Words

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I was raised on words. They tumbled off the kitchen table onto the floor where I sat: grandfather, uncles, and refugees flung Russian, Polish, Yiddish, French, and what passed for English at one another in a competitive cascade of assertion and interrogation. Sententious flotsam from the Edwardian-era Socialist Party of Great Britain hung around our kitchen promoting the True Cause. I spent long, happy hours listening to Central European autodidacts arguing deep into the night: Marxismus, Zionismus, Socialismus. Talking, it seemed to me, was the point of adult existence. I have never lost that sense.

In my turn—and to find my place—I too talked. For party pieces I would remember words, perform them, translate them. “Ooh, he’ll be a lawyer,” they’d say. “He’ll charm the birds off the trees”: something I attempted fruitlessly in parks for a while before applying the admonition in its Cockney usage to no greater effect during my adolescent years. By then I had graduated from the intensity of polyglot exchanges to the cooler elegance of BBC English.

The 1950s—when I attended elementary school—were a rule-bound age in the teaching and use of the English language. We were instructed in the unacceptability of even the most minor syntactical transgression. “Good” English was at its peak. Thanks to BBC radio and cinema newsreels, there were nationally accepted norms for proper speech; the authority of class and region determined not just how you said things but the kind of things it was appropriate to say. “Accents” abounded (my own included), but were ranked according to respectability: typically a function of social standing and geographical distance from London.

I was seduced by the sheen of English prose at its evanescent apogee. This was the age of mass literacy whose decline Richard Hoggart anticipated in his elegiac essay The Uses of Literacy (1957). A literature of protest and revolt was rising through the culture. From Lucky Jim through Look Back in Anger, and on to the “kitchen sink” dramas of the end of the decade, the class-bound frontiers of suffocating respectability and “proper” speech were under attack. But the barbarians themselves, in their assaults on the heritage, resorted to the perfected cadences of received English: it never occurred to me, reading them, that in order to rebel one must dispense with good form.

By the time I reached college, words were my “thing.” As one teacher equivocally observed, I had the talents of a “silver-tongued orator”—combining (as I fondly assured myself) the inherited confidence of the milieu with the critical edge of the outsider. Oxbridge tutorials reward the verbally felicitous student: the neo-Socratic style (“why did you write this?” “what did you mean by it?”) invites the solitary recipient to explain himself at length, while implicitly disadvantaging the shy, reflective undergraduate who would prefer to retreat to the back of a seminar. My self-serving faith in articulacy was reinforced: not merely evidence of intelligence but intelligence itself.

Did it occur to me …

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Letters

Knowledge vs. Pedantry September 30, 2010