RADIO / Powell's vowel: Snobbery pervades our language, says Robert Hanks, reviewing Word of Mouth and The Silver in the Stone

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The Independent Culture
THE THEORY is that Irish broadcasters are popular with the English because their accents can't be too easily tied to any one class: the proletariat won't resent them, the bourgeoisie won't look down on them, so everybody feels free like them. Frank Delaney was therefore a shrewd choice to present Word of Mouth (Radio 4, Tuesday), a cheerful magazine about the English language. Snobbery infects language more than any other part of life - the kind of car you drive, how white your socks are, where you live. But what fixes you is your accent and your vocabulary: it says more about you than money ever can. Being Irish, Delaney can sit out this game; he has an unofficial licence to say toilet.

The series ended this week with the result of a poll of listeners to find the best speaker of English today. The nominations included a number of non-standard accents - Andy Kershaw, Ivor Cutler and John Prescott (John Prescott?) - as well as all the expected favourites (Sue MacGregor, Brian Redhead). The only real shock was the runaway winner: J Enoch Powell. Supporters praised the clarity of Mr Powell's thought, the perfection of his grammar, his impeccable logic; they said he was 'a delight to the ear and mind', 'persuasive' and 'lucid'.

Talking to Delaney, what was striking about the honey-tongued one was how flat and turgid his speech is, utterly uninflected and emotionless - Mr Spock's older brother who's seen his share of trouble. Two of Delaney's commentators, Robert Burchfield and a representative of the Plain English campaign, professed themselves astounded that he had won: where was the warmth or the humour, they wondered.

What nobody said was that Powell was a shocking winner because he's best- known for some fairly shocking views, and when his supporters talk about his persuasiveness and say they can't fault his logic, you have to assume they are persuaded by him. (Although whether he's talking about Europe or Ireland or immigration policy, the suspicion is that it's less a matter of changing people's opinions than of giving voice to them.)

Still, even if it was his oratory rather than his politics that the Powellites admired, it's pretty depressing to think that people can find pleasure in these pedantically rigid speech patterns. The only consolation is the thought that this was an unrepresentative sample: the kind of person who phones up Radio 4 to vote on this kind of thing is also the kind of person who thinks that split infinitives matter.

The Silver in the Stone (Radio 4, Thursday) took another view of how language matters. Taking as his jumping-off point the bicentenary of John Clare - peasant poet with irregular grammar and spelling, patronised then rejected by the literary classes, ending his life in Northampton Asylum - Andy Croft attacked the snobbery of the 'Eng Lit' establishment. Working-class writers are shut out from literature. 'Is it possible to get into the canon without either an address in Hampstead, a letter from your senior tutor, or 200 years in the grave?'

Of course working-class writers don't get into the canon (heck, isn't that what the canon's for?). But the further Croft went into the subject, the cloudier his case seemed. The canon itself is a vague thing: if it means writing that's accepted as a proper subject for academic study, then few living writers make it.

If he means writing taken seriously by reviewers, who cares? As Croft pointed out, working-class writers like Catherine Cookson do pretty well without critical approval; and frankly, the lack of reviews of 'untutored' fiction in the broadsheet papers may be an evil, but the British class system throws up far worse ones.

Then again, you wondered at times whether he wasn't slightly over-estimating the importance of class in literary England. Writers and critics are mostly middle-class; but being middle-class isn't enough by itself. One novelist complained that when she was being brought up on a council estate nobody had encouraged her to think of herself as a writer: 'The response was that you got a good job . . . and fitted in writing around it.' Things are very different for the children of the professional classes, naturally, whose parents are always anxious to steer them away from risky areas like accountancy and into safe jobs like writing experimental fiction.

Croft seemed to have got two arguments muddled, one about what kind of writing we should be encouraging, and one about social inequality. Get a more egalitarian society, and the literature will take care of itself. As yet, though, nobody's come up with a plausible scenario for that story.

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