Monday, 28 March 2011

The "Harry" construction and why it's funny (if you're me)

Harry Introducers

KooEhHahThis blogological entity or emuārs is about the "Harry … -ers" construction, which is most familiar to me in its original form of "Harry Sliders" for a collection of slides - or indeed, more likely - a slideshow.

I said some time ago that I'd try to explain my use of this construction and, being possessed of a brain with impressively sieve-like properties (though less useful for draining pasta), immediately forgot. A kind friend reminded me that I said I'd do this, and I am happy to oblige. I only hope that after all this you think it's worth it … the mountains hath travailed and brought forth a mouse, an ting.

Harry Disclaimers

Before I really get going, a quick disclaimer. I know perfectly well that not everything I find funny seems so hysterically sidesplitting to much of the rest of society. Or perhaps all of it. I have lost track of the number of occasions on which the appalled expressions of those around me (frequently my children, yes, now you mention it) have alerted me, far too late, to the fact that whereas I thought I was, like, really flying, I was actually more, ah, in fact, er, crashing and burning. The controls are locked, we're in a deep deep nose-up stall, the escape hatch is jammed and in any case my parachute's on fire. Yikes. Chiz sa Molesworth. We're going in. Mayday mayday mayday. Launch the buoy. (Oops sorry wrong film but you get the picture.) Launch the boy. (Different film altogether, please don't distract me.)

Anyway yes, thank you, I do understand that it's not really that funny. I just like using it, it being in effect a blast from, and a mild reverence to, the past … and I suppose I am mildly addicted to it. It makes me vaguely smile, in a vaguely vague sort of way … however if you're already too irritated by all this you'd probably better go and do something more productive - your pools coupon for example - but do feel free to pop in later when Mr Thompson will serve tea and cakes by the Great Yew Hedge, weather permitting. You will be most welcome.

Harry Definers

You can add "Harry" before and "-ers" after many words. I am not sure of the rules and I seem to have mislaid the user manual, but I think it works better if you're describing an activity rather than a simple object. Thus "Harry Sliders" - the Urtext as far as I'm concerned - seems to me to be more likely to mean presenting or watching a slideshow than merely some slides, though it will extend to both. Similarly if I said, say. Harry Skaters it's probably more likely that I meant the act of going skating rather than a pair of skates. (Or any other fish. [Sorry.]) As I say I'm not really conversant with the full set of operating procedures for this construction, but I think you can apply it to a very wide range of concepts.

Harry Snaggers

Stretching the point a little my Bruvver and his Dear Wife Bless Her have pointed out that you'd run into severe problems with Harry Christophers, director of utterly superduper singing persons The Sixteen. Applying the rules strictly would of course render this talented gentleman as "Harry Harry Christophersers". This is why the rules must be rewritten, or perhaps even written, to exclude such silliness. I diskard it.

Harry Contextualizers

I think that it's meant to sound terribly upper-class, British, public-school, prep school, nannies and governesses, twittish, and so on, in a somewhat old-fashioned way. (Please be aware: if you are not familiar with the British usage, then "public school" may very well not mean, when you hear it, what it meant when I said it. Do please feel free to look it up and marvel at the rich vein of misunderstanding that we've created. In short, a BrE "public school" is very far from being public.) I'll come back to this context, which we may perhaps label "Braying Upper-class Ninnies" or BUNs, later.

Harry Explainers

As some of you know, I went to a slightly strange but interesting semi-posh school in Bristol. It was certainly not a (BrE) public school (my dears, the shame) but it was quite respectably founded under a charter from Queen Elizabeth - no, not the present one - and was a bluecoat school, and so on. I could, nay should, write rather a lot more about this place and how I ended up there, but not, you may be relieved to hear, on this occasion. I am leaving it unnamed not because I'm ashamed of it, but just to thwart lazy Googlers; this isn't a piece about the school. If you want to look it up then combining the name of the old dear who gave it its charter with the fact that such places were often, incongruously to modern ears, described as hospitals, would get you there before you can say Carr, Hartnell, Ramsey or Bird.

At the said three-letter establishment I was taught by David Perkins, one of the most gifted teachers I've ever met. Dave is the reason I speak German. If he'd been a geography teacher I daresay I'd be good at or interested in geography right now; likewise physics or maths. But German was his thing and so it became, in a pale reflection of the master, one of my things too. Don't get me wrong - there were plenty of other very good teachers at that school, as well as a couple of geniuses (and, yes, the occasional dunderhead or two). It's just that JDP stood out head and shoulders (metaphorically if not in actual physical stature, aha) among the teaching staff for me. It's all a bit odd given his massive lifelong passion for the licensed barbarism called "rugby", an activity I put much effort into avoiding, but it somehow didn't matter that I was so much at odds with him over this other hugely important aspect of his life at, er, Koo Eh Hah. He was just an utterly fantastic German teacher.

With Dave there were quite a lot of running jokes, standard procedures and so on - little things that made his lessons a bit special and made you feel like you were part of a particular group, almost a gang, because you were a student of German. It was all part of his mystique, I guess, and hence part of his magic as a teacher.

Dave seemed to spend all or most of his holidays in German-speaking countries … I suppose memory may be making me exaggerate but that's how it looked to me back then. I know it sounds obvious but this is actually very inspiring to students - he's going out there and seeing and doing the stuff you talk about in lessons, and using, as a normal everyday activity, the language that might otherwise seem to you just to be an academic subject. So what, some of you are thinking, isn't that just what language teachers do? Well, maybe, but clearly not all of them. I was taught French for some years by a nice old chap, long since redeployed to that Great Classroom in the Sky, who I swear never once gave me the impression that there was anything to the language - a culture, or some people, perhaps - beyond the O-level exam. So it's fair enough to say that for me this aspect of JDP's involvement in German was terribly important and influential.

One happy outcome of this regular visiting of German-speaking countries was that Dave came back with many, many photographs of the places he'd seen. These were in the form of 35mm slides. (Note to young people: these are oh never mind.) We then had slide shows, usually in JDP's room, so that we could be shown the wonders of where he'd been. These made a deep impression on me and established Germany and its neighbours as places I wanted to visit for myself. (I can still remember very clearly the excitement of finally getting to see, for real, the originals of JDP's slides of Cologne Cathedral or the Goldenes Dachl or the Königsee - it felt like an absolute vindication, that, whatever it had taken to get there, it was all worth it.)

These fabulous slide shows were, of course, Harry Sliders and so, of course, the origin as far as I'm concerned of the phrase.

Harry Speculators

What this explains is where I got it (JDP) and why I like it (JDP) but doesn't really clarify anything else - why did he use it, where did he get it?

My guess is that it is or was a known usage rather than an invention of Dave's. I suppose that a bit of research might help me here, but I haven't done it - so sue me. Jabnaas. If you know anything about this usage that might help, please do drop me a line.

And why, pray, did Dave Perkins like this usage? Again, I can only speculate - I'm certainly not going to bother him with trivia like this! Dave was certainly not, himself, a Braying Upper-class Ninny (or BUN, do try to keep up). Interestingly, though I've characterized the school as semi-posh, quite a few of the staff really weren't posh, or weren't in many other ways quite what you'd expect. I'm thinking for example of David Lewis, a genius of an English teacher, who was clearly and openly sceptical about the whole posh-ed thing and indeed the claims of some of us to be not too posh, or not so posh, or at least not as posh as him over there … or something. (Ah, scholarship boys and their inverted snobbery … but that's another story.) Anyway, the excellent David, with his dangerously bolshie attitudes and tendency to lead us astray, eventually moved on and when last I heard was a priest in Liverpool: education's loss was undoubtedly his flock's massive gain.

But I digress. The point I'm trying to make is merely that, in contrast with what you might perhaps expect, some of the teaching staff had a healthy sort of cynicism about this semi-posh school and its semi-posh kids and were certainly not averse to a bit of gentle p*ss-taking at times.

So, to cut an overlong story - er well, perhaps not short per se but maybe a nanometre or two less long - I think that "Harry Sliders" was JDP gently mocking us and our (and his!) rather comfortable setup there. It was gently amusing and affectionate, and a small but not wholly insignificant part of the JDP German-teaching setup. For some reason it has stuck.

Harry Summarizers

And that's pretty much the whole thing. I know it's turned into really more of a piece about a brilliant German teacher than it is about a silly little jokey usage, but there you go: that's the Harry Backgrounders. I still use it, as you have seen, and at work I still say “Harry Sliders” when we are doing slide shows, and have even done so in group emails announcing them. This meets with looks of mild bafflement but, hey, I am used to that anyway … 

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