Traits (continued)

December 29, 2008

More on the copycat front, but not language this time.

I’ve written about this on the family history section of my web-site here – about my great-grandfather, initially. In the mid-1990s, one of my father’s cousins wrote me a very elegant pen-portrait of my great-grandfather, after whom I am named, but who died in 1948, four years before I was born, in which she described, amongst other things, his quirks. One of these, she wrote, was to make a kind of panto sneeze, in which he covered his whole face with his hand and went ‘Ooo-shah!’, presumably to amuse children, and possibly to frighten cats, of which he was allegedly very unfond. When I read this, I was amazed: because my father did exactly the same thing. His grandfather had done it (he admired his grandfather inordinately, but most people seem to have liked him) – so he did it. It was an odd sort of homage, but there it is. I can’t think of many obvious imitations of my father that I perpetuate, although eating toast only when it is cold is one of them. (My father had some odd quirks with food, of which the strangest was, when confronted with a crusty bread roll, to take all of the dough out of its centre, to roll that dough into a small ball, and to put it on the table at the side of his plate – once again, it’s the kind of detail that might just kick a fictional character off, if only I was any use at writing fiction. It’s plotting that foxes me. Or lack of effort. I can teach other people to plot, quite successfully, but I don’t seem to be able to manage to follow my own advice. I need one of my novelist friends to push me.)

Sometimes copying can take the oddest forms. I have a very dear friend who lives near Cambridge, and whom I see from time to time. I was there a couple of years ago, and her husband, quite out of the blue, offered me a pint of cold lime juice. This doesn’t happen a lot. But immediately, it seemed to me much the most sensible thing to drink, whenever possible, and, on my way back to the South-West, I nabbed a couple of bottles of lime juice, and kept up the copying for quite a while after that. They also had one of those rubber squirty things that you attach to taps, for which there must be a word – if there is a word for the part of a shoe above the toe-cap, and there is, and I cannot think of it no matter how long I keep typing this sentence, yes I can, vamp, what a great word, then there must be a word for a rubber squirty thing. Anyway, I bought one of those as well, and took some delight in being able to swish water round the sink.

Perhaps this is a fad, not a trait. Or even a superstition. When my mother was dying, she was agitated because she was sick of the taste of water, which she needed for her pills, and could not think of anything she wanted. Why don’t you drink orange barley water, I suggested. Brilliant, she said. I got her some. And since then, farewell lime juice, I have been drinking the stuff daily in her memory. One of the last things she did was to ask me to get her some money out of a cash machine – why, what was she going to spend it on in a hospice? – and I got some out myself at the same time. So (since I daren’t carry a wallet, I just lose the things) I had a £20 note in my pocket when she died. And now I always have a £20 note in my pocket. For a long time, it was the same one, but I slipped up somewhere.

Have I convinced you I am obsessive yet?



December 28, 2008

I guess we all do it, although I worry that I may be the only one, of course, and that any half-decent psychiatrist would have me into a secure unit the moment he or she found out.

Copycatting. What I mean is the way we adopt phrases and habits from others and bring them into our daily lives – snaffling a bit from someone else until our behaviour is only 90%, if that, original. Of course, there are the national catchphrases in any case, or even words. One of the odder ones is ‘Naff Off’, which probably existed in some pocket of the country in the sixties, but which had a two-stage journey into the British psyche (or am I the only one still saying ‘Naff Off,’ doctor?) It was popularised by Porridge, the Clement/ La Frenais vehicle for Ronnie Barker’s prodigious acting talents (he was also a great writer, but I never warmed to his fondness for sound-effect parodies like Futtock’s End). The writers correctly spotted that, if a sit-com was set in a prison, it would be a bit strange if there was no swearing, and adopted Naff Off as their substitute. Barker’s character, Fletcher, deployed it to great effect, and, not long into the show’s run, it gained a great deal more publicity when – of all people – Princess Anne was reported to have used it, quite possibly of reporters. At this point, coincidentally, everyone joined in.

Catchphrases outlive their sources, like most sayings (who was it who got up one morning and observed ‘Ne’er cast a clout till May be out’, I wonder? He or she must have been pleased with the coinage). So there are still people around, in their thirties, who say ‘I thangew’ for ‘Thanks’, and cannot possibly remember Arthur Askey, and even some who say ‘Don’t mind if I do’, the Colonel Chinstrap riposte from the wartime radio show ITMA (It’s That Man Again, and no, I haven’t been lying about my age).

But this also happens on a micro basis. For instance, two phrases I know I use are ‘Ariba!’ (roughly, ‘Great’!), and ‘Fuck-me-Reg’ (‘Blow me down’). ‘Ariba!’ opens a track on a very obscure Grace Slick album from the 1970s, called ‘Manhole’. ‘Fuck-me-Reg’ is the lament of (I think) the drummer in The Troggs in a famously recorded session which demonstrated, if proof were needed, that they had a hard job putting together their usual battery of simple-chord-and-drumbeat songs. Reg was (is, honestly) the singer. They were (are, the two survivors) from Andover. The drummer was unable to get the beat straight, and used this particular expletive. And a colleague of mine, and his wife, adopted it. And I ended up adopting it, too.

I had a friend at university (that sounds a bit sad, I had more than one) who said ‘Hilarious’ a lot (and was mocked for it. But that has slipped into my lexicon of phrases. And there was a sketch (Terry Scott and Hugh Lloyd, the great comic actor who died earlier this year) used in a regular TV fixture in the 50s and 60s, ‘Christmas Night With The Stars’, to which every BBC sitcom contributed a ten-minute special, and which is still current in my family, even if the users are now down to me and my brother. The show was called ‘Hugh and I’. The sketch made fun of a deaf character (possibly played by Jack Douglas, who died in the last fortnight, but here I could be wrong) – the grandfather of the house. The sketch (which also involved Wendy Richard) was about playing Christmas word games. Each member of the household said a word, clapped thrice, and the next person said an associated word. Say something disconnected, and you were out. The grandfather (whose deafness seems less funny now that I have to turn the TV up to 21 to hear it) couldn’t grasp the principle. Terry Scott illustrated it by saying that, if one person said ‘Wicker’, the next might say ‘Basket’. At the end of the sketch, the local rector arrived (interestingly, this didn’t seem odd at the time), and the old man said ‘Who’s that?’, Terry Scott replied loudly, ‘VICAR’, at which the old man clapped three times and shouted ‘BASKET’. For the next 40+ years, if anyone ever, anywhere, in any context, used the word ‘Vicar’ in the vicinity of the Greenwell family, the Greenwell present replied ‘Basket’.

That was a long nonsense. I was only going to say that fiction writers can get a lot of good characters going by using family slang and transposing it. Now I’ll close. Have to go up to the village shop. Where I may see the Vicar.