Diary

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The Independent Online
Concluding yet another avid political discussion with my newsagent, Kuku, early last week, I asked if his customers were for Major or Redwood. He chortled at my naivete. "They couldn't care less. They just grumble on saying 'Who gives a bugger?'; 'They're all as bad as each other'; 'Shoot the whole bloody lot of 'em, that's what I say.'" Then he became depressed. "They don't prize democracy the way they should. Why are they so apathetic?" I was more sanguine, for I find it deeply reassuring that no amount of press hysteria can get the average Englishman seriously enthusiastic about politics. While journalists are desperate for exciting happenings, Joe Public knows instinctively that, as Walter Bagehot put it 140 years ago, "Dullness in matters of government is a good sign ... [for] all the best business is a little dull." And it's safe, too.

Richard Crossman once compared the speed and lack of sentimentality with which Whitehall dealt with a change of regime to "the hospital drill for removing a corpse from the ward and replacing it with a new patient". The drill for simply changing ministers is so professional that you can miss it if you blink. As with Douglas Hogg last week, answering questions learnedly at the dispatch box the day after being appointed Minister for Agriculture, the convention has to be maintained that your new chap has acquired an instant grasp of his departmental brief through osmosis.

The same demands are made of officials. When I was a civil servant I once sat on a committee which for a short period met daily. On Friday, X was leading the resistance by the Department of Industry to what we thought were mad ideas from the Department of Prices and Consumer Protection; on Monday, there he was again, this time making precisely the opposite case, for he had been transferred to the enemy department.

Department of Colourful Prose: "Like a dose of hayfever," said a newsreader on London News Radio last week, "ministers have been streaming through the door of Number 10 Downing Street."

The instruction to his staff from Richard Wilson, Permanent Secretary at the Home Office, to simplify their English for the benefit of ministers, got me reflecting on Civil Service lingo. When I joined the Department of Industry 20 years ago I was extremely grateful that, despite my sex and nationality, I was keen on cricket, for otherwise I would have been in severe difficulties with "close of play", "sticky wicket", "bowling a googly", and all such other terms with which normal intercourse was peppered. When recently I was researching a book about the Foreign Office, I found that though cricket imagery still dominates ("Officials alone knew precisely how the pitch was playing that day and whether or not the ball was beginning to swing through the air"), many other sports feature prominently, including baseball ("I'll have to play some pretty hard ball"), boxing ("punching above our weight"), snooker ("It's outside the frame"), sailing ("We're looking for a puff in the sails"), and bridge ("finessing", "taking a trick", "trumping"). Presumably because a major object of diplomacy is to avert war, there are no military metaphors. So linguistically, Malcolm Rifkind, moving from Defence to the Foreign Office, will be undergoing a profound culture shock.

Now to a matter of grave importance, for it concerns our national security. The row last week concerning the article in Wisden Cricket Monthly claiming that "foreigners" who play for England inevitably lack the commitment of their home-grown colleagues gave me pause. I don't want to be alarmist, but if there's anything in this theory, considering our problems with Spain over fishing grounds, what did the Prime Minister think he was doing putting Michael Portillo in charge of Defence?

I am grateful to those readers who explained that Thoreau's remark about a trout in the milk being strong circumstantial evidence was to do with the practice of watering milk. Terence O'Connor also applied his mind to why a Welshman should call me a trout. Quoting from Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood the passage where Captain Cat - listening to the sounds of the morning - notes: "Ocky Milkman on his round. I will say this, his milk's as fresh as the dew. Half dew it is. Snuffle an Ocky, watering the town ...", he continued: "Does this tenuous association with the sainted Dylan explain a Welsh fondness for linking Irish journalists with trout? I doubt it." So do I, Terence, but perhaps we are too unimaginative to appreciate how soaring can be Welsh flights of fancy.

Now to Andrew Belsey, strict rhymster of Cardiff, whose admonitions on "Dunfermline" not rhyming with "whirlin" caused me to apologise and thus annoy Fred Belgarnie, who commented that someone called Andrew should have known that "Dunfermline" is pronounced "Dunfermlin" and that he probably puts pure lemon juice on his porridge for the sheer joy of it. This seems unlikely, Fred, judging by Andrew's poem, "Hotel Breakfast":

When I'm sitting eating toast

Wondering who I really am

What is it I wish for most?

Is it marmalade or jam?

We owe to Andrew two listowels, the first of which we address this week. "The Greek sage, old Anaximander/ Decided to visit Uganda"; "With a gift for illusion/And spreading confusion/ His passport he signed as 'Lysander'" (Martin Brown); "When a girl from Kampala/Said "Hey, visit my parlour"/His great mind did not understand her" (Bob Frederick); "His diet of Human/Was spiced up with cumin/And seasoned with fresh coriander" (Leo Phillips); "He went to Fort Portal/And looked quite immortal/But died on his neighbour's verandah" (Hugh Sansom); "There he met one Amin/Whom he found quite unclean/And said so with ancient Greek candour" (Bernard Sharp).

Next week you will at last hear about the lady with the asbestos knickers and additionally I will tell you of a fiendishly difficult new verse challenge. To keep any idle brains busy in the meantime, here are listowels from Fred ("A Sheffield museum curator/Found a bra on a hot radiator") and Tom Gaunt ("While crossing the Alps on a tusker/Hannibal espied a young busker").

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