In responding to the government's presentation in the House of Commons on Thursday of its updated plans to meet its legally binding goals of zero emissions targets for combating climate change, Green Party MP Caroline Lucas declared that 'the government had laboured and brought forth a mouse'.
It brought to mind the first time I encountered that phrase, in an article by Bernard Levin, the journalist perhaps remembered primarily for being seen punched live on TV in the programme That Was the Week That Was
by the irate husband of a woman whose work he had criticised. And, for me at least, he is remembered as the author of expertly penned very long sentences.
I date my love of long sentences from my days in the senior secondary school in Aberdeen in the 1950s, where the skills of parsing, precis and comprehension were drilled into us. I loved the way it was possible to manage and communicate information, either by well-crafted condensation, or by use of long sentences involving strings of subordinate and relative clauses, conjunctions and conditionals.
Of course, as a journalist, Bernard Levin came nowhere near to penning sentences as long as those popularised in so-called 'stream of consciousness' novels. Among the most famous is the Molly Bloom soliloquy from Ulysses
by James Joyce, published in 1922, which features a sentence containing 4,391 words, while in Absalom, Absalom!
by William Faulkner, published in 1936, there is a single sentence 1,288 words long. Though neither of these rate a mention in the long sentence stakes when compared to the spectacular 13,955 words it took Jonathan Coe to complete a single sentence in The Rotters Club
(2001), followed by Lucy Ellmann who, in her 2019 epic Ducks
, presented readers with over 1,000 pages with not one single period for respite. Phew!
Although the origin of the 'mountain and mouse' quote apparently goes back to ancient Greek times, and appeared in one of Aesop's fables ('though you threaten great things, you accomplish nothing') my memory of it dates from a mere 50 years ago, to 1972, and Levin's review in The Observer
of Lord Longford's Report on Pornography
, which he opened with a memorably splendid sentence:
The mountains have laboured and brought forth – well, not a mouse, though it amounts to very little, nor an elephant, though it is extremely large and short sighted, nor a donkey, though it makes more noise than sense, nor a flatworm, though it does not seem to be sure in which direction it is going, nor a cat, though it will not take advice, nor a tortoise, though it is slow, nor a parrot, though it repeats what it did not understand, nor a hippopotamus, though it excites mirth. What the mountains have brought forth is a Tigger, which was much given as I recall, to pulling the tablecloth to the ground, wrapping itself up in it amid the broken crockery, rolling about the room going 'worra-worra-worra' and finally sticking its head out and asking 'Have I won?'
Ms Lucas should have quoted the whole of this excellent assessment – it describes the government's green energy plan perfectly.
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