There was I this Sunday morning, quietly seated and indulging myself reading a book, purely for pleasure, when in to the room came Sara with news straight from the radio. “Do you know” she asked “that this is the first time in history that the football world cup final will be played between two countries each of whom has given us a Pope who is still alive?” Well, what could I say? I must confess that being neither a football fan or a catholic, this gem of information had completely escaped my notice. At first I was utterly speechless. How, I wondered, had I managed to miss this priceless piece of knowledge? Was this yet another example of the ignorance in which I spend my insignificant little life?
This devastating missal from the BBC had unsettled me and I could no longer concentrate on my reading. Putting my book aside I wrestled with an image of Pope Francis, seated before his plasma screen television in the Vatican in Rome, a bottle of Quilmes beer firmly grasped in one hand and his Argentinian flag waving from the other, joining in the chants of the South American fans on the terraces of Brazil. Meanwhile across the Eternal City, Pope Benedict swigging from a stein of foaming Krombacher slaps his Lederhosen in anticipation of yet another German victory. Remember chaps, it’s only a game and I hope that at the end of the match you will shake hands and remain friends.
Of course, I have no doubt that there will be many who upon hearing this piece of papal focused wisdom from the BBC will begin their day in better humour. They will go about their business reassured, that the national broadcasting service has fulfilled its duty to inform the peoples of the nation of those significant events that impact all our lives. I am sure that many of the football fans who will, as I write this piece, be settling down to the last rites of this latest international jamboree, feeling comforted that at least one Holy Father will be rooting for their team.
There was a time when the BBC could always be relied upon to educate and inform, and all this delivered by presenters whose use of language assured an authoritative presentation of information, instilling trust whilst also being entertaining. Whether it was Alistair Cooke with his Letter from America, John Arlott with an insightful commentary on the cricket, or Clive James whose witty and often thought provoking delivery of A Point of View was for so long a highlight of the week, it was always possible to find wordsmiths of genuine quality who could inform and entertain. The dexterity of their thoughts manifest in their verbal gymnastics could hold the listener in thrall, and I can recall the disappointment of missing a programme in the days before it was possible to revisit the moment through digital technology. Of course, one can still switch on the radio and encounter presenters who adopt a thoughtful approach to language, I would include Melvyn Bragg, Joan Bakewell and Fergal Keane in this category, but increasingly I find myself cringing at the banality of expression that emits from the little box on the kitchen shelf.
It is not a matter of the subjects under discussion. These seem as diverse and interesting as ever, but at times I worry that the delivery of information has become so dependent upon cliché and hyperbole that it has lost much of its meaning.
Maybe I am simply being curmudgeonly. If so, I confess it is not the first time that this has been a fair assessment of my attitude. However, I recall a time at the beginning of the 1990s when teachers were being urged by politicians to discourage children from the lazy use of language and to think about the ways in which they could convey information with real meaning. Whilst I have always been opposed to over prescription in education, I think that maybe the intentions at this time were honourable. The English language is a beautiful medium, and whilst I am not in favour of going so far as our French colleagues with their Académie Française, which jealously protects the use of the national language, there is much to be said for encouraging children to think about the ways in which they express their ideas.
At the same time as teachers were being urged to encourage an expansion of children’s vocabulary, those who worked with the youngest pupils were undergoing a revolution in the teaching of mathematics. Amongst the innovations was the introduction of an early understanding of measurement through what has become known as non-standard measures. For example, children would be taught to measure length according to the span of their hands, or the number of footsteps between points. For children this is a logical step on the way towards measuring in metres and centimetres and using more formal instruments to gain greater accuracy.
The children who have been through this system now have a considerable advantage over the rest of us when it comes to interpreting presentations from the BBC. I am sure that this latest generation will have a far greater appreciation of the height of London buses, the size of Olympic swimming pools and the area of Wales than the rest of us. For BBC presenters who have not had the benefit of the extended vocabulary teaching experienced by recent generations of learners, these three standards of measurement appear to have become the only means through which an understanding of dimension can be conveyed.
Wind turbines being erected all over the English landscape are the height of twelve London buses, a new reservoir to be constructed to supply water for a northern city is the size of fifteen Olympic swimming pools, and a plague of locusts in a Sub-Saharan African state has devastated an area the size of Wales. The lack of precision with which these statements convey meaning, and the laziness of falling back upon them every time a description is required, can only have been constructed by the same committee that identified the newsworthiness of an association between two Popes and a football match.
Reading through this I agree, it is decidedly curmudgeonly – bah humbug!