Belfast Telegraph

Why a Naughtie word will never be forgotten

Today programme presenter James Naughtie will forever be remembered for the four-letter faux pas broadcast across the airwaves, says Matthew Norman

If any of you can cite a more perfect irony than the one which made 7.59.50am on December 6, 2010, the most listened to moment in British radio history since Edward VIII announced his abdication - 47.7 million people now claim to have been tuned to Radio 4 on Monday morning - I will send you a signed copy of the James Naughtie Lexicon of Modern Rhyming Slang (Roger Mellie Press, £14.99) by courier forthwith.

However one may have come to regard Jim down the years (and feelings tend to be mixed), the one quality with which nobody wise has ever associated him is brevity.

On a good morning, Jim's interrogative manner suggests Garth Crooks on the tranquilisers Nurse Ratched reserved for the more overtly deranged of her charges.

On a bad one, you could grow a beard to astound the president of the Greek Orthodox branch of the ZZ Top Fan Club in the time he takes to crank out an enquiry.

For 15 years, Jim made a radiophonic art form of plapping on and on until even the Zen monk demographic finds itself screaming "For Buddha's sake, you loquacious git, come to the point".

If the shortest recordable time period known to humanity is the gap between hearing "And now on Radio 4, it's Midweek with Libby Purves" and lurching for the off button, as mainstream quantum gravity thinking holds, the longest might just be Jim asking anyone anything about anything.

And then he reinvented himself with what Mrs Malaprop would have referred to as a syllabub. And not even the full syllabub.

Somehow, in the midst of the mayhem raging in his head, Jim showed the speed of mind not always discernible from his work to excise that final "t". The forthcoming interviewee was trailed, as a trip to YouTube will confirm, as Jeremy Cun. Which would make pedantic linguistic sense only if the Hulture Secretary were the Rt Hon Jeremy Hun. Did we fight Hitler so that one day the Hun might serve in Her Majesty's Cabinet? I don't believe so.

And that, for Jim, is that. Three letters, one truncated syllable, and the obituaries might as well be written today. Whatever else he has done during tens of thousands of hours of broadcasting, whatever he has yet to do, he will be remembered solely for that inter-consonantal ballistic missile.

It will be a mixed blessing. For the ensuing weeks, Jim will faux-sheepishly revel in being the centre of attention, retelling the tale to doe-eyed young women at Christmas parties with practised ease, and revelling in his freshly minted role as unwitting national jester and speaker of brutal truth to power.

But early in the New Year, he will begin to tire of being approached in concert halls by mobile-wielding Sibelius-lovers pleading, "Jim, I've got my mum on the phone, and she's your biggest fan. Have a word, will you? Her name's Margot, but she'd be so thrilled if you'd call her an absolute Jeremy."

There will be compensations. I gather that Simon Cowell - rhyming slang himself these days, of course, as in "How's your irritable bowel syndrome?" "Don't ask. Me Simons aren't irritable, pal, they're positively psychotic" - has approached him and bandwagon-jumping compatriot Andrew Marr.

The X Factor supremo hopes to sign the McPotty-Mouth twins to his Syco record label, with a view to them recording their updated, Caledonian version of Derek and Clive.

And let's not overlook how that syllabub and his reaction to it humanised him. I haven't always been Jim's greatest admirer, in sooth, while he, having been relentlessly teased in various diaries down the years, has hardly been mine.

A couple of years ago, I took a growing boy of my acquaintance to lunch in a fish restaurant in Chiswick, and there he sat at the only other occupied table. "Dad," he whispered, "why is that man staring at you as if he wants to kill you?". "That would be," was the reply, "because he wants to kill me."

But I came to love Jim Naughtie in that instant, not so much for the Freudo-Spoonerian slip, wondrously hilarious though it was, but for the giggling that followed and the flawed yet heroic rearguard he waged to suppress it.

The Naughtie of my misunderestimation would have tried to bulldoze through the disaster with pious and sonorous bombast, and snapped "grow up" at anyone who mentioned it. The real Jim handled it with gently amused humility. He was adorable.

If this is a game of lakes and snadders for him, alas it means only a slide for the plucky little media supremo from Surrey.

For one thing, this hardly aids Mr Hunt's intent to act as Rupert Murdoch's enabler in his plan to take a 100% stake in BSkyB and use it as the springboard to dominate a far vaster chunk of the British media even than now.

Any favouritism shown towards Murdoch, for all that nothing else has been shown him by any government since 1979, might look vengefully anti-BBC from the man called a cun on Today. For another, Jeremy's displacement of military crooner James Blunt as the official rhyming slang does little for any personal ambition.

Until Monday, this affable pussy cat was being talked up as David Cameron's likeliest long-term successor. Unfair as it is, his spontaneous mutation into a human punchline must damage his credibility. It wasn't only the sub-header on his own obituary that Jim provided on Monday.

Still, a slice of immortality is nothing for even the fall guy to sniff at, and Jeremy recovered by winsomely Tweeting that no one laughed louder than he.

It hardly matched the one alluded to at the start, but there is a minor irony in Jim using that word, or three quarters of it, of arguably the least offensive (Tory) member of the Cabinet. Having said that, on current form it shouldn't be long before the Frankie Boyle of Radio 4 sets about inarguably the most.

Should he find Defence Secretary Liam Fox's surname too open a goal for a striker of his linguistic suppleness, Jim might remind listeners that the definition of the Countryside Alliance is "a loose coalition of parties joined by the desire to hunt down one particular Fox and tear him to pieces".


From Belfast Telegraph