I’ve long been curious about the effectiveness of phrase books. Ever since reading Jerome K Jerome’s description of George’s attempts to buy a hat in London using a German phrase book in ‘Three Men on a Bummel” I’m always tempted to flick through guides to English written in other languages. Of particular interest is the situations that they anticipate occurring, identified by the phrases provided as I think they can provide an interesting insight into the culture which has produced the book.
With this in mind, while I was in Poland over Christmas I picked up ‘English for Everyone’ by Janina Smólska and Jan Rusiecki, published in 1966, presumably in the middle of the Soviet domination of the country. It has a number of conversations, in English, intended to show sentence structure presumably, but it’s often difficult to read them without introducing a rather sinister subtext into the proceedings.
Things start innocently enough,
John and Mary have a house in London.
Haven’t they got a small garden as well? Yes, they have
Mary has a piano in her room.
Hasn’t Mary got a desk in her room, too? Yes, she has
But things soon start sounding suspicious when Jan arrives on the scene..
Mrs. B: Tom! Who locked the door to Jan’s room?
Tom: Locked? It’s never locked.
Mrs B: Exactly. It’s never locked and yet I can’t get in. What have you done with the key Tom?
Tom is eventually forced to turn out his pockets and the key is found, but why was the door locked and why was Tom trying to cover for Jan?
The plot thickens later in the book.
Mrs B: Where have you been, Tom? Why are you so late?
Tom: I was at Dicks, We played chess, and then we had supper, and…
Mrs B. But it’s ten o’clock! Why did you stay at Dick’s so long?
Tom comes up with various excuses, but reading between the lines it’s clear there’s more going on than meets the eye.
Next, he’s clearly been ransacking the house for something, but is forced to concoct a ridiculous excuse when caught in the act:
Mr B: I say, Mary!
Mrs B: What is it, John?
Mr B: Look.
Mrs B: Good heavens! What’s happened? Who’s done all this?
Mr B: Yes. The flower vase is overturned and the water is splashed all over my desk. And my papers are scattered all over the floor.
Mr B: But that isn’t the worst, Mary. There was an important letter on my desk. I left it there which morning. And now it’s missing.
Tom claims the wind must have blown the letter out of the window, but we know better.
Apparently, the authorities have begun to get suspicious by now however, as surveillance starts on the house:
Tom: I say Jan, don’t you think that new neighbour of ours is very queer?
Jan: What neighbour? We have the Greens on one side and the Joneses on the other. There’s no other house nearby.
Tom: I mean that funny yellow house which has been standing empty for such a long time. The one on the other side of the Greens. Well, someone has moved into it at last.
Tom: I saw a luggage van in front of it as I was coming home from Dick’s one day last week. It was quite dark, almost ten o’clock. Now, doesn’t that look suspicious to you, Jan?
Jan: Suspicious? Why?
Tom: People usually move during the day don’t they? And then, you know, no one has had a good look at that man yet. I saw him only for a moment as he was taking some of his things out of the van/ He wears dark glasses and has a beard which I’m sure must be false.
Jan: Good heavens!
Tom: And he is never at home you know.
Jan: How do you know that?
Tom: Well, perhaps he is at home, but doesn’t want to let anyone in. As I was going past the other day, the milkman was just taking up the milk. He probably wanted to collect his money, so he rang the bell but nobody answered it. And today it was the same with the postman.
Jan: The man simply leaves early for work, that’s all.
Tom: And why does he keep the blinds pulled down in all the windows that look onto the street? Tell me that if you can?
I’ll transcribe some more tomorrow, when we’ll discover whether or not John is in on the conspiracy or simply trying to catch Tom in the act…