Yesterday – to borrow the immortal words of the unknown football commentator – was a day of two halves. Well … seven-eighths and one-eighth to be more precise, but the contrast was less unevenly marked.
There’s an equation that goes: Edinburgh plus professions equals language that’s utilitarian at best, anachronistic at worst. There are no high desks, wing collars or quill pens any longer but their traces linger in the Adam cornices, the panelling and picture frames of many a fine New Town building; and they make their presence felt in some of the more fustian turns of phrase – ‘upon receipt of’ for example – that are still liable to grace an accountant’s report or a lawyer’s letter.
I spent the large part of yesterday running a workshop for one of these august institutions, a professional body. I was there because they recognise that they need to bring their language into the 21st century, particularly at the point where they have to deal with their twenty-odd thousand members; although the waters are muddied by the fact that they are also the regulator for their profession, so the poor souls in the membership team lead a schizophrenic existence, wearing customer service smiles one moment and traffic warden’s frowns the next.
But the will to change was there and my small group worked hard to dust away the cobwebs and cast off the shackles of a century or more of institutionalised, functional language. ‘Members are people too,’ said one of them at one point, and I raised a silent cheer. No one was expecting this group to become poets or novelists overnight, but they recognised that there were human connections to be made, as well as a fight to be fought.
Once the workshop was over, I walked along to Charlotte Square for a restorative cup of tea at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Here in the magical tented village that springs up every August, there is not a linguistic shackle in sight. Far from being a constraint, language here is celebrated – and winged. It takes flight, it moves, inspires, tickles, infuriates, terrifies, thrills. It flows through the marquees like the life force itself and everywhere you look people are immersed in it, up to their necks in words, up to their eyes in stories, up to the crowns of their heads in ideas.
A mere half mile apart, here were two groups of people, the one effectively hemmed in by language, the other entirely liberated by it. And, not for the first time, I found myself thinking how much the world of work has to learn from the world of culture…