OK, so what great novel begins: Alpha Lima Lima Hotel Alpha Papa Papa Yankee Foxtrot Alpha Mike India Lima India Echo Sierra Alpha Romeo Echo Alpha Lima India Kilo Echo – and continues, assuming you are keeping up – Bravo Uniform Tango Alpha November Uniform November Hotel Alpha Papa Papa Yankee Foxtrot Alpha Mike India Lima Yankee India Sierra Uniform November Hotel Alpha Papa Papa Yankee Alpha Foxtrot Tango Echo Romeo India Tango Sierra Oscar Whisky November Foxtrot Alpha Sierra Hotel India Oscar November?
Don’t bother deciphering it painstakingly. Just let the whole thing wash over you. What famous opening sentence does the above look and sound like? I’ll give you a clue: the novel ends badly, or at least it does if you’re more than a little bit in love with the heroine’s fur hats and don’t particularly like trains.
If you bear in mind that the physicality of words, even when they’re in the nature of a code, often take on not just the appearance but the moral atmosphere of the thing they’re coding, it should help to notice the suggestiveness of that concentration of Papas. What do you think of when you see Papas? That’s right – families. As for the chance concatenation of Uniform, November, Hotel – there you have the narrative in a nutshell. Must I spell it out? Russian soldier. Snow. Clandestine adulterous assignations in a Moscow bed and breakfast.
Whoever hasn’t by now guessed Count Vronsky is a dunce. The novel, of course, is Anna Karenina – “All happy families are alike, but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion.” Now you can check, if you’ve nothing more pressing to do, whether or not I’ve applied the gobbledegook alphabet correctly.
As for the truth of what Tolstoy says about families, that’s another matter. I have always thought that what determines unhappiness in a family is pretty much the same the world over: too many Whiskys in November, too many Tango Foxtrots with Juliet or Oscar.
But this Charlie Oscar Lima Uniform Mike November is not about Anna Karenina. It’s about the International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet and other comparable linguistic devices for avoiding confusion and making oneself understood. My position being that they do neither.
Three days ago – worn out with telling the internet who I am, where I live and what my password, as opposed to my username, is – I made an airline booking by phone. Having a person to talk to turned out tolerably well. I recommend it. Allowing reasonable health, a person doesn’t suddenly crash on you, leaving you to do it all again, which as like as not results in your making the same booking twice, a mistake for which there is no known remedy (as I discovered the time I booked the same seat to Wolverhampton 17 times) outside of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, which incidentally had no record of such a place as Wolverhampton. But I can’t pretend that having a person to talk to doesn’t come with difficulties of its own. The chief of these, in this instance, being his insistence on reading my booking reference back to me phonetically. “Quebec, X-Ray, Zulu...”
“I’ll have to stop you there,” I said.
He apologised, assuming he was going too fast for me. I had already given him my age so he had reason to suppose I lacked most of the organs of cognition. “That’s Qu‑e-bec!” he shouted.
I had to stop him again. “Deafness isn’t the problem,” I assured him in a loud and confident voice. “I’m a writer and a word for me is a plastic entity with distracting associations. So I don’t only have the tail of the Q dancing before my eyes, I see the Saint Lawrence River freezing, think of the Algonquin people who gave Quebec its name, hear the clash of languages and cultures, and recall being taken as a boy to see a pageant in Belle Vue commemorating General Wolfe’s scaling of the heights of Quebec, where – I mean Belle Vue not Quebec – I ate a poisoned choc ice and was ill for a fortnight. So you can see why it would have been easier all round if you’d just said Q.”
He wondered whether I experienced similar difficulties X-Raying Zulus. A jest he found more amusing than I did.
The truth is, telephony alphabets send me into a panic. All those unfamiliar words in strange conjunction – reminiscent of Dr Johnson’s description of metaphysical poetry: “the most heterogeneous ideas yoked by violence together” – rattled off at such speed that by the time you’ve worked out the letter denoted by the first, you’ve missed the following five. That it is intended sadistically on the part of the nerds and pedants who employ it – dreaming of being a pilot bringing down an Airbus A380 in a hurricane or single-handedly preventing or starting World War Three – I have not the slightest doubt. The point of a secret language is to exclude those who don’t speak it, sometimes to misinform and mislead them, often to flummox them into hasty acquiescence, but always to make them feel inferior.
The God of the Old Testament confounded the language of men, that they might not understand one another’s speech. If everyone spoke the same language, He reasoned, there was no knowing what they might get up to. The Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet, like French and Spanish, was among the weapons he deployed. Twitter was another, and more subtle than all of them on account of its fooling users into thinking they are having a conversation.
You don’t argue with God if you know what’s good for you. Therefore, I try to live in calm acceptance of the fact that I don’t know what anybody’s talking about. Ignorance, as they say, is Bravo Lima India Sierra Sierra.