Philip Hensher: Plus ça change for the Mr Gradgrinds

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What use is conversation? Or friendship? What function does the enjoyment of art or literature serve?

You could make a case that all of them contribute to individual happiness; that they promote wellbeing; that social contacts can ease economic success, and that a paying audience to artistic endeavour circulates funds in the economy, leading to jobs and prosperity. But really, anyone who justified these things primarily in such terms could only be regarded as an idiot. Some things are useless, and part of what makes us human.

A former government minister, Chris Bryant, was last week lamenting the failure of young people to learn foreign languages. Somehow failing to understand that the catastrophic collapse in foreign language learning was any responsibility of his Labour colleagues, he had a single point to make. They should be learning "Mandarin, Spanish and Portuguese... and of course Arabic", and not what he called "the useless modern foreign languages such as French".

"Useless" seems a strong word. In the last few months, I've been exploring the implications and requirements of taking up Swiss residency, and I can tell Mr Bryant that, in dealing with the employees of the Geneva Office Cantonal de la Population, some command of the French language is far from useless. His definition of "useful" seems an interesting one, as suggested by the languages he singles out. They are languages spoken by huge numbers of people in areas of the world where the government wants us to engage in business.

A language which does not fulfil one of these criteria may, it seems, run the risk of being classified by Mr Bryant and his ilk as "useless". I am all in favour of non-traditional languages being taught in our schools, but not at the expense of a language such as French. It is spoken by our nearest neighbour; it is understood all over the world. According to some estimates it has 265 million native or second-language speakers, more than Arabic, for instance, and is the most important trading language in large parts of Africa and elsewhere. It is also – I don't know whether Mr Bryant knows this – much easier to learn than Mandarin or Arabic, and so much more likely to be put to use in practice.

But, really, isn't there something incredibly dreary and depressing about finding no reason to teach foreign languages other than whether they are "useful" or not? Languages don't only exist in trade negotiations. Our lives are immensely enriched by being able to speak to other Europeans without calculating what use they are going to be to us.

Without speaking French, you are basically accepting that you will only ever read a book written in that language in translation. That seems a sad capitulation to necessity – one can't learn every language – but not one to be justified by declaring the language to be useless, and therefore unnecessary. Even Mandarin and Arabic, I daresay, are most vital when they are fairly useless, in bursts of poetry and flirtation. What is the use of a Gradgrind like Mr Bryant, I really couldn't tell you, contributing neither to our knowledge or amusement.

Sweet irony to Marvel at in the land of piñatas

The piñata is a Mexican custom – it sounds absolutely delightful. A hollow painted papier-mâché figure, of an animal or a comic figure, is filled with sweets and hung up at children's birthday parties. The children apparently take turns at hitting it until the thing breaks open and the sweets pour out. It sounds much more fun than Pin The Tail on the Donkey and other "entertainments" of my youth. Not to the government lawyers of Mexico, who noticed that street vendors of piñatas were dealing in hollow figures of Spiderman, the Incredible Hulk and Captain America, all under copyright to Marvel Comics. Whether under pressure from the American corporation or not – the company denies it – a hundred of the sweet handmade figures were seized. "Piracy helps to fund organised crime," the government said with a straight face.

To be honest, it is hard to envisage the cocaine gangs of Mexico City seeing vast profits to be made by sitting up late at night with a bucket of wet newspaper and a photograph of Captain America to be copied. All my sympathies are with the ingenious makers of piñatas, who have provided their juvenile audiences with what they want. I'm sure Marvel Comics are perfectly able to recognise that what they are getting here is free advertising, sincerely supplied, which is depriving the corporation of not one peseta in income. Keep hitting those piñatas, kids, as hard as you like.

Eggs Benedict with a simple twist of Ratzinger

An Italian publisher has seen an unlikely gap in the market, and brought out a cookbook of what purports to be Pope Benedict XVI's favourite dishes from childhood. The dishes, dubiously sourced to a woman who used to live next door to the Ratzingers, have horrified Italy. L'Espresso said it was a miracle that, eating like that, he had survived so long.

Italians are notoriously parochial when it comes to food. When an Italian tourist tells you that "the food is so terrible in England", you can be sure that he means the food in the terrible Italian trattorias he insisted on eating in twice a day during his London trip. In fact, the dishes in the cookbook are often lovely German classics which hardly need a Pope's imprimatur; they include that most delicious of light consommes with an elegant meat dumpling, Leberknodelsuppe, roasted veal kidneys and what sounds like Wienerschnitzel – all perfectly appetising and even rather healthy.

No one is ever going to make any money opening a German restaurant in Italy, or probably in England for that matter, but the cooking of the Pope's native Bavaria is unquestionably delicious, and worth a trip on its own. I won't claim that Schweinshaxe is particularly healthy, but it definitely surpasses in succulence and taste any Italian pork dish. And it's worth noticing that the Pope's maternal grandfather was a baker. If he was as good as most Bavarian bakers, I'm sure the Pope is quite right to miss his family productions, and regret being reduced to eating the insipid and savourless bread of most Italians.

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