The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold: Stickler to the rescue of the nation's spoken word My Expertise is called upon to school the nation

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The Independent Online
IN ALL humility, I confess that the name of Wallace Arnold is regarded in most circles as synonymous with Good English. "How one yearns for the filthy-necked tearaways and ragamuffins in our school playgrounds to use the English language in a way like that which what Wallace Arnold does," wrote Sir Roy Strong in his introduction to If It's Wednesday, It Must Be Barcelona: The Punch Book of Wallace Arnold's Travel-Writing (Robson Books, 1973). Even my most vehement critics would not wish, I think, to contradict him.

So it came as no great surprise last week when, the telephone having given off its customary trill, I lifted the "receiver" to hear the pleasant (if inescapably feminine!!) tones of our revered Secretary of State for Education, Mrs Gillian Shephard.

"Wallace - Gillian," she said.

"No: Wallace Arnold," I corrected her.

"I meant that it was Gillian speaking," she said.

"Oh yes?" I replied. "And if Gillian WAS speaking, then who on earth IS speaking NOW?"

"Gillian, Wallace. Gillian Shephard."

"Gillian Wallace Gillian Shephard. That's certainly a name to conjure with!" I responded. The Secretary of State has a highly developed sense of humour, so I allowed a decent length of time for her silent giggles to die down.

"Forgive me for being such a dreadful tease, Gillian!" I chuckled. "But, as you must know by now, I am a stickler for correct English!"

"Which is why I wanted to talk to you, Wallace," she said.

"'Which is why', Gillian?!" I interjected, "Forgive me, but I don't imagine your old English teacher would ever have sanctioned such a shaky start to a sentence!"

At this stage, something in Gillian's manner suggested she was tiring of my genial leg-pulls. Perhaps it was the way she put down the receiver without so much as a fare-thee-well that alerted me to her slight huffiness. But the following day I received a splendidly formal letter, signed in her absence, requesting I serve on her new committee to boost spoken English among the Great Unwashed (dread section of the community!). Our chairman was to be Mr Trevor McDonald (certainly not one of the farming McDonalds - I jest!) and my fellow committee members were to include Sir David English, Mr Gyles Brandreth, Major Ronald Ferguson, Mr Henry Cooper, Postman Pat, Michael Winner and - representing the lovely ladies, Miss (Msss!) Clare Rayner.

Our meeting went exceedingly well, my presence proving a worthy deterrent to any slackness in English usage that might otherwise have crept in. "Let's kick off by introducing each other," began Trevor.

"Ahem ..." I interjected. "Am I being unnecessarily prudish in thinking that 'kick off' may be rather too informal, even verging on the colloquial, even - forgive me - SLANG?"

"Quite," said Trevor.

"Quite what?" I asked pleasantly.

"Quite. Agreed," he said.

"Quite agreed?" I asked. "Why only quite?"

"You have me there," he said.




"Can we move on?"

"'Move on?'" said I, the twinkle still aflame in my eye, "But where on earth is the vehicle for so doing?"

As will be evident to you, I am always a success on committees, never more so than when tackling the delights and intricacies of the English Language. How often have I had to stamp on one or another eminent man of letters who is guilty of misusing the words "disinterested", "hopefully" and - most painful of all! - "jamboree". Need I remind you of the true meaning of "jamboree"? Far from being a rally or spree, "jamboree" is in fact "a tea-time delicacy" (originally "jam-butty").

Incidentally, this provides marvellous ammunition for "breaking the ice" with weekend guests. First, one corners them into misusing the word "jamboree". This should take no more than three-quarters of an hour. Then one howls with derisive laughter and informs them of their error. "I'll be reporting you to Trevor McDonald!" one adds. Between these four walls, the last person I played this trick on was that veritable old stickler, the Duke of Edinburgh. Oddly enough, I haven't seen him since. Or should that be, "Since then, I haven't him seen"?