In a baptist church hall on the edge of Ipswich in Suffolk, eastern England, 20 people are holding a meeting. They include a quantity surveyor and a retired film-maker, a student and a 95-year-old former teacher. Together, they have some routine business to discuss; membership, accounts, that sort of thing. Then, after homemade soup and vegetarian nibbles, there's a general knowledge quiz, put together by Roy Threadgold.
Threadgold is an Essex dairy farmer whose ewe's milk cheese wins prizes and, with his jovial face and long sideburns, he looks the part. So when he stands up and announces the first question, it is surprising -- almost shocking -- to hear his words.
Are they Hungarian? Portuguese? A variety of Slovenian? Some words sound half-familiar, yet this is not French or German, and it certainly isn't Essex. One thing is clear. Whatever language Threadgold is using, his audience understands him. For no sooner has he begun the quiz than they are teasing him for clues or pressing him for clarification, and all in the same exuberant tongue, with its "o" and "oi" sounds, and its hints of known languages.
An outsider chancing upon this gathering would almost certainly assume that here was a band of expatriates, come together to share fond memories of a distant homeland. Only later might the truth dawn -- that it is the shared language, not some common origin, that binds them. For, apart from Dominique, a French database administrator, everybody here is as British as the day is wet. They just happen to speak Esperanto.
Not that anyone "just happens" to speak Esperanto. This language has no territory to call its own. Intended for use as a universal second language -- an auxiliary tongue by means of which all people, no matter what their origins, might communicate freely -- it is a constructed thing, a deliberate invention that must be deliberately learned.
The fact that, 116 years after the birth of Esperanto, few people reading this article will know a single word of it -- may not even be aware of its existence -- is an indication of just how reluctant the world has been to take that obvious next step. In 1965, William Shatner starred in Incubus, the first film to be made in the language. Conrad Hall, the cinematographer on that project, went on to shoot American Beauty. But what became of Esperanto? Neither the UN nor the EU has adopted it as a working language, and not a single multinational corporation or charity employs it in its day-to-day dealings. Yet nobody in this church hall seems unduly downhearted: which isn't to say they don't occasionally feel ever so slightly indignant.
Listen to Roy Simmons. A 53-year-old teacher at a high school in east London -- he has come to Ipswich because, in his spare time, he is president of the Eastern Esperanto Federation, whose meeting this is. Simmons is happy to tell anyone that, until 1994, when he chanced to see a book on the subject, he had never heard of Esperanto. But it was love at first sight.
"I was captured by the language," he recalls, and promptly enrolled on a course.
Yet his attempts to pass on his enthusiasm have almost always fallen on deaf ears. And not just deaf ears, but ears that are positively closed.
"What I find strange," Simmons says, "is that, when you mention Esperanto, people never ignore it. They are violently against it. Even in schools. If you say you're going to teach Russian, people might say, `Oh, that's a waste of time,' and just forget it. But they will go on at you for ages about why you shouldn't teach Esperanto. Apart from anything else, Esperanto is a great basis for learning other languages. That is also true of Latin. But Latin takes a long time to learn, whereas Esperanto doesn't. I became fluent in two years. Don't forget, he designed it for uneducated farm-workers who had 10 minutes a day."