Wallace Arnold

Thin Ice

The King’s English: A Guide to Modern Usage

By Kingsley Amis

Harper Collins 270pp £6.99 order from our bookshop

Memories, memories, ah, fond memories! Flicking rapidly through the above-mentioned tome for the purposes of this review, I could not help but recall those golden days in the early Seventies – or was it the late Eighties? – when a distinguished coterie of British writers, among them my own good self, would make every effort to bring the pleasures of the literary life to stately homes the length and breadth of the sceptr’d isle. In my experience, senior members of the British aristocracy find it infinitely less tiring to entertain a writer than to plough through his books. Wearisome pictureless volumes are not for them. They prefer to take in their culture by a process of osmosis, over the very finest food and drink in the comfort of their own stately homes. Down the centuries, the most dutiful writers have struggled to oblige, taking pains to talk at length about themselves to needy titled folk whilst conscientiously consuming the requisite portions of food and drink.

On the Thursday, we would get a call from Sir (as he now is) Peregrine Worsthorne. ‘What about Beaulieu this weekend, Wallace?’ he would say. ‘My dear Terry,’ I would correct him, ‘you surprise me! It isn’t pronounced “bow-lyer”. It’s pronounced “byoo-lee”.’

On one such occasion, a chill week in mid-December a handful of us – Godfrey Smith, myself, Norman St John Stevas and Kingsley Amis – braved ice and snow to descend upon Chatsworth, the country seat of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. From the outset, Kingsley was in belligerent form, taking grave exception to the name of the property as we swung up the drive. Even in those days, Kingsley was something of a stickler for correct English.

‘Chatsworth? CHATSworth?’ he grunted. ‘Talksworth, yes. Conversationsworth, yes. But Chatsworth? Never!’

Nevertheless, we dragged him to the front door and before long he was happily ensconced with whisky bottle and paper straw before a roaring fire whilst the Duchess busily clucked her appreciation.

Like Kingsley, the Duchess proved masterly in her use of the King’s English. Alas, she expected others to meet her own exacting standards, and in this she was to be disappointed. ‘If you’ll excuse me, Your Grace,’ said Worsthorne as we paraded into dinner on the first evening, ‘I’ll just take a slash in the khazi, if you’ll pardon me muchly.’

Once the smelling-salts had been administered, we took our seats in the Great Dining Hall, my old chum Godfrey Smith supplementing his somewhat meagre first course of clear soup with extra rations from a handy tupperware he had brought with him that contained a selection of pork sandwiches plus jam doughnuts. ‘A most excellent repast, Your Graces,’ said Worsthorne as the butlers shuffled in to remove our soup dishes. ‘Warm and wet -just the way me old mum cooks it.’

A master of tact, I turned the conversation to a subject close to the Duchess’s heart. ‘Did you hear the news last night?’ I enquired. ‘The newscaster said that “due to severe flooding, six thousand people have been killed in Pakistan! Dream business!”‘

‘So tiresome, so very tiresome,’ said the Duchess.

‘Utterly ghastly,’ agreed Kingsley.

‘An hideous tragedy,’ said Norman.

‘Have we really sunk so low,’ I concluded, ‘that the BBC is unable to employ the words “owing to” and “due to” in their appropriate places? Just think of the heartbreak that broadcast must have caused to all those many thousands of men, women and children who love the King’s English!’ Over an excellent main course of Game Pie, everyone around the table chorused their approval of my sentiments.

When we awoke the next morning, snow lay all around. While Godfrey Smith remained behind to polish off a late breakfast (leg of lamb with all the trimmings, tangerine jelly to follow), Her Grace escorted the rest of us on a tour of the grounds. We were duly appreciative. ‘But how clever of you, Your Grace, to think of planting grass on the lawns,’ purred Norman. ‘I always think grass looks so much nicer on lawns than just soil. Soil can be, very brown, and is tiresome to walk over, particularly in muddy conditions, and mowing soil can play havoc with a lawn mower. But planting grass on your lawns was a stroke of pure genius! Well done, Your Grace!’

By now, we had arrived at the Chatsworth lake. It was covered in a thin layer of ice. ‘How tiresome!’ said the Duchess.

‘This ice is far too thin! I must put up a notice warning people not to skate upon it! Would all you lovely writers lend a hand?’

Having acquired a signpost, a pot of red paint and a brush, we were ready to get to work.

‘What do you think?’ asked the Duchess bearing the paintbrush. ‘Just the words “DANGER – THIN ICE”?’

I saw Kingsley wince. ‘There is no verb. The sentence is a travesty!’

‘Very well,’ said the Duchess, ‘what about, “THERE IS A DANGER OF THIN ICE”?’

‘But,’ I chipped in, ‘does that not infer –’

‘Imply,’ grunted Kingsley, looking up the two meanings in his manual.

‘ – does that not imply that the danger arises from the ice rather than the chilly water beneath it?’

‘I see,’ replied the Duchess. ‘So perhaps I should write, “THERE IS A DANGER OF CHILLY WATER BENEATH THE THIN ICE”?’

‘But Your Grace,’ added Norman St John, ‘that would seem to suggest that, were it not for the thin ice, the chilly water would not be dangerous. Surely that is not our intention?’

At this point, I spotted the unmistakable silhouette of Godfrey Smith coming over the hill, bearing a brand new pair of ice-skates. But I thought it best not to point this out to the others, lest it interrupt the flow of our literary debate.

‘In that case, I will write, “THERE IS A DANGER OF CHILLY WATER BOTH BENEATH THE THIN ICE AND ALSO IN THOSE AREAS WHERE NO THIN ICE IS VISIBLE.” How’s that?’ said the Duchess.

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that Godfrey had arrived at the far edge of the lake, and was now easing himself into his skating-boots.

‘May I chip in at this point?’ piped up Terry Worsthorne. ‘The way you propose to word the notice suggests that chilly water is a danger in itself. Yet of course nothing could be further from the truth. It is only when a person attempts to stand, walk, run or skate on that chilly water that the danger is encountered.’

By this time, on the far side of the lake, Godfrey, resplendent in his new Torvill and Dean Leisure Skatewear was fully kitted-up, all ready to set blades to ice.

‘So there we have it – “THERE IS NO DANGER OF CHILLY WATER BOTH BENEATH THE THIN ICE AND ALSO IN THOSE AREAS WHERE NO THIN ICE IS VISIBLE UNLESS A PERSON OR PERSONS HAPPENS TO BE STANDING, WALKING, RUNNING OR SKATING ON IT AT THE TIME,'” said the Duchess.

‘I’m not happy about that “Person or Persons”,’ muttered Kingsley, leafing through his manual. While Norman went back to the house to find a larger board, we all turned towards the lake and watched as Godfrey executed a masterful triple pirouette on the ice.

‘Bravo!’ went Her Grace.

‘Magic!’ went Terry Worsthorne.

‘Crack!’ went the ice.

‘Ker-plosh!’ went Godfrey.

Eventually, we managed to fish out Godfrey Smith using a fish-hook, four mules, a digger and a tow rope, but his drenched clothes made a fearful mess of the Main Hall, and his sneezing proved both a distraction and a health hazard over luncheon. Sad to say, we were never invited back; I hear tell that a rival force of writers led by Roy Strong and Kenneth Rose now holds sway at Chatsworth. Grim news, indeed. Personally, it’s the King’s English I blame. Or should that be, ‘I personally blame the King’s English’?

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