The man on the door of the Gents is eating our words

`If David Blunkett really wants to improve literacy all he has to do is ban signs with drawings'
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The Independent Culture
JUSTIN LOCKHART is hot. Justin Lockhart is NOW. Justin Lockhart has got a TV series coming out and he's going to be a star. That's what Justin Lockhart thinks, anyway.

Justin Lockhart is professor of Applied Literacy at Milton Keynes University. But what is Applied Literacy? And why will it make him hot, famous and a star?

"Applied literacy is literacy in action," says Professor Justin, smoothing back his locks and looking for a nearby mirror. "It's reading for a purpose. Reading is a very multi-function activity. For instance, reading Shakespeare is not reading for a purpose. Reading a notice which says `Danger -10,000 Watts' is reading for a very special purpose. It tells you to keep out. Shakespeare only tells you a story. Shakespeare is incomparably finer literature than the notice which says `Danger - 10,000 Watts'. But it is more important to read the notice. Shakespeare can enhance your life. The notice can save your life. That's applied literacy."

Hmm. And how will that make him hot, famous and a star?

"We have been told endlessly that the electronic media are making reading and writing outmoded," says Justin, ignoring the question, "which is just so much pepperoni. The Internet depends absolutely on reading and writing. Look inside any newsagent. It is crammed with magazines on computers. If you want to learn about computers in a hurry, you don't go to computers, you go to a magazine about computers. They are all very badly designed, by the way, but that's for another programme. I mean, another time.

"Now, the people who run our media are all clapped out arts graduates who think that writing is the stuff they studied at university - in other words, that writing is all about great literature. Which is why we get all these programmes about great writers, and adaptations of Jane Austen... Good God! Great writing is the tip of the iceberg! It doesn't even begin to include such writing as instruction manuals, insurance small print, Acts of Parliament or record blurbs. You could easily make a case for Acts of Parliament being the most important documents governing our lives, but who has ever read one? Even seen one?"

"My message is this: if you never read Jane Austen, you won't suffer, but if you don't read the instructions on your CD player or your DIY material, you're heading for trouble. Do you know what the best-selling poem in the world is?"

(Professor Lockhart loves sudden changes of subject like this. It works really well on the telly, too.)

No... well, The Waste Land? Something by Betjeman? Larkin?

"The best-selling poem in the world is this," says Lockhart. " `Every year that passes / Brings me closer to you / Every day that passes / Says, I'll Always Be True.' That, or something like it, is sold by the millions every day on a greeting card. That is what people actually buy."

But it's terrible poetry!

"My friend, that is irrelevant," says Justin Lockhart. "All that matters is what actually goes on in the wide wide world. What reading is really for. That is my business. And this is the first TV series which has ever looked at what people really read. Forget The London Review of Books. Think Exchange & Mart."

Why Exchange & Mart?

"Because out there in the despised want-ads, people have evolved a whole new language uninfluenced by the academics. People ask where new modern poetry is coming from. It's already there in the personal ads, the lonely hearts ads! Just as the modern collector of folksongs has to go out on the Arsenal terraces and record the chants, so the pursuer of applied literacy will rush out and buy the trade mags."

So applied literacy is taking over the world, is it?

"No. There are obstacles."

Like television?

"Certainly not. There is more and more writing on TV the whole time - captions, running captions, footnotes all over the place. All quiz games are based on writing. Illiterate people can hardly watch TV these days.

No, the main enemy of applied literacy is the pictogram. The little diagram, or picture which replaces words. Instead of the words Ladies and Gents we now have little pictures of a lady and a gent. We have lines through cigarettes to denote No Smoking, we have a a sketch of a man running to denote Emergency Exit, we have two old people for Old Folks Home... If David Blunkett really wanted to improve literacy, all he has to do is ban signs with drawings on them, and insist on words only."

Justin Lockhart's new TV series is called `Now Read On'. It's hot. It's now. It just might make him a star.