I’m sitting in the Accident and Emergency Waiting Room at Frimley Park Hospital. It’s midday. I’m not really feeling at ease with myself or with the world. In fact I’m feeling very anxious. Why am I here? Well, earlier today I suddenly noticed that I was having some sort of allergic reaction to the devil-knows-what and when my face started to look like I’d gone ten rounds with Mike Tyson I decided to call the emergency services; and they came; and then they took me off to the A and E department.
The waiting room in which I am sitting has three things that make it a standard A and E waiting room. It has various sorts of plastic-leatherette chairs in greys and dull blues. The different designs probably reflect the different seating needs presented by the hospital’s clients. It has notices and TV screens that tell us about how well the hospital is performing. One of the screens, though, is devoted to how patients (or would-be patients) can make complaints. The screen has a single heading ‘Complaints’ and then there is a flow-chart diagram of the complaints process. I must admit that seeing a large screen highlighting how to make complaints isn’t exactly morale-boosting. And the third thing? It’s the people who, in various ways, are suffering the after-effects of accidents.
There are 7 others in the A and E waiting room at Frimley Park hospital. Nearest to me (about two chairs away) is an old couple. They came in after me and sat down; at first they said nothing. The woman began reading. She looked about 105 years old; the man looked a little younger. He had his eyes shut. He sat in a very upright position and he was wearing a tweed waistcoat that rather contrasted with the rest of his clothing. Suddenly the old woman began to inform the man about what was soon to be broadcast on the television. She had a TV supplement that was attached to whatever else it was that she had been reading. And so began an exemplary adverbial conversation; it went like this:
“There’s a thing on tonight about Great British Railway journeys,” said the old woman.
“I’ve already seen that,” replied the old man peevishly.
“There’s that quiz show called ‘Pointless’,” said the old woman.
“That’s exactly what it is: pointless,” replied the old man, sarcastically.
“After that there’s ‘Flog it’,” said the old woman.
“Flogged to death,” asserted the old man, malevolently.
“Oh, there’s a re-run of ‘Ben Hur’,” said the woman.
“Not again,” retorted the old man, dismissively.
“Britain’s got talent: they’re showing ‘Britain’s got talent’ on every evening this coming week,” said the old woman.
“Oh for God’s sake,” snapped the old man contemptuously.
The old woman paused for a while and then continued studying the magazine. After re-charging her batteries she began to tell the old man about the remaining programmes that were to be shown on the television. She seemed quite immune to his reactions. His adverbial responses continued unabated: Whether he replied caustically or pointedly or wittily or damningly he maintained the ability to suffuse each response with a distinct and often vivid character.
It was a striking performance.
It reminded me of the philosopher who remarked that so much of what we do is adverbial; our conduct is rarely if ever neutral both in manner and style. And the same philosopher went on to say that we may come to live a whole life courageously or gracefully, oafishly or insouciantly, atavistically or grandiloquently.
As the couple spoke I recalled the time in my life when I first became aware of adverbs: it was through the stories in the books that my parents read to me when I was very young. My father was a military man – so the family was obliged to follow a fairly strict disciplinary regime. The routines of our existence extended to bed-time: at around eight o’clock in the evening my parents would take it in turns to read to me. Amongst the first books they chose to read were the enchanting ‘Little Grey Rabbit’ stories by Alison Uttley. She told us how, for example the self-important Hare would boast proudly of his impetuous exploits; how the Speckledy Hen cackled triumphantly so as to let the whole world know that she had laid an egg; how the Water-Rat would paddle peacefully in the stream – and how, at night, the Wise Owl flew soundlessly across the starry skies. Alison Uttley did not over-use adverbs; she used them sparingly and to wonderful effect. But I imagine that Alison Uttley’s beautifully written stories are no longer fashionable …
My reminiscences were suddenly cut short by the voice of a nurse: she was calling my name and instructing me to follow her.
“Come along then, darling,” she said soothingly. And follow her I did.