Meaningless moos and slightly used wives

July 19, 1996

If a child is left out for more than 20 hours a day it would have a devastating effect on the child's development. Peter Barnes's Open University students are always a fruitful source of unusual insight, and the thought occurs that one of this year's crop might have come up with a possible early-life predictor of a propensity to produce examination howlers.

It might also explain the student whose reference from Oxford to Judie Newman at Newcastle's department of English literary and linguistic studies concluded somewhat Freudianly: And therefore I recommend him most undeservedly.

Howlers, like humour, tend to reflect their era. Little surprise that those who have grown up in celebrity-conscious times should shed new light on the lives of the famous. Another of Dr Barnes's charges noted that: Rousseau believed children were born as little savages. Only Rousseau?

No doubt the Newcastle student who told Dr Newman Big Mama has had the pleasure principle for 35 years was thinking "I should be so lucky"; while another noted W. B. Yeats's attitude to the people: They seemed dull to him until they surprised him with an uprising.

Meanwhile Ian Beckett's Luton historian may have found a successor to the classic William Tell overture intellectual-spotting test. Which comes to mind, King Lear or The Sweeney, when you read that Regan was implementing Thatcherite economic problems in America?

And the post-Aids generation seem slightly less proficient in the unfailingly popular dirty double entendre, although there was nothing particularly "double" about the primary school game observed by a University College, Scarborough student examined by Richard Rastall of Leeds: First game: Clap the Rhythmn. Second game: Pass the Clap.

Winifred Davies found one of her Aberystwyth students more preoccupied with the economics and etiquette of the sex trade. 'Madam' is the term used for the manager of a brothel, however one would not call a pimp 'sir'. Perhaps it all depends on what another of Dr Rastall's music students termed the clarity of denunciation - a fine example of the "superfluous consonant" howler also noted by Dr Davies in a citation of wreckless driving.

The realities of student life continue to impinge. Imagine the overcrowded conditions which led a Roehampton Institute student to suggest to examiner David Cappitt that it would be appropriate to put a boarder at the top of the wall.

Some of the most dreaded initials in education made their debut in an Anglia Polytechnic University paper examined by John Last of Croydon College: NVQs Level 1 and 2 in horse care. The emphasis on this programme is that students develop in their own time and in their own field. One possibility doubtless open to participants in such activities is that of spotting a damson in distress (Thank you again, Dr Davies).

There was a reflective quality to this year's leading contenders. The students taught at University College, Dublin by Dr Elizabeth Baldwin - who was last year's winner, not to mention second, third and fourth - have clearly developed a magnificently unorthodox view of life.

The temptation to ask what hallucinogenic they are on is outweighed only by the occasional desire to share in it. It would be hard to come up with a better definition of making the best of things than the student who identified one Chaucer character as recognising that: A slightly used wife is better than no wife at all.

That took fifth place, while third was shared by two highly original readings of history. A Newcastle student informed Dr Newman that: The slave trade was one of those institutions that seems like a marvellous idea at the time; while James Curran of Goldsmiths College had to admit that even with his vast knowledge of our national media he could never have come up with one student's insight that: The British film industry was less popular than Hollywood because British directors' eyesight was less good.

But the voting, as so often, produced two front-runners with clearly defined supporters - only one of the 30 judges chose both. Runner-up was a dietary interpretation of the New Testament's 40 days in the wilderness: Christ's temptation in the dessert.

And the winner appeared to shed entirely new light on the behavioural implications of BSE:Their language has no deeper meaning . . . cows just moo for the sake of it. Whichever came out on top, the destination of this year's bottle of Chateau Antithesis was always going to be the same - congratulations for the second year running to Dr Baldwin and her amazing UCD revisionists.

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