Tales of the City: Goodlee byelode Mr.Unwin

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The Independent Online

Stanley Unwin, who died yesterday, was sometimes confused with Sir Stanley of Allen & Unwin, the original publishers of The Lord of the Rings. Sir Stan was a grandee, an old-fashioned publisher, an establishment figure. The other Mr Unwin was a very different kettle of fishibold. He was an elderly-looking, schoolmasterly cove in a raincoat and bowler hat and appeared, seemingly from nowhere, on television screens in the early Sixties, talking bollocks. I am not being rude. It's what he did for a living. He didn't tell jokes. He wasn't funny in any comic way. He would just appear as a walk-on part in British B movies and do his stuff ("I wish to report-ee-ole a robberibold" would be a wan approximation), leaving on-screen policemen scratching their heads, and viewers in stitches.

I assumed he'd been around for years, and was a professor of linguistics. I waited for someone to explain that Unwin's patois, called "gobbledegook", had an honourable tradition, was in fact a Middle English dialect from the hill villages of Mercia, and that he was its last fluent speaker. No such distinguished provenance ever emerged. Unwin was a BBC engineer who just made the whole thing up, inspired by his mother's quirky conversational hybrid of Mrs Malaprop and the Reverend Spooner. He was a music-hall turn – the man with a language all his own. Sometimes he sounded a mere punster, like John Lennon in his literary phase, and threw words like "floobricious" around. But he could twist the English language into gorgeous curlicues and rogue portmanteaux that Joyce himself might have envied, as when he (Unwin) praised "the profundilio of their Beatlyricism".

But how terribly British the Unwin phenomenon was. No other country, surely, would make a star of a man who mangled the mother tongue, in the style of a 10-year-old seeking to amuse his five-year-old sister. It takes a special kind of eccentric to appear on a classic rock LP in the Sixties (Ogden's Nut Gone Flake by the Small Faces) and be found negotiating a contract with a re-formed Clash in 1995.

And I treasure the moment when Gerry Anderson of Thunderbirds fame invented a new puppet adventure series called The Secret Service, starring the voice of Stanley Unwin, who was playing a vicar who secretly worked in counter-intelligence. He trotted along to Lew Grade and showed him the pilot. At one point, the Rev Unwin is (with a certain inevitability) stopped by the police and proceeds to gobbledegook his way out of trouble. Lord Grade jumped up, waved his arms and said: "I'm cancelling the show – they'll never understand it in America!". The difference being, of course, that British audiences quite like not understanding things. Time for a celebratory CD, I think. Oh deepjoy.

Ireland punt gets kicked into touch

I've just been on a flying visit to Ireland, where the talk is mostly of the euro. I didn't realise how comprehensively the thing had taken over Irish tills – I thought I'd still be able to buy punts at a bureau de change, for use in the little backward shebeens of the west coast. But the shebeens are practically humming with technology; every bar has its own flip-up instant conversion machine, and every gimlet-eyed Irish barmaid turns a look of utter disdain on any customers who try to press "cabbage leaves" of punts on her. Meanwhile, one argument dominates in pubs. If a visiting Englishman starts bewailing the loss of national identity as the price he'll pay for having a continental currency, your neighbours will point to euro coins and show you the little harps in the centre – there (they'll say), the emblem of Irishness is still there, in the middle of an otherwise common currency. And you say, uh-huh. But what about the banknotes? And they'll pull out a euro-tenner, with its map of Europe on the back and its illustration of some vaulted architecture on the front and say: "There, look. That's an Irish tomb. If we were in Italy 'twould be a Venetian lock or something." Are you sure, I said, maybe a dozen times. "Oh yeah, definitely," they replied. "It's, er, Powerscourt in Co Kildare. Famous Irish vault."

I'm sure it can't be true. But I can't tell whether my co-drinkers had got it wrong, or I was being had, several times over.

Her Madge and the royal priest

A Freelance photographer aims a camera at Prince William and is told to "Piss off Postlethwaite". François Ortet, the chef and undermanager of the Rattlebone Inn, allows Prince Harry to get sloshed on his premises and is called an effing frog for his pains. It gets harder and harder, doesn't it, to love the Royal Family. But we go on trying. So the broadsheet papers yesterday all shared the headline, "Prince praised for handling of Harry's drinking". Well done, sir. You told him off a bit, asked him about spliffs, then whizzed him to south London and introduced him to a few hard-drug users. Jolly good idea. Some useful contacts there, I should think...

Being ludicrously nice to the Royals is an ancient game, and we've had a prime example of it lately, in the tidal wave of tittle-tattle about HM the Queen that's appeared in two conservative newspapers. It's been a joy to read, because of the crackpot minutiae dredged up by palace retainers, equerries and private secretaries to try and give Her Madge some semblance of personality. We learn that, when super-charmer Sir Christopher Soames said to her: "Goodness, Ma'am, you look pretty today," she retorted, quick as a flash: "Oh, do I?" No really, she just came right out with it.

A lucky woman who dined at Balmoral watched the Queen clearing the plates away, and "asked whether I could help clear up, but the Queen said 'No, thank you'." She didn't! Well, blow me down... With a lot of heavy breathing, one ex-courtier revealed how intensely, sweatily sexual HM could become. "She measured her hand against mine," he groans, "and, when I was teasing her, said rather coquettishly: "If you go on like that, I'll stamp on your foot!" My word, that is coquettish. So, I believe, is a punch in the solar plexus and a karate chop to the carotid artery.

So it drifts on, the lazy flood of royal remembrances. Unfortunately, most of them, even the nicely-intended ones, reveal the lady to be a chilly, distant, rude, offhand, socially maladroit and conversationally dyslexic misogynist. But you can still hear people straining a tendon to find something pleasant to say about her.

My favourite bit of trying-too-hard royal flattery comes from a lady described as "a regular guest at Balmoral". A veteran of the shooting field, she explains how brilliant the Queen is at something special: "Even the best shots wound birds terribly. The Queen takes infinite pains to find them and finish them off. She carries a priest, which is a sort of miniature police baton with a weight at the end. When she gets a wounded bird, she hits it on the back of the head and it's dead in a trice. They're really humane killers – it's so much better than wringing necks."

I think it's the phrase "dead in a trice" that gives the real Nancy Mitford effect here. At last we know what to say when horrid people wonder aloud what the Royals are any good at. Bashing birds to death with a nasty priest, that's what.

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