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January 30, 2014

Anna Speaks English

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I must have railed about this one before: the abandonment of perfectly serviceable adverbs for that clunky construction “on a… basis”. It’s all over the place and we can only sit it out and wait until it goes the way of ‘wise’ in the 70’s, linguisticswise. Why and where is ‘on a daily basis’ more exact or elegant than ‘daily’? Likewise (see what I did there?) ‘on a regular basis’ = regularly; ‘on a worldwide basis’ = worldwide; ‘on a one-to-one basis’ = personally/ individually/ confidentially…
Of course it doesn’t stop there. Here at home, Jo knows the signs as we glaze in front of the TV. She knows what will push the button of my Grammar Pinger, an internal alert registering lazy cliché, media memes and would-be clarsy circumlocution.
And please… if you have to tell me you’re like Marmite, OK, I get it; if you insist on reciting that advertising slogan in its entirety, believe me I’m on my way to deciding before you reach the end of the sentence.
We agree: it’s just me. It’s an acquired allergy. My thoughtful soul-mate presented me this Xmas with a slogan-mug (tread warily here too, and include huh-humorous T-shirts and well-meaning motivational posters, which arouse dark motives I have to suppress) with the due warning “I’m silently correcting your grammar”.
I’m not doctrinaire about this; there are enough Celtic genes in my DNA to side with Brendan Behan when he said something about The English hoarding their language like the Crown Jewels while The Irish spend it like sailors on shore-leave. Play with language for fun, just don’t roll it flat and slap it down like Snap-cards.
It was in one of these spasms that made me unexpectedly nostalgic for a radio voice I haven’t heard for ages, Anna Raeburn. When the Talk Radio station launched in the 90’s as a kind of phone-in Radio 4 lite the regulars included the reactionary walrus Caesar The Geezer (the name tells all you need to know about that phone-in), Tommy Boyd, a controversialist of another order, whose agile defence of wilfully absurd propositions slyly introduced my school-age sons to the practice of Socratic Dialogue. I’m sure TB would be the first to express surprise at this educational side-effect.
And there was Anna Raeburn, taking calls from listeners who had, or thought they had, emotional problems. OK, in shorthand she was an Agony Aunt. You will know at once what I mean, so now firmly set aside that title. There was another of these programmes hosted by an American matron who made a point of inviting listeners to ‘pull up a seat at her kitchen table and talk it over.’ The advice ranged from ‘There, there’ to ‘I’m sure it’s not as bad as you think it is’ and ‘You’ll get over it.’
Ms. Raeburn was more astringent, quite prepared to ask the awkwardly relevant questions that friends and family would normally edge around, in a tone and pace that brooked no evasion; you could hear callers startling themselves at the answers that popped out under pressure and you waited for Raeburn’s ‘Aha!’ moment when she got the crucial information or point of view that would crack the problem open.
The analytical process was interesting and never exploitative; the situations presented sometimes made uncomfortable listening but listening to them didn’t feel voyeuristic. The callers weren’t freaks and the conversation was about the appropriate ways you could view or work with the problem. AR’s capacity for speaking in fluent paragraphs of lucid English was a marvel. I like
English used well and I listened to her with much the same pleasure that I get listening to Nina Simone’s piano breaks: no ‘dig me’ virtuosity or Liberace frills, just perfect-pitch on-the-money Cool.
So where’s Anna now? Too cerebral, I suspect, for current broadcast media. The daily Kyle car-crash sponsored by an on-line bingo franchise is the idiot bastard son of Jerry Springer. It’s for an audience that found Trisha a bit hard to follow.
Maybe she’s the victim of the slow death of privacy. If the specimens (‘guests’) on the Kyle show are happy to be whacked about the head with DNA tests and lie-detector results about mystery pregnancies from a possible choice of inseminators, all apparently slanging it out on Facebook before their TV debut, (Kids, the beginning of a pregnancy is a well-known process unchanged for, oh, hundreds of years at least) then you have a whole cluster of topics that in previous decades might as a last resort have led to a discreet letter to a magazine or the anonymous call to a radio station.
My abiding memory of the Raeburn phone-in was from a woman daunted by the prospect of attending the wedding of one her partner’s well-to-do family, where she felt she would be seen as ‘common’ and, touchingly, might let her partner down. Raeburn reminded the caller that her partner had already made that decision, so put that concern aside, and – this was the bit I loved, somewhat lost in translation because the perfectly sensible Mary Poppins tone of the original made it irresistable – advised: “On the day, wear something simple and classic – navy blue with touches of cream about the collar and cuffs – hold your head up, and take the battle to the enemy camp.”
Though the dress-code would present a challenge to me and the fellow guests, the audio-clip in my memory has usefully replayed for me over the years, and I’m sure someone will helpfully find the original of the half-remembered quote that’s paperclipped to it about etiquette being a turnstile to exclude the untutored, while good manners is simply the exercise of applied humanity.
As I typed this I’ve been listening to Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert again – more nostalgia for the period I’ve been thinking of. It seems somehow apt, but that too is probably just me.

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