Paul Vallely is Associate Editor of The Independent where he writes on social, ethical, political and cultural issues. He writes leaders, features and has a weekly column in the Independent on Sunday. He was co-author of the report of the Commission for Africa and has chaired several development charities.
Friday 04 August 1995
Mr Hirrs seems nonplussed. Perhaps things will change when the planning department is privatised, he says. Privatised? How do you privatise a planning department? In some nations it would just mean paying the bribes over instead of under the counter. Not in Westminster. I phoned my planning dept mole to inquire. "Yes, they're doing a report into it," Moley said. "I can't say it seems much of an idea myself, but that's not the way my political masters see it."
After a week of your helpful suggestions I am none the wiser about my bank's cash machine message: "Never use a temporary card reader." A number of people took the request seriously and began detailed technical accounts of hi-tech bank card fraudsters. Most of these began with variants of "the answer is obvious" and then each proceeded to outline entirely different explanations.
More intriguing was the suggestion from M Joy in Mold that it was the product of a dyslexic programmer and should have read: "Never sue a Tipperary car dealer". Peter Stringer, from Huddersfield, offered a lengthy story about Moscow sandwich machines which consist of old ladies who sit inside and push unwrapped chunks of bread to you through a slot when you put in your roubles. Martin Brown in Coventry, who suggests it is style advice from a faulty voice-recognition computer, wins the bottle of Bollinger I offered, not so much for his revelation that the slogan should read: "Leather shoes are tan for any car trader" as for the lengthy table of sartorial advice he reckons it will next offer to housing association tenants, mortgagees, money launderers and even bank robbers. Still no word from the NatWest.
The row about the acceptability of split infinitives boils down to whether grammar is a tool for making communication easier or whether it is an arcanum to demarcate the really educated from the plebs.
But why restrict yourself to split infinitives when split infinities could be the battleground? It all brings to mind the satirical advertisement passed around sub rosa by fairly distinguished chaps in the Vatican when the Pope was putting the final touches to the new Catholic Catechism. It ended: "Order now and get a free New Testament obfuscator ... the handy reference work that allows you to turn all the saying and deeds of Jesus into rules and regulations - right in your own home."
What is it about books that endows them with the qualities we normally attribute only to people? Just as the burning of a book provokes a sense of unease so the abandonment of one induces something approaching that of pity. I found a couple of boxes of books dumped in a skip the other day. There, among the broken-up fireplace and the distraught venetian blinds, lay Short Exercises in Latin Prose Composition by the Rev Henry Belcher (1927) and The Cowley Carol Book, compiled and arranged by the Rev GR Woodward, with translations from the old German. They sat in a forlorn film of dust alongside Manzoni's I Promessi Sposi in the original, a Polish grammar primer and Julian Huxley's Religion without Revelation.
Who had once treasured these melancholy foundlings and what unseen force had broken their life apart? As I sifted through, the mystery only deepened. There was God's Bandit by Douglas Hyde, the one-time editor of the Morning Star, who famously abandoned Communism for Catholicism in (I think) the 1950s. It was signed by Eamon de Valera. There was Dawson's seminal Religion and the Modern State with a charming frontispiece by Eric Gill. Eerily it had been inscribed more than 40 years ago in the hand of an old friend of mine who died some months ago. Most mysteriously there was a small volume with a blank white binding. It turned out to be a copy of the New English Bible, cared for, and with its dust-jacket turned inside out as if someone was ashamed to be throwing it away. Closer inspection revealed that the jacket had been reversed long ago, as though its owner was wont to read it in a railway carriage surrounded by Daily Sport readers.
Like a would-be parent in an orphanage I made my selection, then carried my new charges home, holding them carefully, as if they might bruise. That evening I passed the skip again and was pleased to find that the box was quite empty. The others had been adopted, too.
Sob story of the week: Yesterday I received a letter from my publishers telling me that two of my books are to be remaindered and asking me if I wanted to buy them at a discount. Me? I've already got a copy of both. Aargh! I tell you this partly on the principle beloved of vicars and therapists about the efficacy of sharing suffering - this is the ultimate authorial nightmare. But partly I would welcome suggestions.
There are 903 copies left of my 1993 children's book Daniel and the Mischief Boy - true(ish) stories from an African village for 8- to 10-year-olds (UK price pounds 5.99), just in case there are any full-price readers left out there. But there are a towering 8,572 copies left of Promised Lands (1992, pounds 7.99 - stories of power and poverty in the struggle for land in the Third World, with splendid pix by ace photographer Mike Goldwater). This is not as bad as it sounds, since the print run was 20,000.
Yet what can you do with 8,572 copies of a book on Third World land reform? Another bottle of Bolly for the best idea. The book is about 7" by 9" and is half-an-inch thick - information which, I predict, the more technological or literal readers will probably require.
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