26 SEPTEMBER 1998, Page 9


SIMON HOGGART The party conferences have just begun. As a young reporter, I used to be sent to help with the 'note', an earnest précis of the speeches made by delegates. No editor would bother today. In fact, the time must come soon when there are no speeches by delegates, and the entire conference takes place off the floor. An address by another 16-year-old like William Hague would have gone unnoticed, since only a sprinkling of delegates would have been watching, most of the press would have been elsewhere, and the live television coverage would have come from the corner of a bar where some savant would be explaining what Mrs Thatcher would mean later in the week, when she got around to saying what she probably intended to say. Now, the confer- ence is dominated by everything outside the hall. There are now hundreds of stalls at the bigger conferences, some distributing information about worthy causes, others purely commercial: 'Britoxic plc — bringing nuclear waste to your neighbourhood I ', `Viagra Pharmaceuticals, proud supporters of the Millennium Dome!' Westminster Sleaze Inc., helping YOU by putting the rich in touch with the powerful!' Most of them offer little goodies to take away, and a diligent parent can easily collect a carrier bag full of pens, badges, lollies, key-rings, sticks of rock, plastic puzzles, notebooks, furry gonks and, if you're not careful, super-strength condoms for gays from the Aids-awareness campaign booth.

And the parties — the social ones are now almost wall-to-wall. At one time there would be the occasional reception at around 6 p.m., after which everyone would trail off looking for supper. Now they have to stagger their starting times, so that a cunning delegate can eat and drink free from the moment he wakes until well past midnight. Who gets invited is entirely hap- hazard, but that doesn't matter, since gate- crashing is easy and for many people a point of pride. At some bashes — most of the public utilities, the Scotch Whisky Association — they are delighted to see anyone. The trick with the grander events, those where you can watch Cabinet minis- ters and television stars grabbing fistfuls of mini-samosas, is to pretend you are return- ing from the lavatory, or from chatting to a passing friend. Since all the provisions in the function suites are identical, it's easy to wander in with a half-full glass, sweep rapidly past the young women with the invi- tation list, and pretend to resume a conver- sation. At the BBC party, always a good one to be seen at, say loudly while doing a mock kneel, "Sir" John, you old rascal! Bloody kind of you to ask me again!' The director-general hasn't the faintest idea who's on the list, still less who you are, but none of his custodians is going to interrupt him to challenge you. A friend of mine, a charity lobbyist, claimed she had never been turned away from any conference party. That proud boast ended at the Saatchi and Saatchi bash around 11 p.m. one night four years ago. The women with the guest list were barring a narrow corri- dor and remained adamant in the face of every lie she told them. When she finally gave up after 20 minutes, she began to sob, quietly.

When I went to live in the United States, in 1985, there was some talk- about renaming the local language 'American'. Nobody paid much attention at the time, but last week I saw that the normally fastid- ious Maureen Dowd, writing in the usually fastidious New York Times, wrote of Presi- dent Clinton that 'his greatest sin is swin- dling and perverting the American lan- guage'. I don't know why she says that, since the language used by educated Amer- icans can't even be called a separate dialect of English, being 98 per cent the same as the tongue spoken by Brian Sewell. (Unlike 't's Quentin Tarantino. Sir, would you care to do a screen test.' the situation in, say, Brazil, where I gather Portuguese people have difficulty making themselves understood.) I suppose it's because to Americans the term 'American' has thunderous resonance, as in the Ameri- can constitution or the American way of life. To have their language named after a foreign country must be, subconsciously, rather humiliating, and to some, no doubt, inexplicable. Perhaps they want to rename it 'American' just at the point when English takes over the entire world. Travelling in the Far East this summer, I saw English notices and placards everywhere. In tourist areas of Thailand, you simply assume English is the lingua franca, and other Europeans have to use it or starve. But the French are the last hold-outs. Three times we encountered visitors who spoke only French. When people didn't understand them, they said it again, but very loudly and slowly — just as we were once reputed to do. One French family, eating a delectable meal on a coral beach, insisted on drinking, instead of the excellent local beer, a bottle of imported Loire rosé which must have cost them rather more than the entire meal for five.

Mind you, we are not the doughtiest defenders of our language. More and more people seem to have trouble with homo- phones. Near us a cheap clothing store offers 'Jeans, T-shirts, Serf Wear', which since it's ragged and full of holes is rather apt. 'Roll model' and `hairbrained' are now commonplace. Newspapers and books are falling victim fast. The normally fastidious A.A. Gill in the occasionally fastidious Sun- day Times recently wondered why, in some thriller, we hadn't been allowed to glimpse the corpse. 'Just a peak!' is what he appeared to ask. Jonathan Dimbleby's book on Chris Patten says of some election that it was a `shoe-in'; the term is `shoo-in', as in `shoo!', when moving an animal. Even the Guardian, which these days has no more misprints than anyone else, said that a crashed car had been a 'fight-off. My recent favourite was in the Times, where some free-spirited person was called 'a loose canon on the deck', and I had a vision of a naughty clergyman, frolicking around the Titanic, goosing the women under their parasols. I suspect the reason is that sub- editors just have too much copy to deal with. In the past, articles and books appeared on grubby scraps of paper, cov- ered with mysterious markings, bewildering deletions and inserts, coffee stains and thumbprints. It took time to deal with. Now the stuff is delivered in bulk by computer. It must be like sitting 'under a coal-hole as a bag of nutty slack comes down. No wonder their minds glaze over.