The fine line between gnomic utterance and Woolley remark

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'I 'VE got a fiver on Jack,' my wife said to me on Monday.

I think gnomic is the right word for that sort of remark.

'I give up,' I said.

She explained.

a) Jack Woolley is a character in The Archers.

b) The Archers is a daily farming serial on Radio 4.

c) Radio 4 is something you won't be able to get on the Continent if Marmaduke Hussey's little boy John takes it off long wave.

d) Jack Woolley collapsed with a heart attack on Monday and was taken to hospital.

All clear? My role in all this, by the way, is as mere eavesdropper. I can never quite follow what is happening in The Archers, and have no feelings about any of the characters except a fierce wish for Robin, the oleaginous vicar, to be run over. I now also wish I knew The Archers' scriptwriters, so I could persuade them to kill off Jack Woolley. (Or bring him back safely. I can't remember off-hand which way my wife is betting.)

When I was drifting round Fleet Street in the sort of bars in which people told stories about Fleet Street, they used to tell stories about times when this had really happened. There was one good tale about a travel journalist who had had an acrimonious divorce and whose ex-wife had gone off with the proceeds to buy a house in a quiet French village. The travel journalist had proceeded to take revenge on his ex-wife by writing constant articles in praise of this unspoilt village until hordes of holidaymakers descended on it and ruined the ex-wife's peace of mind.

Other stories tended to involve astrology, and usually centred on some hapless hack who was detailed to write the daily stars in his paper because nobody else could bear to do it. The hero of the story had the nous to find out what the editor's zodiac sign was, and thereafter that sign always had a glowing horoscope ('Today you effortlessly tackle the sort of big decision that others quail before'). Inevitably the editor found out who was writing these perceptive horoscopes and gave him a huge pay rise . . .

This idea was once turned into a West End hit by Jeremy Kingston. I got to know Jeremy when he was drama critic of Punch in the Sixties. We were attracted to each other by the feeling that one of us had his name spelt wrong, we weren't sure which. (One of the directors of United Newspapers, owners of Punch, stopped me in the corridor one day and asked me if I had seen a certain play in the West End. 'No,' I said, 'I hardly get out to the theatre at all these days.' He didn't even blink as he took this in. 'But you're still reviewing drama for Punch?' he said. I then realised that he thought Miles Kington and Jeremy Kingston were the same person, which taught me something about the mental qualities of newspaper executives that has stood me in good stead ever since.)

Anyway, Jeremy wrote a play about a man on the Times who has a girlfriend who believes passionately in astrology. The Times

decides to give in to modern trends and have a daily horoscope. Our man is put in charge of writing it, unbeknown to the girlfriend, and he thereafter gets her to do what he wants by writing her horoscope accordingly . . .

The play ran for some time in the West End. It was called - I wonder if you can guess? Yes, Signs of The Times. Very good. I never saw it myself, but I did read Jeremy's novel, Love Among the Unicorns, which was one of the funniest and most surreal novels I ever came across, and I am amazed that it never became famous. It is the only English novel I have read that was heavily influenced by my favourite 20th-century French writer, Raymond Queneau. I once dared to raise this with Jeremy, commenting on his debt to old Raymond, only to find that he had not even heard of Queneau, much less read him. So much for my powers of literary criticism.

Anyway, while I was still thinking about Jack Woolley, my wife picked up the paper and said: 'Oh - is that all? I thought he must have died, from all the fuss they were making about him]'

'Who?' I said.

'Brian Clough,' she said.

Yes, I think gnomic is the word.