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On the perils of shorthand and/or mumbling and/or not fully explaining

Posted on 13 March 2011 | 11:03am

I don’t know for sure that Euan Ferguson of the Observer does teeline (the form of shorthand in which I was once, many years ago, 120 words a minute proficient). But I think he might. Either that or I mumble – I know I do sometimes, but I thought I was speaking reasonably carefully when Euan interviewed me for today’s ‘This Much I know’ column in the Observer

If you whizz down to the final question and answer, there I describe a flag that someone (Charles Ashburner, one of the country’s leading flagmakers and flag campaigners no less) designed for me. Before anyone thinks I am getting carried away with delusions of grandeur, it was Charles’s idea and I was very grateful for it, and a small version of it sits on my desk.

I am quoted in The Observer as saying there is a scene of ‘Campbelltown’ in the background, and a ‘B’ from the Burnley emblem. In fact, it is ‘Campbell tartan’, but it is possible that ‘-town’ and ‘-tartan’ could look very similar in shorthand. I would probably do tartan with an above the line double length t, which is how you would do a word with a t and an r in it. But there are shorthands within shorthand, and it is possible Euan just had the short t. Then again, maybe I mumbled. But before this misunderstanding finds its way to the Campbelltown Courier, I felt I should rebut … Campbell tartan not Campbelltown.

Now I am not criticising Euan at all. So far as I can recall he has quoted me accurately in all areas, and it is extraordinary how much he seems to cover in a relatively short piece – rudeness, Jamie’s Dream School, with my whack at editors’ near universal use of private schools, the Iraq anti-war march, men crying, depression, and this odd thing that has happened a few times – people asking me to tell them to fuck off, as though I was Malcolm Tucker.

However when Euan quotes me as saying that I have a letter B from Burnley in my flag – no, it is an actual bee, because Burnley FC has a real bee – a bumblebee – in its emblem. Isn’t communications complicated? And how odd that I felt the need to set the record straight. Apologies to Euan and his readers if my mumbling and my failure fully to explain the difference between a B and a bee, rather than his shorthand, lay behind these minor misunderstandings.

  • Anonymous


  • Al Murray


  • The main thing I regret about those years in power is our obsession with day-to-day news. We had such a majority and such goodwill we could have got away with ignoring the press and gone for grand strategy. But by the time Tony and I and John [Prescott] had come to that view, it was getting too late.

    Hope he got this right Alastair as I couldnt agree more and am pleased it is your main regret.

  • smileoftdecade

    ahh the lack of a good “bumble” – and what confusion it can cause…

  • Olli Issakainen

    The bee in the BFC emblem symbolizes the town´s busy industry. The cotton shuttle is the symbol of Burnley´s cotton industry.
    The hand at the top represents the Burnley city motto “Hold to the Truth”. Two lions represent Burnley´s royal connections.
    Then there are two Lancashire roses. The knight´s helmet represents two aristocratic Burnley families.

  • sarah

    now the last paragraph makes sense! – wonder if he’ll alter it
    the Bee is from Burnley council/town crest – it signifies industry & hard work – there’s also 3 bees on Blackburn’s town crest!

  • Anonymous

    Test to see if Disqus back working

  • Richard

    You may be guilty of many things, Al, but I would seek to defend you against any charges of not making youself clearly understood! This Observer man must be…………… let me not go there!

  • Yonks

    Couldn’t quite catch what you said there Alastair….Speak Up!

  • Teresa

    Alastair I don’t think it’s odd that you feel the need to set the record straight, they are close to your heart and it needs to be right, and when I’ve watched you on different programs I always think how clear and striking your voice is.

  • Jacquie R

    Have just read the Observer interview and was very struck by your comment`:

    “The main thing I regret about those years in power is our obsession with day-to-day news. We had such a majority and such goodwill we could have got away with ignoring the press and gone for grand strategy. But by the time Tony and I and John had come to that view, it was getting too late.”

    He may be in a very different position than you were in 1997, but I hope Ed Miliband is bold enough to set out a grand strategy for a future Labour government, without being intimidated by the right wing press. His feeble response to the BSkyB takeover does not give one much encouragement.

  • Ehtch

    The media empire “send theri kids to public school”, so they don’t mind giving a good kicking to public sector education is spot on. Same goes for private medical care, until they need super-serious treatment, then they go sloping off cap in hand to the NHS.

    No comment of drinking habits – I overindulge.

    And swearing? – it’s only words.

  • Euan Ferguson

    Dear Alastair

    Mea culpa absolutely. (Incidentally, no, I’m not insanely self-obsessed but I do google my own name a couple of times every financial year to check word-count, thus came across this).

    You’re right: I did get at least taught Teeline, decades ago at the barking but improbably good empire of DC Thomson, when even night subs like me had to learn it for 2 a.m. calls from arguing Dundonian drunks suddenly wanting to know things such as the time in Fiji, or how tall was Lena Martell. Since then it has, ahem, refined itself. My fault was not so much in mistranscribing “tartan” for “town” and, more humanly, “bee” for “B”. It was in my dimwattage in later filing a paragraph which somewhere in my brain I knew made no sense. Why would there have been a Campbelltown? Why would there have been a meaningless cap B? As you say, communications – complicated. I think I shamefully broke my own rule here, which is roughly to never lodge something – a paragraph, a karaoke request, a declaration of love, an, er, dossier – without checking for internal logical fallacies.

    I do apologise and will have a word this week with Stephen Pritchard our readers’ editor about setting the record straight. And it was my question of course, via Mary and Calais, which elicited the flag response – and by the way I did check out Mr Ashburner, and mentioned him in the original piece, but . . . bloody subs. Some things never change. Best wishes

  • ambrosian

    It must surely be his shorthand. You’ve never struck me as one of nature’s mumblers. But maybe I too am confusing you with Malcolm Tucker, in which case feel free to tell me to fuck the fuck off.

  • Suzie

    How on earth did you get 120 words a minute? I am only learning but can barely manage 50!

  • Tom

    Also quite impressive how they managed to get you to sit on the floor for the picture with the article!

  • Can we get a picture of your Vexillological creation?