First Person: Brian Stowell

Brian Stowell satirised life on the Isle of Man in ‘The Vampire Murders’, the first full-length novel in Manx

I was born on the Isle of Man and I first got interested in the Manx language as a schoolboy in the 1950s, when I read an article about a man called Douglas Faragher, who was bemoaning the fact that the language was being dumped completely. I thought, “I’d like to learn that.” My school told me about a night class but when I went along the teacher was the only person there.

The state of the Manx language at the time was very bad indeed. It was never going to disappear completely because it had a reasonable literature: the Bible had been translated, for example. But the skids were under it from the beginning of the 19th century.

There was strong social discrimination against Manx at the time, particularly from Manx people themselves. It was taken as a sign of inferiority, backwardness and poverty. I ended up joining Faragher and several other people while they went round the island in a van using one of the first available tape recorders to record the few remaining native Manx speakers. For months, I heard six hours of spoken Manx on a Saturday, and six to eight hours on a Sunday. My friends probably thought I was mad.

I couldn’t understand a word at first but after nine months I could speak it relatively fluently. It was, more or less, the Manx spoken by people who’d learnt it as children in the late 19th and early 20th century. I had to mug up the formal stuff later on. It’s quite straightforward, Manx – like a simple version of Irish. Later, during my first marriage, I spoke entirely in Manx to my daughter and son, when it didn’t embarrass them, and they spoke English to me.

After university I moved across the water to live in Merseyside permanently, but I often visited the Isle of Man and wrote in Manx extensively. I was in contact with people all the way through, so in that respect I never left the island, and in 1979 the education minister asked me to write a Manx course.

I was made the Manx language officer in 1991 after it was put up as an option in schools. That’s why I came back. The demand for it was 40 per cent in primary schools, and up to 10 per cent in the secondary schools. This was completely unexpected – it’s been a big success.

In 2006, I published a novel in Manx, The Vampire Murders, satirising life on the Isle of Man. It was serialised in one of the papers here and now bits of it are being used for the Manx equivalent to an A-level. It’s the first full-length novel in Manx. The potential readership is very low indeed – only about 200 people can read it without much difficulty. You could rationalise why I went ahead by saying, “oh, it will be used for studying Manx.” But I never had that in mind at all. I just thought it’d be a great laugh to write a novel in Manx. Now there are a few other people writing original material.

Some of it is to do with Manx nationalism – that’s definitely been a motivating factor for me, but for most people it’s a more watered-down form: identity. We just like to know there’s a language for the Isle of Man.

It’s difficult to take in this big change in attitude, because people like me just soldiered on against pretty strong opposition. It wasn’t that people thought we were mad – the old Manx people probably thought we were evil. You could easily have started off a fully fledged fight in the pub in the 1960s by speaking in Manx. Friends of mine were thrown out of one in the 1970s for using it. When people ask how I account for this mini revival, I say, “well, the old Manx people have died.”

At the start I didn’t really expect anything much to happen – I just got this terrific interest in the language, and thought it was a great shame that it had been so devalued and had to do something about it. And ploughed on, in an obsessive way.

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