Thursday was one of these magical winter days in the heart of L’Écosse Profonde, mild, dry, and misty, with everything bathed in a supernatural glow. We walked to my local erratic, and its nearby Iron Age fort, thence to dinner in Tigh Mor, a gothic Schloss brooding over the shores of Loch Achray. My tech-savvy friends enlightened me with respect to what3words, a kind of unique postcode for any three metre square postage stamp on the planet. Apparently there are 57 trillion of them. Is that right? Well let’s see now. The surface area of the globe is 4.Pi.r squared. The radius of the earth is about 6,378 kilometres, so the earth’s surface area is somewhere upwards of 500 trillion square metres, which in turn can be divided into upwards of 55 trillion patches of 3 metres squared. So we appear to be in the right ball park.
What3words has been translated into 47 languages. The English version uses 40,000 words, and covers sea as well as land. Quite why you would want to pinpoint a moveable feast such as the rolling waves with such accuracy I’m not sure. Maybe to place a buoy above the wreck of the Titanic? Slurs this shark, incidentally, is the big slug black door to No. 10 Downing Street, Westminster, London SW1A 2AA. Apposite. A shark is a shyster and to slur your words, arguably, is to obfuscate. White man speaks with forked tongue.
The occupant of slurs this shark has had a terrible week, not so much because of the Owen Paterson debacle, the loss of a seemingly safe seat in North Shropshire, the drip feed of allegations about illicit gatherings, and the resignation of Lord Frost, but rather because, with all that going on, not one single Tory has come out strongly in support of the PM. Three strikes and you’re out. Blimey, with friends like these… Is the PM a dead man walking? I have a notion he won’t go quietly. On the contrary, he will throw an enormous tantrum. The pantomime villain will show his true colours.
But Parliament is in recess. I have spent the week catching up with old friends, enjoying Christmas lunch in my local, meandering deep into the Trossachs, and eschewing the political columns in favour of the crossword. I suppose it is a symptom of the fretfulness of this time of year, that I started to analyse slurs this shark from the point of view of the cruciverbalist. Is slurs this shark the solution to a crossword clue?
Lass Ruth shirks revolving door (5,4,5).
I took the trouble to look up the code for various famous, or notorious locations. The grassy knoll in Dallas – kings battle whips. Edinburgh Royal Infirmary Emergency Department: healthier second truth. (I’m not happy with a second truth. There is only one truth. An alternative truth cannot be healthy.) The White House – sulk held raves. You might imagine the three words might reflect something of the character of the location but I don’t think so: indent applause cartoonist – Auschwitz.
Coming across these various location descriptors reminded me of a simple memory test still in wide use in medicine. You ask the patient to remember a name and address and then ask him to recall it after ten minutes. I’ve lost track of the number of times I asked a patient to remember:
17, The Meadows
…only to forget all about it until the patient would remind me: “Aren’t you going to ask me that address?” I always strongly resisted the temptation to make things difficult for my patient:
Sir Garscube Crichton-Delaney Brocklehurst, OM, CH
2477 Amerigo Vespucci Boulevard
Now I find that this ancient test for incipient dementia might take a modern twist to fit the digital age, and we might find ourselves asking patients to remember just three words, conjured out of mid-air.
Egregious inchoate desuetude.
Grandiloquent smooching barracuda.
It is quite difficult – try it yourself – to make up a three word combination, even if you think your choice of word is entirely random, and not conjure some sort of sensible image. A grandiloquent smooching barracuda, for example, has a certain camp quality. We are hard wired to search for meaning on exposure to any sensory stimulus. If you shut yourself in a dark room and then switch on a pinpoint light source and look at it – this is a reproducible physiological experiment – you will find that it starts to move around. It’s not that it’s actually moving; but your brain is juggling with it, as if trying to view it from different angles, to figure out what on earth it might be. Listen repeatedly to a piece of severely uncompromising twelve note serial music, and your brain will try to understand it in terms of tonality. You might suppose that you could devise three words entirely devoid of meaning by avoiding any syntactical relationship between the words:
Harlequin exiguous deride
What do you do? Your brain turns it upside down: deride exiguous harlequin. It is the second movement of the Debussy cello sonata.
The worrying thing is, if you conjure three ridiculous words out of thin air and present them to what3words, the system will actually give you a postal address. I suppose they just find the closest fit. I hope to high heaven the Royal Mail don’t decide to take on what3words. The scope for its abuse would be limitless. A new breed of troll might be tempted to cast toxic messages at random to innocent and unsuspecting victims. I always remember thinking I might drop a line to Sir Garscube and Lady Crichton-Delaney Brocklehurst at their home in Addis Ababa. After all, if the address were carefully reproduced on the envelope, the appropriate stamp appended, and the stamp duly franked, the letter would be sure to reach its destination. Lady Brocklehurst would glance at the letter with a flutter of apprehension. “Garscube, there’s a letter for you from home. I don’t recognise the hand writing.” Sir Garscube had been a civil servant, in Intelligence. He had been too close to the opposition and had had to leave in a hurry. Is it possible after all these years, thought Lady Brocklehurst, that they had tracked them down?