Miriam Gross

Diary - 26 June 2010

Miriam Gross opens her diary

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‘New is not generally a word to use in politics. It is exhausted before it even begins: it generally means that the user of it has no ideas of any depth, and runs out of steam early on.’ I came across this observation in Norman Stone’s wonderfully unorthodox ‘personal history of the cold war’, The Atlantic and its Enemies, published last month. Not that it is in itself a very ‘new’ insight — more a case of ‘What oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed’ (Alexander Pope). I have certainly oft thought — and so I’m sure has nearly everyone else — that our new politicians’ relentless use of the ‘new’ word at every opportunity is one of the more worrying things about them.

I love visiting the Saatchi Gallery in Chelsea. Its well-proportioned rooms alone are a pleasure to walk around in, and the ultra-modern art which Charles Saatchi chooses to display in them is always exciting: exciting because of the heady mix of genuinely innovative works and enjoyably awful ones. This is certainly true of his new show, Newspeak: British Art Now, which a friend and I saw the other day. Many of its exhibits are highly original and accomplished, and quite a number of them are duds — or so we thought. Among the latter, lying on the floor in one of the main downstairs rooms, is a very large pale pink object which looks like a carpet made of disintegrating candy floss. It is in fact composed of, among other things, cellophane, polythene bags, lip gloss, bath cream and hair conditioner. The Sunday Times art critic, Waldemar Januszczak, has compared this work to Monet’s ‘Water Lilies’. I see what he means, but ‘Expressions are hurting, move outside’, as it is called, nevertheless seems to me to be a very silly object. But who is right? Am I out of touch with the sensibilities of the age? Would I have scoffed at the Impressionists when they first appeared? Or is Waldemar the deluded one? We will never know. Carl André’s famous ‘Bricks’, now housed at Tate Modern, do not, after all these years, seem to me to have become less vacuous. Unfortunately the modern art establishment has us scoffers over a barrel: the fact that many people in the past have been wrong about art means that we in the present seem to have no redress when we are accused of being philistines.

There is only one reliably efficient service provider in England, in my experience. British Telecom, British Gas, banks, department stores, etc, etc — all manage to frustrate nearly every attempt to get help or information. But the one organisation which never places you in a queue, or thanks you endlessly for holding, or insists that your call is important to them, or asks you to ring later, is Westminster Parking. Whether you’re phoning to pay a penalty notice or to arrange for pay-by-phone parking, or to change your credit card details, they always answer immediately and dispatch the business without the slightest hitch or delay. So it can be done — if the incentive is strong enough. In this case it’s milking the motoring classes. I was reminded of this the other day when I had to pay a fine (£60) incurred for parking on a single yellow line outside my own house for about four minutes in order to carry in some heavy bags. I had to park there because most of the residents’ parking bays (£120 a year) in my street were suspended, for no apparent reason. But that’s another story...

What’s the best, fastest and easiest way of learning to read? For the past few weeks I have been doing research into the problem of literacy — or rather illiteracy — in the state school system and what I hadn’t quite realised before I started was how much acrimony surrounds the subject. The ‘reading wars’ between, on one side, those who believe in ‘synthetic phonics’ — learning to read solely by blending (‘synthesising’) letters and sounds — and, on the other, the advocates of the ‘whole word’ method — learning to recognise words by their shapes and sizes and by guessing at them from the context in which they appear — have been raging for decades and are still dragging on. Until recently, the ‘whole word’ faction was in the ascendant. Meanwhile, most of the evidence from studies both here and abroad has come down on the side of phonics. My limited researches too (not to mention common sense) indicate that unless schools opt resolutely for synthetic phonics, literacy standards will never rise. This is also the view of our new government. What a shame, though, that the good guys are stuck with such an unappealing bit of jargon. The word ‘synthetic’ and the word ‘phonics’ are both thoroughly off-putting. They make what is in fact the simple and straightforward way of learning to read sound horribly complex — and fake as well. If it had been called something like ‘Letters and Sounds’, the reading wars would probably have been won long ago.

My friend Petronella Wyatt, formerly an assistant editor of this magazine, and I often make a date to have an early evening drink. Equally often, it is cancelled — usually at the last moment by text message. But Petronella has much the best line in dramatic excuses. Here’s her latest: ‘Dog vomiting. Have to rush with her to vet. So, so sorry.’ (As it happens, this was the truth.)