Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Definite article

Waiting in the Preston station buffet post teaching, part way through a ten day period when I need to read about 150,000 words of student essays, and thus justifiably armed with a suitable stiffener, the dreary scene was suddenly improved by a song coming over the pipes by the beat combo the Divine Comedy. Or is it The Divine Comedy?

Take the national express when your life’s in a mess
It’ll make you smile
All human life is here
From the feeble old dear to the screaming child
From the student who knows that to have one of those
Would be suicide
To the family man
Manhandling the pram with paternal pride
And everybody sings ba ba ba da...
We’re going where the air is free
On the national express there’s a jolly hostess
Selling crisps and tea
She’ll provide you with drinks and theatrical winks
For a sky-high fee
Mini-skirts were in style when she danced down the aisle
Back in 63 (yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah)
But its hard to get by when your arse is the size
Of a small country
And everybody sings ba ba ba da...
We’re going where the air is free
Tomorrow belongs to me
When you’re sad and feeling blue
With nothing better to do
Don’t just sit there feeling stressed
Take a trip on the national express

Oddly the rather mild humour in the rest of the lyrics is nothing compared to the one brilliant innovation: the introduction of the definite article before what’s usually regarded as a proper name rather than a definite description: ‘National Express’. That one change puts the banality of the action of the song into a striking contrast with what might seem a significant and formal staging. But no one who ever takes a coach in the UK would confuse National Express with a national express.

(I wonder whether additionally the loss of ‘the’ from other genuine institutions gives this reversal particular force. The Royal Mail is now ‘royal mail’ and my father playfully strips even motorways of the ‘the’ (“We’ll take M62 to Ikea!”).)