Imagine if Dr Johnson had been let loose in schools instead of Jamie Oliver

Children love rudery, the real rudery of a truly fearless spirit, not the mere adoption of uncouth locutions
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The Independent Online

It would be a nice gesture on the Government's part, now it's in a giving mood, to mark the 250th anniversary of Dr Johnson's Dictionary by presenting every child between the ages of eight and 18 with a copy. The £250m it's going to cost to increase school dinners by 13p a plate looks a more economical vote winner, I grant you, but that's an ongoing commitment, whereas Johnson's Dictionary would be a one-off. You can pick up a paperback selection from Amazon for about £20, which isn't ideal - we don't want to start the kids off on abridgements - but it's a move in the right direction at least. And if that's too big an outlay there's always the Mac-compatible CD-Rom, which, at $320 a pop, could go into every classroom. Brain food, Tony. Don't forget the brain food.

It would be a nice gesture on the Government's part, now it's in a giving mood, to mark the 250th anniversary of Dr Johnson's Dictionary by presenting every child between the ages of eight and 18 with a copy. The £250m it's going to cost to increase school dinners by 13p a plate looks a more economical vote winner, I grant you, but that's an ongoing commitment, whereas Johnson's Dictionary would be a one-off. You can pick up a paperback selection from Amazon for about £20, which isn't ideal - we don't want to start the kids off on abridgements - but it's a move in the right direction at least. And if that's too big an outlay there's always the Mac-compatible CD-Rom, which, at $320 a pop, could go into every classroom. Brain food, Tony. Don't forget the brain food.

The advantage of the CD-Rom, I'm told by those who use it, is that it not only contains the 1755 and the 1783 editions but actually displays the two versions side by side, so that nine- or 10-year-olds still locked into interactive modes of learning, and happy only when they have a mouse to push, can have fun comparing editorial changes. Call me a sentimentalist, but in my mind's eye I see their little faces illuminated with the joy of spotting Johnson's emendations and exchanging opinions on their felicity.

Unprovable, of course, but it's my own view that Jamie Oliver would have made a better job of winning the kids round to his burgerless cuisine - winning Tony round, when there's a photo opportunity in it, cannot be counted an achievement - had he been able to call on more words. Leave aside the swearing and Jamie Oliver has no words.

I have grown not to mind the swearing. Swearing is what chefs seem to have to do. I take it to be some mechanistic, oral thing. The more exquisite that which you receive into your mouth, the more vile that which you must expel from it. Fine, so long as they don't do what footballers do after they have sworn, and spit.

In fact, Jamie Oliver swears more like a choirboy than a footballer. Though he comes from Essex where children imbibe invective with their mother's milk, he swears as though he has just that minute found bad language in the street. Which is presumably why he is such a hit with ladies of a certain age and class. They like an angel who is only halfway fallen.

How well that goes down with the young is another matter. After all those fuckin' 'ells in the kitchens and all the "Hi, guys" cheeky-chappy incoherence at morning assembly, the kids at Kidbrooke School should have been eating grated courgette pizza out of his hand, but they weren't. And the reason, I reckon, is that in some corner of themselves, and despite all the anti-hierarchical pap that has been pumped into them for decades, kids would still rather look up than down, still like a prick to kick against, still revere the learning they do not have. Dr Johnson, reading, say, from his own entry on oats - "grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people" - would have gone down infinitely better.

That he would thereby have contravened the Government's guidelines in the matter of exciting national or religious hatred, I can only imagine endearing him the more. Children love rudery. Real rudery, I mean, the rudery of a truly fearless spirit, not the mere adoption of uncouth locutions - which was Jamie Oliver's big mistake, assuming he had a choice in the matter.

I suspect that Linda Walker's peppering the pavement with shotgun pellets would likewise have won the respect of the young, even those who happened to be standing on the pavement at the time, and whether or not they were the hooligans who had been making her life a misery. Children love a folk hero, and what else can you call a woman with a shotgun righting wrongs which no one else will.

As for the argument that you mustn't take the law into your own hands, any child knows how little ice that cuts where the law is limbless. You are pragmatic when you are young. You do what authority won't do for you. As Dr Johnson discovered on the occasion a gang of thugs attempted to disburden him of his possessions, or indeed when anyone talked nonsense in his presence - you lay about you or you perish.

It is a pity there is no moral lexicographer of Johnson's stature left among us to lay about Louis Browne, the Recorder who sentenced Mrs Walker to six months' imprisonment, calling her response to provocation "wholly disproportionate". Is there such a thing as "wholly" disproportionate? Aren't you disproportionate or not? And isn't "wholly" therefore merely histrionics?

Which questions aside, what would a proportionate response to such intimidation as Mrs Walker suffered be, given that she had already tried calling the police? Taking the offenders out to lunch? Migrating to Australia? We might wonder whether shooting them through the heart would have been "wholly disproportionate", but firing pellets round their feet seems, if anything, rather elegantly measured.

Hopalong Cassidy, long considered a role model to children on account of his drinking milk not beer (not his fault that we knew nothing in those days of skimmed organic milk), made a practice of firing bullets at baddies' feet. That was the Wild West, of course, but Mrs Walker lives in Manchester, which is near enough.

Dr Johnson doesn't in so many words condone shooting hooligans in the foot, but he was generally impatient with folly, so we can surmise what he would have thought of Mr Browne. Much as he thought of a cucumber, I warrant. An object which "should be well sliced, dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out, as good for nothing".

Another judgement in which schoolchildren would sooner concur than in the merits of a Jamie Oliver salad.

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