I am writing a play about Dr Johnson and his Dictionary. It will be performed in Scotland later this year. Five out of the great man’s six helpers were Scots (the only Englishman, V.J. Peyton, was considered a fool and a drunkard) and it’s timely to think of all those Scotsmen working away to consolidate the English language while their descendants try to define the general election. As a fully functioning Willie (‘Work in London, Live in Edinburgh’), I am startled by the zeal with which the SNP plans to take its revenge on Westminster after a decisive ‘no’ vote in the referendum. The Scottish rugby team is often accused of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory (witness the last-minute penalty try in the Italy game at Murrayfield), now the plan is very much ‘arsy-versy’ — a phrase Johnson omitted on the grounds of vulgarity. When a lady praised him for the absence of foul language, he replied: ‘Madam, I hope I have not daubed my fingers. I find, however, that you have been looking for them.’
Volume four of my clerical detective series ‘The Grantchester Mysteries’ is published this week and so it’s time for the book tour. I’m off to Bath, Warwick, Cambridge, Ely, Durham and anywhere with a nice church or two. This is all good fun but the relentless geniality can be exhausting. I remember an Anglican bishop once being told that his fee for an American lecture tour was going to be $5,000. After his talk there would be a chance to chat to folk at the buffet supper afterwards. ‘Oh,’ the Bishop replied, ‘if I have to meet people, my fee is double.’
What to wear? I like a bit of dandyism but once a man’s waist goes beyond 36 inches he is pretty much ‘too fat for fashion’. Last year I called in David Chambers, suit-maker to the stars, to create a slimmer look, but this will be bustin’ out all over long before June and so it’s the 5:2 diet and a depressing trip to the gym. Here I am encouraged to ‘take a journey to the new you’. I realise this is a first-world problem but I can’t stand the linguistic imprecision. The furthest I am travelling is from one end of a swimming pool to another. Even my bank (Lloyds) advertises itself as ‘for the journey’. It’s not. It’s a bank.
The last time I signed up for gym membership I was in the changing room when the entire Arsenal football team walked in. I found myself stationed between the sculpturally toned Ian Wright and the effortlessly stylish Dennis Bergkamp. The two boys could hardly contain their amusement at my generous proportions (in all the wrong places) and I fled never to return. That was 20 years ago — which, by some coincidence, is the same number as the pounds I need to shed.
Being in one’s mid-fifties, one has to keep a watchful eye on hair, teeth, shoes and personal hygiene before one reaches what the actress Siobhan Redmond calls ‘the samovar years’. Many of my friends in proper jobs are being sacked; or, in contemporary parlance, decruited, dehired and destaffed. The BBC recently managed to ‘degrow’ one friend (after 20 years’ service) in between his mother’s death and her funeral, saying that they were ‘smart-sizing’ their ‘core team’ in a ‘skill-mix readjustment’. This is why some of us don’t find the return of the navel-gazing sitcom W1A that funny. We’ve all been in those meetings.
Of course it’s easy to become a fogey when thinking about the fluidity of the English language. I have recently started shouting at both the radio and the television. (‘Enormous giant’ is a tautology! When did a burglary ever go ‘extraordinarily well’ rather than ‘horribly wrong’? You will always get a ‘result’ in a football match so there’s no point hoping for one: and don’t get me started on ‘literally’.) One should be more chillaxed.
And so to the language of the political manifestos and what George Orwell called their ‘euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness’ as our political leaders try to avoid the ignominy of being ‘empty-chaired’ after the election. Some entertaining phrases have emerged: all those ‘Kippers’, Natalie Bennett’s ‘brain freeze’, David Cameron’s ‘brain fade’ and the Labour leader’s surprising ‘Milifandom’, but I doubt many of these will last beyond May; unless the whole thing happens again in October and we end up with such a hodge-podge of a coalition that only one word defined by Dr Johnson will do: farraginous.
The week ends in a relaxed fashion sharing a coffee with one of the most successful writers on the planet. There is something reassuring about the fact that no one troubles us. We sit in a crowded café under a sign saying ‘J.K. Rowling never wrote anything here’ and have a good laugh because indeed it is she.