Thursday 7 October 2010
Brian Viner: Give me passers-by over satnav any day
There are still surprisingly many professional wordsmiths – journalists, novelists, playwrights, screenwriters – who do not know an Apple Mac from a whisky mac or a Pacamac. Some of them are friends of mine, bashing away on their faithful old Olivetti typewriters, or even operating with pens and paper, and frankly I don't know how they do it, but then I am no less of a technophobe when it comes to the Global Positioning System.
It intrigues me how in the course of a few years, sometimes even a few months, words, acronyms or abbreviations can become fixtures in our everyday language, having once been so disconcertingly unfamiliar. GPS is a good example, satnav another; terms now embraced by people of all ages. I know octogenarians who speak of their satnavs at least as fondly as they speak of their grandchildren. For many drivers, GPS has become more indispensable than the radio, and only fractionally less than the steering wheel. But not for me. Even a couple of my writer friends who still use typewriters have satnav systems in their cars, but my equivalent of their battered Olivettis is the 2007 AA Road Atlas of Great Britain.
Why have a disembodied voice telling you to turn right in 500 yards when you can reach the same conclusion by reading a map, or alternatively by asking an old man with a dog? Obviously there's an answer to that: GPS enthusiasts cite ease and convenience. But I'm not entirely comfortable with a culture that increasingly throttles the need for personal initiative. Moroever, I have, through my car window, met some very nice old men with dogs.
Even more significantly, global positioning can get things spectacularly wrong in a way that maps and old men rarely do. Last Saturday night, a 37-year-old Spaniard drowned when the GPS pointed his Peugeot 306 on to an old road that ended abruptly at the edge of a reservoir. And where I live in the rural Welsh Marches there was a right kerfuffle a few years ago when a huge lorry got stuck in a country lane, the foreign driver's GPS having directed him to the tiny village of Hatfield, Herefordshire, miles off the beaten track. His actual destination was the rather more accessible Hatfield, Hertfordshire.
Last Friday, my 17-year-old daughter failed her driving test. She was terribly disappointed, not least because on Monday, Britain's driving test was amended to include the challenge of getting from A to B by following road signs. She doesn't fancy that. But I'm all for it. The more we learn to do by ourselves, the healthier we will be. That said, I'd have liked more sympathy from the Olivetti gang when my computer crashed a few months ago, wiping out 6,000 words.
The day Sir Norman put on a one-man show just for me
Some names carry the title "Sir" more effortlessly than others. This is partly to do with vowel sounds, and partly to do with personality. Sir Paul McCartney sounds fine, but I still can't get my head round Sir Mick Jagger. I never struggled with Sir Harry Secombe, yet Sir Norman Wisdom seemed incongruous, if not downright oxymoronic. How could that hapless little clown, the self-styled Gump, who traded so brilliantly on his vulnerability, be a knight of the realm?
I'm not saying that he didn't deserve his knighthood, though. On the contrary, for turning up at the Palace wearing his daft cap, and then tripping up as he moved away from the sovereign, I'd have ennobled him: Lord Wisdom of Grimsdale sounds no sillier than Sir Norman Wisdom.
About 16 years ago I went to interview him in his London hotel room, and prevailed on him, not that he needed much prevailing, to perform his shadow-boxing routine. Which he did, energetically and spectacularly, ending up spreadeagled on the bed. My journalistic career has yielded many memorable privileges – I've played tennis with John McEnroe and snooker with Ronnie O'Sullivan, sat backstage with Sting and lunched a deux with Nigella – but getting a personal masterclass in slapstick from Norman Wisdom trumps, or rather gumps, the lot.
The respectful art of the political interview
Sian Williams on BBC Breakfast conducted an excellent interview with David Cameron on Tuesday. It was searching but respectful, quite unlike the assault launched on Ed Miliband by Sarah Montague on the Today programme last week. Whether Montague comes across in private as a bossy head girl I don't know, but that is her radio persona, and there's nothing wrong with that; broadcasting has always had a place for bossy head girls. Esther Rantzen is a cherished example of the species.
Montague's contemptuous quizzing of the new Labour Party leader, however, should be played to all aspiring political interviewers as a lesson in how not to do it, for she confused intellectual rigour with sneering. The BBC's most famously unyielding political interviewers are John Humphrys on radio and Jeremy Paxman on television, the latter using the late Louis Heren's maxim as his guiding spirit, always asking himself, "Why is this lying bastard lying to me?"
Montague tries too hard to plough the same furrow. Talking to Ed Miliband with near-hatred in her tone did her no favours and him plenty. He stayed calm and courteous throughout and doubtless left plenty of listeners thinking that he was just the right chap to lead the Labour Party, the very opposite of what Montague seemed to have in mind.
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