Literary Connections

Conversation and news on matters literary and educational

Telegraph phonics blooper

Can you spot the irony, chidren?

“Phonics: chidren to identify ‘non-words’ in new reading test,” says the Telegraph, with a nice touch of irony. No doubt the eagle-eyed staff, fearful of the wrath of Simon Heffer, will soon correct this headline – though it has been on the site for four days already – so here’s a screenshot. The online commenters first vented their spleen about schools, teachers, modern life and everything dangerously left-wing:

One way of assisting children would be to impose heavy fines on any parents who are found not to speak English to their children at home (if they are capable of doing so).

The problem with junior and primary schools is that they have dropped their standard due to having to follow inclusion policies created by the labour party [sic].

If you want to improve state education in this country, try the following:
1. Raise the bar for those wanting to become teachers
2. Rid teacher training colleges of left wing union influence
3. Rid Local Education Authorities of left wing union influence.

Eventually, after about 30 other comments, someone noticed:

Non-words like chidren?

Thank you, Pelton Level!

Thursday’s Thought: Sarkozy’s syncope

Beano Annual 2011

Only 49 more books to go...

This Thursday’s Thought from Word of the Day was stimulated by an article by Hélène Cixous in the Guardian’s series on France. Hélène Cixous is one of those French intellectuals who fill many Anglo-Saxons with a mixture of terror and mockery, ‘known,’ it says in her biography at the European Graduate School, ‘for her experimental writing style, which crosses the traditional limits of academic discourse into poetic language. Her practice crosses many discourses, and she is admired for her role as an influential theorist, as well as a novelist and playwright.’ Her target is Nicolas Sarkozy‘s philistinism, manifested in his syncope:

Pushing syncope to the limit, he swallows half the syllables and he spits the rest in his opponent’s face. He imposes his idiolect on the world. Only he ‘speaks’ this idiom; only stand-up comedians imitate it. Language gets a hammering from him. Upon its ruins he proclaims the disgrace of culture and the reign of ignorance.

His especial crime in her eyes is his contempt for The Princess of Clevès:

Just imagine an English potentate breaking the good news to the people: a ban on bloody tedious Robinson Crusoe, cluttering the mind. And Shakespeare, what a drag! Old stuff. We’ve got the telly now.

The Beano annual – and 49 other books

O blessed Anglo-Saxons! For have we not Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education and single-handed saviour of our nation’s culture? Lo, hear him proclaim that children should read fifty books a year. No matter that distinguished authors have expressed their ‘outrage at the “great big contradiction” of Mr Gove’s claim to wish to improve literacy while closing libraries across the country,’ they still tell the Independent what they’d include in their fifty. I love it that Michael Rosen’s final choice is the Beano Annual: ‘a cornucopia of nutty, bad, silly ideas, tricks, situations and plots.’ Just the place for Mr Gove to find his next wheeze for schools?

Who invented the novel?

Never mind that the Regius Professor of History at Cambridge rubbishes his ideas for that subject in the London Review of Books, what would Michael (English, Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford) make of Hélène Cixous’ claim that ‘The Princess of Clevès is the first novel in literature’? (‘Worse,’ she adds, ‘it’s written by a woman (Madame de La Fayette). Worse, it immortalises a woman.’) Blinkered Anglocentric that I am, I’d believed we invented the novel – I even have a volume from my own university days confidently titled Shorter Novels: Elizabethan (Deloney, Greene and Nashe: expect them in the new National Curriculum). Fortunately, Ian Watt comes to our rescue, having firmly put the French in their place back in 1957 in The Rise Of The Novel:

It is perhaps partly for this reason that French fiction from La Princesse de Clèves to Les Liaisons dangereuses stands outside the main tradition of the novel. For all its psychological penetration and literary skill, we feel it is too stylish to be authentic. In this Madame de La Fayette and Choderlos de Laclos are the polar opposites of Defoe and Richardson, whose very diffuseness tends to act as a guarantee of the authenticity of their report, whose prose aims exclusively at what Locke defined as the proper purpose of language, ‘to convey the knowledge of things’, and whose novels as a whole pretend to be no more than a transcription of real life – in Flaubert’s words, ‘le réel écrit‘.

How masterly the put-down! ‘The French? Too stylish! But of course, their President is so philistine!’ For something less stylish but more topical, we turn to Mrs Cameron’s diary in today’s Guardian on why war, especially alongside the French, is so tedious:

Obama did not man up until Dave set an example and the maddening part was he had to man up with Sarko who is such a ghastly little squit and only doing it to impress Carla, pathetic. But there are pluses because next to Sarko Dave looks so buff that tbh you feel sorry for Carla having such a weird little husband even if he is a president.

Now what was the thought?

Ah yes, who got to the novel first: the French or the English? Or was it whether we’d rather have the curriculum at the mercy of Mr Gove or President Sarkozy?

Michael Gove

Mr Gove - or...


Cookery books

...cookery books? See below....

Steve Bell in today’s Guardian comments on the confusion about whether Gaddafi is a ‘target’ in the current action over Libya. I’ll leave that to the commentariat and offer instead a few minor skirmishes on the fringes of the linguistic battlefield:

  • A new quango limps into life Yesterday, the recruitment site for the Standards and Testing Agency Executive had ‘Lorem Ipsum… Find out more’ on its home page; sadly, they’ve now corrected this charming touch, thereby removing what, I have been fascinated to discover, is a (kind of) quotation from Cicero: ‘Nor again is there anyone who loves or pursues or desires to obtain pain of itself’. (Rhetoric again: there seem at present to be plenty of people anxious to pursue pain – oh, wait a minute, it’s the poor what get the pain.) This quango is, after all, supposed to be about standards….
  • Labeling and gaming Yesterday’s print edition of the Media Guardian had an advertisement from the Marketing Agencies Association headed ‘Life’s a game that marketers need to start playing’. The call-out quotation spelt labeled the American way: is that what marketers do, or this part of the war on language? Of course, the marketing people haven’t found anything new; as Ludwig Wittgenstein said many years ago, language is a game of two halves.
  • Brave marketeers Talking of alternative spellings, marketers are sometimes called marketeers, which makes them sound rather brave, dashing and – by association with buccaneers and privateers – also cavalier, irresponsible and untrustworthy. Thanks, as ever, to the OED, I learn that marketeer goes back to least 1665. It also helpfully tells me that ‘in many of the words so formed there is a more or less contemptuous implication, as in crotcheteer, garreteer, pamphleteer, pulpiteer, sonneteer.’
  • Pure Kant? In Sunday’s Observer Christopher Bray provides an upmarket example of the put-down rhetorical question:

    Kant isn’t much fun either, of course, but which of us would deny the certainty-subverting genius of the “first critique”?

    Come on, hands up: which of us?

  • Cooking the books? One from the literature front: today’s Telegraph reports Michael Gove’s latest wheeze: ‘pupils should read 50 books a year’. Splendid! But why did the paper choose to illustrate this with an image of old cookery books, one ironically titled Modern Cookery? Is Mikey cooking the books again? Does he want a generation of cooks and scullery maids? The Secretary of State himself appears on a second version of this same story on the Telegraph website, pulling that face of his (‘Yes, this is a bit of joke, but what larks!’). He’s not actually holding any books either, just a clutch of files – probably containing cunning plans to take us forward to the age of Nigel Molesworth. It seems the Telegraph marketeers are intent on gaming with their content.

Oxford Modern English Grammar

by Bas Aarts

I received an email this morning from a friend who has a touching faith in my ability to know the answers to such questions:

Which is correct – people having different views from you or people having different views to you?

Well, here’s a thing to provoke a domestic argument! My wife, who had just walked through the door, was emphatic it must be from. My new Oxford Modern English Grammar, acquired only yesterday, is absolutely no help – it even says ‘The account of grammar presented in this book is descriptive, not prescriptive.’ Fat lot of use that is, Professor Aarts, when people are begging to be told what to say! My fault, of course, for expecting a descriptive grammar to provide a prescriptive answer. I turned instead to Bill Bryson’s Troublesome Words:

‘Different from’ is… the usual form in most sentences… But when ‘different’ introduces a clause, there can be no valid objection to following it with a ‘to’… or ‘than’…

The Guardian Style Guide is rather more assertive:

different from is traditionally the correct form, although different to is widely accepted nowadays (but note that you would always say differs from, not differs to); different than is wrong, at least in British English.

No room for choice there – but what about that magisterial tome, the complete Oxford English Dictionary?

The usual construction is now with from; that with to (after ‘unlike’, ‘dissimilar to’) is found in writers of all ages, and is frequent colloquially, but is by many considered incorrect. The construction with than (after ‘other than’), is found in Fuller, Addison, Steele, De Foe, Richardson, Goldsmith, Miss Burney, Coleridge, Southey, De Quincey, Carlyle, Thackeray, Newman, Trench, and Dasent, among others….

I can’t help feeling that just three writers might have made the point – is the list of fifteen a sign of insecurity? Surely not, merely of comprehensive authority! After all this, what was my friend’s response to the advice I provided?

Are you trying to confuse me even more? Audio typing… is hard enough… without the grammatical complications that are hindering my progress!

Well, Hilary, sometimes the route to clarity lies through a thicket of confusion which we have to hack away to the very roots in order for clarity to prevail. Of course, sometimes we get lost, drop the scythe and can’t find it in the undergrowth. Now where was I…?

Spotted on a poster at Buxton Community School last night, advertising a student production called Threads: ‘contains mild language’. As the OED definition of mild includes ‘not giving offence to others’, I assume this isn’t the 1984 television drama about nuclear war written by Barry Hines. I wonder if this warning is to prepare an audience hoping for something satisfyingly controversial that they might be shocked by the bandying of terms such as nesh, soft and even nice.
Alas, such thrills were not for me: instead, I enjoyed a two hour presentation on the future for the local authority, the challenge of academies, free schools and the like. Some folk didn’t seem very mild about that, though (to quote Friday’s Phrase) no sabres were rattled.

It’s easy to detect the Telegraph‘s disgust when reporting that a Head teacher has been forced to apologise for an error-laden report – it is, after all, the paper of Simon Heffer. The journalist duly comments that the fourteen errors ‘indicate a need for the teacher to be sent back to primary school’.

More surprising, for me, was the content of the discussion thread that followed the article, in which many of the commenters end up tearing into the Telegraph‘s journalist and editors – and even each for misplaced pedantry. Here’s a taste – you can read them if full here:

There’s also the cretinous use of a comma instead of a full stop, right after the “8′s”.

So says ‘Col Dee’ (hardly diplomatic language – oops, we’ve just learnt from Wikileaks how diplomats really talk).

‘Dunces’ hats’ has an apostrophe. Several hats belong to several dunces or possibly Telegraph reporters….
“7′s and 8′s” should not have apostrophes. There is no ownership, just a description of a group. The Telegraph should have spotted this….

This provoked ‘micha2600′ to complain:

Unfortunately the readers of the DT seem to have lost their grasp of reality and appear to prefer navel gazing and discussing minutii….

Which elicited the response:

Actually, minutii (sic) should be minutiae as it comes from a Latin rather than a Greek root.

At least ‘osaycanuck’ had the good grace to add:

Should that error detract from the meaning of what the writer was trying to say? IMHO, no.

The use of the abbreviation IMHO in the response here is hardly the norm for, say, a report to parents, though part of the lingua franca of online conversation. It’s all a matter of register (as teacher might say) isn’t it?

Snow in the High Peak, 1 December 2010

'Frowning wood' and 'the spotless flood' in the High Peak, 1 December 2010

Wednesday’s seasonal weather Word of the Day is ‘niveous’. As James Hurdis wrote in The Favourite Village in 1800:

Wakes from its slumber the suspicious eye,
And bids it look abroad on hill, and dale,
Cottage, and steeple, in the niveous stole
Of Winter trimly dress’d. The silent show’r,
Precipitated still, no breeze disturbs,
While fine as dust it falls. Deep on the face
Of the wide landscape lies the spotless flood
Accumulating still, a vast expanse,
Save where the frowning wood without a leaf
Rears its dark branches on the distant hill.

I have today’s weather to thank for the inspiration and the Oxford English Dictionary for the reference to Hurdis, though strangely it spells the title of his poem Favorite Village – which would seem unlikely for a Sussex Clergyman and Professor of Poetry at Oxford University. He’s hardly a household name now, is he? (Does the same fate await today’s holder of this post? Was all that fuss over the election and voluntary de-selection of Ruth Padel a waste of time?)

I had to look up Hurdis in Oxford’s Dictionary of National Biography, as there’s precious little about him elsewhere online – thanks again to Derbyshire County Council Libraries – long may this cultural blessing last! I cannot resist (ah, near-fatal weakness mine!) including the DNB evaluation of the poet’s character:

The intensity of Hurdis’s feelings, and his inability to control them, resulted in repeated strife with all but his mother and sisters, by whom alone he seems not to have felt threatened. Indeed, his behaviour in his final years seems to have verged on the deranged.

No wonder he welcomed the silent, obscuring blanket of snow – as did the Poet Laureate, Robert Bridges. My thanks to my friend and colleague Trevor Millum for these lines from ‘London Snow’ which he sent me this morning:

When men were all asleep the snow came flying,
In large white flakes falling on the city brown,
Stealthily and perpetually settling and loosely lying,
Hushing the latest traffic of the drowsy town;
Deadening, muffling, stifling its murmurs failing;
Lazily and incessantly floating down and down:
Silently sifting and veiling road, roof and railing;
Hiding difference, making unevenness even,
Into angles and crevices softly drifting and sailing.
All night it fell, and when full inches seven
It lay in the depth of its uncompacted lightness,
The clouds blew off from a high and frosty heaven;
And all woke earlier for the unaccustomed brightness
Of the winter dawning, the strange unheavenly glare:
The eye marvelled – marvelled at the dazzling whiteness;
The ear hearkened to the stillness of the solemn air;
No sound of wheel rumbling nor of foot falling,
And the busy morning cries came thin and spare.

Snow in the High Peak, December 2010

'No sound of wheel rumbling', nor even a monk's footfall: Monk's Road, Charlesworth, 1 December 2010

Tuesday’s Word of the Day is blowback, in praise of Chalmers Johnson, a CIA analyst who chronicled the effects of US power. Shamelessly plagiarising yesterday’s Guardian third editorial, It also enables Word of the Day to shoehorn in a topical reference to the US embassy cables and the Wikileaks controversy under the guise of lexicography.

Elsewhere in the same edition of the paper, Simon Jenkins notes that some US diplomats are less diplomatic about their own country’s policies:

Some stars shine through the banality such as the heroic envoy in Islamabad, Anne Patterson. She pleads that Washington’s whole policy is counterproductive: it ‘risks destabilising the Pakistani state, alienating both the civilian government and the military leadership, and provoking a broader governance crisis without finally achieving the goal’. Nor is any amount of money going to bribe the Taliban to our side. Patterson’s cables are like missives from the Titanic as it already heads for the bottom.

Hardly news to seasoned observers of the subcontinent’s recent history – but a lesson our own recent Prime Ministers might have heeded, as pointed out (ahem) even here.

Soft soap: advertising in simpler days

Soft soap: advertising in simpler days (still on display in Glossop): time to clean up education?

This Thursday’s Thought from Word of the Day asks if Swarming in the Statusphere, a ‘guide to the top 50 new trends’, is a sign of the end of civilisation as we know it. As John Crace notes in The Guardian this morning, ‘Fancy a tweetup with some b&bs’ seems to indicate that we’ve reached a pretty low point. (If you really ‘want to see the future’, as Shine claim they have, you can read Swarming in the Statusphere online.)

Worse is to come: elsewhere in the same paper, Hugh Muir points out, under the strapline ‘Educashun, edukation, educayshun. The strange ‘practices’ of Michael Gove’: ‘”We will review the operation of the current ‘basic skills’ tests of literacy and numeracy which teachers are required to pass before they can practice,” says the official transcript of the speech made by the education secretary. And once teachers have had enough practice, who knows, he may even allow them to practise.’

The one Hugh Muir calls ‘Professor Gove’, holder of a degree in English from one of our prestigious universities and the beneficiary of a luxury education in one of Scotland’s noble colleges, must have intended this to be a lesson in irony. Surely?

Autumn apple

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness (John Keats): I hope M Gove approves

Hyperactive Michael Gove is at it again. It’s the old trick of picturing the situation as worse than it is in order to be seen to be bravely pushing through radical reform – when all he was doing was describing what has been in the National Curriculum since the Tories were last in power.
Having quoted Emma Thompson’s criticism of the casual use of English by students at her old school (see below), he told the Tory Conference on 5 October, in the Guardian’s words:

English teaching will be reformed to ensure that the poetry of Pope and Shelley, the satire of Swift and the novels of Dickens and Hardy are at the heart of classroom teaching…. Our literature is the best in the world – it is every child’s birthright, and we should be proud to teach it in every school.

These authors have been in the National Curriculum since the Tories were last in power – I’ve just checked and they are still there, so even those awful Labour types didn’t ban them. Perhaps Michael Gove, described by his former English teacher in the TES as a ‘precociously talented youngster’, hasn’t been doing his homework for once? Mike Duncan, who taught him at Robert Gordon’s College, told the TES: ‘I remember we had a game that we would play. He would come up with the first line of a novel and I would have to guess the title of the novel. I would do the same and he would always guess the title correctly.’ This suggests a new game: the opening sentences of books our leader ought to read next. Here’s a sentence from yesterday’s Guardian to get him started:

While Michael Gove and the Tories are occupied solving problems that don’t exist for the benefit of lunatics who don’t know anything about schools (Gove promises to end ’no touch’ rules for teachers, 2 October), the rest of us will carry on secure in the knowledge that there is no no-touch rule and that children mistakenly saying that they know their rights can be told to shush.

Answer: Carolyn Roberts, Head of ‘an orderly and happy’ Durham Johnston School. No wonder she signed off Struth; The Queen’s English Society may wince at the vernacular, but can you blame her?

What did Emma Thompson actually say?

I went to give a talk at my old school and the girls were all doing ‘likes’ and ‘innits?’ and ‘it aint’s, which drives me insane. I told them, ‘Don’t do it because it makes you sound stupid and you’re not stupid.’ There is the necessity to have two languages – one you use with your mates and the other that you need in any official capacity. Or you’re going to sound like a knob.

Her final comment rather undermines this, don’t you think?

This post features as part of my latest column in NATE’s English Drama Media: I’m afraid I couldn’t resist the temptation to plagiarise myself in the interests of topicality.

Postscript, 7 October: In today’s Guardian, Michael White writes:

Mid-Atlantic telly don Simon Schama wrote a very obliging article about David Cameron for Saturday’s FT without revealing he was poised to join the coalition as its back-to-history-basics curriculum adviser. Confronted with the country’s ignorance of past glories, he could start with the education secretary, Michael Gove, who muddled Isaiah Berlin and Immanuel Kant….

I think it’s categorically imperative that Michael Gove gets this right, don’t you?

And is our Mr Gove right that ‘our literature is the best in the world’? For that matter, whose literature is he talking about? Consider the authors he names….