I hope the earth's polarity switches, for the sake of reference books.

If the earth's poles reversed the consequences would be considerable. Automatic glass doors, would no longer work, aircraft would no longer be able to fly and, worst of all, there would be no internet. But that could be a good thing, says Joe Bennett. Getty Images
If the earth's poles reversed the consequences would be considerable. Automatic glass doors, would no longer work, aircraft would no longer be able to fly and, worst of all, there would be no internet. But that could be a good thing, says Joe Bennett. Getty Images

Regular readers will have recognised from the word "polarity" that I have no idea what I am talking about.

But I was informed in the bar last night by a man whose name I'm not sure that I have ever known and if I have I have forgotten it, that from time to time over the last few million years the earth's polarity has suddenly and unexpectedly reversed, with north becoming south and vice versa, to the consternation of cartographers and the confusion of both polar bears and penguins. And, said my informant, there is no reason why it shouldn't do so again at any moment.

Read more: Joe Bennett: A visit to Croatia and the tribal relish of football, joy of ethnic identity
Joe Bennett: Humans, errant, arbitrary and unconscious in movements just like any other organism

Advertisement

One's first thought, of course, is the boon it would be to the economy, with jobs galore resulting from the need to over-paint the N and S on compasses. But there would also be the little matter of electricity. Apparently, and for reasons of physics that I'm sure I don't need to explain, the switch of polarity would bring a puff of smoke from every substation around the globe followed by the frying of the world's electrical grid. And we would be flung back on the instant into the 19th century and beyond.

Pylons supporting power cables across the central North Island plateau. Photo/File
Pylons supporting power cables across the central North Island plateau. Photo/File

The consequences would be considerable. Automatic plate glass doors, to which we have now become dangerously habituated, would no longer work.

And if you wanted to watch the World Cup you would have to travel to Russia to do so, presumably by ship because aeroplanes rely rather more than one might think on electricity. But at the same time there would be consolations. The first of which would be the internet.

Every phone-toting Google-dependant would suffer an instant knowledge-ectomy. To see the panic on their faces as they were confronted with their ignorance would be worth a couple of full frontal crashes into automatic doors that didn't. And almost as enjoyable would be seeing the poor benighted darlings trooping off to the library and trying to come to terms with the reference section.

In Hereford Cathedral in England there's a library that stems from a time when books were the repositories of all knowledge and therefore beyond price. Every book is attached to its shelf by a stout metal chain.

And when I was a kid, reference sections worked on the same principle. The books were too valuable to be lent out, so if you wanted to consult them you did so in situ.

And what mighty books they were. Some were obvious - the encyclopaedias, the big dictionaries. There were also colossal works of almost-pointless Victorian scholarship such as the Concordances of the Bible and Shakespeare. And then there were the quirky ones, including my perennial favourite Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. Or, to those of us who love it, just Brewer.

The Reverend Ebenezer Cobham Brewer, 1810-97, was one of those mad Victorian clerics who were the Googles of their day. His interests were eclectic but at the root of them was a fascination with language. The result was the world's champion lavatory book.

The first edition was published in 1870. My own copy, borrowed in perpetuity from a former place of work, is from 1963. The most recent edition emerged only a couple of years ago. But one has to wonder whether, without a polarity switch, there will ever be another edition. And if not then what a loss to the world

The book is a verbal maze. Enter it anywhere and let it lead you. I open it at random now:

Slogan: The war-cry of the old Highland clans (Gaelic sluagh, host; ghairm, outcry). Hence, any warcry; and, in later use, a political party cry, an advertising catchphrase, etc.

Even the punctuation is a pleasure to read. But that's far from the end of it. "Cp. SLUG HORN" it adds.

So we duly Cp and find:

Slug-horn. A battle trumpet; the word being an erroneous reading by Chatterton of the Gaelic slogan. He thought the word sounded rather well; and, as he did not know what it meant, gave it a meaning that suited him. … Browning adopted it in the last line but one of his Childe Rolande to the Dark Tower Came, and thus this 'ghost-word' (q.v.) got a footing in the language.

Which of course takes us to the entry for ghost-word and so on until the visit to the lavatory is complete. And if such visits in future are conducted by candlelight because of a sudden switch in the earth's polarity, it will be a small price to pay for the continued publication of such reference books as this.