Personholes

Business - October 16th, 2009

by Ian de Stains OBE

There is a craft to being a columnist; to turning out by strict deadlines the exact number of words the editor expects, and to making sure those words are going to interest people enough to want to read them. It is not for me to say whether I come near to meeting these criteria—though I am grateful for the many comments I’ve had from readers—but I feel grateful for the many teachers I’ve encountered during my career.

Photo by William Couch

One such teacher—I would have to say the dai-sensei—recently passed away at the age of 80. Keith Waterhouse was a household name in the UK, thanks to his twice-weekly column in the Daily Mail and before that the Daily Mirror. He probably wrote some 2,000 columns all told, which is a lot of words, and he was writing up to the very end. But he was also a prolific novelist, his most famous book being Billy Liar which was made into a film starring Tom Courtney and Julie Christie. Stage plays, too: Jeffrey Barnard is Unwell starred Peter O’Toole in the West End of London, and then transferred to playhouses around the world. Then there were the television scripts, in addition to screenplays. At the time of his death he was reportedly putting the finishing touches on a play about the demise of Fleet Street, the domain of which he was considered by many to be the king.

Waterhouse was a master when it came to language. I admired him enormously.  Born in Yorkshire—as I was—he also spoke out strongly against abuses of the apostrophe—a pet hate of my own. He famously wrote one column in which he instituted the Association for the Annihilation of the Aberrant Apostrophe (AAAA), railing against the various grocer’s (sic) signs advertising potato’s and tomatoe’s, as well as the station name Kings (as opposed to King’s) Cross. The abuse is endless. But this was only one of many comic creations he used to pillory the establishment and to argue against the creeping blight of political correctness that in the UK means it is impossible today to speak of blackboards in schools, for fear of appearing racist; of brainstorming, for fear of insulting those with epilepsy.  You can no longer master your craft—you must perfect it—for fear of appearing sexist. There can be no black sheep in the family anymore and no longer can you expect to be judged as whiter than white, no matter how pure your credentials. What, though, of manholes and manhole covers?

I’d long made it a habit to log onto the Daily Mail website on Mondays and Thursdays to read the Waterhouse column. I was always entertained, never disappointed. I was sad when in May the column was dropped because its author had decided to retire. I am sadder now that we have lost him. But I shall always be grateful for all he taught me.

Ian de Stains is the executive director of the British Chamber of Commerce in Japan.

External Link:
Keith Waterhouse, Wikipedia