Philip Hensher: Plus ça change for the Mr Gradgrinds

Notebook

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Middleweight

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the South East's fastest growing full s...

Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

£35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

Recruitment Genius: Commercial Engineer

£30000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Estimating, preparation of tech...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Technician

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will work as part of a smal...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron has reiterated his pre-election promise to radically improve the NHS  

How can we save the NHS? Rediscover the stiff upper lip

Jeremy Laurance
 

Thanks to Harriet Harman, Labour is holding its own against the Tory legislative assault

Isabel Hardman
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

The ZX Spectrum is back

The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

The quirks of work perks

From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

Is bridge becoming hip?

The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

The rise of Lego Clubs

How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships