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News & views

Tom Vernon: 1939–2013

[5 Nov 2013] Martin Cutts writes: In 1980, the broadcaster Tom Vernon – who has died in France at the age of 74 – wrote a short book for the National Consumer Council (NCC) called Gobbledegook – a review of official forms and leaflets and how to improve them.

This was partly inspired by the birth of the Plain English Campaign in 1979 and, as one of its co-founders, I had the pleasure of working closely with Tom and providing him with some of the raw material for the book, in which he complained of the ‘monstrous documents’ inflicted on the population.

The book spearheaded the NCC’s evangelism for plain language, which culminated in its efforts to get a plain-language law passed in Parliament and the publication of an influential booklet Plain Language for Lawyers (1984) by its legal officer Richard Thomas.

Tom was a rotund figure who wore sandals even in the depths of winter, and lived up to his broadcasting persona as the Fat Man on a Bicycle. This was the title of a Radio 4 series detailing his two-wheeled ramble from home in north London through France. The bicycle suffered quite a lot for his art, as he tended to weigh in at about 19 stone, his love of food and drink more than making up for any calories he burnt off in the saddle. Tom also presented Kaleidoscope and Feedback on Radio 4. Among his stranger claims to fame were getting married twice to the same woman, and having a vasectomy live on air. 

In a Guardian obituary on 19 September, John Adams recounts a typical Vernon episode:

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