School failures who get on famously

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The Independent Online
THIS WEEK, like every parent in the country, I'll be agonising over school reports and wondering whether we are Doing the Right Thing. Should we make them keep up geography; should we try some extra maths tuition; do we really have to force them to spend a night on a bare mountain just so they'll have a Duke of Edinburgh Award to put on their UCCA form? (In my day, Latin was the great unwanted extra that you had to 'offer' for university: now it's abseiling.) Everyone seems to take it for granted that Doing the Right Thing means driving one's children towards as many GCSEs and A-levels as possible, with the ultimate aim of getting them into university. Yet my faith in this goal is getting shakier by the year. This is partly because of my job - interviewing famous people - which confronts me almost every month with the awkward fact that many famous people have very little education whatsoever. Sarah Miles, for instance (see the Sunday Review), never even took any exams, let alone passed any. Ken Livingstone, whom I interviewed last month, left school with four O-levels, and my previous interviewee, Michael Clark the dancer, failed all academic grades. In the case of Clark, at least, a conspicuous talent was apparent from childhood that made academic education superfluous. But in the cases of Miles and Livingstone, there was no very obvious childhood talent, and it could be that their lack of academic qualifications drove them to develop skills that might otherwise have remained dormant.

Now obviously there are a lot of pitfalls in this argument. For a start, famous and successful are not by any means the same thing, and thousands of people have fulfilling, worthwhile and well-rewarded careers without ever becoming media-fodder. There may also be an element of freak selection, in that I prefer to interview 'difficult' people who, for temperamental reasons, may have found it unusually difficult to fit in at school. Nevertheless, I wonder. Whereas my interviews produce frequent examples of badly educated success stories, my day-to-day life seems to produce many more cases of highly educated graduates doing piss- poor jobs (and often doing them piss- poorly) who are bitterly aware that being clever has not made them rich or particularly happy.

I'm certainly not anti-education and I do believe that anyone who can go to university should do so, if only for the sake of having three years in which to make friends and fall in love. But the gap between what university prepares one for and what real life actually offers is enormous.

BUSINESS is hardly my subject, but I've been told such a fascinating fact by a City friend, I thought I'd better pass it on. He says this is the first recession in living memory when sales of pet food have gone down: in all previous recessions they've held steady. This, he believes, is because previous recessions have mainly hit the working class, who will not sacrifice their dogs or cats even if it means going hungry themselves. But this recession is hitting the middle class, and they are far more ruthless. They cast a cool eye over the household budget and decide that poor old Kitty or Fido will have to go. I hope this is not true.

FOR YEARS I've suffered from secret mail envy, comparing the size of my office pigeonhole contents to other people's, and feeling deprived when it yields only the usual three press releases and a nutter. But now I've certainly cured that problem. Last week I appealed for readers' candidates for the most irritating misspellings currently in use, and the postroom messengers have been staggering under the weight of the postbags ever since. The top 10 tooth-grinders seem to be 'restauranteur', 'dignatory', 'principal' (for principle, or vice versa), 'lead' (for past tense led), 'supercede', 'pouring' (for poring over a book), 'concensus', 'miniscule', 'barbeque' and 'forego' (for forgo or vice versa). Then come 'forebear', 'Pharoah', 'Ghandi', 'annoint', 'exhorbitant', 'guage', 'grizzly' (meaning grey, instead of grisly meaning causing horror), 'unchartered' (when said of political seas), 'surburban', 'chord' (for net cord or vocal cord).

Some of the points mentioned are not strictly misspellings but grammatical errors, such as less for fewer, or myself for me, or misuses of words, like mitigate for militate or flaunt for flout. E Humphrey Jones of Chelsea writes: 'I look forward with baited breath to your next column; I'm thrilled to peaces that you're keeping a whether eye on misspellings. My currant favourite, spotted very recently in the Independent, is phased for fazed which is constantly wracking my nerves.' Fazed, incidentally, is a bit of a mystery. All the dictionaries say that it's a variant spelling of feeze, derived from Old English fesian, to drive away, and the OED dates its first appearance to 1890. Nevertheless, I'm sure the word wasn't around in my youth or not enough to notice: the first time I heard it was in the early Seventies.

Finally, it is time to admit the absolute favourite misspelling that almost every reader kindly pointed out. It is Kamakua for Kamakura, and it occurred, ahem, in this column last week.

WHY DO so many film stars have funny names? The current crop includes River, Keanu, Chevy, Kiefer, Daryl, Demi and Pierce, all of which seem designed to confuse you about whether they are men or women, and put the old exotics like Marlon, Bette, Lauren, Rock, Audie, Theda and Merle in the shade. The boring explanation is that beginner film actors change their names, but I am more excited by an alternative thesis: that the sort of parents who give their children fancy monickers are also the sort of parents who encourage them to take acting lessons and generally to show off. Anyway, we can find out quite soon because there was a tremendous crop of fancy names in the late Seventies - I remember a playgroup leader moaning to me, 'It's all Liberty and Sky these days' - so if names influence careers, a dazzling generation of young British actors is just about to arrive.