British and American English

For anyone who speaks British English – or a fairly close variant such as South African English – travelling to the United States can be a linguistically challenging experience. As a frequent visitor to the US (I have a daughter living there) my confusion was eased some years ago by a fascinating book, “Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions” by Orin Hargraves (Oxford University Press).

Subtitled “Making Sense of Transatlantic English”, the book not only catalogues the differences between the “two” languages but places terms in their cultural contexts. For example, Hargraves outlines the structural and terminological differences between the Parliamentary and Congressional systems of government, the legal systems, popular ball games, educational systems etc.

The book is equally useful for Americans heading to countries where British English is used.

Although it is a serious work of scholarship it is also extremely amusing. The chapter entitled “What you don’t say” navigates the reader through the pitfalls of slang terms for body parts, “activities and excretions”, and, under the general heading of political correctness, ethnic and racial classifications, sex and sexual orientation, religion, disabilities and so on. For a Brit to say that he was driving his car with his hand on the hooter is likely to cause shock at a polite American dinner party.

Hatchards bookshop, Piccadilly

In the last few years before I retired my office was at 6 St. James’s Square, London. I had no time for leisure reading in those days, but temptation lay close at hand in the form of Hatchards bookshop in Piccadilly.

Sometimes I would take a brisk walk at lunchtime, ostensibly to clear my head and think through one or other problem, but my feet would lead me invariably through the door of that venerable shop which has traded in Piccadilly for well over two centuries.

It had five floors of books and extremely knowledgeable staff. I bought many books that gathered dust for years before I was able to open them. On retirement we were to move to our farm in South Africa, so, in those pre-Kindle days, I needed to stock up with books in advance.

Of course I continued to buy books after I left London at the end of 1997, but I no longer had the same choice, so my library is skewed towards the 20th century. I have been back to Hatchards on subsequent visits to London, but there’s a limit to the number of books one’s baggage allowance will permit.

In the late 1990s Hatchards became part of the Waterstones group and I believe it recently opened a new shop in St. Pancras station. I hope that in spite of these changes the old shop in Piccadilly keeps its uniqueness. I seem to remember, in a picture frame near the door, a telegram to the manager from Queen Victoria ordering her weekend supply of reading. I’m sure they delivered her order pretty promptly, almost as quickly as a Kindle download!

Prose anthologies

There is a shelf in my study reserved for prose anthologies; I have had a soft spot for them ever since “A Book of Modern Prose”, compiled by Margaret Flower, was one of my school set books way back in the 1950s.
(It was only later that the appropriateness of Ms Flower’s surname occurred to me: the word “anthology” literally means a “flower-gathering”. In Afrikaans the word is “bloemlesing”.)
“A Book of Modern Prose” introduced me, at the age of 16, to such writers as John Dos Passos, William Saroyan, G K Chesterton, Ernest Hemingway, D H Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield, Robert Graves, Sherwood Anderson, E M Forster, Logan Pearsall Smith, W B Yeats, Winston S. Churchill and several others. It opened a door for me into the world of books and undoubtedly changed my life. I still have the book after 57 years — well thumbed and well loved. It has delayed the writing of this post by an hour while I have dipped into it with undiminished pleasure.
Over the years it has been joined on my bookshelf by many other prose anthologies. The first was “A Book of English Essays”, selected by Sir William Emrys Williams and published by Penguin Books. It carried me back to writers of short prose in the 17th century such as Francis Bacon and Jeremy Taylor, but especially to Joseph Addison, whose short, entertaining essays in the “Spectator” made him famous. His “The Tombs in Westminster Abbey” is just one of many that deserve re-reading. Another writer from that anthology that I love to read is Charles Lamb, who was born more than 50 years after Addison died and carried forward the great tradition of the English essayist.
In the 1970s I discovered “The Oxford Book of English Prose”, edited by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch and published in 1925. Although it has almost 1,100 pages it is a wonderfully compact book printed on India paper which fitted in my pocket on business trips during the next decade and provided me with many hours of entertainment on long-haul flights and in airport lounges. If it were not for the Kindle it would still be with me on my more leisurely travels today.
Also in the ’70s I found a copy of “The Knapsack”, edited by Herbert Read and published by Routledge in 1939. Its purpose was to provide soldiers in World War 2 with a compact anthology to carry in their kit while on active service. I had a spell in the army in the ’70s so I tried to put this book to its intended purpose; although it contained much of interest I found its contents rather too serious for relaxing reading while on manoeuvres!
Sometime in the ’80s I bought “The London Book of English Prose”, edited by Herbert Read and Bonamy Dobree and published by Eyre & Spottiswoode in 1932. I have never been able to decide whether or not I prefer it to the Oxford book mentioned above, as it is arranged by theme rather than chronologically. Its three broad categories are Narrative, Scientific and Emotive and the sub-headings are too numerous to mention but include such diverse subjects as story-telling, autobiography, letters, pure science, politics, law, strategy and tactics, sport, pathos, drama, comedy, controversy, satire and many others. Its contributors range in time from the 14th to the 20th centuries.
Then I came upon a wonderful book called “The Oxford Book of English Talk”, edited by James Sutherland and published in 1953. This anthology consists of examples of authentic English speech dating from the 15th to the 20th centuries, as recorded in the proceedings of law courts and in the verbatim court reports of 18th and 19th century newspapers. The practice of using some form of shorthand for taking down court proceedings goes back at least to Tudor times, and we have therefore a fairly reliable record as far back as the 16th century of words and expressions people actually used. The dialogue written in plays over the past 400 or so years also provides a fairly authentic reflection of the words spoken by real people. It is a book to read aloud!
Finally there is “A Treasury of English Prose”, edited by Logan Pearsall Smith, published by Constable and undated but probably more than 60 years old. It ranges from Geoffrey Chaucer to George Santayana and contains many gems missed by other compilers. I have put it by my bedside to read again.
In all my years of reading anthologies I had hardly thought that something I had written would ever appear in one. But in 2012, the year I turned 70, I was invited by Tafelberg Publishers, Cape Town, to write a short story about the Boer War for their new book “Boereoorlogstories 2″. I wrote it in English and it appeared translated and abridged as “Die Tweeling”. The original English-language version appears elsewhere on this website.