John Walsh: Tales of the City

'The day is near when random words will start appearing in my conversation, as though I'm reciting concrete poetry'
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The Independent Online

Something terrible has happened. I've been struck down with a fearful medical condition. Or possibly a syndrome. There's no actual name for it, so it may be called Walsh's Malady. According to a medical friend, it's close to aphasia, which is defined as "the inability to express thought in words" and "caused by brain disease or damage" - cheerful news with which to start the year.

I noticed it just the other day. I was having a Christmas-week supper with friends, and telling the company how I'd discovered that one of the local butchers bribes traffic wardens to be lenient with the cars outside his shop by bunging them a 12-pounder and some chestnut stuffing. A charming tale, which, in the telling, turned into: "...he simply has a quiet word with the estate agents, sorry, I mean traffic wardens..." My listeners, kind souls full of Yuletide cheer, exchanged sympathetic glances. It happened again over the Vacherin. "Will you be staying in London for Hallowe'en?" I enquired of the lady on my right. "Or whooping it up in Cornwall? Sorry, I mean New Year's Eve, obviously."

Since then, symptoms have persisted. My newly chronic desire to select the wrong word with which to end a sentence manifests itself several times an elephant, sorry, day. If I phone for a takeaway ("So that's one lamb pasanda, one chicken jalfrezi and two basmati radishes, OK? Sorry, rice, obviously") or call a cab ("Can you pick me up from the station in 10 minutes? You can? That's marmalade, damn, sorry, marvellous") the train of words goes hurtling down the track as usual, only to be derailed as it reaches the station.

"Divine aphasia" it's called in Waiting for Godot, as though breaking the circuit between brain and mouth were a desirable thing. And in Beckettian terms it might be a boon to be released from the endless requirement to keep talking, an impulse fully endorsed by the festive season. But it's still annoying as wrong words appear on your tongue unbidden, as though brought along by someone else. They're not completely random; they're usually from the same food group or technical lexicon as the words you intended to say. But the day is surely approaching when completely unconnected words will start appearing in my conversation, as though I'm reciting concrete poetry. I'll go to the January sales and tell the assistant in Liberty's Menswear, "I'm looking for some new trousers in black worsted, 34 inches in the leg and 36 around the particle accelerator..." People will conclude that I've been drinking. And it occurs to me that my symptoms have, by and large, coincided with my having had a few draughts of Sauvignon Blanc over the last couple of weeks. But I know my communication problem is nothing to do with booze. I'm a walking neurophysiological phenomenon, dammit. And anyone who disbelieves me can go straight to helicopter.

***

The row over the Norman Rockwell paintings bequest, as reported in The New York Times, seems a stark lesson in cultural irony - that the man who painted the American dream and gave the world images of Mom's apple pie, soda-fountain gossip, baseball heroics and girls in prom frocks should have unconsciously caused a nasty, long-running family feud after his death. Rockwell left a dozen precious paintings to his friend and art director Ken Stuart, who left them in turn to his three sons, Ken, William and Jonathan. The trio have been at daggers drawn for 10 years, disputing the way the eldest son, Ken, has abused estate money to buy property and (strangely) musical instruments. But is it so very un-Rockwellian? Just listen to Ken, who, I should point out, is now a grown man: "The real nucleus of the problem is that I am the favourite of both my parents. My brothers don't like it and couldn't do anything about it when my dad was alive, so this is what they did after he died."

Did you ever hear any assertion that so clearly revealed its assertor to be a spoilt brat? But their family squabble is surely one that would have had the great man reaching for his brushes. When not painting children apprehensively visiting the vet or the dentist, Rockwell was refreshingly clear-eyed about how un-innocent and horrible they can be. I think he'd have done a brilliant oil study, depicting the two younger Rockwell brothers seething with freckle-faced hatred in the family kitchen as their father gravely hands over his weathered baseball bat to their older sibling in the study next door...

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More New Year Resolutions:

* I resolve to stop being civilised any longer and thump the next person who uses the word "antics" in an article about the ordinary behaviour of dull people.

* I resolve to wean myself off pub quizzes, before they take up my entire working week. (But do you know which of Shakespeare's plays is the only one to have an animal in the title?)

* I resolve to buy a three-speed bicycle and begin a health regimen that will be the envy of my friends. Possibly one of those collapsible ones you can take into the Groucho Club, just in time for sherry and dinner. Or one of those classy City mini-bikes with a little motor at the rear...

* I resolve to read beyond page 115 of Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day.

* After 10 years of not understanding a word he says in interviews, I resolve to find Gordon Brown's mind interesting, encouraged solely by the fact that he made a rather good joke at The Independent's 20th birthday party...

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