The Ballad of John Crawford

Following the success of our last game of Dialect the previous month and once again in a one-week hiatus of our usual Friday Dungeons & Dragons game, I hosted a second remote game of this strange “soft” RPG with linguistics and improv drama elements.

Thieves’ Cant

Our backdrop to this story was Portsmouth in 1834, where we were part of a group – the Gunwharf Ants – who worked as stevedores and made our living (on top of the abysmal wages for manual handling) through the criminal pursuit of “skimming a little off the top” of the bulk-break cargo we moved between ships and onto and off the canal. These stolen goods would be hidden in the basement of nearby pub The Duke of Wellington until they could be safely fenced, and this often-lucrative enterprise made us the envy of many of the docklands’ other criminal gangs.

I played Katie – “Kegs” to her friends – the proprietor of the Duke (since her husband’s death) and matriarch of the group. I was joined by Nuek (Alec), a Scandinavian friend with a wealth of criminal experience, John “Tuck” Crawford (Matt), adoptee of the gang and our aspiring quartermaster, and “Yellow” Mathias Hammond (Simon), a navy deserter who consistently delivers better than he expects to.

Thieves' Cant tableau at the end of a game of Dialect, with cards strewn around the table.
Our second tableau was somehow more-chaotic than the first, even after I accidentally removed several cards before taking this picture!

While each of us had our stories and some beautiful and hilarious moments, I felt that we all quickly converged on the idea that the principal storyline in our isolation was that of young Tuck. The first act was dominated by his efforts to proof himself to the gang, and – with a little snuff – shake off his reputation as the “kid” of the group and gain acceptance amongst his peers. His chance to prove himself with a caper aboard the Queen Anne went proper merry though after she turned up tin-ful and he found himself kept in a second-place position for years longer. Tuck – and Yellow – got proofed eventually, but the extra time spent living hand-to-mouth might have been what first planted the seed of charity in the young man’s head, and kept most of his numbers out of his pocket and into those of the families he supported in the St. Stevens area.

The second act turned political, as Spiky Dave, leader of the competing gang The Barbados Boys, based over Gosport way, offered a truce between the two rivals in exchange for sharing the manpower – and profits – of a big job against a ship from South Africa… with a case of diamonds aboard. Disagreements over the deal undermined Kegs’ authority over the Ants, but despite their March it went ahead anyway and the job was a success. Except… Spiky Dave kept more than his share of the loot, and agreed to share what was promised only in exchange for the surrender of the Ants and their territory to his gang’s rulership.

We returned to interpersonal drama in the third act as Katie – tired of the gang wars and feeling her age – took perhaps more than her fair share of the barrel (the gang’s shared social care fund) and bought herself clearance to leave aboard a ship to a beachside retirement in Jamaica. She gave up her stake in the future of the gang and shrugged off their challenges in exchange for a quiet life, leaving Nuek as the senior remaining leader of the group… but Tuck the owner of the Duke of Wellington. The gang split into those that integrated with their rivals and those that went their separate ways… and their curious pidgin dissolved with them. Well, except for a few terms which hung on in dockside gang chatter, screeched amongst the gulls of Portsmouth without knowing their significance, for years to come.

Crop from Fine View of 1798 The Gunwharf Portsmouth Dockyard by E G Burrows

Playing Out

Despite being fundamentally the same game and a similar setting to when we played The Outpost the previous month, this game felt very different. Dialect is versatile enough that it can be used to write… adventures, coming-of-age tales, rags-to-riches stories, a comedies, horror, romance… and unless the tone is explicitly set out at the start then it’ll (hopefully) settle somewhere mutually-acceptable to all of the players. But with a new game, new setting, and new players, it’s inevitable that a different kind of story will be told.

But more than that, the backdrop itself impacted on the tale we wove. On Mars, we were physically isolated from the rest of humankind and living in an environment in which the necessities of a new lifestyle and society necessitates new language. But the isolation of criminal gangs in Portsmouth docklands in the late Georgian era is a very different kind: it’s a partial isolation, imposed (where it is) by its members and to a lesser extent by the society around them. Which meant that while their language was still a defining aspect of their isolation, it also felt more-artificial; deliberately so, because those who developed it did so specifically in order to communicate surreptitiously… and, we discovered, to encode their group’s identity into their pidgin.

Prison Hulks in Portsmouth Harbour by Ambrose-Louis Garneray

While our first game of Dialect felt like the language lead the story, this second game felt more like the language and the story co-evolved but were mostly unrelated. That’s not necessarily a problem, and I think we all had fun, but it wasn’t what we expected. I’m glad this wasn’t our first experience of Dialect, because if it were I think it might have tainted our understanding of what the game can be.

As with The Outpost, we found that some of the concepts we came up with didn’t see much use: on Mars, the concept of fibs was rooted in a history of of how our medical records were linked to one another (for e.g. transplant compatibility), but aside from our shared understanding of the background of the word this storyline didn’t really come up. Similarly, in Thieves Cant’ we developed a background about the (vegan!) roots of our gang’s ethics, but it barely got used as more than conversational flavour. In both cases I’ve wondered, after the fact, whether a “flashback” scene framed from one of our prompts might have helped solidify the concept. But I’m also not sure whether or not such a thing would be necessary. We seemed to collectively latch onto a story hook – this time around, centred around Matt’s character John Crawford’s life and our influences on it – and it played out fine.

And hey; nobody died before the epilogue, this time!

I’m looking forward to another game next time we’re on a D&D break, or perhaps some other time.

The British-Irish Dialect Quiz

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

What is your name for the playground game in which one child chases the rest and anyone who is touched becomes the pursuer?

Pretty accurate for me, although my answers to some of the questions – representing the diversity of places around Great Britain that I’ve lived and some of the words I’ve picked up along the way – clearly threw it off from time to time!

The Worst Joke I Ever Heard

I’d like to share with you the worst joke that I ever heard. Those of you who’ve heard me tell jokes before might think that you’ve already suffered through the worst joke I ever heard, but you honestly haven’t. The worst joke I ever heard was simply too awful to share. But maybe now is the time.

Children sweeping at Holme Slack playground.
The playground of Holme Slack Primary School, and the very wall that I was probably sitting on when I first heard this “joke”.

To understand the joke, though, you must first understand where I grew up. For most of my school years, I lived in Preston, in the North-West of England. After first starting school in Scotland, and having been brought up by parents who’d grown up in the North-East, I quickly found that there were a plethora of local dialect differences and regional slang terms that I needed to get to grips with in order to fit into my new environment. Pants, pumps, toffee, and bap, among others, had a different meaning here, along with entirely new words like belm (an insult), gizzit (a contraction of “give it [to me]”), pegging it (running away, perhaps related to “legging it”?), and kegs (trousers). The playground game of “tag” was called “tig”. “Nosh” switched from being a noun to a verb. And when you wanted somebody to stop doing something, you’d invariably use the imperative “pack it in!”

And it’s that last one that spawned the worst joke I ever heard. Try, if you can, to imagine the words “pack it in”, spoken quickly, in a broad Lancashire accent, by a young child. And then appreciate this exchange, which was disturbingly common in my primary school:

Child 1: Pack it in!

Child 2: Pakis don’t come in tins. They come from India.

In case it’s too subtle for you, the “joke” stems from the phonetic similarity, especially in the dialect in question, between the phrase “pack it in” and the phrase “paki tin”.

An opened food tin.
Unless the recent horsemeat scandal investigation takes a dramatic and unexpected twist, we can be pretty sure that this item contains no people from Pakistan.

In case you need to ask why this is the worst joke I ever heard, allow me to explain in detail everything that’s wrong with it.

It’s needlessly racist

Now I don’t believe that race is necessarily above humour – and the same goes for gender, sexuality, religion, politics, etc. But there’s difference between using a racial slur to no benefit (think: any joke containing the word “nigger” or “polak”), and jokes which make use of race. Here’s one of my favourite jokes involving race:

The Pope goes on a tour of South Africa, and he’s travelling in his Popemobile alongside a large river when he catches sight of a black man in the river. The man is struggling and screaming as he tries in vain to fight off a huge crocodile. Suddenly, the Pope sees two white men leap into the water, drag the man and the crocodile to land, and beat the crocodile to death with sticks, saving the black man’s life.

The Pope, impressed, goes over to where the two men are standing. “That was the most wonderful thing to do,” his holiness says. “You put yourselves at risk to kill the crocodile and save the life of your fellow man. I can see that it is men like you who will rebuild this country as an example to the world of true racial harmony.”

The Pope goes on his way. “Who was that?” asks one of the white men.

The other replies: “That was the Pope. He is in direct communication with God. He knows everything.”

“Maybe,” says the first, “But he knows fuck all about crocodile fishing!”

The butt of this joke is not race, but racists. In this example, the joke does not condone the actions of the ‘crocodile fishers’: in fact, it contrasts them (through the Pope’s mistake in understanding) to the opposite state of racial harmony. It does not work to reinforce stereotypes. Oh, and it’s funny: that’s always a benefit in a joke. Contrast to jokes about negative racial sterotypes or using offensive terms for no value other than for the words themselves: these types of jokes can serve to reinforce the position of actual racists who see their use (and acceptance) as reinforcement for their position, and – if you enjoy them – it’s worth asking yourself what that says about you, or might be seen to say about you.

"Bit it's asbestos it gets!" Click for full comic.
Among its other faults, the worst joke I ever heard relies upon an incredibly weak pun. It even makes this comic, by Completely Serious Comics, look good. [click for full comic]

It’s an incredibly weak pun

What would “paki tin” even mean, if that were what the first child had meant? It’s not as if we say “beans tin” or “soup tin” or “peas tin”. Surely, if this piece of wordplay were to make any sense whatsoever, it would have to be based on the phrase “tin of pakis”, which I’m pretty sure nobody has ever said before, ever.

To illustrate, let me have a go at making a pun-based joke without the requirement that the pun actually make sense:

Knock knock.

Who’s there?

Yoodough.

Yoodough who?

Youdough not understand how jokes are supposed to work, do you?

You see? Not funny (except perhaps in the most dadaist of humour circles). It’s not funny because Yoodough isn’t actually a name. The format of the joke is ruined by balancing a pun against a phrase that just doesn’t exist. Let’s try again, but this time actually make the pun make sense (note that it’s still a knock knock joke, and therefore it probably still isn’t funny, except in an academic way):

Knock knock

Who’s there?

Yuri.

Yuri who?

Yuri-ly expect me to laugh at this, do you?

It’s stupidly inaccurate

Let’s just stop and take a look at that punchline again, shall we: “Pakis… come from India.” Even ignoring everything else that’s wrong with this joke, this is simply… wrong! Now that’s not to say that jokes always have to reflect reality. Here’s a classic joke that doesn’t:

Lion woke up one morning with an overbearing desire to remind his fellow creatures that he was king of the jungle. So he marched over to a monkey and roared: “Who is the mightiest animal in the jungle?”

“You are, Master,” said the monkey, quivering.

Then the lion came across a wildebeest.

“Who is the mightiest animal in the jungle?” roared the lion.

“You are, Master,” answered the wildebeest, shaking with fear.

Next the lion met an elephant.

“Who is the mightiest animal in the jungle?” roared the lion.

The elephant grabbed the lion with his trunk, slammed him repeatedly against a tree, dropped him like a stone and ambled off.

“All right,” shouted the lion. “There’s no need to turn nasty just because you don’t know the answer.”

Aside from the suspension of disbelief required for the dialogues to function at all – none of these animals are known to be able to talk! – there’s an underlying issue that lions don’t live in jungles. But who cares! That’s not the point of the joke.

A jungle containing no lions.
Count the lions in this picture. If you found no lions, then you counted correctly. If you got any other number, try again.

In the case of the “paki” joke, the problem could easily be corrected by saying “…they come from Pakistan.” It’d still probably be the worst joke I ever heard, but at least it’d be trying to improve itself. I remember being about 8 or 9 and explaining this to a classmate, but he wasn’t convinced. As I remember it, he called me a belm and left it at that.

So that’s the worst joke I ever heard. And now you’ve heard it, you can rest assured that every joke you hear from me – no matter how corny, obscure, long-winded or pun-laden – will at least be better than that one.

Here’s one last joke, for now:

A woman gets on a bus with her baby. “Ugh!” says the bus driver, “That’s got to be the ugliest baby I’ve ever seen!”

The woman walks to the rear of the bus and sits down, fuming and close to tears. She says to a man next to her: “The driver just insulted me! I’m so upset!”

“You go up there and tell him off,” the man replies, “Go on, I’ll hold your monkey for you.”

Northern Radio

As I mentioned earlier, I spent some of the period between Christmas and New Year in Preston. And there, while taking a shower at my mother’s house, I had a strange experience.

My mother's shower is one of the new style of high-tech ones, with a dozen different washing functions as well as a built in light and radio. I gather that there are ones with built in phones, now, too.

One of the funky features of my mother’s shower cubicle is that it includes a fully working FM radio. Its controls are pretty limited and there’s no user interface to provide feedback about what frequency you’re tuned to already, so it’s hard to deliberately tune in to a specific station. Instead, the house policy seems to be that if you don’t like what you’re listening to, you press the “cycle to the next station” button until you hear something you like.

Listening to music is about the third or second most-enjoyable thing that one can possibly do in a shower, in my experience, so I gave it a go. Local station Radio Wave came on, and they were playing some fun tunes, so I sang along as I washed myself under the hot steamy “drench” setting on the shower.

Radio Wave (96.5FM), Blackpool, Lancashire

At the end of a couple of songs, there were some commercials and the show’s presenter shared a few words. And it occurred to me quite how very Northern he sounded.

Living and working in Oxford, I don’t in my day to day life come across people with that broad lanky dialect. Growing up in Preston, and going to school there, I came across it on a daily basis, but didn’t notice it. Now, in its absence, it’s starkly noticable, with its traditional short gutteral “t” instead of “the”, use of the archaic second-person “tha” (related to “thou”), and the ever-present pronunciation of words like “right” and “light” as “reet” and “leet”, and “cold” and “old” as “cowd” and “owd”.

It’s unfamiliar, but still “homely”. Like that smell that reminds you of where you grew up, this sound to my ears filled me with a strange nostalgia.

It’s funny, because I’m sure I carry a little bit of that accent with me. To the folks in my life around Oxford way, I perhaps sound as foreign as those people in Preston sound to me, now. I spoke on the phone the other week to a couple of people I used to hang out with, back in the day, and my immediate thought was that they’d become more Lanky than I remembered – as if they’d somehow overdosed on butter pie and barm cakes in the years since I last saw them.

But that’s clearly not the case: it’s not their voices that have changed, but my ears. Untouched by the North-Western tongue for so long, it sounds very strange to me now to hear it over the phone, on the radio, or even in person.

It’s a strange side-effect of moving around the country. I wonder what it’s like for my American friends, who have an even bigger gap (both geographically and linguistically) between their homes in the UK and their families in the US, to “phone home”.