I am, as you will already have read by now, the President of the Better English Campaign, of which that most civilised of newscasters, Mr Trevor McDonald, has the honour to be Chairman. Early in the day, our eager beavers in the research department came up with the disgraceful statistic that 65 per cent of 16- to 24-year-olds are unable to spell "occasionally", and over half of those with a degree find difficulty spelling "accommodation". Shocking news indeed, particularly as another 18.5 per cent spell "spell", "spel". In order to recover from the trauma induced by these revelations, I have asked my fellow Board members to employ the two words "occasionally" and "accommodation" as often as they possibly can, thereby displaying their expertise for all to revere.
Our treasurer, my old friend and quaffing partner Sir David English, has been up to some excellent work in his editorials for the Daily Mail. Only this week, we had "occasionally, the Government must reach an accomodation with the Eurosceptics" (Monday), and "the accomodation of the Duchess of York has been occasionally vulgar" (Wednesday). Our aim is to have a full 75 per cent of all Britons spelling "occasionally" and "accommodation" correctly before the year 2000, so that by the year 2003 the Government will be able to put in place our special "Stop and Spell" campaign, in which highly-trained undercover police officers will be able to stop any individual in the street and demand that he spells five tricky words, with penalties for incorrect spelling ranging through fines for first- time offenders to detention for serial misspellers.
Meanwhile, youngsters and other hoodlums who are discovered to be deficient in their spelling of medium-hard words such as "Mediterranean" and "armistice" will be marched to special hardline spelling centres, where they will receive a short, sharp, shock of 20 increasingly tricky words a day, administered by a government appointee, under the general supervision of Sir John Harvey-Jones.
To me, good spelling is as important as the well-scrubbed fingernail and the firm handshake. On first meeting any stranger, it has long been my habit to look him - or her!! - straight in the eye before asking, in a deceptively casual tone, "You wouldn't by any chance know how to spell 'diarrhoea', would you?" If they should bluster, blush or prevaricate, I have them firmly nailed at once as non-spellers, and I know not to waste my time any further!
Oddly enough, at the very first meeting of our Better English Campaign committee, I found to my horror that both Sir David and Trevor McDonald looked askance when I put the "D" word to them, Sir David muttering something about "better things to do" and Trevor suggesting we might "move straight on to more important topics". How very strange that two such eminent personages should prove wanting over the spelling of "diarrhoea" when push came, as it were, to shove.
Nothing irks more than a misspelt word. Only the other day, I was walking down a busy London thoroughfare when I chanced upon a thin young woman bearing in her arms an obtrusively thin child who couldn't have been older than five years of age. The two were sitting any-old-how in an otherwise attractive underpass. The woman - let us call her "Sharon" (!!!) quite obviously had only herself to blame, as she was starving and homeless and riddled with fever. But what really struck me was the notice she bore in her withered (and grubby!) right hand: "PLEESE HELP. CHILD NEEDS FOOD".
I'm very sorry, but I'm not one to ignore such things. I approached her in a perfectly genial manner and made every effort to set things right. "Madam," I began, "I am much moved by the state in which you and your 'wee bairn' find yourselves. In fact, if you do not change that second 'E' in 'PLEESE' to an 'A', I have half a mind to call Sir David English!"
Such acts of charity cost one little in terms of money, yet I believe that young lady will remember my unpaid tuition for the rest of her born days. It was a victory for Better English - even if her accommodation remains only occasionall.