Tom Hodgkinson: Debating grammar is the cool new thing



Since opening the Idler Academy almost a year ago, one of our preoccupations has been English grammar. We have programmed a couple of lessons on the subject and published our own grammar guide because we have spotted that it is simply not taught in schools, with the result that young people go into the world with a very poor command of their own language.

This may have sounded like an eccentric position to some. But it seems we are on to something, because in one of the most unexpected developments of the past year, the Idler Academy has been enfolded in the warm embrace of retail giant Selfridges, which has let us into its basement to give lessons in some of our favourite subjects. This suggests that far from being a fusty and eccentric subject, grammar is, in fact, hot right now.

The Oxford Street department store came to visit the Academy in October and invited us to programme a series of talks and classes as part of its "Words Words Words" season. Accordingly we have organised lessons in Latin, book-making, embroidery, grammar and calligraphy, and these events take place, for free, in a new library in the Selfridges basement built for the purpose.

Selfridges was particularly keen on the grammar lessons offered by Mr Gwynne, a septuagenarian old Etonian and retired businessman, and booked him in forsix. So it was that last Friday Victoria and I witnessed the bizarre spectacle of a suited Mr Gwynne giving a lecture to Oxford Street shoppers on the parts of speech and correct use of the apostrophe. He had the assembled audience reciting in rote fashion: "A pronoun is a word that stands in place of a noun." Mr Gwynne also accused Selfridges itself of poor grammar by dropping the apostrophe it featured in former times, and he also informed us that Waterstone's was planning to rebrand itself Waterstones. Surely, he said, it is unseemly for a bookseller to make such a fundamental error. The audience joined the conversation enthusiastically and moved on to debate the role of the semi-colon.

There is more evidence of grammar fever. Selfridges is now stocking our booklet "Gwynne's Grammar", written by Mr Gwynne and published by The Idler. To its surprise, the grammars sold out in two days. The store also found that a selection of second-hand books which we had supplied sold briskly, and I am now packing a new order which includes a Latin dictionary and Greek lexicon.

Why does Selfridges want to educate its customers? Well, Selfridges can do this sort of thing partly because it is a private company. It is not listed on the stock exchange, and this means it has more freedom than corporations, which by their very nature prioritise the bottom line. Its other distinguishing feature is its creative director, Alannah Weston. She is the groovy fortysomething daughter of the owner, the Canadian businessman Galen Weston, and she is the force behind these creative projects. Modern shoppers, she says, "want intellectual, cultural and, yes, spiritual nourishment. They don't just want to buy things."

Noble sentiments, you might say, from a shopkeeper. And cynics might argue that for Selfridges, such projects are merely a trick to get punters through the door. But I think there is a genuine desire to offer people good-quality information and teaching. It seems that Selfridges and people generally are in agreement with our conviction that it is a crying shame that grammar, Latin, calligraphy and Greek philosophy are no longer taught in schools, and there is a real thirst out there for such knowledge. What we see in our lessons is a joy in the process of learning, thinking and talking. This kind of intellectual engagement brings an almost physical pleasure and satisfaction that is beyond sex, drugs and rock'n'roll. It does seem to be true, as Aristotle said, that real happiness is found in contemplation, study and debate. And like the Stoics, why not teach our lessons in the marketplace? Let us go out to the shoppers.

There is also something very gratifying in the fact that the Selfridges lessons are free. In a peculiar development the retail giant has joined in the spirit of free education embodied by temporary institutions such as the Occupy movement's free universities. Funnily enough an anarchist friend in the US, who you might expect to disapprove of The Idler entering a temple of consumerism, wrote me a congratulatory email which said he wished American retailers would provide a space for words.

It seems that purely by chance The Idler has found itself at the cutting edge of retail.

Tom Hodgkinson is editor of 'The Idler'

React Now

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

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A pill for obesity is a step closer, with two separate studies showing that it may be possible to influence the body’s tendency to build up damaging fat deposits beneath the skin  

Being fat is the last social taboo. It is the actual elephant in the room

Rosie Millard
The traditional Boxing Day hunt in Lacock  

For foxes' sake: Don't let the bloody tradition of the Boxing Day hunt return

Mimi Bekhechi
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all