An American in Scotland

I’ve been to the UK several times. I saw Bath and Stonehenge. I got drunk in Canterbury and pissed on a wall. I took the Night Scotsman from King’s Cross to Edinburgh where I had a delicious haggis in the brick-lined basement of a very old building. And on one trip I was just down the street from an IRA bomb in — guess where — Manchester.

I remember ordering Coke in a London pub on my first visit, not because I drink Coke so much as it was either that or water. (America, on the other hand, land of the teetotaler, has mastered the art of the soft drink.)

I gave my order and the guy behind the counter said “Oish?”

“What?” I asked, scowling.

“Oish?” he said. “Oish, oish.”

There was a long pause as my brain tried to parse what seemed a foreign language. I tried to think of every English word that made sense in context. I could tell he was about to throw up his hands and give up.

“Oh, ice. Yes, please.”

I was 16. Part of my confusion was that you shouldn’t have to be asked if you want ice in your cola. It should just come that way, just like the waiter at a nice restaurant doesn’t ask you if you want your champagne chilled. He just does it. Only clods and alcoholics drink cola neat. (Even the frickin’ Japanese know better.)

I returned to the UK in my 20s with some college friends, and one night we found ourselves invited by some young ladies to a bar in Manchester. This was the night before the bomb. The place was packed, and I had to push through a couple patrons to get close enough to order.

‘I’m in Britain,’ I thought. ‘I should have something British.’

“Scotch,” I said proudly.

Dude looked like he wanted to punch my lights out. Big guy. Bald head. Lots of muscles. Just stood there.

I waited, confused. Should I ask for oish?

Finally, in a thick brogue, he said “This is an Irish bar.”

I hadn’t noticed. My first thought: What fucking difference does it make? I raised my hands. “Whiskey of any kind.”

He gave me Jack Daniels. They had Beam, too. And I saw a bottle of Crown Royal on the shelf. So it wasn’t that they only served Irish whiskey. It was that they specifically DIDN’T serve Scotch. And remember, this bar was in Manchester, which is neither Ireland nor Scotland. Dafuq?

It’s like going to a New England public house in Los Angeles and being refused Kentucky bourbon because it’s from the South. Or a bar in the swanky West End of Dallas not serving tequila because it’s Mexican. I do believe they’d go out of business. The word ‘parochial’ comes to mind.

Anyway, I’m reading Ian Rankin’s “Black & Blue,” which is the fourth or fifth Inspector Rebus novel or something like that, but it’s the one that broke him out and made him a mega-star — at least in the UK. He’s a very good writer, so much so that I’m in despair at times and have to stop reading. But I can see why he hasn’t hit the same success across the Atlantic. For one, his plots are a bit like a Highland moor. Pages go by and nothing much seems to change. But more than that, it’s the language.

It’s my sense that English-speaking people in countries that aren’t America are generally familiar with American slang through the music (especially hip hop) and movies we export. My Japanese girlfriend, for example, knows way more about US pop stars and fashion models than I ever will. But the reverse is only weakly true. Your average American knows that when a cheeky Brit saunters up to the bar orders a bloody pint, he’s not asking for a butcher’s measuring cup. But that’s about it. And let’s face it. Some of you bastages are unfuckingdecipherable. My dear saintly mother, for example, loves her some Sherlock, but she watches it with the closed captions on.

Rankin’s books aren’t British. They’re Scottish. Specifically. They’re loaded with Scottish slang, a few old Scotch words, occasional historical and cultural references, and product names (mostly food) I don’t recognize. It makes his characters seem real — that IS how people actually talk — but it definitely keeps them at arm’s length from me. I feel very much like a tourist when I read. This isn’t my country. These aren’t my people.

That isn’t a criticism. Good literature is local. Real. It’s just that I can see why he hasn’t broken out here in the same way. It’s not meant for me. A good lesson in writing to your audience.

Here. Have some Nieves.