My blind grandfather gave me my love of English
On a foggy November evening in 1938, my grandmother was driving her husband along the Dock Road in Liverpool when she ran into the back of a parked coal truck. Without seat belts, he went straight through the windscreen tearing his eyes to shreds. Ophthalmic surgery at the time could only remove the debris leaving two deep sockets which were disguised by very dark glasses.
The injury ended his career as a local headmaster but he was not a man to be put off by such accidents of life. He started the Greater Crosby Fund for the Blind which collected just under £100 in the first year. He was still President when he died twenty years later when the fund raised over £105,000.
He lost his wife to cancer two years after the accident so he was joined by his sister, my Aunt Polly, who cared for him for the rest of his life. He also had his reading and walking ‘managers’- for which there was soon a long waiting list. The ‘readers’ would read the Sunday Papers to him on Monday mornings and the Spectator on Wednesdays. Every other day of the week, he had walking managers, both mornings and afternoons, who took him around the streets of Bootle and Crosby for about four or five miles while chatting about any subject under the sun. The walking managers included ex-Cunarder captains, shopkeepers and retired dustmen. He could “walk with Kings, nor lose the common touch” to quote his favourite Kipling.
The only changes to this routine would occur when we visited him as a family or he came, with Auntie Polly, to spend a week with us in East Anglia. On these occasions my brother and I would take over the ‘manager’ responsibilities. I remember walking him through Crosby market on a Saturday morning with his white stick tapping on his left side and me on his right arm. Unexpectedly he pulled my arm back and we stopped in the middle of the crowd of market shoppers and he called out “Peter?” A man looked round and a smile lit up his face.
“Mr Peach! How lovely to see you. How are you?”
The conversation lasted four or five minutes before Granddad moved us on.
“How on earth did you know that was Peter, Granddad?”
“Easy,” he said “I heard his footsteps!”- in a crowded Saturday market?!
There were fewer people about in the Essex lanes we used to walk when he visited us at home so he would throw questions at me.
“What can you see, Adrian?”
“Well, there’s a hedge on our right …”
“I know that, you clot. I can hear the nesting birds singing in it. What colour is the hedge?”
“It’s sort of green,” I replied.
“Sort of green? What kind of an answer is that? How many greens can you see around us? Not just the hedge, think of the grass verge, the tree leaves, the reflections in the puddles, the mould on the tree trunks — actually that’s usually called lichen, pronounced “lyken” — and we haven’t started on the reds, blues and yellows.
“Even then, try not to us words like ‘dark’ or ‘light’. They are what I used to call ‘lazy’ words. If you want to describe a dark colour try to use a word that is just a bit out of the ordinary like ‘dirty’,’sooty’ or ‘oily’.” It took me some time to come up with parsley gree, yellow green, spring grass green and, even holly green.
Always try to choose the right word rather than the clever word.
“Then there is texture, meaning how things feel — velvety, silky and spiky — instead of just rough or smooth. These are all adjectives which can be useful but not as much fun as similes and metaphors.”
We spent the next three miles challenging each other with more and more experimental ways to use the English language. We were laughing ourselves silly by the time we got home until he brought us back to some semblance of sensibility by saying “Adrian, we have had a lot of fun with the English language but don’t let it overwhelm you. We have lots of very long and rather precocious words in our dictionary which occasionally have their place in our writing. But, more often than not, a short word carries more weight and feeling than a long one saying the same thing in a fancy way.– and that is not always very easy.”
Try it yourself. Look, don’t ‘see’; listen, don’t ‘hear’; examine a detail instead of glancing past. Don’t look for the dramatic, find the ordinary and describe it as extraordinary; look at the drab and bring out the colour. While the painter has a palette, we have a vocabulary. A dictionary is a reference book that we use while a vocabulary is what we speak.
There is no such word as “swaffled” but most people could imagine a field of ripening barley ‘swaffled’ by the wind. Find your own tongue, don’t mimic other writers and, above all, enjoy your polished work.