Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Say what you mean

Yesterday's discussion of the O. Henry volume started me thinking about short stories of my own. I cannot claim even one hundredth part of our hero's worldly success: but what I can claim is that, from time to time, I have tried to emulate his example in writing stories which are good-humoured, might raise a smile, and have, at the end, some modest kind of twist, revelation, or surprise.

And why not, I thought to myself, treat the faithful of the GOB to just such a story? Hence today's post, which takes the form of a short story of mine called Say What You Mean. This appeared in my 2003 collection, King Albert's Words of Advice. You should be able to obtain that book, if you desire to do so, from any reasonably capable and co-operative bookseller in the US or the UK. Amazon will, I dare say, despatch it to places further afield.


There are few newspaper reports which give more pleasure to a retired English teacher than those which provide evidence that standards in the teaching of English are not what they were. Mr Robinson was therefore particularly delighted when he found an example in that morning’s Times.

‘Aha!’ he exclaimed triumphantly.

His wife looked up from her sewing. Although it was only just after breakfast time she was hard at work on her latest quilt. ‘Have you found another mistake, dear?’

‘I have indeed. It will be hard for you to believe this, Mavis, but it appears that a man who has written a front-page report for The Times is ignorant of the difference between the words appraise and apprise.’

‘Good heavens,’ said Mrs Robinson. In what she knew, from long years of practice, was a suitably shocked tone of voice.

Mr Robinson sighed. ‘I shall have to write, of course.’

‘Of course.’

‘I have long since recognised that it is pretty much a lost cause, but I do feel a sense of duty.’

‘Quite right,’ said Mrs Robinson.

Mrs Robinson was anxious to get her husband started on his letter to the Editor of The Times as soon as possible. Because otherwise he might start to question her about her own familiarity with these two words; and that would be embarrassing.

The truth was, of course, that if you had put Mrs Robinson up against a wall, stuck a gun in her ear, and demanded that she must identify what part of speech the words appraise and apprise were, she would have been hard pressed even to guess that they were verbs. And if, further, you had required her to tell you the precise meaning of each of these verbs, on penalty of pulling the trigger in return for a wrong answer.... Well, in that case Mrs Robinson would have been – to use a vulgarism which Mr Robinson would never have permitted – so much dead meat.

In fact, not only would Mr Robinson have objected to the use of the descriptor ‘dead meat’ as vulgar, but he would also have pointed out that the phrase was tautologous, since meat is, by definition, always dead.

Fortunately for Mrs Robinson’s health, and for Mr Robinson’s peace of mind, Mrs Robinson had usually been successful, over a period of more than forty years, in disguising the full extent of her ignorance from her alarmingly pedantic husband.

Mr Robinson proceeded to spend a contented half-hour composing a letter of rebuke to the Editor of The Times. These days he always headed his communications ‘Not for publication’, so that he did not feel so aggrieved when they failed to appear in print.

‘Splendid!’ he exclaimed when he had sealed the letter. ‘This particular example of linguistic sloppiness will, of course, come in extremely handy as a topical introduction to my lecture this afternoon.’

‘What lecture is that, dear?’ asked Mrs Robinson, who had trouble keeping up with her husband’s commitments. What with his being chairman of the Scouts fund-raising committee, and a member of the photography club, and secretary of the fuchsia society, he was out of the house more often than he was in it.

‘This afternoon I am addressing the Townswomen’s Guild Talk Shop,’ said Mr Robinson. ‘My subject: the importance of precise communication in English.’

‘Oh, well I’m sure they’ll enjoy that, dear,’ said Mrs Robinson. Loyally.

The Chairman of the Straitford Townswomen’s Guild Talk Shop was Mrs Deirdre Thorpe-Manners, and she was just the tiniest bit apprehensive.

It was, she reflected, becoming increasingly difficult to find even halfway satisfactory speakers; and the title of this afternoon’s talk was scarcely enthralling. Mr Robinson had wanted to call it ‘The Importance of Precise Communication in Oral and Written English’; and he had been reluctant to change it, as suggested, to ‘Say What You Mean’.

Mrs Thorpe-Manners’ wishes had, however, prevailed, if only because she was in charge of publicity. Even so, she had had to ring round and twist a few arms to ensure that her speaker addressed a respectable audience. And she was quite pleased to see that she had managed to attract nearly a dozen attendees into the church hall on what was, after all, a warm afternoon in May.

Mrs Thorpe-Manners was also faintly troubled by the fear of controversy. There was a distinct possibility that even Mr Robinson’s modified title might prompt some further discussion of whether it was entirely appropriate for the individual heading the Townswomen’s Guild to be known as the Chairman; and whether it would be more appropriate for her to be known as the Chairwoman, Chair, Chairperson, or even, God forbid, Chairlady.

Mrs Thorpe-Manners was pretty confident that she had cajoled Mr Robinson into staying well clear of this question himself; but she feared that some trouble-making feminist with nothing better to do might creep in at the last minute and start making a nuisance of herself. Mrs Thorpe-Manners had no doubt that she would be able to stamp on any unwelcome motions from the floor – she was after all, the Town Councillor who had seen off the Archdeacon when he raised the matter of smelly drains under Any Other Business – but on the whole she preferred to avoid a scene if at all possible.

It was, therefore, with some relief that, at only two minutes past the appointed hour, she found herself with a speaker, an audience of eleven sensible-looking middle-aged ladies, and not a short haircut, a bare midriff, or a pair of jeans in sight.

The Chairman and Mr Robinson were seated behind a small table, with the audience in a few rows of fold-up chairs in front of them. The Chairman introduced the speaker and Mr Robinson stood up.

He had given this little talk several times before, and as usual he began by saying that he would try to avoid being excessively sesquipedalian.

This was a joke, Mr Robinson explained. It meant that he would try to avoid using too many long words, and being too long-winded.

Mr Robinson, for one, always found this introduction amusing. And whenever he found something amusing he would chuckle in his own idiosyncratic way. This involved making a ‘Hmph, hmph, hmph!’ sort of noise, with his mouth shut, and moving his shoulders up and down in time with the hmphs. This mannerism had, of course, been gleefully imitated by many generations of schoolboys.

‘Hmph, hmph, hmph!’ went Mr Robinson on this occasion, and some of the ladies actually smiled with him. So it was quite a good start, he felt. Or rather, considered. Mr Robinson only felt things with his hands.

Mr Robinson moved on to the main subject of his talk. This involved a discourse upon the importance of distinguishing between pairs of words which were almost the same on paper, or when spoken aloud, but which had quite different meanings. Among the examples he gave were appraise and apprise (of course); poring and pouring; interment and internment; compliment and complement; and so on.

All good stuff. Some of the audience actually seemed to follow his argument, he was pleased to note.

Next came a brief reminder of the need to be careful in the use of the word ‘literally’. Examples were quoted from journalistic sources. Was it really true, Mr Robinson wondered, that Arsenal had literally wiped the floor with Chelsea? Or that a particular horse had literally run away with the Two Thousand Guineas? Mr Robinson rather thought not.

Spelling came next. And oh dearie me, what a lot there was to say about that. Mr Robinson told his story about the head of English at a local comprehensive school – a school located, Mr Robinson implied, rather less than a thousand miles from the centre of Straitford – who had issued a set of notes to his pupils about Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar. And, sad to relate, this particular head of department had spelt the hero’s name as Ceasar throughout.

One or two of the audience even tutted.

Then there were the various newspapers – and not just the tabloids, either – which had reported that Eaton College was advertising for a burser; or that a grammer school was in need of a mathmutician.

The word millennium was also a bit of a problem, Mr Robinson suggested. ‘Perhaps we should all make a mental note, now, that it has two l’s and two n’s, so that we get it right when the next one comes along. Hmph, hmph, hmph, hmph, hmph!’

Well, Mr Robinson wasn’t perhaps generating gasps of horror or hoots of laughter with these stories, but he was at least managing to keep his audience awake.

He moved on to punctuation. Mr Robinson was, he declared, a fully paid-up member of the AAAA. And when one or two ladies looked shocked he explained that the initials stood for the Association for Abolition of the Aberrant Apostrophe.

Why, only recently, Mr Robinson had come across a television advertisement which had displayed a sentence on the screen which included the word ‘it’s’ when, in fact, ‘its’ without an apostrophe would have been the correct version. And this advertisement, Mr Robinson averred, had continued to be shown, uncorrected, for months.

‘Good heavens!’ Mrs Thorpe-Manners felt obliged to exclaim.

‘Good heavens indeed,’ said Mr Robinson.

With a careful look at his watch to judge the timing of the talk, Mr Robinson concluded by pointing out that all this emphasis on the need for accuracy had very real and important practical implications. It was not just a case of an old schoolmaster being fussy. Dear me, no.

‘Put a comma instead of a full stop in an internet address,’ said Mr Robinson, ‘and it won’t work.’ (He was nothing if not bang up to date.) ‘That, of course, is only a trivial problem. But put a plus sign instead of a minus sign in the software designed for an aeroplane, and the plane may crash. Put the decimal point in the wrong place on an X-ray machine, and the patient gets a fatal dose.’

Over the years, Mr Robinson had collected numerous stories to illustrate the fact that failure to communicate one’s meaning clearly could have fatal and tragic consequences. However, bearing in mind the age and gender of his listeners, he did not, for this particular talk, paint too gory a picture of the catastrophes which might occur. Instead, he confined himself to that old favourite, drawn from a military source and appreciated most by those familiar with pre-decimal coinage.

‘There was once an army officer,’ Mr Robinson explained, ‘who asked his soldiers to pass a message from man to man – in whispers, because they were close to enemy lines. The message was: Send reinforcements, we are going to advance. By the time this message reached headquarters it had been repeated thirty times, and had become somewhat distorted. The message now was: Send three and fourpence, we are going to a dance! Hmph, hmph, hmph, hmph, hmph!

‘Above all, ladies,’ Mr Robinson concluded, ‘we should all try to take advantage of the great riches of the English language. The wide vocabulary which is available to us, and the conventions of spelling and punctuation which have been established over the years, are vital tools which enable us to communicate accurately and meaningfully. We should therefore adopt as our motto the words which no less a writer than Tolstoy jotted down at the front of one of his diaries: I must try to say precisely what I mean.’

And with that, Mr Robinson sat down.

There was a short burst of clapping, and Mrs Thorpe-Manners rose to her feet.

It was customary, at the end of addresses to the Townswomen’s Talk Shop, to invite questions from the floor. Today, however, Mrs Thorpe-Manners didn’t want to encourage any questions. They had got this far without the Chairperson controversy raising its head, and she wasn’t about to permit it to be raised now.

‘Any questions?’ she asked, taking care to be looking down at the table in front of her as she did so. And, 1.6 seconds later, she added: ‘No? In that case all that remains is for me to do is to thank Mr Robinson most warmly for a truly fascinating address. I’m sure that we have all learnt a great deal from it....

‘One final point. Mr Robinson has most kindly told me that he does not wish to be paid any sort of a fee for this afternoon’s talk. But he is, he tells me, chairman of the First Straitford Scout Group’s fund-raising committee.’

Mr Robinson nodded.

‘The Scout Group is working hard to raise money for a new hut, to replace their present temporary headquarters. A year ago, they were given first refusal on a large ex-army hut, admirably suitable for the job. The hut will be given to them for nothing, but they do have to pay for it to be transported and erected. A sum of three thousand pounds is required in all, and so far they have raised only five hundred pounds. So, at the present rate of progress, it’s going to be another five years before the Scout Group gets its much-needed headquarters. Mr Robinson would therefore be most grateful if, in acknowledgement of his kindness in talking to us today, each member of the audience would make a modest donation to this cause. You will find a plate for that purpose situated just beside the door.’

‘Thank you very much,’ said Mr Robinson, with an encouraging smile.

‘May I remind members,’ Mrs Thorpe-Manners continued, ‘that today’s talk will be followed, as usual, by a little informal gathering in the Church Tea Rooms, across the road.... I now declare the meeting closed.’

The members of the audience began to pick up their handbags and other belongings, and Mrs Thorpe-Manners used the opportunity to have a private word with Mr Robinson. Without actually saying so, she managed to imply that, while he would be welcome to join the ladies in the Church Tea Rooms, their conversation was likely to concentrate on grandchildren, recent operations and the like, and that probably he wouldn’t enjoy it very much.

Mr Robinson, taking the hint, said that he had to be getting home anyway. And with that, he began to gather together his notes.

He was just about to depart when he noticed that a lady was standing in front of him.

‘Um, I wonder,’ she said, ‘if I could have a word.’

‘Of course, of course,’ said Mr Robinson, and the lady sat down on the other side of the table.

‘My name is Frances Goodchild,’ she said. ‘Mrs Goodchild. I really did enjoy your talk, Mr Robinson. Because of course there’s nothing that people of our generation enjoy quite so much as somebody telling them that the world is going to the dogs.’

‘Ah!’ said Mr Robinson, smiling broadly. He was glad that his subtext had been appreciated.

‘And I really was quite fascinated by what you said about the importance of precise communication.’

Mr Robinson preened himself. It was doubly gratifying to find that one had managed to be genuinely interesting.

‘Yes,’ said Mrs Goodchild. ‘You see, I think I can tell you about an experience of mine which quite definitely proves your point.’

‘Oh good,’ said Mr Robinson, who was always pleased to add to his stock of examples.

‘Yes. And I think I might also be able to help with the funding of the new Scout hut.’

‘Ah! Splendid!’ said Mr Robinson.

Mrs Goodchild began to grope in her handbag, and eventually she produced a cheque book, a sight which Mr Robinson considered most promising.

‘Of course, I would have to speak to you in total confidence, Mr Robinson, and swear you to secrecy. But you won’t mind that, will you?’

‘Oh no. Certainly not. I am one hundred per cent gossip-proof, Mrs Goodchild.’

‘Jolly good.... You see, my husband is just like you. He’s a retired schoolteacher too, but in his case he was a mathematician. And you know what mathematicians are like – they’re absolute sticklers for detail and accuracy. What my husband did with the interpretation of the bowls club rule book just doesn’t bear thinking about. Took it to absolute pieces he did. The poor committee didn’t know which way to look.’

Mr Robinson chuckled. He had shared a common-room with a good few mathematicians in his time and did indeed know what they were like.

‘But what I want to tell you about is this. You see, when the national lottery started up, I decided that I would like to have a go. I thought that if we won anything it would be very helpful for the grandchildren and so forth. So I had a word with my husband about it, and he made a few enquiries and talked to his mathematical friends.’

Mrs Goodchild seemed unable to find a pen, so Mr Robinson offered her his.

‘Oh, lovely. I might have known that a gentleman of your generation would have a proper fountain pen. Thank you.... Yes, as I was saying about the national lottery.... My husband and his friends spent quite a lot of time looking at the odds against winning, and discussing whether you improved your chances if you bought a lot of tickets at one time, and whether you should use the same numbers every time, and things like that. And surprisingly enough, some of these questions are by no means straightforward. Or so I’m given to understand. It’s all well above my head, as you will appreciate.

‘Anyway, after what seemed like an awful lot of debate, Mr Goodchild decided that I should buy just one ticket a week, and that he would give me the numbers. At the time I didn’t really know where the numbers came from, but I discovered later that they were random numbers. Do you know anything about random numbers, Mr Robinson?’

‘Er, no. I can’t say that I do.’

‘Well neither did I, of course. Every Saturday morning my husband would give me a new set of numbers, and I would buy a ticket. And this went on for some time. We won ten pounds every so often, enough to keep us interested, but nothing more. And then the day came when Mr Goodchild had to go into hospital.’

‘Oh dear.’

‘Yes, it was all most unfortunate. It was his prostrate, you see. Blocked up entirely it did, so he couldn’t pass water at all.’

Mr Robinson nodded sympathetically. He did consider, briefly, whether he should give Mrs Goodchild a short explanation of the difference between the words prostrate and prostate; but he decided, on balance, what with the cheque book open in front of her and everything, that this might not be quite the best time.

‘So Mr Goodchild had to go into the hospital for an operation,’ Mrs Goodchild continued. ‘Which is not at all nice, Mr Robinson, is it? Have you had your prostrate done?’

‘Er, no,’ said Mr Robinson, who had a few worrying problems in that department but was hoping to avoid surgery.

‘Yes, it’s really not at all nice, you know. They sort of push a pair of scissors up the penis, you know, and sort of snip a hole in the prostrate so that you can pee again.’

‘Ah,’ said Mr Robinson. Whose desire to avoid surgery had just been considerably intensified.

‘Anyway, there was poor Mr Goodchild, lying there on the trolley, feeling a little bit dopey from the pill they’d given him, and just about to face this nasty experience, and what do you think he said to me?’

Mr Robinson gave her an enquiring look.

‘Don’t forget the lottery ticket, Frances, he said. You must remember to buy a lottery ticket. But they must be random numbers. You understand, my dear? You must use random numbers. He was most insistent, Mr Robinson.’

Mrs Goodchild paused while she filled in the date on the cheque. ‘First Straitford Scout Group, wasn’t it, Mr Robinson?’


‘Yes.... So off I went and bought the ticket. Helped to take my mind off things as a matter of fact. But of course, my point is this, Mr Robinson – I didn’t understand what my husband had meant. When he said random numbers, I thought he just meant that I should pick numbers at random.’

‘And didn’t he?’

‘Oh no. Goodness me no. Up till then he’d always given me the numbers himself, without telling me how he’d worked them out. So when he said I had to use random numbers I just used people’s birthdays. It happened to be Uncle Jack’s birthday that day, and so I used his birthday, and Aunty Jane’s, and one or two others. But, you see, they aren’t random numbers at all.’

‘Aren’t they?’

‘Oh no. Not to a mathematician they’re not. You see, if you go into it properly, it turns out that there’s a scientific procedure for picking random numbers. You can use a special book, which has got pages and pages of random numbers in it – but even then you have to be careful which numbers you pick. Or – and I didn’t know this at the time – you can actually get the lottery computer to pick some random numbers for you. It’s called lucky dip. There’s a special box that you fill in on the form.’

‘Ah,’ said Mr Robinson. Who had never bought a lottery ticket in his life.

Mrs Goodchild broke off again to work on the cheque.

‘Let’s see now, I think you said you’d raised a little bit of money, but the total sum needed was three thousand pounds?’

‘Er, yes, that’s right.’

‘I see. Well it’ll be simplest if I give you the full three thousand then, won’t it?’ She filled in the figures. ‘Of course, I shall have to remember to give an equal amount to the Girl Guides as well, otherwise it wouldn’t be fair, would it?’

‘Mngh,’ said Mr Robinson, whose tongue seemed to have become stuck to the roof of his mouth.

‘I mustn’t ramble on,’ said Mrs Goodchild, ‘because I know you have to get away. But you see the point is this, Mr Robinson. You are absolutely right when you emphasise the vital importance of being clear and precise when you talk to people, and making sure that they understand exactly what you mean. Because, you see, if I had really understood what Mr Goodchild was saying to me, when he went in for his operation, and if he had made sure that I understood it, then our lives would have been completely different.’

‘Mngh?’ said Mr Robinson.

‘Oh yes.’ Mrs Goodchild finished writing the cheque and signed it. ‘You see, if I really had used random numbers that day – proper random numbers – instead of family birthdays, then Mr Goodchild and I would never have won the seven million pounds. And our lives would have been quite different from what they are today.’

Mr Robinson’s tongue came unglued and his mouth fell open.

Mrs Goodchild handed him the cheque.

‘And come to think of it,’ she added thoughtfully, ‘the First Straitford Scout Group might have had to wait another five years for its new hut.’


Rachel Green said...

A delightful, very English story. Thank you for sharing it.

Anonymous said...

Yes, utterly delightful and so pefectly in the O. Henry tradition. It highlights what a true shame it is that Ms Forman and the elitist 'O. Henry Prize Stories' club limit themselves so.

Anonymous said...

Good fun. And truly with the O. Henry twist. I enjoyed this as much as I enjoyed my first reading of "The Ransome of Red Chief" when I was a boy some forty years ago.

savannah said...

Lovely! Thank you, sugar!

Julie said...

Thank you for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Well, well, well...GOB.

That was the most charming read I've had in yonks - adored it.

Very big smile (from NY) here - and merry memories of Pooter, Keith Waterhouse at his best, E. F. Benson, O. Henry, A. P. Herbert...thanks.

Anonymous said...

that was good, thank you!

Anonymous said...

Ah, once again you've charmed my dormant anglophilia to life! However I must point out, with all due respect, you understand of course, in the spirit of the piece, you will see I'm sure, that there is just the tiniest of typos to wit: "Helped to take my mind of things as a matter of fact." And as such, in saying what you mean, it should also follow logically, you understand, that one should also type what they mean. hmph,hmph,hmph.