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May 10, 2013 6:37 pm
The telephone rang. “May I speak to Neil please?” a woman said.
“There’s no one of that name living here,” I told her.
“Has he gone out?”
“No, you must have the wrong number, sorry.”
“Well, I am 100 per cent certain this is the right number.”
“I don’t know what to say. I have lived here for four years. Is he very, very, small?”
It was odd being accused of something I just can’t have done, namely hoarding or stowing this Neil fellow. There was no implication I had hacked him up and buried the pieces but the caller’s tone was pretty harsh all the same. Sometimes in life people write you into a script that has little or nothing to do with who you are, and yet it can be awfully hard to extricate yourself. I was recently accused of being overbearing, something I am not, and I was speechless. Afterwards I tested this theory out on a few life-long pals.
“Overbearing? You? Don’t make me laugh.”
“Overbearing? You complete idiot.”
“What, am I like a little mouse or something?” I protested in my sternest tones.
“Oh shush now.”
Yet, like my 100 per cent Neil-less state, it was difficult to disprove “overbearing” at the time, with words. Ever since the idea of protesting too much was introduced into the language by the husband of an Avon lady, arguing your point with force (especially about not being overbearing) has been hard to pull off. How do you respond to another’s certainty when it has no relation to what you feel sure are the facts? I don’t know. More and more, it seems to me, pointless to try to persuade people to believe what you believe. Nobody has changed their mind about anything since 1983. Best to wander away, surely?
William Brown, Richmal Crompton’s dashing and good-hearted schoolboy hero, sometimes says firmly to his pals, “I am simply statin’ a fact.” He says it repeatedly in the story in which he is given a baby to mind for the afternoon, and returns it covered in oil and potato and apple dumpling and mud and cow’s licks. He says it when he is trying to convey how utterly fair-minded he is, how acute his casual observations. Perhaps I ought to borrow this phrase. It has a quiet grace, yet it is emphatic. It’s a little bit debonair, being wholly devoid of any low-grade partiality, yet it stands very tall for six words.
I spend 20 minutes or so reading William stories aloud most evenings and am becoming more and more drawn to his ways. His existence is measured out in bouts of boredom, mad antics, wild scrapes, and dizzying excitement culminating in utter disgrace at tea time and then forgiveness by breakfast. For those of us who attempt blamelessness and even a little poise, this seems like such a fresh way to live. Every day in William’s world there is a moral and emotional cycle that seems to feature all the seasons, each of the five senses and most of the rites of passage that are popular with religions. This so-called spring he is my hero.
Innocent mistakes are his stock in trade. These might have been permissible in 1922 but they are regarded with such suspicion now – when everyone is obsessed with who is right and who is wrong and who is liable for the damages.
Grammatical errors and mishearings in WilliamWorld regularly lead to personal catastrophes. Perhaps this has more to do with the author’s romance with the niceties of the English language than what happens in real life. My husband once said to me, “Do you hate my mother?” To which, shocked, I answered, “No, of course not, she is very personable,” only to see him looking at me askance and saying, “What I said was ‘Do you hate my mumbling?’” But even that sticky moment did not augur any genuine disasters.
One afternoon William Brown is taught by his teacher that two negatives make a positive, so can you imagine his delight when he asks if he can have a party and hears his father say, “NO, of course NOT.” With this definite paternal permission in place there is no obstacle for our lovable scamp and his merrymaking. The party, as with many of William’s sprees, involves half a stolen cake and raw sausages from the larder. It also sees the Brown family’s cook being locked in the cellar. A poor fate for the woman, you’ll agree, but then she is overbearing.
More columns at www.ft.com/boyt
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