Dot Wordsworth

Mind Your Language | 12 October 2002

A Lexicographer writes

‘I could have told you that,’ said my husband, as if this were the general state of reality. Normally if I ask him any question about his native tongue, he says, ‘Don’t ask me, you’re the expert.’

The thing he could have told me was the meaning of ‘son of Attenborough’, about which I had asked in the issue of 21 September. The phrase occurs in a novel by Barry Pain (1864-1928), a humorous writer. I read some of his books ages ago, and they are all right. One of his characters is a ridiculous suburban clerk, and I feel he borrowed from George and Weedon Grossmith’s Charles Pooter, and managed the creation less well. Pain thrived in the days when the Cornhill magazine was going strong. He first wrote for Granta, which seems to have been founded by a relation by (later) marriage. He is also a relation by marriage to the poet P.J. Kavanagh, I calculate, since Mr Kavanagh’s late wife Sally’s grandfather was the great-nephew of the father of Barry Pain’s wife – the key family being the Lehmanns.

Barry Pain to me belongs to the world of W.W. Jacobs (1863-1943), and, indeed, I find Jacobs worked on To-day under J.K. Jerome from whom Barry Pain took over the editorship. I think W.W. Jacobs is a better writer than Pain, and not only in the ghost story The Monkey’s Paw, although it also true that Jacobs persevered in publishing his popular books on seafarers when there was no possibility of their developing and it seemed that his heart had gone out of them. The same could be said of Conan Doyle or P.G.

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