rich and vibrant language all of its own, much like the dialects of my own native Yorkshire.
Why all this talk of dialect and Sussex in particular? Well, it’s because I recently read the wonderfully rich and vibrant novella ‘Rottingdean Rhyme’ by Nils Nisse Visser, an adopted son of Sussex (originally from Rotterdam) and prolific writer in a span of genre’s which is frankly intimidating. Nils own brand of steampunk, set in an alternative Sussex in the 19th century, a time of steam power, airships and this being the Sussex coast, a smuggler or two. A prequel to his Time Flight Chronicles featuring a young Alice Kittyhawk (not read Amster Damned, the first of these yet but it is on my to read list, indeed more so than ever after Rottingdean Rhyme)
Everyone loves a tale of smugglers, how can you not, romanticized though they undoubtedly are much like pirates or highwaymen, they are tales of the downtrodden, the forgotten and the passed over, fighting back against ‘the man’. Smugglers, in particular, hold a certain place of honour in the folk-law of many a coastal community. Such folk-tales are often very similar, as are the narrative tales descended from them. What sets Nils tale of Sussex Steampunk Smugglers apart is the depth and richness of the dialogue. With the Sussex natives adding there own glorious vogues to every sentence they distil. It gives authenticity and real feeling to the tale, pulling the reader ever closer to hear each word.
The tale is of a ‘Sheeres-man’ from ‘Lunnon’ who moves to the small Sussex fishing port of Rottingdean thanks to a cottage he inherits from an uncle he never really knew. A stranger in a strange land he is befriended by the village children who have a kingdom of their own at the end of his garden. The interplay between the characters is joyous and brilliantly realised. As with the rest of the tale, as the man from ‘Lunnon’ gets slowly drawn into the local world of the smugglers, striving to feed their families and adapting their way of life to a new world of airships and steam power.
As I say, its a tale that knows its roots, a smugglers tale that follows familiar patterns and an ending you would probably half suspect from the outset. But the joy is in the journey, the beauty of the language, the splendiferously realised characters. It may end, as perhaps it was always going to, but then it could not end another way and feel so right, and it is a journey more than worth taking to get there.
So go take a journey down to a 19th century Sussex that never was, and much joy it will bring you I am sure…