Word of Mouth, Radio 4
Simply Absurd, Radio 4
Laurel Canyon, Radio 2
I'd love to mind-map, but it's time for my lunch al desco
Sunday 15 August 2010
If, like me, you're an anxious parent awaiting exam results, the "dumbing-down" debate won't be of immediate interest, however much you may have moaned about it in the past.
Believe me, I've tut-tutted for England on the subject; now, just gimme those GCSEs. Dumbed down? Wha'evah.
In the excellent Word of Mouth, now in its fourth year, it was suggested that our middle-class indignation is misplaced: exams haven't got easier, it's just that the questions have got clearer (a big middle-class "Hmm, if you say so" to that one). The head history honcho from the examination board Edexcel recalled a question from 20 years ago which asked candidates to discuss the salient features of the League of Nations; if you didn't know what "salient" meant you were sunk. And the programme's presenter, Chris Ledgard, remembered being stymied by a question about the "expediency" of Bismarck's policies. Nothing so challenging these days.
Well, you know, I'm sorry, but as far as this purist/pedant/old fart* is concerned (*delete as appropriate), tough. If you don't know what "salient" or "expediency" means, do you really deserve a pass? What are the questions like these days? "Hitler was a really, really nasty man. Please write a few barely literate sentences about him." In fact that wouldn't pass the Edexcel test, discriminating as it does against people who don't know what "literate" means, or "barely", or "a few".
The programme also looked at the language of business, where it's not so much dumbing-down as wilful obscurantism; anyone up for a spot of "growth-lining", "mind-mapping" or "stakeholder alignment"? As Ledgard observed, though, much office jargon is simply there to allow under-pressure workers to have a bit of fun. He recommended a website called theofficelife.com, which does indeed have an extensive and brilliant list of work-related terms – check out "adhocracy", lunch "al desco", "alpha pup", "apple polish" and "assmosis" on the first page alone.
Linguistic playfulness, a business consultant said, can be an enriching experience. But as ex-Python Terry Jones found out in Simply Absurd – in which he charted the influence of the Theatre of the Absurd on modern comedy – Beckett, Ionesco and co distrusted language. They looked for inspiration to the silent movies; Beckett was a big fan of Buster Keaton, with whom he made Film in the mid-Sixties, and Jones lovingly described in detail one of his own silent favourites, Keaton's The Seven Chances, in which the hero is pursued by 500 would-be brides, with its sequence of images "that would make Dali eat his own moustache".
There was a bit of slightly immodest trumpet-blowing for Monty Python, the true inheritor of the absurdists' legacy. But it was entirely merited. As Absurdophile David Bradby observed, "it did completely mad things com-pletely obsessively."
There was a healthy measure of completely mad things done completely obsessively – most of them down to that legendary and epic Sixties druggie David Crosby – in Laurel Canyon, the second of a two-parter exploring that idyllic haven of LA counter-culture, narrated by Mickey Dolenz. The ex-Monkee, a former resident himself, recalled the golden age – salad days when they were green from smoking too much dope. Crosby described taking the hardcore hallucinogen STP at Mama Cass's place. "I wound up in her pool," he said, "sort of like a mollusc on a rock." He spent hours clamped on to the hot-water outlet, watching the bubbles. "I thought it was God," he chuckled.
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