Saturday, 6 December 2008

Travelling into the wild lands

What a drive I had yesterday, from Stafford to Edinburgh. Even though Stafford is a long way northwards up England already, close to half way on the long decline between civilisation and Scotland, it still takes forever. To think that Englishmen in the distant past travelled so far, and into such ghastly weather, to bring civilisation to the painted people north of Hadrian’s Wall. It fills me with nothing less than a sense of awe.

I imagine the Scots think it was pretty awful too.

The one good thing about long car drives in Britain is listening to the BBC. Radio 4 really does talk radio extraordinarily well. And I say that even though the BBC broadcasts in a form of English described by my good friend Mark Reyolds as ‘some near-incomprehensible island dialect with only a distant relationship to English’.

That hurt, Mark. It was cruel to suggest that my language was incomprehensible to you. You haven’t appreciated the trouble we take to use only short and simple words when talking to North Americans. Of course one realises that it’s not right to strain transatlantic intellects, so we try to avoid difficult terms, like ‘supernumerary’ or ‘cerebral’. That makes it really galling (look it up) to have one’s efforts slapped down in this way.

Listening to the radio, I was particularly struck by the latest phase of the OJ Simpson saga. He’s just been sentenced to fifteen years in gaol and his lawyer claimed that he hadn’t been given a fair trial. Thoughts of pots and kettles went rattling round my mind. Was he under the impression that his first trial had been fair?

The other story that got me was the falling interest rates in Britain. If things go on this way, rates could end up negative and my bank would have to pay me for my overdraft. I can imagine the letters. ‘Dear Sir, we write to bring it to your attention that you have an unauthorised overdraft on your account. While this situation persists, we shall be paying you a charge of £25.00 for every transaction. You should note that if you allow the situation to continue, the effect of these charges will be to return your account to credit at which point we’ll start charging you again, and then who’ll be looking bloody silly?’

Despite the beautiful diction and limpid clarity of the language on the BBC, there came a time when I decided it was time for some music instead. Of course, I like to cultivate an image of myself as sophisticated and intellectual, which means having to listen to BBC Radio 3, the upmarket classical music station. But I have to confess that it plays music I just can’t recognise, often that I can’t even recognise as music. So instead I tuned in to Classic FM, which does the easy listening stuff. That means I can recognise most of it, but often at the level of thinking ‘I know that piece – now where did I hear it?’ The trick is to wait to the end and listen to the announcer, but I find that if you get only a single phone call in a five hour car journey, it’s sure to be just when you want to hear something on the radio.

Last night they were broadcasting Mozart. Even I can generally recognise the five or six pieces that easy-listening broadcasters trot out when they’re doing Mozart. When I first tuned in, I was greeted by the sound of a horn playing one of the catchiest and most distinctive themes from the whole of Mozart – I can never remember which horn concerto is which but it was obviously one of them. So I was surprised when the announcer told us we’d just been listening to the Jupiter symphony. ‘Funny,’ I thought, ‘I didn’t realise that it had a horn solo.’

Half an hour later, we had the announcer back on, barely able to contain his enthusiasm over the pleasure we had in store for us. ‘The most whistled tune’ around the corridors of Classic FM, ‘the catchiest tune’ in Mozart. Yes, you guessed it. He announced the fourth Horn Concerto and we got the Jupiter symphony.

You learn so much more from Radio 3, but boy it leaves you feeling uncultivated and inadequate, like an Englishman talking to a Canadian. But on a long night drive what you need is Classic FM, for the opposite sensation: the warm pink glow of complacent superiority you can only get from spotting someone else’s error.


Mark Reynolds said...

Hey! Me no like!

In all seriousness, I do applaud your efforts to rise above your linguistic environment. It must be difficult to overcome the latitudinarian influences of a land where extended buses are called "bendy." In the civilised world our buses, as with our language, are "articulated."

David Beeson said...

Initially I could get no further than the reference to Latitudinarianism, which threw me totally. Are we elevating linguistic differences into theological ones? Could turn nasty.

Having read the rest of your comment, I'm now intrigued by the idea that what drives us round the bend in London is viewed as articulate in Canada. Tell me more - I'm fascinated.

David Beeson said...

It suddenly occurs to me - differences between the English and the Canadians might be more longitudinarian than latitudinarian.

San Cassimally said...

Time to get a comment by someone other than yourself...

Mark Reynolds said...

Of course it's theological: where I'm from, dropping the "u" from harbour is an act akin to apostasy. Rhyming the last letter of the alphabet with Bee will earn you three months in a re-education camp.
On the other hand, we're much more tolerant of those poor sould who spell "realise" with an s - one must be charitable, after all.

David Beeson said...

Theological controversies used to be resolved at the stake. In a gesture towards the supposedly greater civilisation of our time, I suggest we sort ours over a steak when I'm in your part of the world in a couple of weeks.