John Walsh on Monday: The sheriff of Dulwich Village County
Prolific writer and commentator John Walsh contributes columns to the paper as well as writing features, interviews and restaurant reviews. He has been editor of The Independent Magazine, literary editor of the Sunday Times and features editor of the London Evening Standard.
Monday 22 February 1999
I wonder if this could explain the behaviour of Jack Straw, the Home Secretary. The man responsible for implementing his party's manifesto commitment about "being tough" on crime, the man nominally in charge of all law- enforcement personnel in the country, Mr Straw sometimes sounds like a chap stuck in a dream of tough-guy adventure who cannot awake from it.
Every few months he is reported as having had a pop at some villain. Either he is mugged, upon which he informs the mugger "You're making a big mistake", like Harrison Ford in Witness, and runs after him until the miscreant trips over a convenient tree-root and is apprehended; or Straw is burgled, whereupon he murmurs "A man's gotta know his limitations", like Clint Eastwood in Magnum Force, and pursues the fleeing intruder until he is trapped in some impassable handball alley, gives himself up and Mr Straw carves another citizen's arrest on his truncheon.
It seems to have happened all through Mr Straw's career; the other day he was at it again, "intervening" when he saw a teenager spitting at people. ("He gave me quite a lot of lip, but after a while he calmed down" said Straw modestly, unaccountably failing to add, "It's all in a day's work for Home Office Man ...").
I'm not saying the Home Secretary invents these exciting excursions; but they seem to happen to him so much he must have started believing he's living in some tough-guy movie. We can all, I think, imagine Mr Straw standing before the mirror in his bathroom, levelling a can of Gillette eezy-foam at his reflection and saying "You talkin' to me? Who are you calling Four Eyes?"
And now this doughty crusader, this silver-haired vigilante, is suggesting we should all have a go at crime in the streets. We should, he thinks, create more "capable guardians" in society, by which he means capable of standing up to criminals and getting away with it.
By spooky coincidence, the same day the Home Secretary's initiative made the papers, I got a letter from a friendly neighbourhood WPC called Zoe, asking if I'd like to join a neighbourhood watch scheme. Why yes, Zoe, that seems a lovely idea. And, fired by Mr Straw's example, I set off around the neighbourhood.
Outside the dry cleaners a young thug hawked vigorously and spat on the pavement. I remonstrated, demanded he clean it off the ground and put it back in his mouth, which he did, apologising for his uncouth behaviour. Past the Crown and Greyhound a man was playing the three-card trick to gullible passers-by. I intervened, explained the error of his ways, confiscated his cards, took his money and his upturned cardboard box and sent him packing. He apologies humbly for any inconvenience. By the Pizza Express I subdued a violent rapist by shouting "Hold the pepperoni!" and other distracting cries before sending him off with a resounding kick in the pants. Outside the post office I bumped into three robbers with balaclavas and Uzi automatic weapons. "Look," I told them, "This simply will not do. It's just not on, d'you hear?" They removed their headgear. "He's right, you know," they told each other, and handed in their guns to the lollipop man at the pedestrian crossing.
Outside the local school I chased away the swarthy youths with terrible skin who were offering syringes to the scholars. As they ran off they shouted "I am frankly ashamed of my anti-social modus vivendi". I foiled a ram-raid on Dog Kennel Hill by saying "I am the Home Secretary and this is an intervention" quite loudly, before commandeering a truck and giving chase as far as Nunhead.
It felt great. Thanks, Home Sec. Life becomes so much more interesting when you're locked into Jack Straw mode.
uBlimey, kids say the damnedest things dept: The son of a friend found his father watching a programme about the Beirut hostages. Seeing footage of Terry Waite, newly released from captivity, he said "Who's that man, Daddy?" A very brave man, his father explained, he worked for the Archbishop of Canterbury as a sort of missionary. And when some British folk were kidnapped in the Middle East by these awful people called the, er, Druze militia, Terry Waite went out to Beirut, this big city in the Lebanon, to get them out of jail. But instead, he was himself captured and imprisoned - and for four years, can you imagine this, he was chained to a radiator. "Golly," said the six-year-old. "Was it on?"
The saga of Oxford University Press and its decommissioned poets continues to roll along nicely. The universally vilified publishing house is still in discussions with the Oxford English faculty about how it might make poetry profitable, a discussion that could take decades - but along the way it has thrown up an interesting sidelight.
Writing in the TLS two weeks ago, Sir Keith Thomas, chairman of the finance committee that rubber-stamped the Press's decision to bin the poets, denied standards were falling at the publishing house. Standards were, au contraire, "exceptionally high ... enforced by a legendary copy-editor who can read 40 different languages".
Who is this polyglot? His name came up a week later, when Henry Hardy of Wolfson College replied in the TLS, pouring scorn on Sir Keith and on the OUP. "Leofranc Holford-Strevens," he wrote aloofly, "edits the books in his care with genius ... but his writ does not run more widely".
Leofranc! A quarter-century has gone by since I last heard that unfeasibly peculiar name. He was a legend even then, the archetype of the eccentric Oxford don, without actually being one. Now 52, he has worked for the publishers since 1971. Awestruck undergraduates pointed him out in the street - not difficult, since he walked like a man in the grip of St Vitus's Dance, gesticulated like Joe Cocker at the climax of "A Little Help From my Friends", pulled faces like someone with toothache and wore jumpers with enormous holes, the result of their owner's nervous habit of plucking woollen strands with fidgety fingers. He was, allegedly, denied entry to the academic Valhalla of All Souls College because his table manners were too medieval. As the most junior member of the Senior Common Room at Christ Church, his flood of erudition from the corner of the room so amused W. H. Auden that he shushed his fellow dons' attempts to make conversation, in order that he could eavesdrop in peace.
My favourite Leofranc story concerns the 1967 Classics Mods exam paper, on which a passage of Homeric Greek was accompanied by the word: "Translate." It didn't say, "Translate into English", so Holford-Strevens translated it into something else. It seemed to be some form of German but the German faculty couldn't make head nor tale of it. Refusing to admit defeat, they sent it to the Saxon Philology department, but they were none the wiser. The university then tried, successively, the Bavarian Dialect Society, the Black Forest Patois Association, the Hohenzollern Advanced Linguistics Symposium, but they all shook their heads and said "Sorry". Finally they sent it to every university in Germany - and finally got a reply.
"We think it's a specialised form of peasant argot spoken by Frieslander farmers in the 19th century," said the letter. "There are only two people in the world who speak it now. One's an elderly shepherd who's in a nursing home in Leipzig. And the other is a bloke called Leofranc who lives in Oxford."
"It's a good story," he conceded when we spoke last week, "but it's very exaggerated. What actually happened was an exam question asked for comparisons between Homeric and other forms of epic, so I wrote about The Singer of Tales from the Bosnian epic tradition, and happened to quote a chunk of Serbo-Croat. The rest is just humorous elaboration by people at the Oxford Union."
How did he come to speak 40 languages? "My father started me on French, Spanish and German in my early childhood, and always regretted not having studied Latin and Greek, so I did those too. I began the Slavonic languages when the Sputnik went up and a boy in my class decided to learn Russian. The same thing happened with Arabic. As for Chinese and Sanskrit ..." What a guy. Or should I say, quel homme? Or quello uomo? (Unfortunately, that's all I can say).
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