Saturday, 23 January 2010

The most extraordinary blog you’ll ever read

We live in an age of ludicrous hyperbole. I just pushed a supermarket trolley with a banner on it for an instant coffee which didn’t say “good coffee”, but, in gold letters, “GLOWING WITH POLYPHENOL ANTIOXIDANTS.”
As trolley, banner and I moved along a gently-sloping travelator outside the store, loudspeakers shouted warnings at us which would have been apt had we been roped on the Old Man of Hoy.
(I just googled Old Man of Hoy to make sure he wasn’t Hoye and got a sponsored link offering to “Find the Best Results for Pictures Of Old Men!” - What?)
You too will have encountered the assistant who stares at you with weary indifference or borderline hostility beneath a sign assuring you that he or she is “passionate about customer service.”
My journeys on the C2 bus in London NW1 and NW5 were recently enlivened by signs urging me to “Love Your Local High Street!”
Now, Kentish Town Road has a certain, time-warped idiosyncrasy and charm: the Owl Bookshop, sticking two literate fingers up at Waterstone’s; Bluston’s Ladies’ Coats and Gowns, a portal to a world pre-WWII, and the Oxford pub, previously called Jolene Celeste, and before that, The Vulture’s Perch.
But I find it difficult to love, and even if I could love it, how would I explain that love to those I do love? For example, my daughter Mollie, my son Max, and their mother, Juliet (that’s Max and Jools in the picture above, in Africa, with the hippos, Gordon, Sarah and Ed).
Last night on Channel Five, at 8 o’clock, there was a programme called Jaws of the Hippo: Austin Stevens’ Adventures. I quote:
“The adventurer travels to Zambia’s Luangwa Valley, where he tries to get the perfect photograph of one of Africa’s deadliest mammals – the hippopotamus.”
Hey, Austin – get a life. And a telephoto lens.
Meanwhile Masterchef, a programme which could roast chickens in the heat of its shouting, regularly, breathlessly warns us that a contestant “faces his toughest-ever test” as he prepares to crack an egg, only to repeat the same assertion fifteen minutes later as, nail-bitingly, he prepares to crack two.
What all these varieties of hyperbole have in common is this: an assumption that the audience is stupid (unless, of course, they’re all ironic, and I’m missing the gag and am stupid?). But, as Lynn Barber once wrote memorably, gnomically, “readers [also, therefore, viewers, listeners] aren’t stupid. I firmly believe that even stupid readers aren’t stupid.”
I guess we’ve caught this virus of extremes and extravagance from the USA, where even the meals are hyperbolic (I was served fifteen pancakes for breakfast, last time I was there).
Only America could think it a virtuous idea to set a member of staff a target, and then sack him or her for failing to exceed it.
Zigong asked: “Who is more worthy, Zizhang or Zixia?”
The Master replied: “Zizhang overshoots the mark, while Zixia falls short of it.”
Zigong: “Then we can say that Zizhang is better?”
The Master: “Overshooting the mark is just as bad as falling short of it.”

(Confucius, Analects, XI:XVI)
Last week, writing about nostalgia and absurdity, I quoted Albert Camus, and having fetched the book (The Myth of Sisyphus) down to check the words, found myself, as one does, reading the whole of it again.
He writes:
“Greek thought always took refuge behind the conception of limits. It never carried anything to extremes.”
And again:
“That is, indeed, genius: the intelligence that knows its frontiers.”

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