Monthly Archives: April 2016

How my writing career began by accident

Welcome to my blog and thanks for stopping by. I won’t just be blogging about writing but about English Language, travel (especially Cuba and New Zealand), art, justice and injustice, and much more. This first blog tells how my writing career began by accident.

 

While teaching in the eighties, I developed a sore throat that grew steadily worse. After some weeks, I was hoarse, and any attempt to speak was excruciatingly painful.

An ENT surgeon directed a light onto my vocal cords and made “Ooo!” noises, like an excited potholer illuminating stalactitites in a newly-discovered cavern. “They look like succulents on my rockery,” he said.

“What exactly is the problem?” I asked.

“Imagine your hand in a tight-fitting glove,” he said, relinquishing my jaw. “If the glove works loose, the hand can’t function properly. Same with your vocal cords. If you abuse them and the lining works loose – even a fraction of a millimetre – you become hoarse.”

“So what can you do?”

“Slice the loose bits off with a laser. Don’t worry – they grow again.”

The day after the operation, I was sitting up in hospital slurping ice-cream. I felt great but couldn’t make a sound. I had a notepad and pen, and when the surgeon came round, I scribbled, “How long till I talk again?” He read my note and said, “Three or four days.” Then I scribbled, “How long till I can teach?” He paused. “Give it ten days,” he said. I smiled and gave him a thumbs-up.

A month later, I was at home unable to make the slightest sound. They had to be lying: I had something worse, and they were hiding the truth. I convinced myself it wasn’t life-threatening – just career-threatening. I’d never teach again. What could I do? The only thing was to write about something I knew about. The obvious topic was False Friends – pairs of words in two languages that look as if they mean the same but don’t. For example, Spanish embarazada doesn’t mean “embarrassed” but “pregnant”. I’d collected a long list of German-English False Friends during my time in Germany and now threw myself into further research.

It was Christmas. At parties I tried to join in conversations with what I hoped was witty repartee scribbled on my notepad, but by the time I’d thought of something funny and written it down, the conversation had moved on and the moment was lost – it wasn’t funny any more. That was bad enough, but far worse was seeing how people couldn’t deal with my plight.

A friend who was standing right next to me turned to my then-wife and asked, “Is he eating all right?” If I’d been able to speak, I would have been dumbstruck. This “Does-he-take-sugar?” syndrome, where able-bodied people are unable to speak directly to those with handicaps, is intensely humiliating for the disabled. Hello? I thought. I’m here. Why don’t you ask me? I had a throat operation, not brain surgery.

Then, six weeks after the operation, I made a sound. It was a deep, ugly, guttural croak, but to me it was the sweetest sound in the world. I cried for half an hour – and taught for another twenty years.

I had done too much work on False Friends to put the research aside. A friend, Chris Perkins, put me in touch with Dr. Alan Cornell, who was researching the same topic, and we spent eight years compiling three volumes of German-English False Friends, which were published by the newly-formed Englang Books. Years later, it is still the leading work on the subject. Book One alone has sold more than 20,000 copies.

Every cloud has a silver lining, but every silver lining has a dangling thread. I got my voice back at a price – a shedload of anguish and a steep learning curve. When a doctor says four days, he may mean forty-two. I’ll never forget the prickling humiliation of those does-he-take-sugar moments. Nowadays I go out of my way to speak to the disabled and help whenever I can. And by the way, I don’t take sugar.