Rotten English

Those who love the English language will also love its throbbing formulations in my old friend Dohra Ahmad’s new anthology Rotten English. From Ian McMillan’s review in the London Times:


English can be broken, and pummelled and pulled and stretched and tickled and that’s part of the fun of it – but it can never be shattered.

This new anthology parades battalions of voices in celebration of, in the late Nigerian activist and writer Ken Saro-Wiwa’s resonant phrase, “Rotten English”.

There are poems, stories, extracts and essays that confirm the sheer glorious multitude of sounds and shapes that English is and can be – from familiar names such as Linton Kwesi Johnson to writers I hadn’t come across before, such as Zora Neale Hurston, who began writing stories in Florida in the 1920s and whose piece Story in Harlem Slang is a joyful romp through an English that doesn’t seem to need an excuse to dance: “The girl drew abreast of them, reeling and rocking her hips. ‘I’d walk clear to Diddy-Wah-Diddy to get a chance to speak to a pretty lil’ ground-angel like that’ Jelly went on. ’Aw, man, you ain’t willing to go very far. Me, I’d go to Ginny-Gall, where they eat cow-rump, skin and all.”

Hurston provides a helpful glossary to finesse the detail: Diddy-Wah-Diddy, like Ginny Gall, is a suburb of hell. Ah yes, I’ve been there. They all speak RP.

There is a wider public dimension to all this, as James Baldwin notes: “It goes without saying, then, that language is also a political instrument, means and proof of power. It is the most vivid and crucial key to identity: it reveals the private identity and connects one with, or divorces one from, the larger public or communal identity.”

An extract can be found here.