Belfast Telegraph

Why A Level English requires a Brand new approach

By Jane Graham

Studying Russell Brand and Dizzee Rascal for A-Level English? The country's gone to the dogs, what! That was the popular response from radio callers and texters, online commenters and various media outlets at the news that interviews with Russell Brand and Dizzee Rascal might become set texts in the new English language A-Level.

(The fact that they would form a small proportion of a module also attending to the works of George Orwell, Samuel Pepys and Jonathan Swift was generally overlooked.)

Chris McGovern of the Campaign for Real Education said the idea proved that British schools were lowering their standards and fretted that respected academics had welcomed the idea, which he felt just proved how stupid university types were these days.

The debate McGovern had with Paul Dodd, spokesperson for the prestigious Oxford Cambridge RSA exam board, was deeply depressing. It was one of the least engaging and most etymologically dull conversations I've heard on a public forum in a long time.

Paul Dodd (MA, Cambridge), used the phrase "moving forward" five times in a single sentence and described the proposed new texts as "challenging" four times in another one.

In an eviscerating retort, Chris McGovern stingingly declared Brand and Rascal "unchallenging" and concluded, with striking originality, that the nation was "dumbing down".

While it might have been fanciful to hope for Christopher Hitchens vs PJ O'Rourke, it was dispiriting to see such high-profile cheerleaders for the English language display vocabularies with less depth than Jordan's eyes and an adversarial flair with all the chutzpah of Edwin Poots.

Ironically, both of these bland speakers would have done well to study the casual chatter of Russell Brand, whose combination of Essex barrow boy and Edwardian dandy-speak, though contrived, is compelling, entertaining and often edifying.

And unlike, say, Willie Drennan, whose use of Ulster Scots is stuttered and hesitant, Brand's flow is fast and effortless, and regularly highlighted with poetic phrases and clever, funny jokes.

He has a gift for speech few of us share. But it's the envy of anyone who understands the overwhelming power of charisma, wholly dependent on having a spark for unexpected language and a commanding vocal delivery. Whether we're trying to get a job, be noticed at a party, or literally charm the pants off someone.

Brand isn't the only 'celebrity' (a word often employed to render the subject shallow and opportunistic) I'd recommend the lexically challenged Dodd and McGovern investigate.

Simon Callow, Boris Johnson, Will Self, Billy Connolly, Emma Thompson, Jonathan Meades, Miriam Margolyes, George Galloway – all have a cast-iron grip of the language and use it so alluringly that we often find ourselves agreeing with them, sometimes half falling in love with them (not you, George) regardless of what they're saying.

The A-Level hoo-ha comes at an interesting time. We're at the peak of a cultural panic over our addiction to social media, smartphones and tablets and its threat to kill the art of conversation and replace it with text. There are currently 3.2 billion social network accounts on the planet. More than 80% of British 12 to 17-year-olds have smartphones, and most reach for them whenever there's a pause at the dinner table.

Face-to-face communication is under oppression. Those who make it attractive – of whom Brand and rapping wordsmiths like Dizzee Rascal (though I prefer the knowing and witty Tinie Tempah myself) are undoubtedly two – should be celebrated and yes, embraced by schools struggling to make the case for oratory in the face of larynx-lazy technology. As for the Campaign for Real Education – you can shut your mouth.


Don’t give these thugs a good name

In Reservoir Dogs, Steve Buscemi's aspiring gangster whines like a chippy teenager when the heist gang's monikers are handed out and he is given the handle ‘Mr Pink’.

“It’s ok for you, you have a cool-sounding name,” he snaps at Mr White, inadvertently displaying the very traits which have seen him overlooked for a Mr Blue or Mr Blonde.

I always think of this when our infantile media hand out another cool-sounding name to a cold-blooded killer or, in the case of our latest tabloid star, a brutal armed raider like the Skull Cracker. Can't think why.


A wee problem with this pool

It must have seemed like a good idea at the time. Wolverhampton Wanderers came top of League One last Saturday.

What else would the Central Baths staff do to celebrate the team's triumphant promotion to the championship but dye the pool the colour of the Wolves strip?

Yup, you're ahead of me. Even if you didn't already know that Wolves play in orange. A few brave souls dived in anyway, but lots of Sunday swimmers couldn't face it. Of all the adjectives one wants their local swimming pool to fit, ‘toilety’ just isn't one of them.



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