One of the pre-requisites of being a writer is a facility with words and being able to spell them, although in these autocorrect and predictive text days, the latter isn’t presumably as essential as it once was. I won’t tell you what word I was trying to type into my iPhone the other day, but it came up with the far more polite “Cynthia”; all I’ll say is that there are a lot of Cynthias around.
My colleague Henry Hitchings from the Evening Standard isn’t, I hasten to add, a Cynthia, but an altogether good guy. He lives more or less across the street from me (his flat is actually above the gym I go to, though he doesn’t), so I frequently give him lifts home after visits to far-flung places (Islington, Hampstead, Hammersmith, that kind of thing).
And last night he proved himself to be an altogether good sport, too, when he was conscripted into appearing onstage for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee to appear as part of a spelling competition.
It was a dangerous choice of critic: since Henry has actually written a book about words, he knows a lot of them. The show could have ground to a halt right there, but fortunately they gave him a word he’d not even heard of. (By contrast, delightful young actor Daniel Kaluuya, who won this year’s Critics’ Circle Theatre Award for Most Promising Newcomer, was given a word that he made a brave stab at - and got right! Next year, perhaps, we can give him the most promising speller award…)
At least Henry’s predecessor on the Standard was nowhere to be seen. When Nicholas de Jongh was profiled in The Guardian, a paper he used to write for, when his play Plague Over England was premiered, Simon Hattenstone wrote, “One of my first shifts on the arts desk was subediting his reviews. It was the roughest copy I ever saw - he couldn’t type to save his life, and I’m not sure he could spell much better.”
Hattenstone went on to write, “He was catty, gossipy, sarcastic, vengeful, and supremely slobbish. At the fringe theatres he used to frequent, he was known for distracting actors by lying over a number of seats like Madame Recamier - he said he had to, because of a once-slipped disc. Today he looks smarter than I remember him, but back then his shirt was often so unbuttoned it was barely on. Sometimes in summer it wasn’t. Nor were his shoes. Steven Berkoff threatened to kill him after one review. How did he get away with it all? He was funny and honest and had a heart. As for his reviews, they were vigorous and acute. In a newspaper world where personalities were shrinking by the day, he was great to have around.”
Last night Henry, a relative newcomer to our ranks, proved that he too is great to have around. Even if, according to the show, the Junior Critics’ Circle Bee failed in the contest because of a collective inability to be able to spell “excellent”. As Libby Purves replies in her Times review this morning, “I’m not going to be conned. But I can spell ‘fun’.”