Category: venting Page 1 of 5

REVIEW: Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen (Contains spoilers for a 207-year-old book)

This year, I’m making a concerted effort to read more books by women, and so recently I decided to read some Jane Austen. I read Emma years ago at school, but that was a different kind of reading (and I guess that with it being decades ago, you could say that I was a different kind of reader). Austen’s often cited as a great writer, and arguably her most famous work is Pride and Prejudice, so that was the one I picked.

My emotions, once I’d finished it, were kind of mixed – to follow Austen’s approach to titling, I’d sum them up as being Amusement and Anger.

Let me explain…

The opening line of P&P (as the groovy cats all call it, so I’ll call it from here on) is famous, and oft-quoted – so much so that I commented on this in a tweet from 2015:

That’s right, I’m quoting myself to back up my point. Bold, I know.

But… well, okay, let’s just quote the line for those of you who may not be familiar with it:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

Pretty bold assertion, really, presented as something which is both true and held to be true (reminds me of that bit in the US Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident…”), and I’ll be honest with you, it’s never really rang true for me – I understand that Austen’s setting out her whole premise for the book, really, but when ever I’ve seen this line quoted it seems to be saying ‘this is the basis of the story, and everything spins from here, so accept it as true’, and that’s never really sat well with me – not just because the social aspect lurking in it is very old-fashioned to modern eyes, but also because there must have been people even in Austen’s days who didn’t feel that way (must have been some men with a fortune who didn’t want a wife, for whatever reason, surely?).

As I say, I’ve only ever seen this line quoted with no knowing wink or suggestion that it’s a joke, and … well, to my mind, it is a joke (or at least the setup of one), because the next line totally undermines it – here it is:

“However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters”

so Austen says that ‘everyone knows that a single man with money wants a wife’ and then follows up by saying ‘I mean, if one moves into your town, unmarried daughters basically think he’s their property’. Feels like a joke to me, and – olde worlde language and ideas aside – not a bad one (probably not least because I’d always seen the first line presented as a self-contained statement of fact, not the feed line of a sarcastic joke).

So, that was page one, and I started to wonder if the people who’ve adapted Austen’s books over the years, and who talk about her work, seem to be misrepresenting; the seeds of my amusement and anger, before I was even a page into the book. Hmm.

Because as I read on, amusement was a consistent feature of my experience of P&P, as it is genuinely funny (though as I mentioned above, some of the jokes are kind of buried in the formal language, or poking fun at social conventions which are now very outdated, though in its way that shows how progressive Austen’s thinking was), with the dialogue in particular containing a lot of sharp retorts and … well, the ancestors of the sort of snappy patter that so many onscreen will-they-won’t-they couples have traded ever since.

This TV show lived – and died – by that dynamic

As I say, quite a bit of the humour has a sarcastic edge to it – for instance, there’s a sequence (I read the feedbooks ePub version – this was p54 if you want to read along) where Miss Bingley tries to flirt with Darcy (don’t forget it’s universally acknowledged that he has money and a pulse and therefore is up for grabs) by sitting next to him while he reads, and pretending to read the book that follows from the one he’s reading – though of course she has no idea of what it’s about, not having read the first one, and then she says “There is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of anything than of a book!”

Oddly enough, I often see this quote on tote bags and the like, attributing it to Austen herself, which feels a bit off as the character who says it hasn’t even been reading properly, and the line’s designed to show she’s insincere – odd that it’s often quoted straight when it seems to be sarcastic in intent.

One thing which I really enjoyed was that Austen seems to be very aware that people kind of ‘enjoy their emotions’ – I don’t just mean the tendency which a lot of people show nowadays to be ready to be offended (often on other people’s behalf, which feels a bit hmm), but Austen’s very astute about the fact that people get a bit of a thrill about holding strong opinions on things – obviously there are people on TV and in the newspapers who’ve made a career out of being professionally controversial (my thoughts on that career path, in summary: I question their sincerity), but I’m also reminded of a lot of people online who seem to enjoy being firm about their opinions, at being appalled or impressed by something, and jumping quickly into whichever team that makes them part of, all of which may not leave much room for nuance or uncertainty, which is often much-needed.

Austen seems to have a terrific handle on this, both the phenomenon and the delight people take in being part of it, as she wrote that Elizabeth Bennet wallows in her feelings by taking “a solitary walk, in which she might indulge in all the delight of unpleasant recollections” (ch 14) and later that she “meant to be so uncommonly clever in taking so decided a dislike to him, without any reason” (p215) – that latter remark feels very much like today’s online snarking and trolling, to my mind.

Colin, the energy vampire from What We Do In The Shadows wants to tell you why you know nothing

I mentioned a couple of lines ago about people enjoying being on a team where they’re all holding one opinion, and Austen seems aware of how team spirit can turn into mob mentality, noting that a group of people “indulged their mirth for some time at the expense of their dear friend’s vulgar relations” (ch 8) and that other people could be swayed by this pack mentality when it comes to holding opinions as “their indifference… restored Elizabeth to the enjoyment of all her former dislike” (same chapter). I think Austen’s on to something quite important here – not only the way people behave, and the opinions they hold, but the way it makes them feel when they do so; delighted to have someone to look down on, or just pleased to be able to hold a strong opinion.

Of course, the problem with aligning yourself to a position this way is that if you turn out to be basing it on an incomplete picture, or there’s some dramatic change of events, you need to change your position, but without in any way looking like your judgment might be as flawed as it actually is, and Austen nails this fickleness of opinion, and our ability to rewrite it on p275 when it turns out that one character was a bad ‘un, and we’re told that “Everybody decided that he was the wickedest young man in the world; and everybody began to find that they had always distrusted the appearance of his goodness”. I’m sure we can all think of a number of instances where people have suddenly claimed never to have liked someone or something because there’s new evidence against, even if they seemed a fan previously…

Generic image: impose your own idea of someone whose work you liked but who put you in an awkward position psychologically by turning out to be profoundly unpleasant

The social stuff underlying much of the story looks pretty old-fashioned now, and the plot arc seems to tend inescapably towards characters getting married, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the men are all moustache-twirling predators (though some are close – I’ll get to that in a few lines’ time) and the women utterly subservient and happy to marry someone as long as he’s got a good fortune and a backbone.

The main character, Elizabeth Bennet, is solidly defined, with her own opinions, though this does bring her into conflict with some, as (in ch18) Mr Collins cheerfully says “… I consider myself more fitted by education and habitual study to decide on what is right than a young lady like yourself.”

This would be his Twitter avatar

Whoa. I mean, he’s modern in that he comes over like a man replying to a woman online – and actually, in the story, he proposes marriage to her the next morning, so in a way he’s like some kind of proto-Pick Up Artist, ‘negging’ Elizabeth in the hopes that that her self-esteem will take such a bash she’ll do anything to get him to like her (spoiler: it doesn’t work, she marries Darcy).

Speaking of Darcy, the romance element of the book was almost surprising to me, as I’d been under the impression that the whole thing was like Much Ado About Nothing or When Harry Met Sally or the like, in that I expected Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy to say they didn’t like each other until the final chapter or so, when misunderstanding would be untangled, and they’d declare their love for each other at an annual ball or something like that.

But Austen uses the narrative trick of a generally quite all-knowing narrator, and so we get insights into the characters which kind of short-cut that sort of thing, as in ch10 when she states matter-of-factly “Darcy had never been so bewitched by any woman as he was by [Elizabeth]”. According to my e-version of the book, this is about 13% of the way in, and when it comes to Elizabeth actually being made aware of this, even that isn’t at the end – what would probably be expected to be the big reveal at the end comes about midway through it… reminding me of the terrific revelation in Gone Girl (both the book and the film).

Spoiler: the girl is gone

As an aside, I found it interesting how little of the time Darcy’s actually present on the page – he’s like Holmes in The Hound of The Baskervilles or a plot catalyst like the imprisoned Hannibal Lecter, with other characters reacting to him and speculating about him. Perhaps this is a version of the ‘blank page’ thing, where the other characters and the readers alike, in the absence of concrete details, project their own ideas and expectations onto him?

On a related note to the above, one thing which stood out to me was a general absence of physical details or descriptions of the characters, though Austen often them as being handsome or agreeable-looking without being specific; in a way, this makes their appearances almost future-proof as if she knew that what was attractive in 1813 when P&P was published might well change; a healthy tan from the sun isn’t likely to have been an expected feature at that time, I’d imagine, but now that might be cited as appealing. Similarly, Austen sometimes cites character traits without actually showing them in action, which feels like a classic case of telling, not showing, but generally it works.

Just to break up the format a bit here (and mindful of the long sentences I appear to be unable to avoid using), some bullet-points with stray thoughts about the book:

  • There’s a character called Jane, who we’re frequently told is attractive, and this made me laugh – yes, I know she wasn’t named on the cover of the book at the time of publication, but this is kind of funny and would probably be rare now… though when I think about it, Clive Cussler put himself into loads of his Dirk Pitt novels, and it seems pretty obvious that James Bond was living a life Ian Fleming seemed to want. So perhaps Austen was one of the first women to do this kind of self-fictionalisation?

  • Quite often, I lost the thread of who was being talked about – there are four ‘Miss Bennets’ in the book, and it’s not always clear who’d being discussed, and sometimes pronouns like ‘she’ are used in sections with multiple female characters, so you can end up having to re-read bits to make sure of your understanding. The sort of thing that might be caught by a line edit nowadays, I guess.  

  • There’s a very Wildean epigram (pre-dating Wilde’s birth by four decades, so I’m not suggesting plagiarism) on p319: “We all love to instruct, though we can teach only what is not worth knowing”

  • There’s a key turn of events just after midway in the story when Darcy writes Elizabeth Bennet a letter, revealing to her (and the reader) a whole load of stuff which has happened off-page, but which Elizabeth has reached inaccurate conclusions about. In terms of sheer text on the page, the long letter from Darcy is a huge infodump, but then again it’s realistic for a means of communication at the time … there’s a follow-on sequence of Elizabeth working through her emotions and thoughts as a result of the fuller picture she now holds, which in all honesty I found kind of dense and often tangled, and I was wishing by the end of it that this section had been woven in to the narrative of Darcy’s letter (alternating his comments and her reactions), though then again it did shine a light on what we’d now probably now call ‘cognitive dissonance’ on her part (that is, she thought Darcy was more mean-spirited than he actually was).

  • I alluded to the omniscient narrator approach above, and there’s a slightly odd case of this when the reader only sees how ‘vulgar’ Elizabeth’s sisters are in their demeanour after Darcy’s letter comments on this, and Elizabeth re-views events through that lens now (esp in Pt2, Ch16), but this feels like a bit of a need for the reader to also go back and re-frame their perception of those events, as we haven’t actually had this depicted as sharply in the narrative before. I guess it’s not exactly an unreliable narrator here (I refer you to Gone Girl, cited earlier), but we could charitably refer to this as withholding, or what m’colleague has referred to before as a ‘veiled plot’, but then again one might argue it makes it necessary for the reader to the kind of re-writing of ill-informed conclusions that the characters in the books have to do on a number of occasions.

So, the above is (whether it’s clear or not) derived from my Amusement… what of the Anger I referred to? Well (takes breath)…

I’m angry and annoyed because I feel I would have read Austen for fun much earlier in my life if it had been pushed as being funny – because it is funny; it’s got snappy lines and comedic setups and misunderstandings and cutting putdowns and the like, and lurking under it is a very astute angle on the social expectations of the time (in, to be fair, a very limited section of society). But aside from people occasionally talking about Austen as a social commentator or satirist, I’ve never come across any promotional material for an adaptation of Austen which made this the principal selling point.

Instead, the film and TV adaptations are all lavish, with expensive sets and accurate costumes, but nowhere do they seem to play up the comedy angle. It feels like convincing me to see Bridesmaids because they’ve got a beautifully-recreated set of a wedding shop, and forgetting to mention the funny. I used to say (and I’d be surprised if I was the first to do so) that costume dramas on TV were all costume, no drama, and it feels like the sheer comedy of Pride and Prejudice has been lost as people get distracted by the bonnets, balls, carriages and so on.

Take out the gags, show this pulling up outside a Manor House, it’s what Jane would have wanted

As I was reading the book, I was reminded of how Steven Moffatt and Mark Gatiss had said that the reason Sherlock Holmes was update-able material was because at its core, it’s not about gaslit streets and visiting cards on silver platters and all that Victoriana, it’s about the mystery, and the characters, and so on. And just as the film Clueless took Austen’s Emma and updated it and made it clearly a romantic comedy, I can’t help but think that the fact that P&P is a comedy at heart (and it has heart, yes, it’s a romantic comedy) means it should be eminently possible to adapt it for the screen without getting fixated on the production design. Pride in the big budget adaptations, it seems, led me to develop a Prejudice against the source material.

Because if you can do that, I suspect you might find there are people who would be pleasantly surprised to realise it’s actually a comedy. Because – if I haven’t made it clear from the thousands of words I’ve expended right here in this blogpost – I’m one of those people, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who can get over being Annoyed (at having felt at arm’s length due to mis-selling of the material) if you can make me sufficiently Amused once you draw me in.

If I Name This Post ‘Sextuple Mumbo Jumbo’, That’ll Increase Traffic To The Blog, Right?

I think it was the late (and in my estimation rather great) Blake Snyder, author of the screenwriting book Save The Cat who came up with the concept of ‘Double Mumbo Jumbo’, and it’s something I’ve been thinking about a bit recently.

Double Mumbo Jumbo, put simply, is the idea that “as an audience we can only buy one piece of magic per movie” (or, I’d say, book or play or other medium). Where Blake says ‘magic’, I like to think this equally means coincidence – for my money, Spider-Man 3 suffers from Double Mumbo Jumbo in the plotlines relating to the Venom symbiote (to non-comic geeks, that’s the black costume-thing which bonds first with Peter Parker and then with his rival) when it happens to land first near Peter Parker’s moped (if memory serves; I’ve only seen the film once, and don’t plan to watch it again, even if it means verifying details for a blog post) and then it’s roaming ownerless again when Peter Parker’s workplace rival is out and about in the area.

I think the second story in Pulp Fiction suffers from this sort of coincidence problem as well, though I know a lot of people hold that film in much higher regard than I do.

It’s not just a problem which you see in films, either (though the example I’m about to give was, I think, adapted to film): the novel Perfume by Patrick Suskind is very well-respected and was given to me with strong recommendations by a friend, but when I read it I couldn’t get past the fact that the main character had no personal scent (which struck me as being biologically unlikely) and also had an extrememly sensitive ability to detect odours.

This felt like a cheat to me, as if the author realised that someone with a truly super-powered nose would be unable to smell anything beyond the scent of their own sweat and clothing. I didn’t buy it, and as a result the rest of the book felt hard to swallow, built as it was on a foundation that I didn’t find particularly sturdy.

This has been on my mind a bit recently, because in the novel I’m currently writing (due for completion about half an hour before the heat-death of the universe, longtime readers might suspect) I have various ‘secret’ government agencies and bodies, and I don’t want to have too much stuff that looks like a fudge – whilst I’m confident that most readers will accept that there are bodies within government and the military which don’t appear in annual reports and budget publications, I don’t want to make it look as if I’ve made them ‘secret’ just so I haven’t got to do the research on Home Office heirarchies and departmental responsibilities and the like.

In a strange – though hopefully understandable – tangent, thinking about the concept of Double Mumbo Jumbo has partly explained to me why I find the following advert irks me more than it probably should:

The advert doesn’t really make sense to me on any level – and yes, I know it’s meant to be a bit out there and surreal, but consider the things that we’re supposed to accept:

  • He’s so fond of sausage rolls he’s cloned a miniature dog to say what he can’t
  • He carries the miniature dog in a jewellery box in his pocket
  • He had it in his pocket, but initially wasn’t intending to hand it to her (note how he turns away at first)
  • The ‘garage lady’ accepts what appears to be a gift of jewellery from a customer
  • The miniature dog speaks english (with, I think, the voice of Mathew Horne)
  • The dog knows which button to press on its (also miniaturised) keyboard to start the music (which is either drum and bass or garage, I think – I’m not bothered about either of those choices really, though I hope it’s the latter as it would be appropriate given the setting of the advert)

It just feels like the advert-makers have hit the ‘random’ button in an almost cynical way, as if throwing diverse stuff together like that immediately equates to something surreal and/or clever. The main problem I think I have with it is that for someone who’s “just a bloke”, and apparently incapable of expressing himself, he’s gone to a lot of trouble (and a weird kind of trouble) to express his gratitude.

In fact, within this universe where we can create speaking miniature animals to perform tasks we humans can’t, I’m surprised that there are petrol stations at all, as the normal rules don’t seem to apply; surely the pumps dispense some kind of liquid boulders, and the ‘garage lady’ is in fact the reincarnation of Alexander the Great, wearing a human outfit to disguise the fact that he’s come back as an oversized moth (I’m aware that many insects’ tracheas don’t function once they get above a certain size, so this is an inherently unrealistic proposition, but given that the shruken dog apparently suffers no difficulty breathing despite his size and being enclosed in a small box, it seems all bets are off). Actually, it’s strange that this bizarre world they inhabit has sausage rolls and money in it at all really. What are the odds of that?

I can live with the odd quirk or wrinkle to things – and as I understand it, much of the ‘magic realism’ school of writing is based on the world as we know it reacting to strange and unusual things happening – but it needs to be balanced, I think. The Queen in Alice in Wonderland boasts “sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast”, but that advert seems, to me, to be a case of Multiple Mumbo Jumbo, and so I can’t swallow it (then again, as a vegetarian, I was probably unlikely to swallow anything related to sausage rolls).

Come to think of it, no wonder the chap in the advert accepts the strange world he lives in: it’s clearly the early hours, and maybe he needs to believe the six impossible things I list above before he can have the sausage roll – that is, his breakfast.

Ah, Remember When Columnists Used To Talk About The Wire All The Time? Those Crazy Bygone Days

I’ve come to appreciate that there’s a lot of hype and nonsense around many TV shows – particularly ones which a lot of journalists are watching but in which yer general public show less interest (The Wire, Mad Men and the like), but the quote on the front of this forthcoming novelisation of the TV show The Killing may set some new hyperbolic record:

Seriously, Radio Times? Sarah Lund, who’s been in 30 episodes of a TV series in the past five years (and only shown in the UK in the past 15 months) is the top female detective in the world? That seems rather short-sighted, almost as if the person claiming it has a very short memory indeed, or at best is a bit caught up in Killingmania. Has the source of that quote never heard of Jane Marple? Or even Jessica Fletcher?
Now, it’s possible that the publishers of that book are being rather selective with the quote, so I went looking, and found this: The Radio Times Rundown Of The Top TV Women Police Officers, November 2011.

Sarah Lund above Jane Tennison? Oh, Radio Times, you disappoint me.

In Which I Refer To My Gag, And Those Put In Place By Others (Who Shall Remain Nameless, At Least For Now)

As the writer of a radio gag about superinjunctions back in 2010, you’re probably thinking I’ve got an opinion on this currently rather hot topic. And you’d be right.

For those of you who are a bit unclear on how they work, a superinjunction is an injunction which stops someone saying something, or even reporting that they’ve been ordered not to say it. And regardless of what you think about the issues of privacy or press freedom or Judges making law or the Human Rights Act or whatever, lurking behind most of these cases seems to be one common factor: someone did something they’d rather you didn’t know about.

Most of the instances which the press have become very excited about have involved men putting their winkle somewhere they shouldn’t have, though in the Trafigura case it was more a question of alleged business naughtiness; but it’s still a case of people doing stuff which they know would reflect badly on them in PR terms. Whether it’s sleeping with someone you’re not married to, or paying someone to place items up your bot, these are things which are likely to make people tut and buy papers and think less of you. Which is why people who have a public image to protect, and sufficient money to afford it, seek a superinjunction.

And it’s from this that the more tangled debates stem, and I think this pretty simple thing is easily overlooked in the more messy and interesting-seeming debates which are currently taking place – which is a pity, because all of us have to take responsibility for our actions, and if we do something we’re not proud of, it’s not the place of the law to hide that. If you’re in the public eye, the media will be very interested in everything you do – this is not new, we’ve seen it since the times of Marilyn Monroe or Elvis, and if you have a propensity for behaviour (sexual or otherwise) which might not do your career any good, you probably have a choice to make about which to pursue.

But if you’re going to do something which you’d rather people didn’t know about, and someone does know about it, using a legal mechanism to try and pretend it never happened strikes me as both disingenuous and a little bit childish; it did happen – and it’s interesting how this is rarely at issue in these cases, it’s more a question of damage limitation – and if you thought it was a good idea at the time, maybe you should be adult enough to admit it, rather than trying to gag people who know about your indiscretion? It sounds like the worst kind of denial, like the Dead Parrot sketch or something, shutting your ears to the reality of the situation and hoping that the world will reshape itself to match your delusion.

And this bugs me because I like to remember things which often seem to get removed from the history books: like when the Chinese authorities opened fire on hundreds of students in Tianenmen Square, or Cheryl Tweedy (as was) assaulted a woman in a nightclub toilet, or the way the newspapers criticised Diana, Princess of Wales in the months before her death. All these things often seem to be forgotten or overlooked, but they happened, and it feels like 1984-style Doublethink to act as if one thing’s the case (it didn’t happen) when you know the opposite is true (well, yeah, it did happen).

In psychological terms, holding two opinions that clash that way is seen as a likely cause of ‘cognitive dissonance’, that awkward feeling we have when two ideas in our head don’t quite sit together; most galling when we realise that our opinion on something doesn’t actually square with the facts, but, well, doing stuff and knowing at the time it’s not so bright, or realising that after the event, is part of being a grown-up and taking responsibility for your actions.

A prospect which some people in the public eye appear to have a bit of trouble accepting, so I can only hope that the adulation and money helps take the edge off. The poor dears.

Whereof One Does Not Know, One Should Talk Louder, And Perhaps Intersperse It With Swearing Or Colourful Metaphors

Words people say without knowing their true meaning – an incomplete list:

“[Whitehall] Mandarins”

Your contributions are, of course, welcomed; the Comments section eagerly awaits your input.

Big Ups To All My Haters, As I Believe The Song Puts It*

Well now. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? If it provides any kind of justification for my absence, I’ve recently had a job which took me out of London (and away from easy access to a full-size keyboard), but now I’m back.

And what, you may wonder, have I decided is the best way to re-commence regular blogging activities? Why, tis nothing less than the perennial subjects of love and hate… well, kind of.

Love and hate, we’re often told, are two sides of the same coin. Or there’s a thin line between them. And so on. Basically, we’re often fed the idea that the two of them are very close together – it’s simple enough to see why, they’re both extremes of feeling or opinion, and particularly in the field of emotion, disappointment and annoyance with someone we’ve formed an attachment for can easily cause us to become equally vehement in our negativity towards them; in films and TV shows, it’s often quite common for characters who spend a long time being antagonistic towards each others to end up smooching, though I have to say that (relaxed licensing hours notwithstanding) I haven’t seen that happen quite so frequently in real life.

If we’re going to be honest about it – and I think we ought to, as life is often more complicated than simplistic presentations of emotional duality in programmes such as the Jeremy Kyle Show would have us pretend – there’s actually a long distance to travel between love and hate, if we’re using the words in their strictest sense. I love reading, and it would take quite a lot of negative reading experiences (that is to say, bad books or whatever) before that affection for the activity turned into hate. I’m sure you can think of things which you enjoy immensely – would it really take the equivalent of a coinflip, or a hop over some imaginary line, to make you hate them with equal intensity? I doubt it.

In reality, the line between love and hate, when viewed in three dimensions, manifests as a vast plane, with slight disaffection and indifference and irritation with at various stages between the two extremes. And if love and hate are sides of a coin, we should be honest enough to admit that it’s actually more of a cylinder than a coin, with enough stages and distance from one side to the other as to make the particle acceleration corridors at CERN look like a cupboard for the electricity meter.

I increasingly feel that there’s a problem with people presenting arguments or opinions in a way that suggests you either love something or you hate it; you’re either a fan or a hater. And whilst we’ve often seen this used to simplify political debates – in 2002, a popular simplification was to suggest that any doubts about military action in Iraq equated with approval for the regime of Saddam Hussein – it also seems to be used increasingly in relation to more everyday issues.

Let’s take an issue which, in and of itself, doesn’t really matter, but which is often portrayed as some kind of ideological battle; the question of whether Apple products are better than PCs. To read a lot of review columns, or to hear people talk, you’d think that one was vastly superior to the other, and that using the opposition’s products is the action of a seriously ill-informed person, whose brand allegiance (in whichever direction) is akin to that of a brainwashed dupe. The reality, of course, is a lot more nuanced – let’s be honest, both have their merits (Apple’s stuff is visually appealing, reportedly more stable [the iPhone 4 signal problems and iOS’s tendency to eat battery life could be argued to have undermined this in recent times, though], and generally held to be technically superior; PCs are cheaper, and used in more workplaces and so more familiar) and their flaws. But the problem is, nowadays, you’d think that people either have an Apple or Microsoft logo tattooed on their heart, and this means that the discussions tend to be polarised – and this simplification means that facts get overlooked – such as the fact that Microsoft helped Apple financially in the 1990s by giving them $150m to bundle Internet Explorer with new Macs as the default browser; so, that big hatred and fighting between them you read about in the press? Probably more like business rivalry, but of course that’s not so interesting, and it’s more fun to portray their customers as engaged in some teeth-baring hatred.

The major problem I have with this situation is the way it reduces everything to a non-discussion, and removes any possibility of people conceding that their so-called opponent has a point (watch the way politicians will invariably try to ignore facts or events in debates, even if empirically and provably true, which don’t make their argument look entirely true, as opposed to the best-guess opinion it really is). It means you can’t point at flaws in anything without being labelled a ‘hater’ or ‘anti’, even if you’re only trying to say that something has weaknesses in certain areas (cases in point: Lady Gaga is really not as stunningly original as many people insist, and Steig Larsson writes a lot of exposition).

As I’ve mentioned with tiresome regularity on the blog, my favourite TV programme of all time is Twin Peaks (it is my equivalent of Mark Kermode’s love for The Exorcist), but I’ll cheerfully admit that it’s got flaws (the second season loses its way, certain storylines are just risible, and it’s painfully clear at certain points that they’re just making it up as they go along). As long as the catalogue of weaknesses in something doesn’t overwhelm the things we like in it, then there doesn’t seem to be any problem in liking it, but there’s equally no problem in admitting it’s not perfect – very few things are unimprovable (despite what the most vocal supporters might say).

Am I asking too much? Is it really now the case that you’re either a rabid fan of something or a hater? I’d like to think not, and I’d also like to think that it’d be possible to see discussion of topics (and by ‘see’ I mean ‘encounter’, though if televised debates – on whatever topic – would like to actually show people admitting the strengths in their opponents’ arguments and the weaknesses in their own, I’d welcome that) which actually reflect that there are many waystations between the positions of support or loathing for something, whether it be a political stance or a work of art or a brand of cola or whatever. Much of the time, opinions on things fall into the median, grey band of ‘meh’, and it feels to me that pretending that you have to pick a position at one end of the spectrum and fight it doggedly with closed ears and mind is oversimplifying, and doesn’t actually enable a proper discussion to take place.

Although – ahem – I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that I’m not so convinced of this that I don’t welcome discussion of it. That would be hypocrisy, and of course the Post Comment button exists for your input (and not just about Apple, Gaga or Larsson, ideally)…

*That would be the number “They Know”, by Shawty Lo Featuring Ludacris, I believe. Not really a fan, but it seemed appropriate to refer to it, by way of illustrating that merit may lurk where we don’t expect it.

Slightly Further To Yesterday’s Post, But Not Entirely

A new word for your dictionary…

Jedward [Jed’wood]

1. portmanteau n. Contestants John and Edward in ITV talent contest The X-Factor in 2009. Their elimination sparked a very short-lived campaign of complaints.

2. n. Slang term for any item which excites a great deal of interest for a brief spell and is then forgotten as though it had never existed. Often applied to workplace tasks whose lasting impact is inversely proportionate to the importance placed upon their timely creation at short notice, as in:

“Dave, I need a full report on the last six years’ sales figures for the MD, by tomorrow morning.”
“If I bust my guts to deliver it on time, will he actually read it, or is this another bloody Jedward?”

Good-Bye To All That

As a year comes to a close, it’s traditional to look back on the its various events and achievements.

Being a non-traditional sort, though, I’d just like to take a moment to talk about something which I hope we’ll see the end of when midnight chimes. I don’t want to sound overly negative, but it’d be nice to see this one thing go when the year ends. And that thing is…

People taking offence on behalf of other people.

Actually, I should probably qualify that slightly – it’s more a case of people continuing to take offence (or claiming to, but I’ll get to that in a minute) on behalf of other people, when those others have either said they’re not bothered or they’ve accepted an apology.

The obvious example would be the Daily Mail-led campaign to continue to be shocked and horrified about the prank phone calls to Andrew Sachs, but this year we’ve also seen a fuss about Ben Elton making jokes about the Royal Family; there are probably other examples, but the key thing about all of these events to my mind is the fact that the person who was directly affected by the remarks accepted an apology from the so-called offender (or, in the case of the Elton ‘fuss’, saw the joke, it seems. So it is a bit odd that people who are not directly involved should continue to stoke the fires of outrage, when the one whose feelings could be legitimately stung is moving on and getting over with it.

I suggested above that the people who get all offended about such matters aren’t truly offended, and whilst I don’t feel that’s the case about all such instances, I think a lot of the time the vicarious offendees are taking a slightly odd delight in feeling affronted. I’d been struggling to verbalise why people might want to do this – beyond the fact that, unfortunately, some people seem to take delight in being angry more often than not – but fortunately, a line on an episode of The West Wing I was watching summed it up for me:

DONNA: …they’re shocked and appalled and disappointed but really, they’re none of those things, they just wish they were. So, never miss an opportunity to feel morally superior.

And I think that’s at the heart of it – a lot of the time, these ‘campaigns’ seem to be organised not with the intention of ensuring respect for the monarchy, or … er, that people don’t ring grandfathers and talk about their granddaughters’ sexual activity (not actually one of the biggest blights on society today, I suspect), but more of allowing the person being shocked and horrified to feel that they’re morally superior to the miscreant whose actions they’re so very appalled by.

To use a phrase I’ve written before, I question their sincerity. Yes, many of the jokes that people claim to be so appalled by may not be incisive or sharp, and may well be ill-judged, but they rarely seem to merit the big hoo-hah that follows; a lot of the time, the involvement of newspapers (especially in cases where the BBC can be given a kicking) makes me wonder how much of it is a crusade for social justice, and how much of it is a decision to try to have their paper spearhead a campaign against [whatever] by way of making newsprint seem important and current and relevant in the face of stiff competition from 24-hour news channels and new media.

On a meta- level, you might well ask why I’m so bothered by this when most of the attacks have been on comedians and writers and the like; surely, one might think, it’s paradoxical at best and hypocritical at worst for me to be offended on behalf of these other people. And I might agree, but for the fact that I, and everyone else who spends time watching TV or film or listening to the radio or reading, suffers if we live in an environment in which producers or publishers are constantly examining works in case they offend, they might offend, or someone might take offence at the very possibility that they might offend someone else. Whilst many people are aware of the protests at the time of the release of Monty Python’s Life Of Brian (pictured), it’s all too easy to forget that now, just under thirty years later, it’s seen not only as one of the funniest films ever made, but one of the most insightful about the nature of religion and belief. At the time, it was deeply offensive and shocking and blasphemous, but now it’s held up as being a classic of intelligent humour, and without its creators being able to risk offence those insights (and jokes) would never have been made.

I wouldn’t want to pretend that Frankie Boyle’s joke about the Queen’s ladyparts is likely to be as respected as “You’ve got to think for yourself! You’re all individuals!” in years to come, but an intellectual climate in which material which might possibly offend any portion of the audience has to be excised is a perfect breeding ground for intellectual stagnation, and – ironically – TV schedules full of material which, by its sheer blandness, I find deeply offensive (for example, the currently-on programmes All Star Family Fortunes and All Star Mr And Mrs, whose titles and content differ so wildly I’m surprised Trading Standards haven’t intervened).

In 1990, Salman Rushdie wrote the Hubert Reid Memorial lecture, entitled “Is Nothing Sacred?”; due to his life being threatened for some words he had written on religious matters, Rushdie was in hiding, and so the lecture was delivered by Harold Pinter. In the lecture, Rushdie argues the case for literature being allowed to say things and propose ideas that people might not like, and compares literature to a small room in a large house, in which anything might be said:

“The room is empty, but there are voices in it, voices that seem to be whispering just to you. You recognize some of the voices, others are completely unknown to you. The voices are talking about the house, about everyone in it, about everything that is happening and has happened and should happen. Some of them speak exclusively in obscenities. Some are bitchy. Some are loving. Some are funny. Some are sad. The most interesting voices are all these things at once.”

A similar analogy might be struck for almost any form of media or other means of communication, and whilst I’d strongly urge you to read the entire lecture, if you apply Rushdie’s ‘room model’ to a medium you care about – whether it be film or TV or radio – then the final line of the lecture, even if slightly edited, cannot fail to give pause for thought:

“Wherever in the world the little room […] has been closed, sooner or later the walls have come tumbling down.”

And on that relentlessly cheerful note, this blog bids farewell to 2009 – and, hopefully, to the idea of taking offence, or pretending to take offence, at jokes or comments or ideas, specifically those which relate to another who is notably less concerned by them. I question the sincerity of those who do so on a regular basis, and so perhaps we can close the door (with a hearty slam) on this practice as we leave this year – indeed, this decade.

Eleven Months After I Posted My Theory, Confirmation Arrives

In January, I asked if this poo level of service had been experienced by anyone else.

In December, a survey by Consumer Focus finds that 55% of people polled had suffered the same stupidity.

I’m actually more jealous than surprised or annoyed; I wish I got paid in advance for failing to provide a decent service, but unfortunately my day job expects me to actually do the work before handing over any money.

Perhaps performance-related pay for parcel deliveries is the way to go?

A Never To Be Repeated Offer

Available for a limited time, a boxed set containing a DVD which contains the highlights of two previously-released DVDs, one of which featured the same material as the other but performed in a different venue.

Buy early for Christmas!

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