Thursday, July 4, 2013

Michael Gove and Nevile Gwynne: BFFs

Waking up to the Today programme always carries the risk that you’ll start the day with a strong urge to hit something. But why oh why did this morning have to begin with me being subjected to Nevile Gwynne and Michael Gove’s increasingly vomit-inducing mutual appreciation society?

Gwynne (a retired accountant and old-school Latin teacher with seemingly no distinguishing qualities) scratched Gove’s back a few months ago: in a ludicrous publicity stunt for his book ‘Gwynne’s Grammar’, he and his publishers gave a ‘Bad Grammar Award’ to a group of academics who’d written to Gove criticising his educational reforms. I thought this smelt fishy at the time, and it turns out so did a lot of other people – a blog I wrote digging around the subject went unexpectedly viral and still gets more hits every week than anything I’ve written before or since. 

Now it seems Gove has returned the favour. He’s issued a memo to Department for Education civil servants about how to write well, in which he describes Gwynne’s Grammar as “a brief guide to the best writing style” - thus giving this tedious old fraud another chance to spout guff on national radio. (It’s not clear whether copies of Gwynne’s Grammar are being bought at the taxpayer’s direct expense, or if officials are expected to purchase them out of their own frozen wages.)

Gwynne duly seized the opportunity to describe Gove as “possibly the most important person in education there’s been” – what, ever? And that wasn’t even the lowest point of a truly dismal interview, in which Gwynne was asked piercing questions like “Ah, so you’re a fan of Michael Gove?” and “But lots of people don’t like Michael Gove – isn’t there a risk he might put people off buying your clearly marvellous book?” Interestingly, Gwynne responded to this latter question by saying darkly, “Well, don’t forget, Mr Gove has got against him, as have I, pretty much everybody in high places in the academic world.” Oh, you mean like those academics you conveniently ridiculed in the national press a few months back for entirely spurious reasons? Still, one thing’s for sure: nobody could accuse Nevile Gwynne of being an academic. His sole academic qualification is a BA in Modern Languages, meaning he has about as much claim to be an expert on grammar as I have to be an expert on political thought.

In fact, I think the lowest point of the interview was probably when the interviewer asked breathlessly, “So if these officials read your book, it’s not just that they’ll improve their style, they’ll improve their thinking as well?” Lest we forget, one of the things I discovered when researching that blog I mentioned is that Gwynne cannot write for toffee. His website is a rambling, incoherent mess of paragraph-long sentences and genuinely ungrammatical nonsense. From everything I’ve seen of him, his thinking is not much better. Yet the Today programme treated him with almost ludicrous reverence, acting like he is the world authority on the English language he so obviously isn’t. At the end of the interview, John Humphrys even chipped in: “Why is he not Sir Nevile Gwynne, for heaven’s sake?” Um, maybe because he’s a complete nobody with no real qualifications who you have inexplicably decided to give airtime to plug his tedious little book?

Seriously, guys. If you want me to continue running the daily risk of waking up to George Osborne, you really are going to have to do much better than this.


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  2. The book promotion continued this morning, courtesy of the World Service's World Update:

    Gwynne: "It's the absolute pinnacle, isn't it, to be recommended by the most important person in education in England today?"

    Gwynne (hoist with his own pedantry, rambling and grammatically challenged): "...we've got to get our thinking and therefore our words and our grammar exactly right and the more precisely and exact we know them, the more richer and the more useful and the more accurate, above all, our thoughts are going to be."

    Sebastian: "Quickly, your worst, worst grammar gaffe?

    "The one that irritates me most... is the modern use of 'hopefully', when people say, 'hopefully, we're going to improve our grammar', rather than, 'I looked at him hopefully..."

    Sebastian (interrupting): "We'll have to leave it there Neville but I'd like to say to all the listeners, 'Hopefully you'll be back listening to us on Monday.'"

  3. Oliver Kamm, who writes as "The Pedant" in the Times, has described Gwynne's Grammar as "...this absurd volume" and "a work of unremitting silliness".

  4. Hopefully? That one has whiskers on it! Agree with Oliver Kamm.