Diary

At the recent uproarious Oldie lunch, Hugh Cudlipp (81) looked around at Larry Adler (80), William Deedes (81), Denis Healey (77), Spike Milligan (76), Denis Thatcher (79) and a clutch of other chronologically- challenged guests and observed: "It's more like the Last Supper than a lunch." He reports that the remark was thought to be in bad taste.

In the course of research the other day, reading a series of 1950s telegrams of the "DEAR-JOSEPHINE-COLON-WHAT-A-PLEASURE-EXCLAMATION-MARK-CAN-YOU- LUNCH-WEDNESDAY-QUESTION-MARK-IVY-QUESTION-MARK" variety, I lapsed into a familiar fit of bitterness about the fun that went out of our lives when the soulless Post Office abolished that wonderful means of communication.

The magic of the medium first became apparent to me as a child. There were the tragic telegrams in war movies, with English roses summoning up all their courage to take the envelope from the delivery boy. And in the Wodehouse canon there were all those criss-crossing wires saying things like: "WHEN MEET REMEMBER PERFECT STRANGERS" or "OH BERTIE, IS THIS WISE? WILL NOT IT CAUSE YOU NEEDLESS PAIN SEEING ME? SURELY MERELY TWISTING KNIFE WOUND. MADELAINE."

Then at university there was the fun of a professor, who had perfected the telegram as an unscrupulous social device. Desmond Williams - the most unreliable man anyone ever met - liked to keep his options open by sending to the same person two telegrams simultaneously: "CONFIRM LUNCH TODAY SHELBOURNE" and "DEEPLY REGRET CANNOT LUNCH TODAY".

I remember well my very first telegram, which was addressed to my great- uncle Parnell in County Cork. A man who had acquired his nickname because of a youthful enthusiasm for the great Irish leader, he would have been in his early nineties and I in my early teens. My father, a believer in delegation, instructed me to communicate that Parnell's sister had died in Dublin but that her body was being dispatched to be buried in the family graveyard. I dictated importantly: "REGRET GREAT AUNT HANNAH DIED THIS MORNING STOP REMAINS BEING REMOVED TO BANTEER TOMORROW STOP TRAIN LEAVING 11.15 AM." My deeply distressed relative clambered on his bike and cycled furiously the 10 miles or so to my aunt and rushed in shouting: "How in the name of Jaysus am I supposed to stop Hannie's remains being removed from Dublin? What kind of people are they there at all, thinking I can stop a train?" A salutary lesson about the need to avoid ambiguity.

Speaking of "at all", for years the Irish propensity for saying this has been ridiculed in jokes like: "Yellow line - no parking at all; Double yellow lines - no parking at all at all." Nowadays, while it rarely crosses an Irish lip, "at all" has become an integral part of Essex-lingo. Whereas with us it was simply a meaningless manifestation of our garrulousness, the Essex version, meant to be polite, is actually often offensive. Rather than saying: "Which doctor are you here to see?" or: "May I have your credit card, please?" one is now asked: "Do you know who you're here to see at all?" or: "Do you have your credit card at all?" implying by turns stupidity or incompetence.

Some people seem very quick to see incompetence - or at least illiteracy - where it may not exist. In my first diary I mentioned climbing with two friends on to a roundabout "on top, respectively, of two horses and a farmyard bird". My accountant, aka my pedant, has passed to me a letter which read: "Dear Paul, As Ruth's professional pedant, you should explain the use of `respectively'. If it means anything, it means that she rode both horses while her friends shared the bird." So why should you think that odd, Nick? Should you not have had the delicacy to realise that I may be larger and my two friends friendlier than is customary in your circle?

Now for a few more entries to the common-cold competition, none of which is for the squeamish. Richard Percy's was philosophical: "The cat-sick on the shag-pile carpet of life." Pat White revoltingly suggested "mushy pea soup" as conveying "the colour, flavour, density and Englishness" of the condition. James Johnstone offered three horrid definitions: "semolina in my sinuses; or, my septum needs a new washer; or, I've got a head full of congealed porridge". But had there been a prize for the most disgusting it would have gone to Bryan Conner Cooper for: "A head akin to a bladder, full to bursting with warm oysters in raw egg white and insecurely tied". Runners-up and winner next week.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
voices
News
general electionThis quiz matches undecided voters with the best party for them
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen starred in the big screen adaptation of Austen's novel in 2005
tvStar says studios are forcing actors to get buff for period roles
News
Prince William and his wife Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge show their newly-born daughter, their second child, to the media outside the Lindo Wing at St Mary's Hospital in central London, on 2 May 2015.
news
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
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

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Ashdown Group: Part-time Payroll Officer - Yorkshire - Professional Services

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful professional services firm is lo...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before