How to slag off your old boss, in plain English

Chrissie Maher has spent her life fighting jargon. Now a tribunal has found for two employees who felt the rough side of her tongue. Kim Sengupta reports

It Was not something Chrissie Maher would have cared to be in the headlines for, but the accusation and the language in which it was put were plain enough: she was a gossip who had driven two of her employees to resign with unfounded allegations of an affair.

Martin Nobbs and his colleague Jill Cushway had resigned from the Plain English Campaign, founded and run by Mrs Maher to counter bureaucratic gibberish, and claimed constructive dismissal. Last week they heard that they had won their industrial tribunal action.

The candid sentiments and refreshing lack of jargon in the reaction of those involved at the end of the case was just the sort of straight talking of which Mrs Maher approves. Mr Nobbs' wife Christine, an infant school teacher, spoke of the "hideous pain, anger and distress the rumour had caused her", while her husband said the final straw had been Mrs Maher's decision to prevent him and Mrs Cushway from making a plain English presentation in Scarborough, Yorkshire, as part of a roadshow they operated together.

Mrs Maher, on the other hand, maintained: "This is a miscarriage of justice, I never started any rumour. I could think of something to say in plain English, but I had better not." She said during the row over the trip Mr Nobbs "threw his briefcase on my desk and asked why the f---ing hell he and Jill were not going."

At the Campaign's headquarters in New Mills, Derbyshire, staff did not want to dwell on this little local difficulty. One said it would be a shame if the adverse publicity made people forget Mrs Maher's remarkable achievements.

She has certainly had an extraordinary life. The Plain English Campaign is now well recognised, an established concern called in by government departments and international companies to disentangle the linguistic knots and verbiage which their documents had fallen into.

And its role does not end there. The Campaign helped draft the Bill of Rights for post-apartheid South Africa, and the new constitution of Ghana. It now has offices in the US and parts of Africa; the fifth international conference of the Campaign was held last July where sessions were devoted to topics such as financial information services, policing and the law, public utilities and trade unions. Chrissie Maher, a grandmother eight times over, is now one of the great and the good.

Yet she came from a world which could hardly have been more different. Growing up poor in Liverpool she seldom went to school, and often did not have shoes. Like other bright children denied a good education, she took refuge in books. But since even the local library would not let her come in barefoot, she had to search through dustbins for discarded ones.

Escape from this debilitating poverty and frustration came in the shape of an employer who sent her to night-school. It was, for Chrissie, a time of discovery tinged with uncertainty because she had not been taught the basics of English language and literature when she was young. Seeing her first Shakespeare production, she burst into tears because the audience was laughing and she could not understand why.

But a few years later Mrs Maher had enough confidence to launch a widely praised community newspaper, the Tuebrook Bugle. Then it was time to take the message of plain, good English beyond Liverpool. In 1979 she went to Parliament Square and began shredding official documents. She was read a stern official warning, the Riot Act, by a policeman. When he had finished parroting through it Chrissie asked "Does that gobbledygook mean we have to go?"

Having fallen foul of officialdom, Mrs Maher decided to do something about it. She and a friend, Martin Cutts, started the Plain English Campaign. The then Supplementary Benefits Commission asked her to translate its forms into a style which its clients could understand more easily.

With messianic zeal she moved to other targets, and now few official bodies escape her censure. Academics "use jargon which is intended to exclude", the Inland Revenue self-assessment forms are akin to "tax terrorism", and "the Health and Safety Executive must be amongst the worst communicators on the planet".

But Mrs Maher's own communications have not always been trouble free. The industrial tribunal case brought by Mr Nobbs and Mrs Cushway is not the first time she had fallen out with colleagues. Her working relationship with Martin Cutts ended in acrimony in 1988, and he established the rival Plain English Commission the following year.

Verbal warfare broke out in 1995 when Mr Cutts' Commission began to give out prizes for clear language, something the Campaign had been doing since 1981. To rub it in he gave a booby prize, a Silver Rhubarb, to the National Westminster Bank who had been nominated approvingly by her as Crystal Clear Bank of Europe for the ease with which its literature could be understood.

An angry Mrs Maher declared: "He should be ashamed of himself. He is deliberately trying to undermine a grassroots movement. He was a student from Liverpool University when I found him."

Mrs Maher has her own booby prize, a bucket of tripe, which she likes to dish out. After the embarrassment of the industrial tribunal many of her detractors feel the only thing to do is to serve herself some.

News
people
News
people And here is why...
News
peopleStella McCartney apologises over controversial Instagram picture
Life and Style
Laid bare: the Good2Go app ensures people have a chance to make their intentions clear about having sex
techCould Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Burr remains the baker to beat on the Great British Bake Off
tvRichard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
News
i100
Sport
footballArsenal 4 Galatasaray 1: Wenger celebrates 18th anniversary in style
Arts and Entertainment
Amazon has added a cautionary warning to Tom and Jerry cartoons on its streaming service
tv
News
people
News
The village was originally named Llansanffraid-ym-Mechain after the Celtic female Saint Brigit, but the name was changed 150 years ago to Llansantffraid – a decision which suggests the incorrect gender of the saint
newsWelsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
Arts and Entertainment
Kristen Scott Thomas in Electra at the Old Vic
theatreReview: Kristin Scott Thomas is magnificent in a five-star performance of ‘Electra’
News
Destructive discourse: Jewish boys look at anti-Semitic graffiti sprayed on to the walls of the synagogue in March 2006, near Tel Aviv
peopleAt the start of Yom Kippur and with anti-Semitism flourishing, one Jew can no longer ignore his identity
Life and Style
Couples who boast about their relationship have been condemned as the most annoying Facebook users
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Hayley Williams performs with Paramore in New York
musicParamore singer says 'Steal Your Girl' is itself stolen from a New Found Glory hit
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Associate Recrutiment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Group have been well ...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE: SThree: Real Staffing Group is seeking Traine...

Year 6 Teacher (interventions)

£120 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: We have an exciting opportunity...

PMLD Teacher

Competitive: Randstad Education Manchester: SEN Teacher urgently required for ...

Day In a Page

Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
Time to stop running: At the start of Yom Kippur and with anti-Semitism flourishing, one Jew can no longer ignore his identity

Time to stop running

At the start of Yom Kippur and with anti-Semitism flourishing, one Jew can no longer ignore his identity
Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

An app for the amorous

Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

She's having a laugh

Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

Let there be light

Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

A look to the future

It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
The 10 best bedspreads

The 10 best bedspreads

Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

Arsenal vs Galatasaray

Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence