Last Saturday, I had the pleasure of attending a delightful performance of Humperdinck’s opera, Hansel and Gretel, at my local theatre – the Courtyard in Hereford. As theatrical criticism isn’t my forte, I shan’t give a review here. The man charged with the responsibility of teaching me to write sensibly about the theatre failed spectacularly. Whether that was due to him or to me might perhaps, be a matter worthy of discussion. But if that is to happen, it will be on some future occasion.
Many actors, musicians, directors, authors and visual artists subscribe to the school of thought that says, “those who can, do, and those who can’t, criticise”. Although it is a good line, it is a foolish thought. Many critics have a profound knowledge of their subjects, and can, therefore, offer sensible views. When he was asked about thespians who don’t read their reviews, the late, great Sir Michael Hordern said, “I think it rather presumptuous of my fellow actors”.
Of course, just as no actor is perfect, no critic is perfect either. They can misread public taste by asserting that a show will either be a run-away success, or a complete flop, then the opposite happens. They can be unfairly harsh, or unduly flattering,, because of their feelings about a given actor or director. They can be intellectual snobs, lauding vertiginously high-brow plays, and sneering at anything popular. Or they can take themselves and their the theatre far too seriously.
When it comes to high-brow writing, though, the best comment I have come across was one I read earlier today. A play was described as being, “so incomprehensible that I didn’t even understand the interval”.
My favourite story about theatrical criticism is a lesson to all editors. Never tell a critic what to think.
A distinguished newspaper editor had a close friendship with a well-known playwright. When his friend’s latest play had its opening night, he sent his leading critic to review it. He made the mistake of assuming that the review would be favourable. It wasn’t.
Furiously, the editor sent the critic to a further performance, which again, received a negative review. Not even a third performance could illicit anything positive.
Eventually, the play was taken around the country. Determined to be able to print a positive review for his friend, the editor duly dispatch his critic to the provinces.
It so happened, that the night the latest review was to go to press, the paper was in the hands of the deputy editor. So the editor had, like the rest of the nation, to read the review at his breakfast table. It simply said, “Hebrews, Chapter 13, verse 8“.
Our editor knew enough to recognise that a biblical quotation was going to sum up the critics feelings, but wasn’t learned enough in matters scriptural to know where, precisely, he would find it. So having unearthed the family bible, he flicked through the pages of the Old Testament. No Hebrews. He rapidly turned the pages of the Apocrypha. No Hebrews there either. Then he turned to the New Testament, and found Saint Paul’s letter to the Hebrews. Turning to chapter 13, verse 8, he read: “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever.”
Too Much Democracy
Most of us in the West believe in democracy. Although it is no longer regarded as proper to “civilise” people by teaching them about God and European ideas about law and order – a clever way of empire building – we do still find it acceptable to try to persuade Johnny Foreigner to embrace our Western democratic values.
But do we, ourselves, have an excess of democracy? I would argue that perhaps we do.
Firstly, there is voter apathy. For a number of reasons, people choose not to vote. They feel that their vote won’t make any difference. Or that all politicians, regardless of party, are either self-serving, useless, or both. Or they simply can’t be bothered. Turn-out in May’s local elections will, no doubt, be rather low.
Secondly, there is the question of legitimacy. Which democratically elected body has jurisdiction over any given issue? That is one of the arguments advanced by those who do not wish to have an elected House of Lords.
Thirdly, democratic campaigns can complicate the process of government. It’s bad enough when we have a general election campaign lasting about three weeks. But at least the whole country has a say in the final outcome. But what of battles within political parties?
On 7th July last year, Boris Johnson bowed to the inevitable, and announced his resignation as leader of the Conservative party. He would resign as Prime Minister once a successor had duly been elected in his stead. The parliamentary party would choose two candidates for the membership as a whole to vote on, and the result was to be announced on 5th September.
On 15th February this year, Nicola Sturgeon announced her resignation as leader of the Scottish National Party. The result of the SNP’s election will be announced in just under two weeks, on 27th March, when Sturgeon will then resign as First Minister of Scotland.
The Conservative leadership battle was long, tedious, and brutal. The SNP’s election campaign isn’t quite as long, but has so far proved just as tedious and brutal, and there’s no indication that things will change. In both cases, candidates have carried on as though there opponents were from different parties, which never implies post election stability.
For two months last summer, the Tories had no leader. On the face of it, that was their problem. However, it meant that the UK had a prime minister who could most charitably be described as a “caretaker”. He could only, as Winston Churchill might have put it, “mind the shop”.
Likewise, by 27th March, the SNP will have been leaderless for six weeks, and Scotland’s First Minister will similarly have been in office, but not in power.
Both situations are absurd, but in both cases, the party faithful have been asked to exercise their democratic rights. Conservative members were, and SNP members are in the process of being, asked to vote for people that they had almost certainly never heard of, about whom they know nothing and care less, who they have never met, and probably never will meet, and probably wouldn’t like them if they did. Hence the weeks and weeks of speeches, televised debates, articles, interviews, briefings and counter-briefings, preening and prevarication, character analyses and character assassination, hyperbole and hypocrisy.
The whole process is wrong. Not only do we have the aforementioned insane lame duckery, but these mini electorates tend to be very stupid. Let us consider the Conservatives.
In 2001, the first time that the membership outside Parliament had a say, they elected Sir Iain Duncan Smith, a man so hopeless that within two years, he had been forced to resign because he had lost the confidence of his MPs. In 2019, they voted in droves for Boris Johnson, a man whose compulsive mendacity, in addition to his extreme libidinous productivity while evading responsibility, made him thoroughly unsuitable for high office. Last summer, they went for the crazy Liz Truss. All three were the least favoured options of parliamentarians. MPs work with these candidates. They get to know their strengths and there weaknesses.
To be fair, although their only leadership campaign while in government was rather understated, the membership of the Labour Party has dropped a couple of electoral clangers. In 1980, they elected Michael Foot, who presided over a split in his party, and contrived to make Labour unelectable for a decade-and-a-half. And in 2015, they went for the horribly divisive Jeremy Corbyn, who caused another split in the party, and lead them to their worst electoral drubbing in eighty-four years.
The SNP’s membership, though, is more complicated. Duncan Smith, Johnson and Truss all appealed to the Tory right, and Foot and Corbyn to the Labour left. However, a similar thing isn’t really possible with the SNP. This is because the cause of Scottish independence is the single unifying policy. It is an idea that attracts progressives, centrists and conservatives alike. If she were not so obsessed with the breaking up of the UK, Nicola Sturgeon might have become one of the movers and shakers in the Labour Party. Similarly, given her social views, leadership hopeful, Kate Forbes, might now be a rising star in the Conservative party. So they, the members, have to decide, not who would be the best person to run the Scottish Government, but who would communicate well enough to try and persuade unionists to change their minds, and who would be best at trying to intimidate the UK Government.
Although these contests have a certain appeal to political nerds, they really should be consigned to history. For the sake of the people, indeed, for the sake of the country, All parties should abandon the idea of “one member one vote”, and return the matter to their parliamentary representatives. That way, campaigns would be shorter, and the business of government could be better managed.
One of the courtesies extended to outgoing prime ministers, is the convention of allowing them to submit a “resignation” honours list. This allows them to recommend to the Sovereign anyone they feel deserves something special. Beneficiaries have included friends, colleagues, heroes and supporters.
This may sound terribly civilised, but prime ministerial recommendations are often controversial. In 1976, for example, Harold Wilson submitted a list which it is claimed, was compiled by his aid, Marcia Williams. In effect, the so-called “lavender list” – named because of the lavender-coloured note paper on which it was written – was compiled by a relative nobody. If true, It wasn’t playing the game by the spirit of the rules.
Forty years later, David Cameron caused eyebrows to raise when his wife’s hairdresser received an OBE. With all due respect to the good lady, it is doubtful that she would ever have received any honour had Mrs Cameron not been a client.
Now, the disgraced charlatan, Boris Johnson, has brought further controversy on the custom. Not only is his a longer list than the previous two combined, but if reports are true, he is making some ridiculous recommendations.
Firstly, he is proposing that four sitting MPs should be elevated to the House of Lords, but not take their seats until after the next general election. Leaving aside the fact that their Lordships’ house is rather over-filled, this is highly unconventional. It is usual for those who have been ennobled to take their seats at the earliest opportunity. As the UK constitution relies heavily on convention, this is causing much perturbation among constitutional experts.
Then there is the proposed knighthood for Johnson’s father, Stanley, a man who is not uncontroversial himself. Why? What has he done to deserve a Knighthood? Should the King really be asked to bestow any honour on a man whose greatest achievement is siring Boris Johnson? If sporting a man whose inability to tell the truth is matched only by his seeming inability to count his known children is cause for being knighted, one can only conclude that achievement is overrated.
So, what to do about it? Is it enough for Rishi Sunak to block part, or even all of Johnson’s list? He is certainly entitled to do so under the current system. The answer is no. Whether Sunak decides to submit the list in full to the King, or to edit it, this should be the last time a prime minister has any involvement with the honours system.
Unlike many, I’m not in favour of scrapping honours. However, after more than a century of prime ministers bringing the process into disrepute, beginning with David Lloyd George in the aftermath of the first world war, I am very much in favour of changing the way these things are handed out.
First, the resignation list should go. A prime minister has considerable powers of patronage while in office. There is no need for a last hurrah when he or she moves on.
Secondly, an entirely independent body should be established to process nominations for honours, vet nominees, and submit a final list to the King for his approval. Procedurally, this won’t be substantially different to what happens at present. However, those who currently do the job are part of the Prime Minister’s Office.
If these two things were to come to pass, there would be a number of benefits. The results of cronyism would be reduced, the whims and tastes of any given political leader would become irrelevant, and just as importantly, so would a prime minister’s dislike. Boris Johnson’s animosity caused at least one nomination to be blocked.
It is usual for a retiring Speaker of the House of Commons to be awarded a peerage. For the ten years of his speakership, John Bercow might, therefore, reasonably have thought that he was destined for a seat in the House of Lords. Unusually, the Government didn’t make the offer. So the Labour Party nominated him. Because of Johnson’s dislike for the erstwhile Speaker, the latter is still “Mr”, not “Lord” Bercow. Such a petty denial is shameful. One can only hope that this will be rectified soon.
I am not hopeful that the changes I have suggested will be implemented. But they should be. They would dramatically reduce corruption. Honours bestowed, officially by a grateful nation, would be rewards for public service, or achievement, or leadership, or excellence. But they would not be anyone’s quid pro quo while engaged in chumocratic backscratching.
A Moving Experience
At the time of publication, I shall be surrounded by boxes, bags, crates and the like. I shall be involved in the chaos that is moving house, which will, I think, explain why this is going to be far from my longest post. But I couldn’t leave you to pine for me, now could I?
It must be acknowledged that, although you, dear reader, are very kind and read my ramblings, not nearly enough of your friends, colleagues, relations, superiors, subordinates, acquaintances and other assorted hangers on, follow your admirable example. This means that I’m unable to monetise this blog at present, so have to claim benefits. Isn’t “monetise” a revolting word? Anyway. Benefits.
The reason for mentioning them is, as a number of people will know, that landlords, rightly or wrongly, are reluctant to accept tenants who are in receipt of benefits. This is usually, although not always, due to the fact that claims for Housing Benefit can take a ludicrously long time to be processed. Others disapprove of anyone claiming benefits. And in some cases, the landlord’s view is irrelevant, as the agent, who for his or her own reasons, disapproves of benefit claimants, has taken the decision to dissuade a potential tenant. The disapproving letting agent, of course, blames the landlord.
In the past, I have been declined by landlords, and dismissed by agents. One agent told me that, “none of our landlords do, or will, accept anyone on benefits”. But I have been very lucky in my latest quest for an abode.
I was turned down, though, for the second property I viewed. The agent sounded very uncomfortable when he called to let me know. “The reason,” he told me, “is that the landlady’s insurance policy doesn’t allow her to accept any tenants who are on benefits”. Now, dear reader, I have no way of knowing whether or not this is true, although, given the evident discomfort of the agent, I suspect that it isn’t. Both the idea, and the thought that it should be taken seriously, are, quite frankly, ridiculous. Still, the novelty of the excuse was delightfully unexpected.
But, I have somewhere now. And the boxes, bags, crates and the like are demanding my attention.
Who Knows Best?
During the EU referendum campaign of 2016, the cabinet minister, Michael Gove, made what can only be described as an infamous comment. During a television interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr, Gove declared that “people have had enough of experts”. The nation spluttered as one into its collective cup of coffee. Remainers expressed shock that even a Brexitier could say something so utterly stupid, and Brexitiers wished fervently that Gove was not among their number. We all agreed that it was a fatuous remark. After all, aren’t doctors, lawyers and accountants experts? Aren’t chefs, mechanics and pilots experts? Aren’t architects, cartographers and engineers experts?
But were we right to splutter and sneer? Or despite his ridiculous-sounding assertion, did Gove actually have a point?
There has certainly been a snobbish preference for the amateur for a very long time. Prior to 1995, all English rugby union players were amateurs. No professional cricketer captained the England team until 1952. Only amateurs – or “gentlemen” -had the privilege. Many of the county sides didn’t allow professionals to lead them until well into the 1960s. During the 1920s, the Royal Geographical Society felt that even the conquest of Mount Everest should have been lead by an amateur. And so, the fearless, enthusiastic amateur, George Mallory received both its moral and financial support.
But does it really matter whether or not a rugby plater, or a cricketer, or a mountaineer is paid? Possibly not. But they are not the only groups of amateurs who can claim great prizes.
One of the greatest strengths of any democracy, is that in theory, anyone can head the government. You or I could stand for Parliament, rise through the ranks of our chosen party, and gain the seat of power. One of the greatest weaknesses of any democracy, is that in theory, anyone can head the government. No particular academic qualifications are needed, and not much experience is needed either. One of the most successful chancellors of the Exchequer, Kenneth Clarke, was a barrister, not an economist. He argued that that was an advantage, as he was not wedded to any economic dogma. There were also many economists at his disposal.
As a result of the pandemic, people have behaved as though they were experts in virology, immunology, interpretation of data, and the process of researching, developing, testing and marketing vaccines, and a whole host of other things they’d never even thought about before. Experts, on both sides of the scientific divide, were derided by many laypeople, and accused of being either pro government and big business, or weird lunatics.
And how did all of these amateurs become more expert than the experts? They read an article or two on the internet.
But possibly the most appalling display of people’s belief that the amateur is greater than the expert, has to be the tragic Nicola Bulley case. For three weeks, amateur reporters have been making ghoulish videos for their TikTok audiences, and amateur sleuths obsessed with “true crime” books, podcasts and Youtube videos, have been behaving as though they are Sherlock Holmes without the pipe. Both groups have been inconveniencing the locals, hampering the police, and adding to the considerable distress of the victim’s family. All for their own self-aggrandisement, and because they want to be more expert than the experts.
Of course economists, scientists and police officers should be questioned. That is perfectly right. But assuming, because we’ve read an article, or watched a documentary, that we laypeople know best, is wrong. It can make fools of people, or endanger people, or be cruel and insensitive.
So, is Michael Gove right? Have we had enough of experts? I don’t think so. I don’t think society ever had enough respect for experts to have had enough of them. Mind you, I’m no expert, so what do I know?
A Hymn To Him?
Yet again, the use of the English language is on my mind. On this occasion, it is because of a perceived inclusivity deficiency in the Church of England.
A group of clergy wishes to introduce gender-neutral hymns and prayers. God, they argue, is neither male nor female, so it is, therefore, not appropriate to use gender-specific pronouns. Not, of course, unless there is proper balance. Thus the Lord’s Prayer should begin “Our Father and Mother”, instead of “Our Father”. This idea will, they hope, be discussed by the Church of England’s ruling body, the General Synod. They hope for a ruling which will instruct the church’s Liturgical commission to authorise material for services which contains more “inclusive” language.
Whilst to some people, it seems straight forward, there are complications. A substantial number of hymns can’t be sensibly modified to bring them into line with this kind of thinking. How, for example, should “Praise, my soul, the King of heaven” be re-worded? Neither “monarch” nor “sovereign” scan, so “Praise, my soul, the Monarch …” and “Praise, my soul, the Sovereign of heaven” are both out. Should corporate terminology be used, thus “the Chair of heaven”? What on earth should be done with “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind”, the 23rd psalm, or the Magnificat? Although “They’ve got the whole world in Their hands” works. Mind you, I see no need to keep torturing primary school children, or their teachers, with that particular piece of tedium, regardless of which pronouns are used.
To be fair, these priests want this to apply to new hymns, but that could still pose a problem. Most successful changes are made gradually, not suddenly. A new liturgy and new hymns would be too much change for many. A new liturgy and old hymns could present a jarring contrast.
And how far would the changes have to go? Would the Holy Trinity need a slight re-labelling – “Parent, Son and holy Spirit”? Or would trinitarianism no longer be part of Church of England doctrine? Would it go beyond references to the Most High, and mean that a person would only ever be a godparent, never a godmother or godfather?
Many traditionalists are still upset by the use of modern translations of the Bible, and long for the splendour of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. But they understand that less complicated language might help to “spread the Word”. However, asking them to accept a new liturgy in order to accommodate current social mores, risks alienating them.
The counter to that, of course, is that change is necessary. The Church of England now allows divorcees to remarry, blesses civil unions, and ordains women. So why not allow some variation in God’s pronouns?
But does any of this really matter? After all, as we can’t know for certain whether or not God exists, it necessarily follows that we can’t know with any certainty about God’s gender. Perhaps Anglicans should accept what the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said in 2018? “All human language about God is inadequate and to some degree metaphorical. God is not a father in exactly the same way as a human being is a father. God is not male or female. God is not definable.”
So, should the Church of England accept the idea by musically and liturgically embracing the genderlessness of God? Or, given the fact that theology is already an intellectual minefield without having to try and determine how many, and which pronouns to use when referring to the Almighty, should the whole idea be quietly shelved?
We Are All Hypocrites
Last weekend, I enjoyed the book, Confessions, the autobiography of the broadcaster and journalist, Edward Stourton. You may recall my mentioning him with regard to accents a couple of months ago.
Amid all of the tales of his early years spent in various British colonies on the cusp of independence, his prep school (the now defunct Avisford), his public school (Ampleforth College), his time at university (Trinity College, Cambridge), and his illustrious career at both ITN and the BBC, Stourton made a linguistic point which particularly struck me. He remarks on the shift in meaning of the words “posh” and “elite”.
When he was growing up in the 1960s, and for that matter, when I was growing up two decades later, “posh” meant smart or glamourous. A particularly fine shirt, or a fountain pen, or a car, might be described as “posh”.
Similarly, “elite” meant the best. A national cricket or rugby team would be made up of an elite group of players taken from various clubs. Special forces were elite troops.
But these days, both words have taken on negative connotations. Posh people are derided as a group of people totally out of touch with reality. Depending on a person’s politics, either the “ruling Tory elite” or the “woke metropolitan elite”, must be distrusted and despised. Ownership of posh cars isn’t a sign of success any more, but rather that the owner is terribly pretentious, and has more money than sense. Elite schools are no longer outstanding places of learning to which parents can send their academically gifted children, but are evil hothouses for the sons and daughters of the rich where they will be taught how to maintain a downward tread upon the masses.
The two meanings of both words caused me to think about snobbery. In particular, its universality.
We are all familiar with the fact that there are those people who dismiss others, because they’re not from the “right sort of family”, or didn’t go to the “right kind of school”. Similarly, we are familiar with aspirational snobs, as lampooned to brilliant effect by Roy Clarke through his character, the appalling social climber, Hyacinth Bucket, in the sitcom, Keeping Up Appearances.
But of course, snobbery goes the other way too. So-called “reverse snobbery” is that which derides the “posh” and “elite”, as mentioned above. The Daily Mail, then later other newspapers, referred to Edward Stourton as “Posh Ed”. It wasn’t intended to flatter, but to pander to those who objected to well-educated, well-spoken people. The well-educated are, indeed, despised in certain quarters. Years ago, I knew someone who wouldn’t allow his daughter to accept a full scholarship to a private school. Such a school would, in his opinion, “make her forget who she is, and where she comes from”.
We all consider snobbery to be a deeply unpleasant human characteristic. It either angers us, or we have to laugh at the likes of Hyacinth Bucket, or the quip made by the one-time England cricket captain, the late Ray Illingworth about Jim Swanton, the distinguished cricket correspondent for The Daily Telegraph. “Jim’s such a snob that he won’t even travel in the same car as his chauffeur.”
Yet although we are all revolted by the snobbery of others, we fail to recognise it in ourselves. The music we listen to, the books and newspapers we read, the films and television programmes we watch, the clothes we wear, the food and drink we buy, the shops we patronise, the schools we choose for our children, and the cars we drive are just a few of the things that contribute to our own views of ourselves and our standing (whether that be cultural, intellectual or social), how we view other people, and how we are perceived, believe we are perceived, or would like to be perceived, by others. None of it should matter. But it does. Terribly.
Why are we all snobs, even though we believe that we abhor snobbery in all its forms? Perhaps it gives us a sense of belonging? If we adopt the manners, views and tastes of our chosen group, we will fit in better. Perhaps we need to feel superior to someone? If we are, or feel, superior to some, it compensates for being, or feeling, inferior to others. Or perhaps, it is simply that deep down, whether we like it or not, life conspires to make hypocrites of us all?
The Game of the Name
Do our names say anything about us? Or do they reveal more about our parents? Do parents consider the consequences of the names they bestow on their progeny?
The easy answer to the former question is I don’t know. The answer to the latter is probably not. Consider the names that celebrities choose, such as those given by David and Victoria Beckham for their brood – Brooklyn Joseph, Romeo James, Cruz David, and Harper Seven. Ah, how people laughed at the parents, and felt a little bit sorry for the children.
Then, in 2008, we heard about the couple from New Zealand, whose nine-year-old daughter was taken into court guardianship as a result of them naming her Talula Does the Hula From Hawaii. “What”, we all wanted to know, “were these people thinking?” It was not only an unforgivably stupid name to inflict on a child, but a deeply distressing one. As a result of the level of mockery she had to endure, she started introducing herself to any child who didn’t know her as Kate.
The judge expressed his displeasure at the “growing trend” of parents choosing out-of-the-ordinary names for their offspring. In his ruling, he revealed that names such as Stallion, Yeah Detroit, Fish and Chips, Twisty Poi, Keenan Got Lucy, and Sex Fruit had been prohibited by registration officials. Thank goodness for that. However, officials had allowed a pair of twins – presumably bred by chain smokers – to be named Benson and Hedges, and a collection of other children to be named Midnight Chardonnay, Number 16 Bus Shelter, and, appallingly, Violence.
But was the good Judge right to say that it was a “new trend”? The short answer is no.
In his delightful book, Morecock, Fartwell, and Hoare, Russell Ash reveals the silly, unfortunate, ironic, filthy, and yes, funny names he discovered in genealogical lists while researching his ancestry. They range from the brutally tragic Not Wanted James Colvill, to the frankly ridiculous New Year Beadle, the optimistically boastful Mary Goodlay, and the magnificently grandiloquent Dancell Dallphebo Marc Antony Dallery Gallery Caesar Williams. The aforementioned Mr Williams for one, was not the son of a pretentious, millennial hipster, but was baptised in the 17th century.
I could, with the greatest of pleasure, give you pages of these names. However, If I were to do so, Mr Ash might take me to court, which would be something of a nuisance. So I shall present a few of them for your delectation and delight.
The book is divided into various themed sections. The one concerning animals contains such delights as: Baboon Dalbert Anson, Liz Ard, Otter Bloodworth, Tom Cat, Dorothy Spider De La H Maddocks, Trout Holdsworth, Albatross Louisa Kingston, Kitty Litter, Emu Luckwill, Rubin Toad Pinkney, Ostrich Pockinghorn, Sarah Jane Shrew, and Clement Sparrow Wham.
If food and drink are your thing, you can read about the likes of: Ann Apple, Tom Ato, Mary Caramel Boot, Virtue Bible Curry, Louisa F De la Sausage, Al Dente, Sue Flay, Colly Flower, Margarine Fryer, Edith Mary Hudson Whis Key, Basil Leaf, Margret Coffee Maxwell, Trifle Muddock, Hazel Nutt, Agnes Etta Pepper, Bovril Simpson, and Agnes Semolina Thrower.
Ash also devotes a section to rhyme. There one comes across: Harry Carry, Agnise Chemise, Richard Stoat Float, Norman Gorman, Willy Nilly, Hugh Pugh, and Herbert Sherbert.
If you are linguistically squeamish, this paragraph may not be for you, as it concerns those names with have anatomical or sexual connotations, and therefore contains some very naughty words which some fools thought should be adopted as surnames, or be used as christian names for their children. Taken from various sections, we have: Betsy Cockin Beevers, Rebecca Bonks, Erasmus Bugger, William Deviant Christie, Everard Cock, Rhoda Cock, Willy Droop, Fanny Filling, John Knobs Henry, Mary Ann Cunt Hunt,, Francis Pervert Leconte, Thomas Fondle Manning, Pudendiana Ryan, Silly Trollope, Henry Twiceaday, Jane F Ucker, and Elizabeth Experience Withall. And for singletons and frustrated halves of couples who might need a helping hand, there are: Dick Handler, Jack Off, and Bertram H Wankwell.
Why? Why would people do that, to themselves or their children? Granted, a number of the above are surnames, so there are whole tribes of people with them, but that can, and in some cases should be changed. Some of the forenames though, seem cruel.
Yes, these names are funny. But most of us don’t have to live with them. The humour isn’t there for those who do. Heaven only knows what they had to endure, and what the unfortunately named children of our own time have to put up with. Having had to hear, when people discover my name, endless failed imitations of Prunella Scales, not to mention numerous attempts at vulpine-related humour from people who genuinely believe that they are the first person to have thought of one or other, I have an awareness of how things must have been, or must still be. But my name is not especially unusual, nor, I believe, is it ridiculous. I have, therefore, got off very lightly.
So, if you’re in the process of breeding, or are planning to do so, please think very carefully. When ploughing through books of names, laugh long, hard, joyfully and guiltlessly at all of the funny and strange names. Then move on. Pick something sensible. Otherwise, you will, as Rob Murfitt, the Judge in the “Talula” case might put it, expose your children to ridicule from their peers. It gives them what, in his ruling, he called, “a social disability and handicap”. That really isn’t a kind thing to do. Naming a child is not a game. A moment of humour can create a lifetime of misery.
What’s in a word? Can an attempt to be friendly, or to describe someone, truly offend, or do them harm? I don’t mean pejorative terms, but ordinary, everyday language, where no malice is intended.
The reason I ask, is that material has been leaked to the Guido Fawkes website, pertaining to a presentation given one lunchtime to a particular department at the Home Office. The subject of the presentation, was the dos and don’ts of language in relation to gender, sex, and sexuality. Given what follows, I should make it clear that the Home Office has stated that the suggestions made in the presentation are those of the person conducting it, not government guidelines.
We are becoming used to seeing, in email signatures, and even social media profiles, “preferred pronouns”. Were I, for example, to conform to such fashionable modernity, my email signature might read, “Basil Clement, he/him”. Someone identifying as a woman might write, “she/her”. A person identifying as nonbinary might opt for, “they/them.”. So far, so relatively uncomplicated. But then there are “mixed”, or “split” pronouns. Somebody’s preference might be for, “he/them”, or “they/her”.
But it can get worse. There are things, God help us,, called “neopronouns”. There are, apparently, people who wish to be referred to as “zie” or “ey”. Ghastly, aren’t they? I have no idea what they mean, but, I suppose, it doesn’t really matter. And to be fair, there is no law that says that a person’s comfort has to be euphonically pleasing.
Those who attended the presentation were also advised not to use the term “homosexual”. It is, apparently, perceived as a medical term, and people might get offended by being reduced to purely sexual terms. Instead, “gay” should be used. How that avoids doing the same thing, given that in this context, one is a synonym for the other, I don’t know. Sweet, merciful heavens. What a minefield.
But the most fascinatingly, fabulously, fantastically fatuous feature of this presentation, is the foolish notion that it is fundamentally wrong to address someone as “mate”. Yes, dear reader, you read that correctly. “Mate” is, it seems, a very, very bad word. True, there are times when it could be considered inappropriate. One wouldn’t write formal letters to the King, or the Prime Minister, or the editor of a newspaper, and begin them, “dear mate”. But in everyday conversation, it’s a perfectly reasonable thing to call someone.
A mate can be either a friend or a partner. And of course, there are numerous other kinds of mates including: “shipmates”, “housemates”, “roommates”, “classmates”, “workmates” (although these days, they are more often called “colleagues”, or the unnecessarily sesquipedalian “co-workers”), and “teammates”. The employees/trainees of electricians or plumbers are “mates”, prisons are filled with “inmates”, and the siblings of cats are “littermates”.
The word “mate” denotes neither gender nor sexual preference. People of all genders and none refer to their friends as “mates”. As do people of all sexual orientations. Should other synonyms for “friend”, such as “buddy” or “pal” be discouraged too? If “sir” or “madam” can’t be used because they are too gender-specific, terms of endearment should be avoided because they might be interpreted as inappropriate sexual advances, and “mate” is just wrong, what word should be used if one doesn’t know a person’s name?
You may be wondering, dear reader, what the exact problem is with the word “mate”. You would not be alone. Nobody seems to know. It wasn’t made clear in the presentation.
There were a number of other dos and don’ts. But they were all so banal that they are, quite frankly, beneath contempt, so I shan’t elevate your blood pressure or mine by chronicling them here.
As I have said, these are not government guidelines. And quite right too. They are utter nonsense, and therefore shouldn’t be. It is possible to treat everyone with curtesy and respect, without having to permeate discourse with linguistic trip hazards. They may be fashionable at the moment, but fashion is, by definition, ephemeral.
Civil servants should be left to get on with their jobs, and not be pestered by proponents of verbal virtue signalling. Goodness knows, it can be difficult enough to get anything out of the Civil Service at the best of times. But if they are forced into spending an inordinate amount of time on finding the current week’s acceptable terminology, it will be impossible.