We reported on Monday that Lord Blencathra, a “senior Conservative”, had signed a contract which appeared to commit him to lobby his fellow parliamentarians on behalf of the Cayman Islands. Our front-page report described him as a former Tory Chief Whip, but his title would have been obscure to most readers. I wondered if he had been the party’s chief whip in the House of Lords, but did not remember the name. It was not until I saw the picture of him on page 4 that I recognised him as David Maclean, who had been MP for Penrith and the Border from 1983 to 2010, a Home Office minister in John Major’s government and opposition chief whip in the Commons from 2001-05. He was better known under this name, and we should have found a way of letting our readers know who this mysterious person is.
“At the height of its dive, the aircraft was descending at a rate of 15,000ft per minute.” This was how we reported on Saturday the “terrifying plunge” of an RAF jet when the pilot got his camera stuck between his seat and the joystick. As Anthony Slack pointed out, it would have been better to write: “The aircraft descended at a rate reaching 15,000ft per minute.”
I discovered what had happened to Tracey Ullman, last seen singing “My Guy” with Neil Kinnock in the video in 1984, in an outstanding obituary of Allan McKeown on Thursday. Reader, she married him. The obituary was let down by a strapline along the top of the page which gave a short label to McKeown: “Television industry figure”. This was presumably to avoid repeating the better description in the headline, “Television and theatre producer”, but “figure” is one of those weak words that should always be replaced. “Birds of a Feather producer” would have been better.
The same obituary also contained one of those troublesome phrases that, once noticed, cannot be unnoticed. It said McKeown’s “Midas touch was unfailing for the next few years” – when he produced Lovejoy (1986) and Birds of a Feather (1989). But Midas’s touch was a curse, and its early meaning as a figure of speech was to be careful what you wish for. Of course it is widely used to mean a knack for success, so everyone knows what the writer means, but it is a cliché. Worse, it is a cliché that advertises ignorance of the original fable, just as misuse of the Canute story does. Time for Midas and Canute to be pensioned off.
Yesterday we had George Orwell’s “famous essay, ‘Politics and the English Language’”, the “famous Enigma machine” and the “famous ‘maxi-trial’ process” in Italy. If readers have heard of them, we do not need to be told that they are well known. I had not heard of the “maxi-trial” process, but fortunately the writer went on to explain that it was when hundreds of mobsters were “caged in a single swoop”, prompting the Mafia to murder several politicians, police and magistrates in 1992 and 1993. The word “famous” added nothing.
Guy Keleny is away