The reason. Hilary and I have been on an author tour for Oxford University Press for the book Wordsmiths and Warriors: the English-Language Tourist's Guide to Britain, which came out at the end of September (in the UK - the beginning of December in the USA). In fact we're in the middle of it right now. But we have a few days off before the next leg. So: time for a post.
Why 'exceptional'? Because authors' tours are very rare these days. In fact it's been a decade since my last one, and - the general economy and the costs of publishing being the way they are these days - I thought they were a thing of the past. But OUP have breathed new life into the genre. We've been to about ten places so far and another ten or so to go, before things wind down before Christmas. Location details are on the website. The venues have been a mixture of bookshops and literary festivals, and audience numbers have varied enormously, from dozens to hundreds, but we've been delighted at the response to the book. Indeed, OUP have had to reprint after only a month.
And what have we learned from the tour? Well, in the book I make the point that the English language is always on your doorstep - in the sense that, within thirty or so miles of wherever you live in Britain, something important happened to influence the development or study of the language - and most people who live there have no idea. They know the place, of course, but they aren't aware of its linguistic significance. No reason why they should, necessarily, as hardly any of the places we visited explicitly recognize the presence of the linguistic event, in the form of a monument, a sign, a blue plaque, or whatever. There are occasional exceptions, of course - our favourite is the dialect writers' memorial in Rochdale, Lancashire - but in most places you'd never know that anything linguistic happened. That's why we made the journey in the first place, of course: to bring the landscape element to the fore. Topographical linguistics, if you like.
At one of these bookshop talks I was asked about the difference between the new book and a previous linguistic travelogue, By Hook or by Crook. Yes, there's a big difference. The subtitle of the earlier book (in the UK edition) was 'a journey in search of English'. In other words, I went around looking for interesting points to do with the language itself - accents, dialects, etymologies, or whatever, and did so in a very random way. When I began a chapter, I often didn't know where it would end, as a new train of linguistic associations would push the writing in unexpected directions. But for Wordsmiths, the choice of subject was dictated by the history, and the sequence by the chronology, and the focus was on the places and people who shaped the language rather than on the language itself. There's far more biography in here than in any of my previous writing, for example. And a huge amount of landscape description - or perhaps 'exploration' would be a better word, for finding some of these places took not a little research. Hence, at the end of each chapter, we tell you how to get there. No point in readers taking the same wrong turning that we sometimes did!
I leave our bookshop audiences with a challenge. I wrote the text for this book. Hilary took the photographs (apart from a handful of historical illustrations we had to buy in). In seven cases, she included me in the picture. You remember 'Where's Willy?' The challenge is: 'Where's David?' In six cases, the answer is obvious. But nobody has found all seven yet.