No Idle Words: a style guide for the age of austerity

No Idle Words - a photo set on Flickr

Russell Davies’ lovely post on the writing style of the GOV.UK beta inspired me to scan this 1951 Post Office writing guide.

We inherited it from my wife’s grandfather who taught telecommunications at the Post Office’s training college, in the days before BT. If anyone knows more about the booklet I’d love to hear from them.

The author of ‘No Idle Words’ is uncredited, but their  sound advice still holds more than 60 years later. Compare their watchwords with those of GOV.UK:

GPO 1951    GOV.UK 2012 
  • Clear
  • Polite
  • Brief
  • Simpler
  • Clearer
  • Faster

Much of it is timeless good sense, but more than that, the tone seems to chime with the specific spirit of our own age. The GOV.UK people already have a sense of that aesthetic, noting the pioneering influences of the Festival of Britain and Margaret Calvert’s road signage system.

I reckon the Post Office booklet shines a different light on the period, though.

The year of publication marked the fag-end of George VI’s reign and the start of Winston Churchill’s disappointing second term.

From the first word of the title onwards, much of ‘No Idle Words’ is devoted to the negative. Despite the superficial appeal of the call to clarity, the writer’s overriding objective is to save time and cost by fobbing off and ticking off staff and the general public more quickly and directly.

For example from page 15:

I am sorry we cannot at present give you the telephone service you have asked for. The Post Office is alive to the difficulties and incovenience caused by the present shortage of telephones, and is doing what it can to improve the situation. You will be advised as soon as there is a definite prospect of giving you service and in the meantime, it would be a great help to know if you change your address or if you wish to cancel your order.

These are the words of a post-“KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON” society. However you put it, there is no glory in telling someone they cannot have a telephone. In an austerity administration all ambition is gone. What remains is for the civil servant to deliver bad news with good grace.

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