Saturday 12 January 2013

The Toksvig Elision

The mighty broadcasting armada that is BBC Radio 4 has a flagship in the Today programme, whereon every morning between six and nine a procession of expert and establishment figures are grilled, and sometimes roasted, by the show's famously combative presenters. These presenters are smarter, better briefed and more eloquent than most of the pundits and politicians they interrogate, but if you're a regular listener you must of late have noticed a very horrible and increasingly commonplace feature of these encounters, namely the way the pundits and politicians and other riff-raff have adopted a new tactic when responding to a hostile question, or any question.

It's a technique that presumably gets pummelled into them by consultants on intensive training programmes in communication skills. What they do is to initiate their reply, no matter what the subject, with a trite and facetious observation, a kind of jocular ice-breaker. Like this:

McNaughtie: Minister can you justify your thinking when it comes to this highly contentious, and if I may say so, undemocratic piece of legislation?

Minister: Well Jim I didn't get into politics to be popular! URRR but to answer your question I have to remind you of the legacy we inherited when we came to power . . . 

It's that URRR. I hate it. Hate hate hate hate hate. As if the speaker is a stand-up comedian who has taken on a tough room, won it over with a well-honed zinger and can now, with a kind of quizzical 'where was I?' expression, return to a default register of relative seriousness, having established his command of the situation and proved that no issue is so grave as not to admit an element of facetiousness, because (and you know what comes next) 'we're all in this together.'

I hate the lumpen assumption behind the ploy. I hate the kind of mind that assumes cracking some lame gag is a legitimate way of engaging with a subject (although to be sure there are still a few news events, like primary school shootings, that fail to attract such an approach). I hate the self-regarding phonetic double declutch of that URRR sound. This has become such a chronically commonplace trope in public discourse that it's infecting ordinary conversation. I do it myself, for God's sake.

Let's agree to call it the Toksvig Elision, after the ubiquitous pint-sized Radio 4 presenter who is especially prone to this very annoying trope.

Sandi Toksvig! She's never really in danger of becoming a national treasure, is she? Her  every leaden quip is followed by a throaty URRR, presumably to reassure her audience that something amusing has just taken place. It has by now, after many thousands of public outings, become an aspect of her respiratory cycle and for all I know punctuates her snores. Perhaps her days unfold like this:

Butcher: Good Morning. What can I do for you?

Toksvig: That's a bit personal! URRR I'd like some brisket.

(Later, on the train)

Ticket collector: Tickets please!

Toksvig: Do train drivers I wonder all long to be small boys? URRR Here you are.

If you can bear for more than a moment what Julie Burchill has called 'her stupid, harrumphing, daft-old-Colonel voice' (and Burchill  trouncing another media figure's idiolect is a jaw-dropping instance of pot and kettle); if you can further tolerate her frequent high-pitched sing-song 'is it just me?' register; if you can stomach her smugly pondering manner, her infectious bloody laugh and tiresome gurgling delivery; if you can stand her shiny ironic showbiz jackets - then you're probably Sandi Toksvig and we'll just have to agree to disagree. (Brightly) I didn't start this blog to be popular! URRR (serious voice) but you'll surely agree that a society is judged by its standard of public rhetoric and - if you'll just let me finish Jim . . .

In the spirit of fair play I listened to all of the Toksvig-chaired News Quiz (Radio 4, Friday 11th January, 6:30pm). She perpetrated nine of these irritating glottals in an overall tally of twenty. Voila, but enough! This, I solemnly promise, is my first, last and only grumpy outburst. Tomorrow I shall post something altogether more life-affirming. 

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