Whatever happened to plain speaking?

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Ah, Northumberland. Home of glorious hills and plain speaking!

I’m back in the north, amid the hills I love, and looking forward to enjoying the plain speaking one gets from the marvellous inhabitants of Northumberland.

Plain speaking? I hope I’m not asking too much! Because all over the south nowadays I encounter people twisting language and grammar so much that I’m amazed they don’t break.

I admit some bias. My English-teaching daughter specialises in grammar (links with Northumberland have rendered her pretty good on dialectology, too), so long conversations with her have perhaps left me more sensitive to this topic that I once was. Nevertheless, I have a point to make.

Just the other day I heard a shop-assistant say, “And if there’s any problem, just get in touch with ourselves.“ Ourselves? It’s bad enough when people decide it’s somehow rude to or use the word you, and always refer to me as “yourself“. But employing ourselves in the same way takes linguistic distortion to another level.

Then there was the moment on a crowded train from Euston out towards Watford. We’d been to a concert on the hottest evening I’ve known in London, and reckoned we could just make the 2207. We did. Unfortunately, the previous train (like several before it) had been cancelled: all the rolling-stock was in the wrong place because the heat had bent the lines.  When the platform was announced, we crammed into what standing-space was left in the furthest carriage. If the air-conditioning was working, we couldn’t feel it. But then we couldn’t feel anything, except the sweat running down our bodies. Even had we fainted we’d have stayed upright: we were packed that tight.

Over the intercom came the voice of, presumably, the train manager (what we used to call the guard). Having apologised for our unpleasant circumstances, he expressed his gratitude: “Thank you,“ he said, “for your patience and compassion.“

This statement was greeted by roars of laughter (with something akin to London’s old Blitz spirit, we remained good-humoured as we endured a latter-day Black Hole of Calcutta).

The announcer kept his distance. If he had a small, air-conditioned cubbyhole somewhere, he wisely stayed put. It’s possible he did deserve some consideration: perhaps he’d had a rough time from some passengers. But it was we, not he, who needed compassion: we were the ones suffering.

Cirencester: beneath its elegant Roman and medieval surface we uncovered a scandalous twisting of English language and manners

The last word in tortuous attempts at politeness came in Cirencester last week. We were lunching in a nice old gastropub. Bright and breezy, the waitress insisted on addressing her enquiries in the first person plural. “Are we ready to order?“ “Would we like anything to drink?“

As this style of questioning continued throughout the meal and beyond, I was reminded of that national treasure, actress Judi Dench, who described losing her temper when a medic asked the Dame, “Do we have a carer?“ She confessed to telling him to “eff off”, before observing that she had just completed a seven-week run on the West End stage, apparently managing that feat without any care!

Mrs Trafford and I started to become paranoid. We were lunching with a colleague ten years younger than us: had she decided he was our carer? Then we spotted that she was wearing a blue top which could, on a cursory glance, be taken for a medical uniform. Had we stumbled inadvertently into some kind of care facility?

We didn’t argue, nor become angry. But we did become hysterical: especially when, bringing coffee, she asked, “Do we take sugar?“ I choked on my espresso, as would anyone who remembers that Radio 4 programme for disabled people – entitled Does he take sugar?

Having become immune in bars and restaurants to being addressed as “you guys“, we assume that either our age is showing or this episode was merely the next horrendous phase in the growth of over-eager hyperbolic language-use in the catering industry. There was comfort, however, in going shortly afterwards to Chutneys, the oldest curry house in Oxford: no “you guys“; no questions in the first person plural; just swift, courteous service of great food. That unpretentious but excellent establishment restored our faith in human nature, and in the catering industry.

Back in Northumberland, I shared this story with my friend, the egregious David Banks. Both agreed that we’re most relaxed eating out in Milfield’s Red Lion. No excessive attempts at politeness there, merely (as a rule) genial abuse for the two of us: for this recently re-retired teacher it’s usually the accusation “You on holiday again?”

But, then, they know us both too well in there. It’s northern plain speaking, I guess.

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