Today’s contribution was handed in at Diiarts Towers by a monkey carrying a typewriter case, who claimed he had found it in a Tesco bag abandoned on a train, along with some rather tedious military secrets. Forensic examination suggests that the article is likely to have been written by Matthew J. Dick, author of Pistols for Two–Breakfast for One.
Some years ago I was fortunate enough to have a letter published in The Times. There had been some correspondence on the English language, and I felt it fitting to share an experience I had recently had – a fairly banal experience, granted, but one that I thought neatly encapsulated much of what was being said. Here’s the letter:
“Whilst awaiting a flight to the US at Heathrow airport recently, I decided to treat myself to breakfast in one of the airport lounges. Upon my asking the waitress whether the establishment’s orange juice was freshly squeezed, she replied: ‘It’s freshly squeezed out of a carton’.”
In such circumstances, the concluding line of the letter wrote itself: “English is indeed a wonderfully rich language”.
And so it is. I adduce two pieces of evidence in support of this fact.
Exhibit A: Kyril Bonfiglioli. A little-known author who died in 1985 having written, tragically, only a handful of novels. Bonfiglioli was the kind of chap with whom I should very much like to have dined whenever occasion permitted. He died at the age of 56 from cirrhosis of the liver. I think that is all you need know about Mr Bonfiglioli’s lifestyle.
There is a certain element of society (usually unpublished writers, desperate to lose the ‘un-’ prefix) that bemoans the use of adverbs and adjectives in prose as the spawn of the devil. Quite why such people fear these wondrous nuts and bolts of our language this way continues to elude me; I suspect they were interfered with by their English masters, and made to recite Jane Austen whilst being pounded on the rump with a copy of Kennedy’s Revised Latin Primer.
No matter. Rather than feel sorry for such illiterati, I reach instead for my copy of After You With The Pistol, the second book in Bonfiglioli’s excellent Mortdecai Trilogy. Opening it at random I am confronted with an expectedly marvellous passage:
“My mental clock is amazingly good: at 10.31 I opened a petulant eye and croaked a complaint at Jock. Where, where, was the life-giving cup of tea, the balm which, at 10.30 precisely, brings the Mortdecais of this world back to some kind of membership of the human race? “Jock!” I croaked again, desperately. A throaty, girlish voice beside me murmured that Jock wasn’t around. I swivelled a bloodshot eyeball and focused it on my bride. She was wearing that absurd nightdress again – it seemed to have lost its shoulder-straps”.
Six sentences. Seven adjectives (depending how you count ’em). Only three adverbs, but each wielded exquisitely [sic].
Just who on earth has the brass balls to describe an eye as ‘petulant’? The Primer-beaten arses will aver that an eye, as a mere body part, cannot possibly have adjectives displaying emotion qualifying them. But it works perfectly. In one word Bonfiglioli has communicated precisely the point he wants to get across to the reader, and we wolf it down without question.
And that eyeball, ‘swivelling’ and ‘bloodshot’. If one cannot picture the scene in one’s head down to the very blood vessels in the whites of Mortdecai’s eye, well – perhaps we ought all go back to bed for good. Will the last one out of the country please turn off the lights?
Bonfiglioli’s wordplay is exceptional. He clearly loved puzzles, crosswords and puns. His ex-wife tells of an occasion in a crowded pub when Bonfiglioli was working his way back from the bar, his hands full with glasses of whisky. He accidentally bumped into a couple of ladies, and a drop of the nectar sploshed unhappily onto them. Immediately Bonfiglioli quipped: “a Haig on both your blouses!” Comment, I believe, is superfluous.
I have just come across the Wikipedia entry for KB. It states: “All his books are highly entertaining, picaresque and politically incorrect.” I yearn to be held in such high esteem.
In a rather neat, if I say so myself, example of ring composition, Exhibit B brings us back to The Times. For Exhibit B comprises that unswervingly English of traditions: the Times crossword. Cryptic of course. There is no other.
It is quite clear that the main reason the British once ruled half the world is because of The Times crossword. The mental acumen and the historical, artistic, musical, scientific and literary knowledge required to turn one’s hand to this most English of trivial pursuits are extraordinary. No wonder we could charm the pants off Johnny Foreigner.
I do not know (but am prepared – indeed, genuinely interested – to be proved wrong) of any other language that offers such a challenging verbal work-out based on the wonders and complexities of word play as that offered by a cryptic crossword.
I need give only one example. I was once confronted by the following: “This clue is basically coded awkwardly (14)”. Fear not, I am not going to go into the intricacies of how cryptic clues work. There are plenty of books on the subject if you are minded to seek them out.
All you need to know is that the clue is self-referential. It describes itself, or at least one of its characteristics. The ‘awkwardly’ is an anagram indicator. So we are looking for a few words in the clue that can be jumbled up and made into a single word of fourteen (yes, count ’em) letters. That word describes the clue. Oh, look: ‘basically coded’ has fourteen letters. Jumble them up and see what you get. Are you there yet? Me neither.
Only when I had answers to all the clues around this one, had all letters I was going to, and therefore wasn’t going to get any more help, did the answer pop out. And not really because I solved it. It was the only word that fitted: ‘dodecasyllabic’. Yes, yes, I know. It means ‘having twelve syllables’. Count the number of syllables in the original clue. Now go and have a lie down, because neither you, nor I, nor anyone else we know will ever be quite as perfect, or as effortlessly brilliant, as that.