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Very puzzling prose

PUBLISHED: 10:39 24 June 2010 | UPDATED: 17:25 20 February 2013

Very puzzling prose

Very puzzling prose

Peter Sampson drafts a sustainable strategy for the deciphering of councilspeak

Peter Sampson drafts a sustainable strategy for the deciphering of councilspeak



There was great laughter and jollity in our household the other day after the postman had delivered his customary wodge of mail.
For there on the doormat, amongst the usual leaflets about orthopaedic beds, private medicine, cheap shoes, car insurance, sofa covers and tandoori takeaways were two glossy booklets, one from Suffolk County Council and one from our own, our very own District Council. What larks, my wife and I thought, as we gazed bright-eyed at each other, looking forward to a happy morning browsing through the two booklets with many a merry chuckle at the wit and wisdom of those to whom we gratefully pay our Community Charge.
Alas, it was not to be. We tried, we really tried, but it was no use. After much head-scratching and exchanges of sad and bewildered glances, my wife and I realised that, for most of the time, neither of us could understand much of what these people were talking about.
We knew that each of the booklets was the result of many hours of work by decent, hard-working and honourable people, who truly wished to do their best by the county they served. No doubt there had been many hours of committee meetings to decide on the exact wording of every page, with many an anxious exchange between Councillor Thingummy and Councillor Whatsisname as to the clarity of the pie chart on page six, the accuracy of the list on page nine and the size of the chairmans photograph on page three.
And no doubt the entire staff in council offices the length and breadth of Suffolk, from council leader and chief executive to the most junior of office boys, had lined up proudly in the council corridors and council foyers to cheer on their way the great parcels of finished booklets being prepared for distribution to households in every nook and cranny of the county, every remote cottage, every stately home, every pretty bed-and-breakfast and every starving artists garret.
However and its a very big however in all that long and complicated process of meetings and revisions and rewrites and arguments and draftings and re-draftings, nobody, it would seem, not even the most impertinent of office-boys, had spotted that what they were producing is actually almost totally unreadable: stodgy, jargon-ridden and dull to the point of being seriously soporific.
Every page of these booklets sags heavily with talk of Local Strategic Partnerships, Sustainable Community Strategies, Community Safety Accreditation Schemes and Safer Neighbourhood Teams. Theres an Anti-Fraud Initiative, a Policing Pledge, a Parish Tree Scheme, an Ebb-and-Flow Partnership, a Gateway to Homechoice System, a Customer Access Strategy and a Shoreline Management Plan (which is not, I presume, to be confused with Integrated Coastal Zone Management or the Peninsula Futures Programme). What used to be called an industrial estate (itself a euphemism for factories) is now, apparently, an Innovation Park.
Are you still there? Eyelids drooping a little? A vague sense that life is too short for this sort of thing? A suspicion that staring at a pile of wet gravel might be more stimulating? An ill-defined feeling that you never again for the rest of your life want to hear words like strategy and partnership and scheme and initiative?
I wonder whether the people in council offices who write these booklets are just the same at home.
If so, each of them will presumably have a family version of the Customer Access Strategy which decides who gets first, second or third use of the bathroom each morning. Theyll insist on having a Community Safety Partnership and a Community Safety Accreditation Scheme to govern the childrens use of the back garden trampoline and a Sustainable Community Strategy will determine whose turn it is to empty the kitchen bin into the Household Waste Recycling Centre outside the back door. Their familys Anti-Fraud Initiative will ensure a fair distribution of the childrens weekly pocket-money.
Oh, surely not. Surely even the most cloistered and desiccated council officer must be human, must have a warmly beating heart thudding away somewhere in his bosom.
Crunching along Aldeburgh beach at dawn on a misty summer morning or stumbling upon a tiny section of Roman road between narrow hedges just beyond Framlingham, lonely and undisturbed since the Romans left, or walking down a dipping, tree-shadowed lane near Lavenham on a summer afternoon towards a Toytown farmhouse and farmyard, surely even he might be tempted to fling off his office-grey suit in mad abandon and prance gaily through the dusty sunlight, scattering rose-petals right and left, chanting a merry madrigal as he pranced.
For a few unbridled moments in the baking heat of a Suffolk summer, he would no longer give two hoots about schemes and plans and programmes and strategies and initiatives and information communication technology. Pooh to your Local Strategic Partnerships! he would cry. A fig for your Sustainable Community Strategy! I wouldnt give you tuppence for your Integrated Coastal Zone Management!
Then, sated, he would return to his office and his spreadsheets and his databases and his doting secretary and, as he hummed contentedly to himself under his breath, he would start to write like a human being at last.

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