I should of learned more at school* – Simon Heffer at Swindon Festival of Literature

14 May


Simon Heffer is a grumpy old sod. He barely raises a smile during his hour on stage at the Swindon Festival of Literature.

Even when his assumption that the teaching of English in schools is going to hell in a handcart is challenged by teachers in the packed Arts Centre, he harrumphs “good” like he expects it, rather than he is pleased that grammar is back on the syllabus.

He has a column for the Daily Mail, spouting right wing bile like this:

Let’s get the feckless to buy food – not fags and booze

Although the Government has capped its welfare spending at £119.5 billion a year, the amount of taxpayers’ money directed to those who stubbornly refuse to work is still far too high.

What’s more, a shockingly large amount of that money is squandered by many recipients, rather than being used to provide essentials for their families.

His grumpiness could, of course, be his schtick (and, at this point I’m hoping he’s as accepting of Yiddish as he is of phrases in Latin and ancient Greek).

Because despite being a contender for the title of Britain’s Greatest Curmudgeon, he manages to be very entertaining.

And while I (Chronicler Pete) can’t support his political views, I’m with him on one of his crusades: the English language, and how we use it, is important.

Heffer’s rail against abuses of the English language starts with some Italian at the Arts Centre cafe.

He recalls how he has berated staff for offering him a panini. “The singular is panino. If you are going to use a foreign word you should use it correctly. I have advised the very excellent cafe staff downstairs that they can blaze a trail here in Swindon.”

He later speaks with admiration for our continental cousins, especially the French, to whom the correct use of language is important.

“Other countries see their language as central to their culture,” he notes. And he is convinced that learning a foreign language – with its emphasis on the correct use of grammar and its etymological clues to the origins of English words – is vital.

Heffer is here tonight to promote two books – Strictly English: the Correct Way to Write… and Why it Matters, and Simply English: An A-Z of Avoidable Errors.

“I wrote these books because I felt people have had a really rough deal from the state education system. I started to worry about people getting through the education system and getting a job,” says Heffer.

The OED says that flaunt is often used instead of flout. Unless you are very stupid, there’s no need to confuse them

So far, so Daily Mail. But his annoyance is not reserved solely for the public education system, as we shall discover later. Back to the present, however, and the Oxford English Dictionary is in his sights:

“One of the things that upsets me is the interchangeability of verbs – especially of flaunt and flout.†

“The OED says that flaunt is often used instead of flout. Hang on, why are they endorsing this? Unless you are very stupid, there’s no need to confuse them.

“I don’t think the white flag of surrender should be run up that easily. It’s as if people can’t be bothered.”

Heffer recalls a recent tranche of applicants to the graduate training scheme on a national newspaper, which he was charged with overseeing.

“A boy came from a top public school and with a double first in English. At the second interview stage he sat a spelling test with 45 of the hardest words in the English language to spell. Most people get around 40; he got 18.

“I was so concerned I rang his former tutor. ‘Is it possible to get a first in English without being able to spell?’ I asked, and she said ‘We don’t bother with that anymore’.

“I think we have lowered the bar because other things are deemed more important.

“But these skills aren’t rocket science; it’s a question of making the effort. And it is patronising to say people don’t have the ability to use the precision tool of our language to its full extent.”

Festival director Matt Holland takes this opportunity to reveal that when, in the mid-1990s, a Festival of Literature for Swindon was mooted, the head of culture at the council told him ‘there is a word in the title that is too long for Swindon – literature’.

The session concludes with a lively Q&A during which we discuss the difference between tax avoidance and tax evasion, wherein Heffer claims never to have heard of Gary Barlow OBE before two days ago: a proclamation that makes me suspect more than ever that the grumpy old sod thing is a routine.

We also debate when it is right to correct someone’s use of English and when it is simply a weapon of criticism (Heffer: “Yes, there are times when it would be very rude to do so”) and we discover the author’s views on text speak:

“I do wonder if in 1840, when the first transatlantic cable was laid, someone stood up and asked ‘what do you think of this telegram speak?’.

“I couldn’t care less. I’m on my best behaviour tonight, but we adjust the way we speak according to our audience.”

And tonight’s audience has been thoroughly entertained, and perhaps even a little educated.

  • Strictly English and Simply English by Simon Heffer are out now. A list of his least-favourite cliches can be found on the Daily Mail website, and it won’t surprise you to learn that one of the biggest cliche-serving culprits in publishing is the Daily Mail website (it won’t take you long to find a reference to fans’ ‘agony’ at their team losing a football match, motorists facing a ‘raft’ of fines, or the description of a celebrity in a bikini as ‘fantastic’.

* Yes, it’s supposed to be like that.
† According to Simply English: “Flaunt and flout are frequently confused. To flaunt something means to display it ostentatiously or conspicuously; to flout something is to disregard it with contempt, the object normally being a law, rule or code. Therefore ‘he was flaunting all the rules of good conduct’ is definitely wrong”.

Words by Peter Davison. Photos by Calyx Pictures.

3 Responses to “I should of learned more at school* – Simon Heffer at Swindon Festival of Literature”

  1. amaatk123 14th May 2014 at 3:12 pm #

    Erm: ‘…. and accent Greek). ‘Accent’ Greek? Or ancient Greek? And does ‘crusades’ need to be capitalized in this context? I don’t think so but happy to be educated. Because language and how we use it is important… 😉

    • Festival Chronicler 14th May 2014 at 7:00 pm #

      Good spots. Everyone needs a good sub-editor – even Simon Heffer!

      • amaatk123 14th May 2014 at 7:02 pm #

        :-))))) Cheers!

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