The world's favourite language

The week on radio
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The Independent Online
At some point, presumably, we'll be able to stop feeling guilty about the British empire. After all, nobody gets especially het up about the Romans these days, and they actually went around crucifying people. But while our imperial past still needs justification - or mitigation, at any rate; justification probably isn't on the cards - a strong point in its favour is the vast body of literature in English that it produced.

No doubt some writers and readers in some parts of what was the empire feel, like R S Thomas, anglophone Welsh poet, that they have been robbed of their own language and culture: English burns the tongue, but it is the only language they know. But the hegemony of English has several virtues. For one thing, it is a useful and ornamental language in its own right - the only one capable of sustaining an art-form as rigorously self-contained as the cryptic crossword. For another, its status as lingua franca of the largest empire the world has yet known means that writers and readers from opposite ends of the earth can be introduced to one another without worrying about what's getting lost in the translation - Flann O'Brien and Salman Rushdie can have a common audience. And these writers have the advantage, as it seems to be, of writing in a language that is both their own and not their own: they are native speakers, but they have, perhaps, an awareness of the language's individual quirks and an ability to work against the grain that come harder to writers who are simply English.

For confirmation of that last point, you can turn to the current Book at Bedtime (Radio 4, Monday-Friday), Rushdie's Midnight's Children, read by Roshan Seth: it's gripping, not so much because of the plot's twists and elaborately achieved moments of irony and significance, but because it never slips into well-worn grooves of speech, never falls for the idle cliche, but is constantly striving for precision. I'm not so sure you should turn to The Cruiskeen Lawn (Radio 4, Wednesday), which is based on a long-running humorous newspaper column by Flann O'Brien (real name Brian O'Nolan and most of the stuff here was written under the pen-name Myles na Gopaleen, but you know who we're talking about).

There were some enjoyable moments in here - a pleasingly extravagant description of the author's personal beauty, taken one sublime feature at a time - but much of it sounded weak or derivative. The only really exciting parts were extracts from O'Brien's novel At Swim-Two-Birds, which gave some idea of the baroque flights of which he was capable. Possibly the newspaper bits read better than they sound in David Batchelor's annoyingly mannered production.

O'Brien was far better served by Fi Sci (Radio 4, Tuesday) - or, to give it its full title, Fi Sci - Fiction Science not Science Fiction, a choice that reflects badly on all parties concerned. The idea is that Steve Jones, the amazing performing geneticist, analyses the scientific content of famous novels. This week, he examined Mark Twain's views on heredity, as represented by Pudd'nhead Wilson. Since the book was clearly designed largely as a contribution to the debate, this was no more than moderately interesting. But last week's, on O'Brien's The Third Policeman, was excellent, with Jones and several co-operative cosmologists and particle physicists contriving to find support in modern science for some of O'Brien's surreal inventions - light stretched into sound, men exchanging particles with their bicycles, a sausage-shaped world in which multi-directional travel is merely an illusion. This was a fitting tribute to a strange and brilliant mind, and a reminder that the only empire nobody need ever apologise for is the empire of the imagination.

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