The other day my husband and I went to Winter’s Bone, the much praised (overpraised, we thought) film set in Missouri. Both of us have normal hearing but neither of us caught more than about half of the dialogue. Naturally, we didn’t fully grasp what was going on. It was a familiar experience. In many films now, as well as in much television drama, the sound is muffled and the actors seem to mumble and slur their words. No doubt this is in the interest of authenticity. But what about comprehensibility? Plots today, particularly of thrillers, are hard enough to follow; not being able to hear properly makes it almost impossible. This has been going on for ages. When I edited a short book programme on television in the 1980s, the producers cared passionately about visual precision; they insisted, for example, that no contributor wore a stripy tie because this might cause ‘lens flaring’. But they seemed wholly indifferent to verbal clarity, even though the main point of the programme was to listen to the ‘talking heads’.
The word ‘Dear’ is still sometimes used as a form of address in emails, though ‘Hi’ seems to have become the norm. What was once a ‘Dear John’ letter (breaking off a relationship) would presumably now be a ‘Hi John’ email. Meanwhile ‘yours sincerely’ and ‘yours faithfully’ have become obsolete. But what exercises me is the question of kisses. Even distant acquaintances seem to place xs after their name. But how many? Is one x more chic than two? Is three uncool?
There are some works of literature — fiction and non-fiction — which depict the extremes of human experience with so much insight and honesty that one feels one should wait for a while before reading another book. It would seem disrespectful not to. Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Tolstoy’s Resurrection, and Shakespeare’s King Lear are well-known examples. In the 20th century, Hope Against Hope by Nadezhda Mandelstam and Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man unforgettably describe the suffering caused by Stalinism and Nazism. There are, of course, many other harrowing and well-written accounts, especially of the horrors of Nazism — so much so that I thought I would never want to read another. That’s why I didn’t read Journal by Hélène Berr when it first came out two years ago. But I have now read it. It is the diary of a young French woman, a student of English literature, who remained in Paris during the occupation and who was one of the last group to be rounded up and deported to Auschwitz, where she died. Her reflections about the limitless human potential both for good and evil are profoundly intelligent and clear-headed. She talks a lot about the redemptive powers of literature, of which her book is an outstanding example. If only it could be taught in schools all over the world, future holocausts might be avoided.
Whole-class teaching, where children sit in rows all facing the teacher, is regarded by educationalists not only as old-fashioned but also as seriously damaging. I have visited numerous state schools in the past few months without coming across a single instance of desks in rows — they were all bunched in groups at the edges of the classroom. In the private sector, however, many teachers believe that this traditional method is the most effective way of running a class. A few even practise it. But — as one teacher from a very successful school told me — they have to resort to subterfuge. Before the Ofsted inspector calls, all the desks are rearranged into clusters. Then, during the inspection, the teacher goes through the motions of teaching in the approved way, attending to one group of pupils at a time; the pupils play along out of loyalty to the teacher. As soon as the inspector departs, the desks go back into rows.
I have recently bought a delightful pair of budgerigars. They chirp away so merrily throughout breakfast that they more or less drown out the Today programme. We have called them Polyester and Acrylic (Polly and Crylly). Why? Because they were a present for my husband to celebrate the publication of his book about the man-made fibre industry — a much more absorbing subject than you might think. The history of industries is as dramatic as the history of political parties or social movements, particularly when the industry produces the stuff — from anoraks to ties to underwear (‘intimate apparel’, as it is called in the textile trade) — that most of us wear every day. We could equally have called the birds Nylon and Rayon or Tricel and Tencel.