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  • Simon Howard

A SECRET LANGUAGE

Updated: Mar 22, 2020

Many years ago, when I worked as a reporter in Fleet Street, I knew a curious old sub-editor called Hawkins. He’d spent the whole of his journalistic life on the subs’ desk at the same newspaper, unlike most hacks, who moved from paper to paper like old tarts – often ending up at the rag they’d started on. But old Hawkins kept going for decades in his familiar Dickensian surroundings in Shoe Lane. The life there was Dickensian too.


‘BOY!’ you shouted if you wanted something done. Then a callow youth from the East End loafed up to your desk and took away your copy or brought you tea and dough-nuts.


Sometimes, after I had finished my shift, I’d go and do a second one at a more up-to-date paper nearby, where we’d have to get our own tea and carry our copy all the way to the subs’ desk. The difference between the two papers was that we wrote very few stories on the second one, and what we turned in was completely reworked by the subs, so there was no trace left of what we’d written. But the pay was far better.


Anyway, Hawkins was on the paper in Shoe Lane for forty years, during which time he kept himself going through a secret passion. It wasn’t a desire for the callow youths from the East End, as some of the stupider hacks supposed. It was nothing like that…


During those forty long years, and for some time before, Hawkins single-handedly invented his own language. It had verbs, adjectives, declensions, grammar, syntax, gerunds – everything a language could need. It became as complex as any language ever invented, and he compiled dictionaries and books of usage to go with it. Composing that language was one of the feats of the age – one of the great phonological feats of all time. It took place in Shoe Lane and at his semi-detached house in Hendon, and on Tube trains between the two – nowhere else, because he never went away. He worked his whole life on what was to become one of the great Indo-European languages. And do you know what? He never shared it with another living soul. He kept the whole bloody thing to himself.


Did Hawkins’ language have an accompanying morality? What was a crime in that language? It was just a language invented by one man in his lifetime – a language without a society. No shared thoughts, no joint processes, no body of opinion. Did this make it easier or more difficult for Hawkins to decide moral issues? As Voltaire said: ‘One great use of words is to hide our thoughts.’


Then one night his house burned down, taking both Hawkins and his secret with it. He and the language went up in flames. I believe this was as catastrophic an event as the burning of the Library at Alexandria. And I don’t even know his word for fire. Nobody does.


So how do I know about his secret language? He told me about it one day, when he thought he was going to die. Hawkins had stepped out of the newspaper building and been knocked down by a cab in Shoe Lane. No doubt his mind was wrestling with a thesaurus he was planning to write, or some other arcane linguistic and phonological problem. I was actually travelling in the cab which hit him, returning from a press conference about the dangers of London flooding – ironically held in a basement quite near the river.


When I jumped out I found Hawkins lying in the gutter in a crumpled state. He was muttering to himself in this strange unrecognisable tongue. I thought he was brain-damaged, but he was quoting lines from his own epic poem which was his language’s response to the Iliad. Anyway, he suddenly looked at me in terror and told me the whole story about his language. The ambulance took a long time to come because most of the local ones were busy after the press conference demonstrating what they’d do if London flooded.


He asked me to go to Hendon and set fire to his library. Then the ambulance turned up and whisked him off to hospital, but he made a swift recovery and was back at the subs’ desk later that day. He never talked to me again. He cut me completely, as though our conversation had never taken place. Next year he burned to death.



*****




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