Fine words butter the conversation


The family catchphrase is a stock in trade for folksy radio and TV shows. And even though these items tend to irritate me, I can’t help being delighted when the opportunity comes to claim my own bit of verbal heritage. Something my clever, kind and unfeasibly young-looking mother said the other day is – if I have anything to do with it – set to join the idiomatic lexicon. In part, because it reminded me of an idea I have been itching to progress. 

I first surfaced the idea in my 2009 annual lecture in the context of calling for a more grown up deliberative form of political discourse. I argued that most political and policy debate involves people misrepresenting each other’s position and then knocking down the straw man they have built. I suggested political debate should involve the pursuit of the transcendent moment when the opposing sides in a debate agree on what exactly it is they disagree about. Rather than this being a moment of distilled antagonism, it turns out to lead to an outbreak of mutual respect and a recognition of the validity and inevitability of differences in systems of belief. It is the starting point for conflict resolution and authentic compromise.

Because so little public debate aims to agree about disagreeing (in fact quite the reverse), I have recently been trying to persuade various media people to think about a radio or TV format which involves working with the protagonists to distil this essence from a variety of disputes: from the obvious and highly charged (the Middle East) to public policy (progressive versus traditional teaching) to culture (Prince Charles versus modern architecture).    

This is the idea, but what did my mum say to remind me of it?

I’m not sure whether it’s an affectation, or just me getting older, but I have started to enjoy deploying phrases taught to me by my dear old grandmother. ‘Fine words butter no parsnips’ is a well established maxim but not - I have found out to my chagrin - in common use among those under forty. While the answer she gave to whether to take a scarf or raincoat on a journey, ‘if you take it with you, you can always take it off, but if you don’t take it with you, you can never put it on’, may have been her own invention.

It has been wrongly alleged that my own catchphrase should be ‘enough of me, what do you think about me?’ But if the cap fits, I’m afraid dear mum may have knitted it. She too can talk fascinatingly, and seemingly without end, about herself. And it was in this context, on Sunday night in the pub, that she burst out in frustration:

‘ Matthew, for goodness sake, I’m trying to have a conversation but you keep interrupting me’    

I think you’ll agree, it’s an instant classic.

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