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Language of Fools February 19, 2010

Posted by markswill in Cars and Bikes, Media, Politics, Schmolitics.

I suppose it’s axiomatic that much of my scribbling is prompted by Radio 4 and I’m afraid here we go again. It’s also yet more moaning about the parlous state of the English language, albeit with knobs on, but when yet another politician indulges in some lazily verbal disfigurement I want to scream. Or at least blog. This time it was Teresa May  uttering “instinctual” instead of “instinctive” on a recent Today programme,  a grammatical gaffe that happened to be broadcast on the same day as University College London published research concluding that 40% of students “viewed no more than three pages from the thousands available online when researching a topic”.

This was in the context of claims that 12 to 18 year-olds are losing the ability to study properly because “constant internet use is ‘rewiring’ their brains” and “reducing youngsters’ capacities to read and write at length because their minds are being remoulded to function differently.”

UCL’s Prof. David Nicholas noted that “people seemed to be skipping over the virtual landscape… hopping from sites, looking at one or two pages, going onto another site, looking at one or two pages then going on. Nobody seemed to be staying anywhere for very long.”

In response to the report and specifically citing Facebook’s feedback loops, social psychologist Dr Aleksi Krotoski added that “it seems for good or for ill… there is now empirical evidence that information overload and associative thinking may be reshaping how (youngsters) think.” Cambridge University’s Dr David Runciman added that, “The generation of students I teach see books as peripheral.”

May’s adulteration and the UCL report are, if not directly connected (okay, they’re probably not), then symptomatic of a mental disfunction which I believe merits further debate. I’ve previously observed that text messaging and e-mails have spawned a shorthand which encourages an entire generation of impressionable young minds to adopt spellings not to be found in any dictionary and completely abandon grammar as we know it. As Krotoski wonders, is this a good thing or bad thing? Well there are many, including those barmy proponents of phonetics as an educational methodology who would claim the former. But – quelle surprise – I’m not one of them.

A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES      My doubts are confirmed by recent data on educational standards: 20% of our adults cannot read to a level expected of an 11 year-old (presumably one who isn’t welded to his mobile phone) and almost a third can’t add up two three-figure numbers. Moreover nearly half the students who’ll sit their GCSEs this year won’t even get a Grade C in English or Maths… and that’s just those who’ll actually take them.

As if to reinforce this, I recently did some sub-editing work on copy written by allegedly professional journalists which was riddled with grammatical and punctuation errors and needless, lazy repetitions, this made even the more galling since they were salaried staff, and I am of course scratching a living as a freelancer in a declining industry. In devil’s advocate mode, this begs a perhaps interesting question: rather than wringing our hands about this, should we be looking at new types of media that completely abandon traditional spelling, syntax and linguistic architecture? Should we be producing magazines that have no more than a few hundred words in them, corralled into grunting gobbets surrounded by the sort of flashy images thrown up momentarily on our iPhones? Er, well perhaps not because we indeed used to have them, they were called adult comics and they’re now the endangered preserve of straggly haired men in anoraks.

In which case should existing newspapers and magazines simply ape the same techniques and to hell with alienating their aging core readership who were, generally speaking, educated before the internet era? Well the failure of London Lite and The London Paper, albeit for reasons more to do with advertising income, would suggest not… although stories in even the so-called broadsheets are, as commented here before, getting shorter and shorter and more and more obsessed with slebs and puffery at the expense of serious reportage and analysis.

In the meantime the internet marches on and during the course of scribbling this blog ­– itself of course a product of the internet – I’ve made use of it to check a fact or two which otherwise would’ve involved lengthy phone calls. Indeed I am currently working on a project that will, should it get financed, rely entirely on the web for its income, so far be it for me to adopt the role of a digital King Canute. But I am nevertheless left with, as Teresa May might say, an instinctual fear that we are developing into a nation of ill-educated Neanderthals, the cost of which in terms of reduced productivity, unemployment, mental health, low-level crime and maybe even a collective self-loathing no-one has bothered to consider.

AND FINALLY…        On a (slightly) lighter note, my recent rant on the smoking ban excited far more reaction than anything previously scrawled, so much so that I rather waspishly reprised it at our latest salon where it drew perhaps a predictably unsympathetic response, some of it from those claiming that since its inception they now visited pubs more frequently… presumably to challenge their livers and contribute more revenue to the exchequer which could then be used by an ever-expanding NHS to treat alcohol related diseases?

Gamma Coupe + MW before the blow-out


Meanwhile a couple of correspondents actually, if surprisingly enquired as to the current health of my Lancia which I referred to obliquely in that same blog so I can happily announce that its re-built, two-into-one engine is now in situ and running sweeter than ever, albeit at a wincingly wallet-depleting cost. The drive home from Messrs. Tanc Barratt did however re-acquaint me with the grumbling noise of what is almost certainly a shagged-out wheelbearing, despite previous inspections failing to determine exactly which one(s) as they are so damn huge that they don’t betray any  movement when the wheels are jacked up. And of course replacements are virtually unobtainable and thus fiendishly expensive… or fndshly expnsve… or way 2 big 4 me, innit.

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A LEGENDARY PUSSY February 11, 2010

Posted by markswill in About me, Navel Gazing.

Arthur is dead.  The news shocked and saddened me as, with a few notable and possibly disingenuous exceptions, it did everyone else on my street. Arthur, you see was master of all he surveyed along Broad Street, the gently sloping strip of tarmac which he bestrode with a leisurely if imperious gait as he visited the various households whom he favoured with his presence during his waking day. But Arthur was by no means entirely self-centred and indeed rewarded those who favoured his presence with both attention and modest affection. Even more so if you fed him and let him sleep in front of your fire or alongside a radiator for an hour or two because Arthur was, of course, a cat.

And although I’m (obviously) no pet-lover, this gives me a rare excuse to write about my favourite pussy, because this was no ordinary feline. A large, although by no means obese example of the species, Arthur was distinguished by his pure white coat and a brace of oddly truncated ears that had in recent years been ruthlessly clipped to remove tumours that might otherwise have spread elsewhere and ended his life even earlier. Arthur nominally lived in the town’s main, indeed arguably only tourist attraction, the impressive and perfectly preserved early 19th Century Judge’s Lodgings and Courtroom where he had been employed for 13 or 14 years as a mouser, but he sauntered from house to house as it suited him, mewing loudly at your door if he fancied a feed or a nice lie down in the warm. Many winter evenings he ended up in the pub where he had a love/hate relationship with the landlords – or more accurately the other way around – checking out his saucer behind the bar before sauntering over to the fireplace where he’d plonk himself down, if necessary giving anyone else who had the temerity to hog the heat the evil eye until they got the message.

Acknowledging but not with overwhelming unction the stroking, head-rubbing or any of the other stuff people do to curry favour with cats, Arthur made friends with anyone who made friends with him and if he saw you during one of his frequent excursions down Broad Street, he would stride languorously up to you with few choice words of cat-speak and stop awhile for a stroke, often crossing the road to do so. Which of course was ultimately his undoing because he was pretty deaf… although I have actually seen Arthur sit down to preen himself in the middle of the road of a summer’s day completely unconcerned by the car – mine as it happened – that he’d obliged to halt whilst he attended to a flea or two. Arthur, you see, was well aware of his boss cat status on Broad Street, but carried it with good and gentle grace, unlike the car which ran him  over on Sunday night.

Arthur, as a dashing young tom (i.e. with ears intact)


Okay, I realise this is pretty tenuous, even fluffy stuff (sic) for a self-important scrawl such as this, but Arthur’s death did give me pause for some weightier thought on the nature of legend. Blue plaques on the walls of all the houses Arthur lived in on the street have already been suggested and perhaps given their considerable number we could get a bulk discount. Someone else suggested taxidermy and mounting the resultant effigy above the fireplace in the Dukes Arms, but I fear that might be deemed tasteless. But whatever may or may not be erected in his memory, Arthur’s legendary status is guaranteed hereabouts – which is more than I can say for, well for just about anyone I know.

Which is a rather salutary realisation. Indeed unless you’re in the debatably fortunate position of hob-nobbing with an untypically humble martinet of industry, or one of those slippery-tongued opportunists fewer and fewer of us elect to run our bankrupt nation, or perhaps a rare and genuinely enduring artist of whatever stripe who might still exist in this ever bleaker cultural landscape, well who do you know that merits a plaque, a statue or other suitably tangible commemoration? Well although I can think of perhaps one or two friends worthy of such a memorial, those similarly inclined might be so few in number that we could run only to a modestly engraved headstone. Having said which, there are quite a few self-regarding chumps I and indeed you probably know of who’d justify a good stuffing – and ideally well before they finally pop their clogs.

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