John Walsh: Tales of the City

The art of conversation is not lost: our children just don't want to talk to us
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Alarming news from the Basic Skills Agency, the people concerned with improving numeracy and literacy among the nation's juniors. The art of conversation between parents and children has taken a turn for the worse. The BSA are concerned about the number of children who start school wholly unequipped to express themselves or to understand what their teacher is saying - because they never learned at home the dual skill of speaking and listening. Why? Because, says the report, parents spend less time with their noisome sprogs, children closet themselves away in their bedrooms, family suppers are a thing of the past, the television is on all day, baby buggies are designed so that the infant faces away from its parents, and - if that's not enough for you - rich parents "buy themselves out" of communicating with their offspring by buying them technological gewgaws like X-boxes and iPods. "It could be," said Margaret Donaldson, a child development psychologist, "that parents are talking less to their children than at any time in human history."

Can things be that bad? I'm afraid the stuff about technology and children being closeted in their bedrooms sounds horribly accurate. So I set out on Sunday to do something about it - to bring back the Family Lunch, to reinvigorate the traditional colloquy that not only binds families together but educates them in the cut and thrust of human intercourse.

There were five of us at Franklins in East Dulwich. We ordered the roast beef and Yorkshire. "This is a family discussion forum," I explained. "We can air views on any subject, and all may, indeed must, join in. Max, perhaps you could start the ball rolling by telling us how your music lessons are coming along."

"I can do the kick on 'Black Dog,'" he replied. "But the flam on 'Kashmir' is really hard."

"You what?" I said.

"It's drum stuff," said his big sister, Sophie. "Led Zep. Have you heard 'Crazy' yet?"

I confessed that I'd heard the Patsy Cline song many times.

"Not that one. This is new. It's really good. Gnarls Barkley, and you can only get it on download."

"Sorry, darling," I said, "I can't understand a word you're saying."

"She means a song you can only get on the internet," said the baby. "Do keep up."

"Blaps me the raddo," said her brother.

"No probs," said the baby, passing the horseradish.

I began to suspect I was the butt of some foolish plot to speak only in modish patois. But no, they really do talk like that.

"I'm not sure about this Temperanillo," said their mother sniffing her glass. "I should have gone for the Merlot instead."

They looked at her, perhaps under the impression that she was quoting a line from The Mighty Boosh.

"Could we discuss cheating?" I asked. "What do we think of Didier Drogba admitting he sometimes pretends to be injured?"

"I saw that bit when he got poked in the eye and fell down," said Max. "It was heavy."

"Heavy?" I said. "What does that mean?"

"It was just heavy," the 14-year-old returned.

I felt cast back to 1969, when every fifth word on our teenage lips was "heavy."

"But does it mean good? Bad? Embarrassing? Entertaining? Disgraceful? Morally ambiguous? Emotionally draining?"

"It just means heavy, dad. Don't get so stressed."

"But I don't see that other chap, what's his name, the Scandinavian, Gudjonsson, taking dives in the penalty area."

"Gudjonsson's good, Dad. But he's no Drogba."

"Is that all you can say?"

Was that all we could say? It occurred to me that a proficient English-speaking foreigner, would have understood virtually none of the past five minutes' interchanges. Too many names, too many local references, too many catch phrases and private codes. Expecting a proper discourse with modern children along formal lines is a mug's game. After a few years on the planet, children pick up all kinds of language, and communication skills, which they spend the next few years happily abandoning in favour of tribal cries and idiolectal usages denied to anyone over 21. It's an uncomfortable truth that they'd rather, on the whole, you didn't hold "conversations" with them, merely hearty exchanges of allusions off the telly. Heavy, I know, but there you are...

It's no deal

This week's media highlight is the MIPTV international sales fair, where broadcasters from all over the world come looking for ideas that will translate to the screens and hearts of huge home audiences. Many will be looking for new formats in game-shows, which are experiencing a world-wide renaissance. The benchmark of quality in this slightly battered genre is Deal or No Deal, which Endemol has sold to 45 countries.

This is why I despair of the modern world. Have you seen this idiotic show? It has the intellectual rigour of a bus ticket, the suspense and excitement of a taxi queue, the emotional drama of a dead prawn. One chap sits at a table surrounded by a score of excitable people holding boxes, and selects who should open them, one by one. Each box reveals an amount, from 1p to £100,000 and as more and more boxes are opened, the "player" understandably wonders what amount will be in the last box - the one he/she gets to keep. At odd moments, an unseen haggler rings up and offers him/her a small sum of money to stop opening boxes and go home, but is always refused. And that's pretty well it, except for the presence of Noel Edmonds, who talks and provokes and stirs the (utterly unsurprising) proceedings into a frenzy, somehow convincing all the participants that they're skilful players in a complex and brilliant game of financial manipulation. Can it be true that there are senior TV executives who earn half a million quid by dreaming up "formats" like this farrago of blandness? Hang on. I've got the back of an envelope here. Can I have a go?