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Walter Nash

Walter Nash a senior lecturer in English at the University of Nottingham, is the author of English Usage: A Guide to First Principles and of The Language of Humour.

Somewhere

Walter Nash, 14 May 1992

As a boy I had no inclination to follow the yellow brick road, arm in arm with the Tin Man and the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion; warlocks and Munchkins were nothing to me, swaddled in the scented darkness of the dear old Palace Picture House, I had sterner fancies, buccaneer visions. I suppose I found The Wizard of Oz sentimental – milk pudding for lasses, no provender for a chap bent on being first up the ladder with Errol Flynn, cutlass in teeth: and yet now, in my days of penultimate dreaminess, I am moved by the recollection of Garland’s luminous eye, and that curiously sweet-metallic voice singing ‘Somewhere over the rainbow’ – yearning upward an octave on the first two syllables, ‘somewhere’. I recognise the sad passion for Somewhere – the dreamer’s everlasting yonder, the romantic’s thitherland, that possible realm where we shall surely find our true home, if only the heart will hold out.’

Impossibilities

Walter Nash, 25 April 1991

I marvel at how modern authors, almost to a man – or more often, to a woman – can wheedle a reader into a story, working their pitch so elegantly that by the turn of the page you are ready for any tomfoolery, even for the absurd saga of that staunch American couple, Virgil and Laraine, who have a daughter called Sam who is described as ‘feisty’, and a son called Hap who keeps on grinning his slow, rueful grin and quoting thoughtful bits out of the philosophy books he steals from the library. Beware of this boy: he is a psychopath, and on page 243 will pursue his mother with murderous intent through the steam laundry, until Mrs Lobkowitz, their garrulous, gritty, warm-hearted Jewish neighbour, fells him with a coolly-placed rabbit punch.’

Truly Terrifying Things

Walter Nash, 10 January 1991

Yoshi, my visiting Japanese scholar, carried with him a little book of Everyday English Speech, out of which he was able to construct social uses ranging from the mildly unconventional to the downright alarming. ‘ARRO NASH!’, he would bellow as I entered Monday’s seminar, and on Friday afternoons, ‘Have a GOOD one, ya HEAH?’ – coyly, concupiscently, as though dismissing me, his pale grey crumbling mentor, to a furtive weekend of unspeakable amatory and alcoholic excess. We never quite got the hang of each other, code-wise. I think he may have been disappointed at my failure to respond in kind with ‘Hey, ma MAN!’ or ‘You betchar-ASS!’, professional courtesies not often heard by the banks of the Trent. For my part, I had some difficulty in understanding his general observations on life and literature, although I was very sorry when he went home. It diminished the hilarity of the shires.’

Noam’s Ark

Walter Nash, 25 October 1990

Die Zwitscher-Maschine is the title of a picture by Paul Klee, and a most beguiling picture it is: beaky, joky, reticular line-drawing on washes of demurest blue and rose, a sort of grave man’s Rowland Emmett. It makes a pleasant cover illustration for Neil Smith’s collection of propaedeutic papers on linguistics, providing a title for the book and a humorous gloss on the text, the first in a series of playful images and allusions deftly exploited by Professor Smith as he attempts to introduce his readers – defined as ‘outsiders’ and ‘beginning insiders’ – to the intricate delights and perplexities of his subject. Like most emblems, however, this cover motif is susceptible to diverse interpretations. For what, after all, is ‘The Twitter Machine’? Is it the human mind, which, to borrow a phrase from Louis MacNeice, ‘clicks like scissors’, snipping out instructions for the creation of language? Does it refer to what most of us mean by ‘language’, the working components, audible or visible, of speech and writing? Or might it be a merry metaphor for the operations of linguistic science?’

A Messiah in the Family

Walter Nash, 8 February 1990

Of the extraordinary life and activities of Shabbetai Tzevi, or Sabbatai Zebi (1626-76), sage, scholar, mystic, apostate and self-proclaimed Messiah, an important figure in the history of Judaism, I must confess to knowing nothing until Bernice Rubens captured my interest in the remarkable existence and rum doings of one Sabbatai Zvi, holy roller, profligate, manic-depressive, loving son, passionate friend, a light never quite to lighten the gentiles, but certainly a light of a fitful and most garish kind. Ms Rubens obviously knows the difference between historical identity and fictional personage, and would not expect her readers – give or take the odd reviewer – to get up into the high bookstacks for a short unguided seminar on Shabbetaianism before settling down on the sofa to enjoy Kingdom come. History has concerns that fiction need not share. Nevertheless, writers of historical fiction are constrained by the very facts that inspire them: if your story tells the life of a real person, real life has written half of your plot for you.

Monsieur Mangetout

Walter Nash, 7 December 1989

The other Sunday, as I was taking my weekly televisual fix of gridiron football – not so much an athletic spectacle as an entrancing reconstruction of the wars of Pompey the Great – I learned that one of the luminaries of the sport (the particular name escapes me) had been accorded the title of the winningest coach of some recent season (the exact year eludes me). I thought of this remote and superlative man when I turned to consider the latest edition of The Guinness Book of Records, a compilation apparently based on the philosophy that winning is not everything, as long as there are some who are even winninger and a choice few who aspire to being the mostest, the bestest, the completest, the strivingest, in short – at least for the time being – the absolute winningest. Here they all are for another record year, contenders in pursuits familiar and bizarre: high jumpers, cliff divers, roller-skaters, the grower of the largest swede, the carrier of the heaviest hod, the baker of the deepest apple pie, the confectioner of the widest ice-cream sundae, bottomless eaters, legless drinkers, throwers of the farthest ball, peelers of most potent onions, Uncle Tom Cobbleighest winners as far as the eye can see. It ought to be said in fairness that the book is not wholly devoted to the documentation of humanity’s urge to compete in irrational undertakings. Much of it consists of presumably useful information on the wonders of nature and the fabrications of the engineer; if you want facts and figures about the world’s oldest plant, bulkiest reptile, or longest hydro-electric irrigation and sewerage tunnel, this is undoubtedly your source. Nevertheless, it is eccentric fantasy that catches the eye, and some of the ‘records’ here displayed will probably suggest to Martian observers that our planet is populated by stubborn eccentrics and deeply dedicated fantasists, or, as their lexicographers might say, fruit-cakes.’

Turbulence

Walter Nash, 9 November 1989

Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine is a book about the mind electrically at odds with vacancy and repose; about the astonishing turbulence in the little grey cells of little grey people like you, and me, and Howie, who at lunchtime quits his office on the mezzanine floor and goes down the escalator to the street, to buy milk and cookies and a new pair of shoelaces. On the way we follow the movement of his mind through a conveyor-belt meditation, rigorous as a Zen discipline, zany as a Disneyland dance, on the everyday mechanics of things contemplated most minutely in particular. What things? Oh, just ordinary things, you know, things counter, original, spare, strange, spring-loaded, gear-driven, fully automated and packaged for your all-American convenience, that sort of thing. Howie’s central preoccupation is with the working life of shoelaces and the rival hypotheses (there are two contenders) which may be adduced to explain not only how they come to break but also how one shoelace will snap within days of the other.

Interesting Fellows

Walter Nash, 4 May 1989

Take one housemaid, who interrupts you while you are making a ludicrously maladroit attempt to swaddle a stolen painting in brown paper. Fly into a sulk. Bundle the poor girl into your car, and when she protests, silence her with a hammer, noting, as you do so, that its impact on her skull is like hitting clay or hard putty. (You are brilliantly obsessed by details.) Drive thirty miles – recording, wide-eyed, the comic contingencies of a world as yet ignorant of your deed – to a patch of waste ground, where you leave the car, and the corpse, and the painting you set out to steal in the first place. Walk away, into the curious conviction that by this enormity you have liberated yourself from the burden of having to pretend to be what you are not.

Language Fears

Walter Nash, 19 January 1989

It is widely feared that our English language is deteriorating, or as the Americans robustly say, going to Hell in a hand basket. I can well understand how people believe this: if our grocers can write of Grape’s and Banana’s, and our journalists believe that a cohort is some manner of minion, henchman, buddy or sidekick, then we are all aboard the wickerwork diligence, never a doubt of it. But that, you will tell me, is not quite what you mean. What you really fear, it seems, is the demise of grammar. Your children are not taught grammar in schools. They may be taught to express themselves, but they are not taught to express themselves properly – that is, grammatically.’

Other Indias

Walter Nash, 15 September 1988

For my parents, it was the strangulated crackle of the old gramophone tenor forlornly wailing ‘Pale hands I loved’; for me, it was Kim and lives of the Bengal Lancers; and for my sisters possibly a dream of the launder ed memsahib decorously cantering out of the fort, to be abducted in devastating dark-eyed dumbshow by someone like Rudolph Valentino. It was poignant and dashing and very romantic, but I think we must have guessed that India was not really like that. Nor, I dare say, was it very like some recent televisual fantasies, done in stuporcolour and best brown shoe stain, of a shimmering and turbaned place, cooled only by the tutelary presence of Saint Peggy Ashcroft. These may be our preferred Indias, the Indias of spice and hokum, but they are a far, mendacious cry from the country modern Indian writers want to tell us about.

Singular Rebellions

Walter Nash, 19 May 1988

You can be sure that sooner or later one of them will appear, a spoiler: some truth-babbling child, some derelict lover, some malcontent in his artfully rowdy cups. And just at the moment when the bride is about to cut the cake, the chairman is on the point of presenting the cheque, the octogenarian is smiling moistly at the photographer, this intruder will speak out loud and clear, terrible words of revelation and accusation. Then the room will fall silent, the sunlit garden will freeze to a photographic still, and while some fix embarrassed eyes on the dahlias or the water-colours, others will experience a warm access of cheerfulness. This happens in dreams and fictions; sometimes it happens in life.

Undertellers

Walter Nash, 18 February 1988

Along with the hearing-aid and the bifocals and other indices of personal decay goes an elderly fretfulness about staying alert in a world so teasing, so elusive, that even novels, which should plainly edify and console the senior citizen, seem to become more and more equivocal, devious, conspiratorial, riddling. ‘What’s the fellow driving at?’ mutters Tetchy. ‘Why do I need to know all this?’ ‘Why don’t they speak up?’ These are questions upon which might be founded a typology of narrative which would include the overtold and the undertold tale, the story that misleads with a profusion of detail and the one that mysatifies with laconic artfulness.

Only God speaks Kamassian

Walter Nash, 7 January 1988

In the third book of Gulliver’s Travels there is a gobbledygook machine. Designed by the ingenious academicians of Lagado, it consists of a frame filled with vocables that can be shuffled at the turn of a crank, and its brave technological purpose is to generate a universe of discourse. What it manufactures, of course, is scrambled poppycock: for language is the product neither of cranks nor yet of chips, but of the human mind as it projects one ruling competence onto a diversity of actual tongues. How great a diversity, Swift can hardly have imagined; it needed the researches of a William Jones or a Wilhelm von Humboldt to begin to persuade literary Europeans that they were not quite the masters of the speaking world.

Thomas Hardy once told Robert Graves how he had gone to the Oxford English Dictionary to confirm the existence of a dialect word he proposed to use in a poem, and came to a standstill because the only authority quoted for it was his own Under the Greenwood Tree. This is an acute case of our dependence on dictionaries, and illustrates the commonest reason for resorting to them. What do you look for in a dictionary, after all? Lucid definitions? The citations that examplify usage? Etymologies? Spellings? Or do you, like Hardy, simply seek assurance that the word exists? I strongly suspect that the warrant of the lexicon is one of the writer’s deep securities; no one feels really confident about using an unattested word.

Father Bosco to Africa

Walter Nash, 5 February 1987

Patrick McGinley’s pastoral parable, The Red Men, begins with Gulban Heron, rural overlord of a hotel, a shop and four sons. There is dark-haired Jack, capable, ruthless, dissolute, his father’s favourite, and there are three carrot-polled losers, the red men of the title: Cookie, a jaded man of letters, typically apt to give life a literary form and content; cynical Joey, with his fire-scarred face, who mistrusts the emotions and gives his mind to geology and shopkeeping; and Father Bosco, with his fire-damped soul, reminiscently plagued by lust and distressed by the loneliness of his calling. There is also Pauline, the brothers’ companion since childhood, who keeps the hotel books and is about to marry Jack.

Cold Winds

Walter Nash, 18 December 1986

The narrator and protagonist of Answered Prayers is one P.B. Jones, failed writer and competent sexual athlete, a scurrilous charmer who – to lift a pithy phrase from the poet Martial – tantos et tantas amat. Latin allusions are appropriate to the style of a book which oddly suggests the libertine rhetoric of some later Roman text: in the sly elegance of the syntax, the jaunty terseness of phrase, the not infrequent obscenity of the lexicon (there are words like ‘muffdiver’, which you will not find in your Funk and Wagnall’s); most of all, in the calculated scabrousness of some episodes. Truman Capote’s title, which is also the title of a book his hero has written, is taken from St Teresa: ‘More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.’ What this may foretell – other than, perhaps, that couplings will end in comeuppances – we cannot readily judge, because what Capote has left us is only a sample, in three chapters, of a novel begun more than two decades ago, published in piecemeal extracts, and never finished.’

Fits and Excursions

Walter Nash, 7 August 1986

It appears sometimes that the Classical education is dead, and with it the attendant mysteries of the grammar school. Gone, gone, the long parsing in the languid afternoon; gone the Cognate Accusative and the Ablative Absolute; gone for ever those musty-gowned, atrabilious instructors who denounced the folly of the dangling participle, demonstrated the proper location of however, and enforced with random ferule the doctrine that the verb to be is followed by the Nominative Case. Gone, and good riddance, possibly: but something has been lost, as well I know when I try to tell university tutorial groups about prepositions, predicates and other preliminaries to the study of discourse. We have become stumbling foreigners in the primary language of criticism.

Letter

Language Fears

19 January 1989

Walter Nash writes: Ey oop, m’duck, as D.H. Lawrence used to say, innit gerrin’a bit black ower Bill’s mam’s?: which means – put into pallid Standard – My goodness, wasn’t that thunder I heard just now? It’s odd how these controversial clouds roll up whenever the talk is of grammer and usage, but it may clear the sky just a little if I assure Mr Fairman...

Shop Talk

John Lennard, 27 January 1994

The reviewers’ quotes which, fifteen years I ago, Macmillan chose for the reprint of Kenneth Hudson’s The Jargon of the Professions were a moral lot. Auberon Waugh, writing for what...

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Good enough for Jesus

Charlotte Brewer, 25 January 1990

The second edition of The State of the Language, published ten years on from the first, contains 53 essays and nine poems, each by a different author. The dust-jackets of both editions are almost...

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Composition

Barbara Strang, 4 June 1981

The vogue for publishing series is baffling, since the ability to sustain quality, and interest for a given readership, is rare. Both, fortunately, are to be found in the Longman English Language...

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