Howard Davies: The MT diary

Pedant's corner; Tannoy torments; fish for lunch; BP deserves better; Boris must act.

by Howard Davies
Last Updated: 06 Dec 2010

The late and much lamented Miles Kington once proposed a musical classification scheme for pedants, ranging from hemi-demi-semi pedants with a minor tendency to complain about imprecise use of language up to a full breve. For the latter even the most trivial misuse creates agony. Kington imagined a Pedants Anonymous organisation to help these badly afflicted folk. As I get older I find myself working quickly up the scale, yet PA is not yet there to help.

Pedantry, like charity, must begin at home. My son, with a first in English from an ancient university, has still not got the hang of the who/whom business. I am confident that our father-son relationship is strengthened every time I correct him. His other half, with an equivalent academic endowment, has the same problem, and gets the same treatment, of course. I am firm, but fair. Though, oddly, she hasn't been around the house much lately.

My wife struggles more with the less/fewer conundrum. Fewer errors, less trouble, I like to say. How we laugh when I have to put her right at dinner parties.

For a man with this affliction, travel is an increasing trial. I wince every time I am told that my train is approaching its 'last and final' stop (what, pray, is the difference?) or that we are now 'overhead Brussels' and will shortly be 'landing into Amsterdam'.

BA has a major problem with prepositions. It's partly an attempt to use flyers' jargon and partly just what we might call 'mock-genteel'. 'Please place your baggage into the overhead locker', we are enjoined. Do they say that at home, I wonder? "Ere, Trace, place a sock into it, will you.' Surely not.

I can live with the cabin crew strikes, but up with this language abuse I will not put.

The Heathrow 'Express', as it is laughably called, won last month's Kington prize. As we languished on the slow line near Slough, the in-charge person took to the Tannoy: 'On behalf of myself,' she said - never a good start - 'and that of the entire on-board team, I apologise for the delay to your journey.' Parse that dog's breakfast if you can. My clever clogs son couldn't, but then they don't teach grammar at Oxford any more.

I was on my way to Beijing, where I had lunch with a fish. S/he (I'm not infallible at sexing goldfish) was very good company - didn't disagree with anything I said and made no errors of syntax whatsoever. It was rather a neat idea, I thought, on the part of the South Beauty restaurant, to provide a table companion for the lonely traveller equipped only with a dull novel. It was decorative, too, with multicoloured stones, like Smarties, at the bottom of the bowl.

It looked a bit put out, which I guess was understandable, when I ordered fried fish with chillies as a starter, so I gave it a grain of rice as a kind of apology. She nibbled the rice ruminatively, but perked up when my main course of crispy pigeon arrived and by coffee we were firm friends.

There are no fish on the restaurant tables in New York, but the citizens talk a lot about them. The idea is that most American fish have been destroyed by British Petroleum (as they call it). I thought I had a fair idea of how the US media were covering the story, but was nonetheless shocked by the tone of the network news programmes. There is no pretence at objectivity. Reporters from the Gulf editorialise throughout their reports, with BP as a pantomime villain, blamed for everything including the weather. For once, I was glad to get on a plane home.

Even if it meant a trip to Birmingham, where, in spite of everything, the CBI seemed remarkably cheerful. The West Midlands region has suffered more than most in the recession, with unemployment well above the national average. The motor industry has been badly hit, and there's not too much of it left - though Land Rover, in Indian hands, is holding up pretty well. London taxis are still made in Coventry and the Chinese now have a large stake.

But that business has been affected by competition from Mercedes, which sells a grotesque converted van called a Vito, kitted out as a London cab - and it has taken 25% of the market. I think Boris should act. If he's prepared to preserve the Routemaster, surely the London taxi deserves attention. And the new entrant really is an ugly beast, with none of the personality of the real thing. Let's hope it goes the way of the Metrocab, which failed to break into the market and is no longer being made. I did my bit the other day by waiting for a Vito to go by before hailing a proper cab. It's a form of pedantry, I know, but harmless enough, I'd say.

Howard Davies is the director of the London School of Economics.

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