Philip Hensher: How can we get Jamie et al to read?

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The Independent Online

A curious moment came last week as Jamie Oliver brought his latest evangelical cooking crusade to an end. After months in Rotherham, bewailing the poor cooking skills and nutrition of the natives, he started talking to a mother about the possibility of taking up a place at catering college. She was doubtful; her intelligence, clearly, was not very high, and her reading skills very poor. Oliver reassured her; after all, he said, he himself had never read a book in his life.

Some people might think this the source of immense shame and humiliation, but Oliver clearly doesn't care that much about admitting this really terrible fact. He has said very much the same thing in chat shows, and allowed his biographers to repeat the statement. He claims to be dyslexic, rather than functionally illiterate, but dyslexia is a condition which may be addressed, and not something to be flaunted as an excuse.

Oliver's show made a great deal of fuss over mothers who were setting their children a bad example by failing, or refusing, to cook. Oliver has two daughters – I don't want to bring young children into it, but I presume they are not off-limits in this discussion. He has cheerfully used small children as bad examples in the nutrition debate. May one ask: what kind of example is a parent setting his children who repeats not only that he has never read a book, but appears to be proud of the fact?

Oliver is not alone among the famous in making rather a point of not only not reading books, but of never having read a book. Noel Gallagher boasted in a magazine interview that he was reading his first ever book at the age of 38 – it was a Dan Brown, but we all have to start somewhere. Not alone, either, in the unusual position of apparently finding the task of "writing" a book less onerous than reading one. Posh Spice, with that charming self-deprecating wit we all know so well, said exactly the same thing three years ago before embarking on a book under her own name.

What is really scandalous here is not someone who is rich but illiterate – such people have always existed and we might regard Oliver, like Dickens's Krook, with some pity – rather, it is someone who sees no particular shame in that fact and indeed cites himself as a lesson in where you can get to without reading a book at all.

I grew up in South Yorkshire, surrounded by the effects of Victorian philanthropy, bringing libraries, concert halls and museums to the urban working classes. That, too, was a missionary effort which yielded magnificent results in the form of education and learning. Oliver's whole public persona links working-class cheeky-chappiness with a denigration of reading and education. I can't see his crusade for cooking skills into South Yorkshire, estimable as it may be on a low practical level, as comparable in any way to that noble endeavour.

Clearly, what was the trouble with many of the people of Rotherham who were eating so badly and feeding their children so badly was not the failure of their cookery skills. It was the ultimate failure of that noble enterprise of the spread of education. People who can't read, in general can't cook and, impoverished, can't eat that well. A rich semi-literate like Oliver can't see how unusual and unhelpful his particular case is as an example. And if somebody would like to pay some highly patronising Lady Bountiful figure to descend upon Primrose Hill to teach the smug and overpaid telly celebrities how to read a book from beginning to end, I think it would make rather a good Channel 4 series.

More pearls of wisdom from our priceless Prince

The Duke of Edinburgh, on a state visit to Slovakia with the Queen, made another of his celebrated "gaffes" last week. He was in conversation with a "professor of tourism" from the University of Primorska – yes, I know, but Slovakia is a small country, and I guess they quickly ran out of sufficiently distinguished people to entertain the Duke. "Attractive brunette, Dr Maja Uran, 38" reported that the Duke had listened for a moment or two to her plans to set up networks of local people to liaise with tourists, before observing that "Tourism is just national prostitution. We don't need any more tourists. They ruin cities."

This, it seems to me, fulfils very exactly the definition of a gaffe as an obvious truth which, out of good manners, nobody ever quite states. Of course tourism, in most of the world, consists of prostitution, in the sense of a relatively poor country attempting to lure richer visitors to take advantage of natural or inherited attractions. Of course large numbers of tourists ruin cities – it was interesting to see, a few weeks ago in Syria, the beginnings of that process and how immediate and negative the impact of a few coach parties on a living city can be. I promise you, we'll miss the Duke of Edinburgh when he's gone.

A sex therapist with tips from Leviticus...

Lillian Ladele seems to have started something. You will remember that she was the Islington registrar who decided that she ought to be able to decide on personal grounds whose relationships she was prepared to register.

Now a part-time sex therapist working for Relate Avon, Gary McFarlane, has taken up a similar stance, complaining that the service didn't feel it could accommodate his preference only to work with people who were exactly like him.

In both cases, the complainant is Christian and what they object to is having anything to do, professionally, with gay people, albeit for religious reasons. I wonder why it did not occur at any point to such people that perhaps they might have found themselves in the wrong job. I blame Relate Avon for employing someone like Gary McFarlane in the first place.

Someone who is only prepared to hand out sexual advice sanctioned by Leviticus is not going to be a great deal of use to anyone.

Employing a fundamentalist as a sex therapist sounds about as sensible as employing John Prescott as a go-go dancer. Perhaps he shouldn't have embarked on this obviously preposterous career.