Michael McMahon listens to a voice from the past
It's English orals time again. These days it's not enough to be able to read and write to pass a GCSE in English. You have to speak and listen, too. And this has to be measured - which means records have to be kept. The national curriculum says so.
So last week I found myself in my school's English stock cupboard, looking for copies of the paperwork that has to be filled in if the children's little speeches and discussions are to have any "value". I didn't find the forms, but I did find something else.
On the top shelf behind the drably cased video cassettes of drably spoken adolescents drably addressing such chestnuts as foxhunting and capital punishment, was a boxed set of long-playing gramophone records of Shakespeare's plays. They hadn't been touched for years and had presumably been put there not because they were an oral English resource, but because they had once been thought valuable. And nestling dustily behind them were some records that were not out of place - although they were certainly out of time.
They were 78s - brittle shellac discs in dusty brown paper sleeves. One of the records was labelled "speech training and choral speaking", and promised the sound of a "class of seniors (elementary school) under the supervision of Marjorie Gullan, chairman of the Speech Institute". The second featured a "class of juniors". On the third disc, I discovered that Marjorie Gullan was "founder and conductor of the London Verse Speaking Choir (established 1925)."
I took the records home to play on our old wind-up gramophone. They did not disappoint. With exquisite and Grenfellesque e-nun-ci-a-ti-on, Miss Gullan intones "the pronunciation of diphthongs" and the juniors chant "oi, oi, oi, oi, oi." (Children these days hardly need to practise that, I thought.) Then after humming exercises, come rapid-fire tongue twisters at - well, at 78rpm.
Listening to those discs made the past sound like a foreign country. Except, of course, that the fourth 78 was not foreign at all. It was a recording of our national anthem. I was speculating on why on earth it should have been there when my wife came in. She was late, she explained, because she had been watching the local primary school's production of Bugsy Malone and it had over-run.
"What was it all about, then?" I asked.
"Couldn't tell you," she replied. "Most of it was inaudible. Why don't they teach children to speak these days?" Michael McMahon teaches at a comprehensive in East Anglia