Dotting the i
Yesterday evening I finished off (more-or-less) writing 71 pages on Aviation Human Factors and, believing that to be enough for anyone, cast around for something to read. Down here in the basement we have about 3500 books and I had the 1896 bound edition of Chums Magazine open on the floor where I had been depressing myself thinking about the degeneration in English since then. Take this “joke” for example:
A celebrated artist had that dislike to commonplace observations which might be expected in a man of ardent imagination and cultivated intellect. After sitting perfectly silent for some time during the empty, disjointed chat of some idle callers, talking with one another about the weather, etc., he suddenly exclaimed “We had pork for dinner to-day!” “Why, my dear Mr. —–, what an odd remark.” “Well,” replied he, “it is as good as anything you have been saying for the last half-hour.
I’m not saying that the standard of humour hasn’t improved since 1896, simply that the use of English for 12 year old boys seems to have declined. Anyway, putting that aside I cast around, more-or-less at random, for something to read and came across A.P.Herbert’s Uncommon Law. I used to read Herbert’s Misleading Cases all the time but, for some reason, haven’t opened them for at least 15 years. I find from the flyleaf that I purchased my volume of Uncommon Law in Reading on 19th July 1984 while attending a meeting with the Department of Health and Social Securities on their Unemployment Benefit System (NUBS).
The book opened at the case of Chicken .v. Ham wherein readers will remember that Mr Ham made a gramophone record containing uncomplimentary statements about Mr Chicken. The issue that had turned this into a lawyers’ dream was not whether the statements were defamatory (that was agreed) but whether a gramophone record constituted libel or slander. As the law stood at the time, actual damage had to be proved in a case of slander (defamation by word of mouth) but not in a case of libel (defamation in writing). I do not want to labour here the crucial and subtle points of law expounded in the trial but I do, for a reason that will become clear in a moment, want to bring one sentence to your attention. In explaining the importance of the case, the Lord Chancellor says, ‘”It is something,” as Lord Mildew said in Rex .v. Badger, “to dot an i in perpetuity”.’
That this is true is unanswerable.
Putting down my A.P.Herbert I cast around again and came across Bernard Levin’s second book of extracted journalism, Speaking Up. When speaking of Bernard Levin it is almost obligatory to say how much you disagree with his views but how much you admire his style. I do. I had not opened this book for some 12 years either and I decided to read through his introduction. The last paragraph contains the following sentence: “‘It is something’, says the judge in one of A.P.Herbert’s Misleading Cases, ‘to dot an i in perpetuity.'”
I felt a cold shiver running down my spine. One day I must work out how long it is likely to be until such a coincidence occurs again.