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If I were a lord with a very low workload, I would try to keep a low profile, in case the world raised its head to wonder what the point of me was. But that’s not Digby Jones’s way. “Enough!” Lord Jones tweeted last Friday. “I can’t stand it any more! Alex Scott spoils a good presentational job on the BBC Olympics Team with her very noticeable inability to pronounce her ‘g’s at the end of each word.” He went on to rail about others he apparently considered too common to be on TV, and to call for all of them to have elocution lessons.
The great irony, for anyone who has forgotten who Jones is, is that he used to be one of Gordon Brown’s “government of all the talents”, yet he absolutely can’t abide any talent that doesn’t sound exactly like himself, especially female talent. So one does wonder whether, over the course of his long public life, this might have caused him to overlook a few.
I have had elocution lessons. When I was 11, my mother was losing her hearing and she thought it might help if I enunciated, only of course it didn’t, because what she wanted to hear was birdsong and other people’s conversations; whether or not I could do a proper plosive made almost no difference.
Here’s the thing, though: the elocution teacher wasn’t at all interested in enunciation. Her one purpose in life was to teach people to sound much, much posher than they were. As any fool since Henry Higgins knows, this is no mean feat: you can teach them as many stock phrases as you like, but as soon as they say words that they have chosen themselves, they will sound pretty much as they did before. Eliza Doolittle was an outlier, in this respect.
So we ploughed through speeches by Shakespeare and random poems, and there was very little danger that I would take any of this learning into my regular life, since I can count the times I’ve said “an ass’s nole I fixed on his head” conversationally on the fingers of one hand.
The teacher was fiercely anti-intellectual, which even at the time I recognised as part of the package. If you seriously think teaching people to sound posh is a proper use of a human’s time, it stands to reason you won’t have much truck with the higher purpose of the spirit.
So all the time we weren’t doing Shakespeare we were reciting dog-awful poetry she had sourced about how pointless poems are. “‘You ask for a poem / I offer you a blade of grass / You say it is not good enough … I say this blade of grass will do / It has dressed itself in frost …’ There – that’s much better than stupid poetry.” It was verse so bad you can’t even find a lot of it on the internet. There remains a high chance that, if I talk about grass for any length of time, I will sound quite posh.
At the same time, my sister was on an assertiveness training course. I think the motive was the same: our mum thought if she were more assertive it might make her talk louder and thus she would be able to hear her. That teacher was Swedish. She would go through a series of role plays, which climaxed in the final lesson in an imaginary shoe shop with her students saying: “These shoes are broken and I want my money back.” The weird thing is that, to this day, whenever my sister talks about shoes or is about to be assertive, she does it in a Swedish accent – subtle, but pronounced enough that you can tell what’s coming.
The moral: elocution lessons are not only a corrupt concept, but they are also ineffective. Assertiveness training, on the other hand, is quite lasting, but it doesn’t make you any louder.
• This article was amended on 2 August 2021 to correct the spelling of “nole”