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Somewhere

Walter Nash, 14 May 1992

‘Was … ’ 
by Geoff Ryman.
HarperCollins, 356 pp., £14.99, February 1992, 0 00 223931 0
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... 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 ...

Truly Terrifying Things

Walter Nash, 10 January 1991

51 Soko: To the Islands on the Other Side of the World 
by Michael Westlake.
Polygon, 258 pp., £8.95, September 1990, 0 7486 6085 2
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Behind the Waterfall 
by Chinatsy Nakayama.
Virago, 213 pp., £12.99, November 1990, 1 85381 269 2
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Dirty Faxes, and Other Stories 
by Andrew Davies.
Methuen, 243 pp., £13.99, October 1990, 0 413 63270 9
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... 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 ...

Noam’s Ark

Walter Nash, 25 October 1990

The Twitter Machine: Reflections on Language 
by Neil Smith.
Blackwell, 275 pp., £9.95, September 1989, 0 631 16926 1
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English in Use 
by Randolph Quirk and Gabriele Stein.
Longman, 262 pp., £17.95, September 1990, 0 582 06612 3
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... 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 ...

Language Fears

Walter Nash, 19 January 1989

Good English and the Grammarian 
by Sidney Greenbaum.
Longman, 152 pp., £6.95, February 1988, 0 582 29148 8
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Longman Guide to English Usage 
by Sidney Greenbaum and Janet Whitcut.
Longman, 786 pp., £10.95, June 1988, 0 582 55619 8
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Words in Time: A Social History of the English Vocabulary 
by Geoffrey Hughes.
Blackwell, 270 pp., £14.95, May 1988, 0 631 15832 4
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... 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 ...

Interesting Fellows

Walter Nash, 4 May 1989

The Book of Evidence 
by John Banville.
Secker, 220 pp., £10.95, March 1989, 0 436 03267 8
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Carn 
by Patrick McCabe.
Aidan Ellis, 252 pp., £11.50, March 1989, 0 85628 180 8
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The Tryst 
by Michael Dibdin.
Faber, 168 pp., £10.99, April 1989, 0 571 15450 6
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Gerontius 
by James Hamilton-Paterson.
Macmillan, 264 pp., £12.95, March 1989, 0 333 45194 5
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... 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 ...

Monsieur Mangetout

Walter Nash, 7 December 1989

The Guinness Book of Records 1990 
edited by Donald McFarlan.
Guinness, 320 pp., £10.95, October 1989, 0 85112 341 4
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The Chatto Book of Cabbages and Kings: Lists in Literature 
edited by Francis Spufford.
Chatto, 313 pp., £13.95, November 1989, 0 7011 3487 9
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... 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 ...

Singular Rebellions

Walter Nash, 19 May 1988

Scandal 
by Shusaku Endo, translated by Van Gessel.
Peter Owen, 237 pp., £11.95, April 1988, 0 7206 0682 9
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Hell Screen, Cogwheels, A Fool’s Life 
by Ryunosuke Akutagawa.
Eridanos, 145 pp., £13.95, March 1988, 0 941419 02 9
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Singular Rebellion 
by Saiichi Maruya, translated by Dennis Keene.
Deutsch, 412 pp., £12.95, March 1988, 0 233 98202 7
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... 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 ...

Turbulence

Walter Nash, 9 November 1989

The Mezzanine 
by Nicholson Baker.
Granta, 135 pp., £10.95, September 1989, 0 14 014201 0
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The Memoirs of Lord Byron 
by Robert Nye.
Hamish Hamilton, 215 pp., £11.95, September 1989, 0 241 12873 0
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All you need 
by Elaine Feinstein.
Hutchinson, 219 pp., £11.95, September 1989, 0 09 173574 2
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The woman who talked to herself 
by A.L. Barker.
Hutchinson, 186 pp., £11.95, October 1989, 0 09 174060 6
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Restoration 
by Rose Tremain.
Hamish Hamilton, 371 pp., £12.95, September 1989, 0 241 12695 9
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... 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 ...

Father Bosco to Africa

Walter Nash, 5 February 1987

The Red Men 
by Patrick McGinley.
Cape, 304 pp., £10.95, January 1987, 0 224 02386 1
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Chat Show 
by Terence de Vere White.
Gollancz, 207 pp., £9.95, January 1987, 0 575 03910 8
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Leaden Wings 
by Zhang Jie, translated by Gladys Yang.
Virgo, 180 pp., £9.95, January 1987, 0 86068 759 7
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Russian Novel 
by Edward Kuznetsov, translated by Jennifer Bradshaw.
Quartet, 285 pp., £12.95, January 1987, 0 7043 2522 5
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Richard Robertovich 
by Mark Frankland.
Murray, 216 pp., £9.95, January 1987, 0 7195 4330 4
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... 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 ...

Only God speaks Kamassian

Walter Nash, 7 January 1988

The World’s Major Languages 
edited by Bernard Comrie.
Croom Helm, 1025 pp., £50, March 1988, 9780709932437
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Studies in Lexicography 
edited by Robert Burchfield.
Oxford, 200 pp., £27.50, April 1988, 0 19 811945 3
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Van Winkle’s Return: Change in American English 1966-1986 
by Kenneth Wilson.
University Press of New England, 193 pp., £7.95, August 1988, 0 87451 394 4
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Words at Work: Lectures on Textual Structure 
by Randolph Quirk.
Longman, 137 pp., £5.75, March 1988, 9780582001206
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The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language 
by David Crystal.
Cambridge, 472 pp., £25, November 1988, 0 521 26438 3
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... 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 ...

Undertellers

Walter Nash, 18 February 1988

The Panda Hunt 
by Richard Burns.
Cape, 189 pp., £10.95, August 1987, 0 224 02445 0
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Davy Chadwick 
by James Buchan.
Hamish Hamilton, 145 pp., £9.95, September 1987, 0 241 12115 9
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Overhead in a Balloon: Stories of Paris 
by Mavis Gallant.
Cape, 196 pp., £10.95, August 1987, 0 224 02426 4
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Black Idol 
by Lisa St Aubin de Teran.
Cape, 157 pp., £9.95, September 1987, 9780224024372
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... 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 ...

Other Indias

Walter Nash, 15 September 1988

Ice-Candy-Man 
by Bapsi Sidhwa.
Heinemann, 277 pp., £11.95, February 1988, 0 434 70230 7
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Mistaken Identity 
by Nayantara Sahgal.
Heinemann, 194 pp., £10.95, April 1988, 0 434 66612 2
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Baumgartner’s Bombay 
by Anita Desai.
Heinemann, 230 pp., £10.95, July 1988, 0 434 18636 8
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... 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 ...

Fits and Excursions

Walter Nash, 7 August 1986

The Complete Plain Words 
by Ernest Gowers, edited by Sidney Greenbaum and Janet Whitcut.
HMSO, 288 pp., £5.50, May 1986, 0 11 701121 5
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Educational Linguistics 
by Michael Stubbs.
Blackwell, 286 pp., £25, June 1986, 0 631 13898 6
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... 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 ...

Cold Winds

Walter Nash, 18 December 1986

Answered Prayers 
by Truman Capote.
Hamish Hamilton, 181 pp., £9.95, November 1986, 0 241 11962 6
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A Rich Full Death 
by Michael Dibdin.
Cape, 204 pp., £9.95, October 1986, 9780224023870
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Leaning in the Wind 
by P.H. Newby.
Faber, 235 pp., £9.95, November 1986, 0 571 14512 4
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The Way-Paver 
by Anne Devlin.
Faber, 155 pp., £8.95, November 1986, 0 571 14597 3
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... 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 ...

Uncomplimentary Words for an Old Man

Walter Nash, 5 March 1987

The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology 
edited by T.F. Hoad.
Oxford, 552 pp., £12.95, May 1986, 9780198611820
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Dictionary of Changes in Meaning 
by Adrian Room.
Routledge, 292 pp., £14.95, May 1986, 0 7102 0341 1
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The Story of English 
by Robert McCrum, William Cran and Robert McNeil.
Faber/BBC, 384 pp., £14.95, September 1986, 0 563 20247 5
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Dictionary of American Regional English. Vol. I: Introduction and A-C 
edited by Frederic Cassidy.
Harvard, 903 pp., $60, July 1985, 0 674 20511 1
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... 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 ...

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