The power and the glory of a single word

Words can convey feelings – soft and sweet, hard and angry or full of fear. In speech they can be emphasised by a rise in volume or a very precise enunciation; written words can also show their weight by being formatted bold or italic. Sometimes, even, their emphatic nature can be conveyed using all caps.

Many years ago, I witnessed the power embedded in one word and the dramatic change it brought to a situation within seconds.

We have to travel back through many decades to the late 1970s for this tale. At that point I was working as one of three staff on a country/lifestyle magazine. There was the Editor, the sales manager and me, a glorified Girl Friday who did everything else.

One day, when I was alone in the office, I took a call on the Editor’s phone. It was an invitation for him to attend a conference on falconry in some three weeks’ time. An answer was needed right away; if he wanted to go a visa would need to be organised.

I had assumed that the conference was in London: we were in Edinburgh. Why would he need a visa?

‘Where is the conference?’ I asked.

‘In Abu Dhabi,’ she replied.

I noted the details and promised to pass them on to the Editor on his return. I had a quick look in the office atlas, having no idea where Abu Dhabi was. I found it in the Middle East, a long way away.

I told the Editor when he returned with the Sales Manager. He was a bachelor, with a very busy social life which gave little time to allow for work-related events.

He studied his diary. ‘Ah,’ he said, ‘I’m giving a dinner party on one of those evenings so I can’t go. ‘What about you, John?’ he said, looking at the Sales Manager who went white and muttered that he couldn’t leave his wife and child to go to such an outlandish place.

 ‘Would you like to go, Hazel?’ the Editor asked. ‘Me?’ I squeaked. I was in my mid-twenties, unencumbered with a husband or child. And I definitely wasn’t giving a dinner party on those dates.

Three weeks later I arrived at Heathrow and met up with two other journalists who were bound for Abi Dhabi. One was Editor of a country/lifestyle magazine, several rungs up the social ladder from my Scottish version. The other, Alec, worked for The Times in London. None of us knew anything about falconry.

We waited at the check-in while a gentleman in Arabic dress tried to convince the girl at the desk that he needed to take the 12 domestic appliances beside him, mostly washing machines and freezers, on board as hand luggage. He failed.

Our flight left in the early evening and would arrive, after a brief stop, in the late evening of the next day. We were to be met at the airport and taken to our hotel.

Fast forward to the next day as we landed in Abu Dhabi about 1am. The airport was very busy. I was wearing trousers and was conscious of glares of disapproval from the few other women as I wasn’t covered in black from head to foot.

We made our way to a central desk and explained to the officials behind it that we were on our way to the falconry conference and were being met. This news was received with blank stares. No one seemed to know about the conference. We knew that it was being held in the Hilton Hotel but not where we were to lay our heads. We waited and waited and still no one turned up. In the end we took a taxi to the Hilton to ask there.

After a slightly hair-raising journey between the airport and The Hilton, where there seemed to be no right or wrong side of the road, we arrived at the hotel. The foyer was abuzz with people, most of them in djellabas with cloths on their heads. Many were accompanied by a servant who carried a large falcon on his wrist. If they were sent to find or fetch something they casually tipped the falcon off their wrist and deposited it in a row of other abandoned falcons on the back of one of many large, luxurious sofas. The birds were not house-trained.

We made our way to a large mahogany reception desk and trotted out our story again. There had been no one to meet us at the airport; where were we to go that night? All three of us were hot, hungry and exhausted and our patience was wearing thin.

Everyone denied knowledge of any of the things we were talking about. They obviously just wanted us to go away. We had no falcons so we weren’t real. We were just a nuisance. They all avoided our eyes and when the chance arose they leapt to help someone else who wore the right clothes, spoke the language – and, of course, had a falcon.

After another five minutes of being ignored, Alec’s patience snapped. He strode through the melee to the front of the desk and slammed his fist down on its surface. ‘Look here,’ he bellowed. ‘I’m from The Times, The LONDON Times! Do something!’

There was a complete, stunned silence as everyone waited to see what would happen next. But the outburst had the right effect. Chairs were brought for us to sit on. Glasses of orange were brought for us to drink. The manager lifted the phone, spoke briefly and then indicated we should follow him out to a taxi which would take us to the Ramada Inn where we were to stay.

Phew! Thank goodness for Alec and The London Times! In those days it was still ‘The Thunderer’ and had a solid reputation as the King of Fleet Street backed by the entire British Empire.

But the most important thing was the power of the words ‘London Times which cut through everything like a thunderbolt coming to our rescue.

We spent four days in Abu Dhabi which was in the throes of transition, paid for by oil revenues, to become a city of skyscrapers in glass and steel. There were workmen everywhere. The Ramada Inn was still not finished, though, luckily for us, the bedrooms were complete but there was no dining room as yet. Breakfast was brought to our rooms. So civilised!

We were given a car with a driver to use as we wished. We played truant one day and asked the driver to take us somewhere out of the city. After a terrifying journey through the desert, driving on sand with no road metal, in a car with no seat belts and driven by a fiend whose only aim was to get to the front of the queue of traffic ahead of the huge waves of sand hurled over us by the car in front. All the other cars were trying to do the same.

Eventually we arrived at a little port with a harbour full of dhows. On one side of the harbour was a small café where we drank black tea and watched the fishermen sorting their nets. It was an idyllic place, quiet, with only a few people around: the rush to modernise had not yet reached it.

On the journey back to Abu Dhabi we asked the driver what the name of the little fishing village was. He replied ‘it’s called Dubai.’

There are other ways to emphasize one or more words; some people frown on the use of bold or upper case. A conflicting point of view can be encased in a quiet, chilling voice or the speaker’s rage portrayed through a description of their demeanour, body language or threatening behaviour. Words can carry a great deal of weight if used in a creative way.

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