Reflection on George Borrow
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Oulton Broad. Photo copyright Trevor Salmon

So, just what is so interesting about George Borrow?

Well, as far as the Festival of Norfolk inspired Drama is concerned, it's his Norfolk-ness. Although he was posted all around the country as his father shifted from barracks to barracks, the writer spent his most formative years at Norwich Grammar and finished up just over the border by Oulton Broad.

There are all kinds of stories of Borrow's escapades during his Norfolk youth. Some see him running away with the Gypsies on Mousehold Heath and others reveal him playing truant with James Martineau with the intention of building sandhills on the coast, there to dwell...

It's odd, considering the writer's interest in language, that he never seems to have written down the Norfolk dialect as others did: his contemporary, Mary Mann, for one. On the other hand, he is still considered to be one of the most accurate scribes of the Romany tongue. His Zincali, a book chronicling the Spanish Gypsies, is thought to have inspired Bizet's Carmen.

But perhaps the feature of his writing which is most interesting for us at Spin-Off, is its affinity with our local oral storytelling. Reading his books is strongly reminiscent of sitting down in the corner of a pub to listen to a knowledgeable type reel off his life history and many of his tales are even set in taverns.

When listening to a Norfolk bor mardle on, you would never expect what he said to be 'True', he knows that the best way to entertain you is to make a kind of fiction of himself. And this was also Borrow's trick.

As a matter of fact, I think this is THE most interesting thing about this eccentric writer. Generally speaking, the clever men think that he was a writer who could not write. A literary cul de sac who does not deserve to be republished, but I really don't agree. Borrow's talent was for spoken words. And this is why putting him on radio makes so much sense. When he first started reading as a child, written words were nothing more to him than a meaningless shape on a page, it was only when they revealed a fabulous story that they became recogniseable. His sentences as he writes are like building blocks in some grand, gothic design. Each one of them vital to the larger, sometimes labyrinthine form of his tale, but not diverting in their own right. Language as written display wasn't much use to him. Linguistic play knocked the sense out of things as far as he was concerned.

People do call Borrow eccentric, and it's a common Norfolk trait. In a way, the word does describe him. Because here was a searcher: a man who was indeed, 'knocked off centre'. He explains that he cannot recognise himself in mirrors, and found himself in some ways unknowable. He was always searching for somebody or something to be and never quite finding it. Having taken his autobiography Lavengro, to pieces, as I created Mirrors, it is my view that he really hoped his public might puzzle their way to an understanding of his personality which in actual fact he never undestood himself. For a writer, any act of writing is an act of love. It is reaching out your hand to the reader in real friendship. And it must have been devastating when the public turned against Lavengro and its sequel, Romany Rye. Not only were they rejecting his work, but they were also leaving him lost and somehow faceless in his own dream labyrinth of a world.

Still, anybody who bequeaths their name to the English language for posterity can't be doing all that badly. Perhaps we don't have to feel too sorry for him in retrospect. And although it is indisputable that more people understand the word 'Byronic' than know the meaning of 'Borrovian', it is still a by-word amongst many for quixotic wanderings and adventure.

Let's hope that by airing his words in the Festival of Norfolk inspired Drama we can shine a new spotlight on his work.


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