Tuesday 8 April 2008

To be an Englishman

13st 13lb (hurrah!); zero alcohol; 1,396; Leghorn.

Sometimes sub-editors spring satisfying surprises. (I’m trying to claw back some brownie points with the police by devising a new tongue-twister they can use when assessing drunkenness, though it would benefit from more sibilance; which surely ought to be shibilance, now I come to think about it, for reasons of onomatopoeia.) Anyway, there were no cuts in my newspaper column today, and they even reproduced Peking as such, rather than amending it to Beijing in line with editorial policy. In fact, everything was hunky dory apart from the fact that I positively littered the bloody thing with snappy soundbites, and they still chose a line from my rival on page 17 for the big, highlighted quote of the day. Clearly it is time to remember those wise and consoling words they kept drumming into us at my school: “If at first you don’t succeed, give up.”

Except perhaps on the issue of place names. I gather that it really upsets the Chinese, for some reason, when people refer to their capital as “Peking”. All the more important, then, that we should all rally round and make a point of using that name at every opportunity. It can be our little act of revenge for their cruelty in Tibet and their rudeness about the Dalai Lama (and for their tracksuited security men pushing Sebastian Coe around in London last Sunday, though personally I find that remarkably easy to forgive).

After all, if the French suddenly announced that their capital was in future to be called “Baiqis”, would we fall over ourselves to alter all our atlases, or would we cheerfully continue referring to it as Paris and pronouncing it the way it looks, ignoring their preference for calling it Paree?

Have the Germans ever given a toss that we talk about Munich and Cologne rather than München and Köln, or the Italians got into a tizzy because we travel to Venice and Florence rather than Venezia and Firenze? Of course not. And, let’s face it, the Italians are inclined to get into a tizzy at the drop of a hat.

The issue is which language we are speaking. If it is English, then we should use the English names. Churchill famously rebuked his foreign secretary for referring to Leghorn as Livorno, though conceding graciously that "if at any time you are conversing agreeably with Mussolini in Italian, 'Livorno' would be correct."

Later in the war, he wrote the definitive memorandum on the subject to the Foreign Office: "I do not consider that names that have been familiar for generations in England should be altered to study the whims of foreigners living in those parts. Where the name has not particular significance the local custom should be followed. However, 'Constantinople' should never be abandoned, though for stupid people 'Istanbul' may be written in brackets after it. As for 'Angora' … I will resist to the utmost of my power its degradation to 'Ankara.'

"You should note, by the way, the bad luck which always pursues peoples who change the names of their cities. Fortune is rightly malignant to those who break with the traditions and customs of the past … If we do not make a stand we shall in a few weeks be asked to call Leghorn 'Livorno,' and the BBC will be pronouncing 'Paris' Paree. Foreign names were made for Englishmen, not Englishmen for foreign names. I date this minute St. George's Day."

That says it all, really. And I do believe that the fact that we cheerfully ignore the local preferences of other Europeans but feel slavishly obliged to kowtow to the Chinese (or the Indians when they decide that they prefer ‘Mumbai’ to ‘Bombay’) reflects a double standard that is deeply patronizing to what we once called the Third World, and might even be – gasp – racist.

Apart from reflecting on that vital issue, I had a very good and highly enjoyable business lunch in Newcastle. This went rather well from both the PR and dietary points of view, until my client advised me that I could afford to follow my rather exiguous beef salad with Eton mess for pudding as “it’s just egg whites and a bit of fruit”. I had my usual difficulty ordering it, as it always makes me think of untoward antics in the dorms. Then when it turned up she said, “Oh yes, I forgot about the lashings of cream.” Still, I got through it somehow.

I then took the dog for a walk at Beacon Hill, north of Morpeth, in the interests of variety, before returning to Newcastle in the evening for a performance of The 39 Steps at the Theatre Royal. This proved every bit as clever and funny as the awards lavished on the London production suggested. Though, as usual at this venue, I did meet one couple leaving at the interval shaking their heads and professing themselves sorely disappointed. I wonder if there is a show on earth that has not failed to live up to the misplaced expectations of at least one pair of Geordie theatregoers?

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