A nice how-d'ye-do about a man called Hajdu

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I was in the pub the other day carrying a book with me, on the principle that books are a good substitute for conversation. If there's nobody to talk to, you can pull a book out and start reading it. I find this pays off in supermarket check-out queues, when you have to wait for 10 minutes for the woman in front to find her credit card.

"What's that book, then?" said the man next to me, who for the purposes of this conversation I shall identify as "the man".

"You wouldn't be interested," I said.

"How do you know?" said the man.

"Because you're not interested in books," said his wife, whom I shall refer to as "his wife", although this may have unfortunate possessive overtones to feminist ears.

"I'm not interested in all books," said the man defensively,"but I'm interested in some books. By the law of averages, there's bound to be some books I'm interested in. What book is it?"

"It's a biography of Billy Strayhorn," I said.

There was a long pause.

"You're right," said the man. "I'm not interested in that. It's a rule of mine that if you've never heard of the bloke the book's about, there's a fair chance you're not going to be much interested in his life. Is it by anyone famous?"

"A man called David Hajdu," I said, showing him the book.

"Now I'm interested again," said the man. "I'm interested in how anyone can have a name like that."

"No, you're not," said his wife. "You've never been interested in names."

"Not before," said the man. "But I'd never met a name like Hajdu. I'm interested now. Where's he from?"

"America," I said.

"Well, that's no clue," said the man. "Could be from anywhere, an American name. Hajdu. Hajdu."

"Sounds Albanian to me," I said. "The Albanians specialise in those names that look like leftover Scrabble hands. Enver Hoxha, for instance."

"Could be, " said the man. "Hajdu ..."

"How do you do?" said the landlord, arriving at this moment.

"Interesting that you heard the name 'Hajdu' as 'How d'ye do?' " said the man. "It just goes to show that we never really think about what we're saying."

"What are you talking about?" said his wife. "I always think about what I am saying."

"No, you don't," said the man. "This morning I heard you say you were on tenterhooks. But you don't know what tenterhooks are."

"I bet you don't know either," said the wife.

"No, I don't," said the man. "But I don't go around talking about tenterhooks.

"I'll give you another example. We don't talk about stupid children any more - we talk about children with learning difficulties. But we still talk about bad teachers. We don't talk about grown-ups with teaching difficulties."

There was a silence here. Everyone knew he had made a good point, but nobody knew what it was. When this happens, you either wait for clarification or change the subject. I changed the subject.

"I'll tell you one expression which has always puzzled me," I said, "and that is that strange euphemism for sex - to have 'carnal knowledge' of someone. In my experience, knowledge is very seldom involved. I think to have 'carnal ignorance' of someone would be nearer the mark."

The wife frowned, but the man smiled and nodded, as if reminded of some private memory.

"You're right," he said. "And how about 'worried stiff'? That's a strange expression when you think about it. When I'm worried, I don't stiffen. I collapse. I fold up. 'Worried limp' would be nearer the mark than 'worried stiff'."

He looked at the book again.

"Hajdu," he said. "Where else would you find a name like that but in America? Or Albania," he said to me, as a concession.

"In film credits," said his wife. "The weirdest names always crop up in film credits. Of all nations."

"Name one," said the man.

"I knew you might ask," said the wife, "so I wrote one down I saw on TV the other day. Here it is." She searched in her handbag.

"Rudd Weatherwax," she read from a small notepad.

"What film did you find that in?" said the man scornfully.

"All the old Lassie films have it. There is a credit saying 'Lassie trained by Rudd Weatherwax'."

There was a pause. The man drained his glass.

"What would you like?" he said to me.

A chance to read my book, I thought. But it was too late. I was trapped inside another pub conversation. It was my fault for bringing a book, really.