Of all the bits of the human body we're keen to improve these days, the voice is surely the most surprising. An online directory of private tutors called The Tutor Pages reports an increase of 119 per cent in elocution enquiries last year. But why? I thought we stopped worrying about "correct" accents years ago, about the time restaurants stopped insisting on jackets and ties. What used to be called BBC English or RP (Received Pronunciation) has disappeared in a flood of regional voices: Naughtie and Humphrys on Radio 4, Huw Edwards on BBC1 and Mishal Husain, who does that trick with her tongue on the "P" and the "st" of "Pakistan". Neither they, nor their audience, feel pressure to speak RP, and nor should they.
I felt the pressure once. I was sent to elocution lessons by my mother to cure my vestigial Irish accent, when I was 10. It seemed my life hinged on a single word, "can't". I pronounced it to rhyme with "rant". This was not good enough. I was told that I wouldn't Get On In The World unless I said it in a long-drawn-out English drawl of caaaaahhhhnt. It took a while but I was eventually cured. Now it feels absurd that it once seemed important. But "accent reduction" is the main thing on offer at your local elocution tutor's, just as breast and bottom reductions are available at the clinic next door.
You can have a Clarity Implant, too. They're strongly recommended by the Tutor Pages people. "With conference calls and webcam meetings becoming more popular, clarity and diction are a must," says one tutor. I'm not sure they're right. If I were running a Human Resources department, the last thing I'd want is a series of job applicants speaking like Kate Adie, whose voice is trained, audible, micro-modulated and stagger-ing-ly ann-oy-ing; all deliver-ee but wholly mechanical, as if unconnected to the content of the words.
I blame Downton Abbey. It reminded us that regional diction used to define class. Whenever Carson the butler or Thomas the footman, nice Mrs Hughes or nasty Mrs O'Brien, Mrs Patmore the cook or Branson the chauffeur opened their mouths, they banged into our heads the simple equation: Lanca-shire/Yorkshire/Irish/Scottish = common.
Hard though it is to credit, many young business types now want to sound like Lord Grantham and Lady Mary. Will those important conference calls and webcam meetings of the future be full of voices saying "My dear fellow..." and "I just think it's perfectly horrid..." And after years of having bogus clarity and modulation implanted in your system, can you get them surgically removed?
Mick Jagger has pulled out of an appearance at the Davos summit, saying he found himself "being used as a political football". The event, hosted by David Cameron, was the Great British Tea Party, to promote British creativity abroad. It seems Jagger was irritated to hear Tories were high-fiving each other for securing a publicity coup. But was it something else? Like the presence of Boris Johnson on the guest list, and the prospect of finding himself seated between Johnson and Cameron, as if to suggest an equivalence between the former Street Fighting Man and the rascally Bullingdon Clubbers? That was probably it. Sorry, David and Boris. You can't always get what you want, can you?