Winner of the 2022 SloanPrize
Jo Higgs (he/him) is a student from Edinburgh currently undertaking an MScR in English Literature, delving into the underappreciated works of Agnes Owens. He also writes things unrelated to his studies, predominantly about music (mainly to be read in Secret Meeting) and some fiction too. Recently he has had fiction published in Snack Magazine and Nutmeg Magazine, the story in the latter also being a runner-up for the Quarterly John Byrne Award.
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Jo Says: The tale of how Evan Evans scrapped wi Evan Nichols is a rewriting (or a not exactly laborious and pretty cheap translation of an English translation) of Nikolai Vasilyevich Gogol’s The Tale of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich. Written before the most recent period of war and strife (that I have no place commenting on beyond a statement of solidarity with the Ukrainian people), the idea of relocating a tale focused quite linguistically in Myrhorod to Edinburgh seemed fun. Particularly the patronymics gaining a humorous quality within a Scottish dialect, and the ability to modify the upsetting word from the direct Russo-English translation of ‘goose’ to ‘tool’ sits as natural between a couple of angry Edinburgh lads.
The tale of how Evan Evans scrapped wi Evan Nichols
Ah wiz once gid pals wi two boys both called Evan. Ah mean, ah wiz like mates wi them but it wiz the two of them really – thick as thieves and just as wily, as the demise of their friendship can attest.
Ah’ll give yous a quick note on each of these fellas separately the now and tell bout their big fuckin barney after. So there’s the first Evan, the dominant of the two. Evan Evans wiz his name, ahm no pulling yer leg. His maw wiz committed when the poor sod wiz just twelve and it’s some wonder it wiz no earlier. That is seeing as she condemned her only son to a school career of suffering wi that name. Evan Evans, christ and why’d he no change it? But aye, this fella wiz proper short n stout, likes mibbe five fit yin – an probably just as tall! Hahahachachaahahehhaehueghhluchhhhhhcchhhuucchh. Fuck sorry, the throat’s been a bastard a while now. But honest, the boy wiz about as wide as he wiz tall. Til he wiz like eight or nine, as ah’ve been told, he wiz a right twig though. Perhaps on account of the wide variety of substances ingested by the maw throughout her pregnancy.
Anyhow, his stature’s hilarity n the incredulousness of his name wiz of no effect on the mad confidence the laddy exuded. Honestly, confidence seeped out the fucker’s pores near enough as sweat did, and ye widni want to be sitting next to this boy on the bus on a warm day. And so, in spite of a name stupit enough to put off any prospective employer, the way the boy spoke wi this great conviction and self-assuredness, even when chattin the maste vapid of fucking sentiments, he’d landed himsel a gid job at a library. He wiz neither here nor there about books and wee stories themsel but he cidni find a bigger excitement than a nice and good wurd. He didni necessarily aye ken exact definitions and that, but he wiz sharp enough to glean vague shite n that fae context. Impignorate. Pauciloquent. Bloviate. That sorti shite. So aye, he wiz inti his wurds, nice n flamboyant trying to illustrate a great intelligence that wiz truthfully no too far above average. To pander to his love of wurds ah used to call him something like a grandioverbumwankerator. Ah wiz never a hunner percent sure he wiz paying enough attention to grasp whit ah wiz saying but nae difference he’d aye fucking giggle an look right proud. Enormobibliotosspotificant. So that wiz him, in a nutshell anyhow.
Then there wiz the less absurdly named Evan, the Nichols yin. He wiz simply whit the other yin wizni. The boy had to crouch down wi half the doorways about town n if he mis-stepped ye cid see him sliding down intae gutters via a thin slice in a drain. And if this sorti inconvenience so befell him, rather than Evan Evans’ likely ‘oh christ and the mother of most nefariously inflated disasters n moments of misfortune’, Nichols wid just be like ‘shite’. That’s if he wiz feeling talkative n that. His employment history boasted a variety of hings, the likes of mime, developer of some bad kind of sound-proofing foam, and tech bloke fir one of they websites that does yer spell-checking and that (he, of course, wiz specialising in simplifying needless vocabulary). After that bunch of jobs he simply found quiet work as a filler-outer of paid online surveys. Of course he only did the yins that were aye or naw answers.
Mibbe its shan to yarn on about Evans for ages n then just give a few notes on Nichols, but it’s true to their characters n aw. Equally as might be assumed fae their starkly differing ways of speech, Evans wiz indirect n flowery as he skirted around even the simplest of issues. Wi his grandiose selection of wurds he intended to tackle the most intricate aspects of the world wi tact. He’d use big, large, grand, massive, huge n aw that wi specific n ever so slightly individual meanings fir each. Nichols didni wish to engage in the world wi any such deftness. ‘Big’ covered all hings bar that which wiz medium or small. He wid never dance around a topic. He wizni so much shy or simple as so brutally sure of all hings that he cid so often explain aw his thoughts on a complex issue wi just a couple direct wurds.
They were next door neighbours wi externally identical houses. Ah cid bore ye wi aw the fancy ways Evans’ wid refer to his but ah willni. Ye’ll of course ken by now that Nichols wid just refer to a hoose. Mibbe if pressured, a hame, but no more.
It wiz just outside their houses, in their barely fence-separated gardens that this infamous dispute wiz to begin.
On account of Evans’ squatness n in turn partial immobility, he had a bit of help from a maid who wid just do general hings to make his size n shape a tad less of a hinderance. Ah canny mind the lassies’ name but yin summers day she remarked to Evans that while hanging out his tent-like shirts, she’d seen Nichols through the fence gobbling up some charcuterie n that at his wee picnic table. He wiz using some massive fucker of an old-timey meat cleaver.
Now, ah’ve never set eyes on the hing but ah’ve heard fae numerous sources that it’s a beauty of a hing. N that’s just whit Evans thought as well, even just fae the maid’s chat of it – so, he wanted it. He set aff waddling round to Nichols’ front door n slammed oan it wi his porky wee fists. Genuinely half a second later the door swung open, revealing the legs n torso of this tall fella. Nichols’ then crouched down to let his heid enter the fray. Never the man to appear demeaned by being the cock-height of another man, Evans announced ‘afternoon Nichols, ya big beautiful bastard. Ah’ve been recently informed by the wonderful lassy that helps me that through our fence she spotted within yer guild n possession is the most fine, visually magnificent n practically ergonomic chunk of immaculately sculpted metal. It is of course yer lusciously shiny meat cleaver ah refer to. Ah need it in ma possession for ah love it fae only the wurds ah’ve known to be fleetingly attributed to it.’
‘Ah, but yer a reasonable felly, Nicky boy’, Evans continued. As always when talking to Nichols, he wiz hoping that his wurds lost none of their power in the eon between leaving his gob and reaching uptae his pal’s ears. ‘It’s no a simple purchase ah’m hinking. We’ve both got mair money than auld fellas like us cid bother to whittle away on the trills n embellishments of life. Naw, ah’m proposing to ye a swap, all fair n above board of course.’
‘Ah’m no interested.’
‘What aboot fur Thelonious? Ye’ve aye loved the gorgeous wee bastard twice as much as I cid even dream of in the most heart-throbbingly adorable moments.’
Ah’ve got to explain here. Thelonious is a fucking ferret, n he’s bonkers. Ah’ve no clue how Evans’ ended up wi him but he used to take him everywhere despite evidently despising the rabid little prick. Even took him to this very pub quite a few times. Ran aboot, the owners didnae like it yin bit but there wiz nae finer patrons than the master of Thelonious (that’s Evans) n Thelonious’ biggest fan (that’s Nichols).
‘Dinnae want to own him’ wiz Nichols’ response.
‘Ach. C’mon ye silly bastard. Yer slinky wee heart grows as thick n meaty as ma very own thighs upon the slightest fleeting sensation of the wee prick being even close to yer vicinity. Geez the artisanal cleaver!’.
‘Awright. Ye drive a considerable bargain ma deciduous pal of many wondrous years’, Evans continued. Ah promise ye the boy genuinely spoke like that anaw.
‘Fucking whalloper’, Nichols laughed.
‘Oi, shut it ye lanky ignoramus’, giggled Evans, his whole body rippling in joyous unity. ‘How bouts ah give ye Thelonious n then the next ten breakfasts we go oot fur, they’re oan me? Ye canny refuse free porridge. Ye lap it up lit barr ginger up a straw.’
‘Naw. Ah’m gid, ye dingle.’
‘Whit? Yer fucking barmy ye incredulous twat’, Evans chuckled back again wi growing frustration, of course, bubbling beneath the near-unbreakable shared humour of himself n his stick-like pal.
‘Yer a right tool’, Nichols laughed but wi a bitty a hidden grimace cos his back wiz aching fae crouching down so long.
This wiz the big turning point in the friendship of these auld pals. Near lifelong uptae this seemingly inconsequential moment, not the first of its kind: walking sticks, weather cocks, ornate rocking chairs. Whit yin hud, the other wanted. Historically though, peace wiz scarcely breached.
There’d been a few seconds silence which wiz aye eerie wi a windbag like Evans aboot. Then that windbag went n fucking burst, whistling madly through split seams, but showing no sign of deflation.
‘Tool!’ he blasted. ‘Yer calling yer best pal a fucking tool. Ah’ve never been so insulted.’
Nichols, used to Evans’ sort of theatricality, assumed this wiz nae mair than some extreme seeming patter. So he retorted, ‘aye. Yer a fucking tool!’.
As ah’ve been told by Nichols since the incident, at hearing this Evans’ face turned a colour beyond describable. Of course, knowing Nichols’ limited vocabulary, it probably cid’ve been described as crimson or puce or anything mair delicate than just red. Nonetheless, Evans changed his pallor n exploded further intae a ridiculous fury.
‘The fuck are ye oan aboot ye imbecile?! Ye fucking dimwit. If ye had even an iota of the brain functionality of even the likes of Thelonious ye’d never begin to consider such ghastly insults to be assigned to yer auld pal, Evan Evans. Ye prick. Ye bastard. The world shall hear of yer linguistic atrocities n how they’re harshly – nae, tragically, affecting ma weak constitution. Gangly fucking cunt. Fuck.’
Wi that, the most inseparable duo of all time (bar perhaps conjoined twins, or at least the majority of them), were broken apart by a silly wurd: in thi end wiz thi wurd.
Nichols may huv been a quiet n empathetic fella fur the most part but he cid be damn stubborn. N so he wid not admit his misstep, nor apologise. Ah’m on neither side for ah hink it’s a pathetic fallout fae both of them. That said, ah do just miss tanning pints in this booth wi the two of them whilst Thelonious scrambled up n over each of us n causing havoc amongst unknowing punters. So aye, ah deh ken nor care who wiz at fault but ah’d aye wished they’d kiss n make up. Ach well.
As an attempt at remaining neutral ah disengaged fae the whole barney, try to no let yin Evan tell me a hing the other had done or said since. For a decent wee while ah kept blissfully out the loop, which wizni tricky keeping in mind that Evans takes so long to say anything that ah cid easily cut him aff afore the crux of his point wiz met, and Nichols stooped further intae his charmingly brisk articulacy, rarely putting himsel further out of breath than affected by a grunt or two.
After a while, work whipped me aff out of town for most of five year, n the drama of the intervening years only breached my ears upon a chance encounter wi a mutual acquaintance. She telt me excitedly of an absurd set of affairs that ah can only mind sparing details of:
There wiz a huge toolshed built, fae scratch in yin garden going so upwards n leaning that it overhung the other yin. Course this wiz Nichols making a gid pun at the expense of big auld Evan Evans n his surprising offence at offhandedly being called a tool. Ah’m no sayin it wiz smart nor wiz it kind but it wiz certainly funny: Nichols wiz never the type to require a hammer or a screwdriver – in fact the only tools that wid ever make a home in that shed were the yins bought to build the hing.
There wiz some court case. Evans screaming inflated shite at Nichols, Nichols whispering short n sharp offences at Evans – wiz quite a town affair as ah’m informed but the judge being too sensible for the shenanigans, chucked the whole thing out wi haste.
There wiz a petition or a letter. Some bitty of paper scrap wi legal significance. Thelonious scranned that, the wee prick. Supposedly leapt n took it out of some important law persons grasp and ingested it quick, digested it slow n egested it aww liquidy a few days after.
This isni the end of Evan Evans and Evan Nichols’ scrap, but it’s the latest. Next time ah’m up that part ah think ah might try a peace conference but til then its aw just fucking funny to me.
A nice meat cleaver, a funny wee ferret, a promise of porridge n a meaningless insult among many. Seems that’ll crack any solid friendship then eh?
Statement on dialect
Classically, writing about my use of Edinburgh dialect in a story, here I am, reverting to near-ish enough standard English. It’s an ironic short-coming we’ve all seen over and over again, christ, even James Kelman – a 20th and 21st century paragon of writing in the voice you speak with – wrote much of his non-fiction not too dissimilarly to if he was a member of the royal family (or any group with similarly pristine tongues) who’d taken a knock to the head and started spouting Socialist Libertarian doctrine.
That’s not the point anyway. The tale of how Evan Evans scrapped wi Evan Nichols is a rewriting (or a not exactly laborious and pretty cheap translation of an English translation) of Nikolai Vasilyevich Gogol’s The Tale of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich. Written before the most recent period of war and strife (that I have no place commenting on beyond a statement of solidarity with the Ukrainian people), the idea of relocating a tale focused quite linguistically in Myrhorod to Edinburgh seemed fun. Particularly the patronymics gaining a humorous quality within a Scottish dialect, and the ability to modify the upsetting word from the direct Russo-English translation of ‘goose’ to ‘tool’ sits as natural between a couple of angry Edinburgh lads.
The actual language itself, as apart from Gogol’s part, is Edinburgh dialect in the way I understand it. Even within Edinburgh there are plenty of different varieties, but as someone who went to a good school in a posh area but found myself in social circles with pals with far stronger accents than my school friends, I found myself torn by tongue. You pick up on the language of those around you, and I’ve lived my whole life in Edinburgh with a Scottish accent, but for a long time it faded. Tape recordings of myself as a child display an accent that was slowly anglicised throughout school, leaving me with a Scottish accent stronger than most at my school, but one that was clearly dampened. In different circles my accent dithers in different ways but I’ve never fully recaught it in a natural way – I’m reconciled to that now. I’ll never sound like my favourite Arab Strap records.
My dialect is inconsistent. There’s the occasional inconsistency of ‘hing’ or ‘thing’ (I can’t remember, stuff like that) in the story, demonstrating that – if you grow up with a tongue that’s pulled two ways, it’s going to elastically ping back and forth across each singular sentence, and fighting that is just refusing the truth.
What I can do, however, as a marker of identity and solidarity, is phoneticise the ‘I’s to ‘Ah’s, because ah recognise that in my accent; cut out the ‘th’s in ‘with’, ah’m speaking too fast to bother wi that; and include the little drabs of slang that infiltrate my language without making me feel like I’m objectifying a language and culture that I lost through schooling cos that aye makes me feel a wee bit more fucking Scottish anaw.
28th April 2022 — 1:20 am
A gret retelling. Now I’ll have to scrape up the original Russian tale! Oh, by the way, even though I’m a Yank I’m stealing some of the vocabulary here to use in my daily social intercourse. Thanks
18th February 2023 — 12:19 pm
What a brilliant bit of transliteration! A friend of mine, specialising in medieval period weapons, makes specially ordered knives & swords for rich sods all over the planet…..I bet you he’s been in a few real-life arguments like that!!! MacDonald Armouries, recently moved his forge from Edinburgh, if it’s worth interviewing him about that. Very likely to be an argument in thon Edinburgh lingo.
30th April 2023 — 8:14 am
Brilliant retelling, and your demonstration of your own wandering dialect beautifully executed in the story and post script. I enjoyed reading the story and your mastery of language. A right guid read.