March 15, 2009
Oxford Literary Festival: Ian McEwan on language and inheritance
I don't write like my mother, but for many years I spoke like her, and her particular, timorous relationship with language has shaped my own. There are people who move confidently within their own horizons of speech; whether it is cockney, estuary, RP or valley girl, they stride with the unselfconscious ease of a landowner on his own turf. My mother, Rose, was never like that. She never owned the language she spoke. Her displacement within the intricacies of English class, and the uncertainty that went with it, taught her to regard language as something that might go off in her face, like a letter bomb. A word bomb. I've inherited her wariness, or more accurately, I learnt it as a child. I used to think I would have to spend a lifetime shaking it off. Now I know that's impossible, and unnecessary, and that you have to work with what you've got.
When I was 11, I was sent from north Africa, where my father, David, was stationed, to attend school in Suffolk. By any standards, Woolverstone Hall was a curious place, a rather successful experiment by a left-wing local authority in old-fashioned embourgoisement. It had the trappings of a public school - Adam-style country house, huge grounds, rugby pitches, a genially philistine headmaster - and so on. But this ethos was rather stylishly undermined by the intake of mostly grammar-school level, working-class lads from central London. There were some army brats like me (their fathers all commissioned from the ranks) as well as a tiny smattering of boys from bohemian middle-class backgrounds.
During my early teens, as my education progressed, I was purged of my mother's more obvious traits, usually by a kind of literary osmosis - when I was 14 I was an entranced reader of the handful of novels Iris Murdoch had published. I was also reading Graham Greene. Slowly, nothink, somethink, cestificate, skelington, chimley all went, as well as the double negatives and mismatched plurals.