If you watch the TV programme ‘Gogglebox’ where you see families reacting to what they see on the telly, you rarely witness indifference. You see shock, fear, disgust, outrage, joy but no indifference. The programme makers must think that cool indifference is not what the viewers of the viewers want to see. And yet, indifference, dispassionate and controlled, is such a rare and therefore attractive commodity in daily life. Passion has had its day. People being passionate about stuff is tiresome. We cannot be interested in everything, have an opinion about everything. The intelligent reaction to information most of the time is to say ‘I don’t know enough about this. I have no opinion.’ The next time you are in a passionate argument, be indifferent, have no opinion. As the argument grows heated and ramped-up to boiling point, with rhetoric overblown, the endless reuctio ad absurdums, the evocation of Nazi Germany as best paradigm and all tempers frayed, you are delicately sipping your green tea, above it all, secure in what you know and what you don’t know. You are superior.
When I put on the Father Christmas costume and beard and look at myself in the mirror I note that I make an overly Levantine Santa. My nose is too noble; my eyes too sunken; there is nothing jolly about me. The truth is that facial hair changeth the man. The charms of the beard have always left me indifferent. I think I could probably do a moustache all right. I would look like the dastardly seducer in a Thomas Hardy novel, a bounder. But I am confused as to what a beard does to a man. They are very popular these days with co-called hipsters. For young men it can give them gravitas and make them look less like twelve-year-olds. I see that. But the girlfriends must see through that pretty quickly. I fear I have never got over the old adage that you never trust a man with a beard. Some young men these days now sport elaborate beards, as though they are aspiring to look like one of the Seven dwarves. Once again, I am confused. Are our reactions to beards nature or nurture? I have always assumed they were nature. But if Sleepy, Grumpy and Angry are now the coolest looks in town, maybe I am once again mistaken.
The older I get the more I am attracted to the surface of things. Patrick Modiano, this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, does surface nicely. In his novel ‘Du plus loin de l’Oubli’ he tells us nothing about the inner life of his characters. They just turn up in the pages of the novel. We are not told of their backgrounds. We are not told of their motivations or psychologies. We observe them, as though through the wrong end of a telescope, moving, picking things up, wearing clothes, drinking coffee in stations or cafes, taking trains, driving cars, playing pinball, not knowing things. It takes enormous restraint and control for the writer to remain on the surface. The world the characters live in is the world of a De Chirico painting, a bland, mysterious cityscape of basic units of action and speech.
Depth is over-rated. Telling us why characters do things, what they think, what they feel. Leave me some space. I don’t want my chicken pumped up with harmful fluids. Tell me nothing!
I must be typical of an increasingly large share of the population for which there should be a name. We, this unnamed group, are all familiar with the name Dominic Cumberbatch for example (or is it Benedict Cumberbatch; I know the name is based on an order of monks) or Taylor Swift, because if you consume newspapers and news programmes even only slightly you cannot avoid them. However, we have not viewed any vehicles that the afore-mentioned personalities grace, their tv programmes, films or pop songs or videos. However, I know their opinions on subject matters that are to say the least tangential to their field of expertise. I’m looking for a name for this type of personality. They are personalities who for me and my group have no core meaning but a massive peripheral weight; they are insubstantial spirits laden with considerable electrical fluids. This is an increasing phenomenon of public presence. Poor Dominic Cumberbatch. Poor Taylor Swift. I’m sure that one day, when I find myself transported to some alien sitting room watching an episode of ‘Sherlock’ you will make the transition from phantom drenched in electrical fluids to real media flesh and blood, but for the moment you wait in the antechamber like some errant soul in an unappealing limbo.
When I was seven I remember going round the playground with John Brosnahan, one of my best friends of the time. We would introduce ourselves into little groups of kids, mostly younger, and ask for information. We want information, we would say. The kids looked back bemused. This was probably bullying. Information was a big word at the time, very trendy, a bit technical. We didn’t quite know what it meant but it was certainly a cool word.
Emma just told me a story of a family that was looking at a flat to buy and the seven-year-old or even six-year-old suddenly piped up and said: it’s got potential. That word potential was certainly a word she’d picked up on from the telly or her parents rabbitting on.
If you teach languages nowadays you will notice how the syllabus has changed as far as the type of vocabulary is concerned. These days students are asked to understand and use abstract words like development, evolution, economic growth. When I studied A level I was learning the word for door-handle and weeping willow, words for things not concepts. We have moved now bag and baggage into that abstract world that my childhood fascination with the word information had foreseen. Personally, I am dubious as to the potential of such a move. I think I prefer the old flat with that rusty door-handle.
Am I proud that Guy Fawkes has recently become a world-wide media star? The embodiment of rebellion against the controls of the state, following a film made ten or fifteen years ago where a mask of his face was used by the protagonist. He certainly had a good face for it, and a good name. Guido Fawkes. Though it is ironic that the more the Guy Fawkes mask becomes a commodity around the world to represent the struggle against oppressive state, the less the feast that commemorates his act four hundred and odd years ago is celebrated. Bonfire Night has mostly been superceded by Halloween in the UK now. I suppose witches and ghosts and vampires are more user-friendly. There’s a wider stock of merchandise to flog. The business of buring a body on a bonfire was also properly scarey. And it is also a celebration that can set Catholics against Protestants. I remember as a Catholic child having ambivalent feelings about it. Wasn’t I supposed to be on Guy Fawkes’s side? Still, I liked the treacles toffee and the jacket potatoes and the parkin. It’s probably time the date was relaunched as Global Anti-State Interference Day. And we’d probably put what’s his name the guy with the white hair living in that embassy in London somewhere on the bonfire.
When you watch TV or film cops in American shows you are struck by the amount of time the hero spends dealing with internal issues, dealing with his partner or dealing with his commanding officer or dealing with the D.A. or the FBI or quarelling over whose jurisdiction this is (jurisdiction is a big word with cops). There is very little time spent on the actual baddies, which is tiresome because baddies are the most fun. It has got to the point now that when I hear the word jurisdiction, or D.A., or assistant D.A., or subpoena, I just switch over. Who would want to know about the inner workings of my office? Brad Pitt having to deal with a trail of paperwork in the world of waste disposal, squabbeling with the sandwich man about a mayo-free ham and pickle; trying to understand the IT man’s explanation of the latest computer malfunction. Riveting stuff. And yet the cop show producers seem to think it’s what we want.
Either this shows the deep wound in the American psyche: the real enemy is the enemy within. Or (more likely) it shows the paucity of imagination of the movie-makers who go with the ready-make soap of everyday life rather than the invention of a new plot from a new exterior menace. New stories are hard to come by. Is it the beast within or just a case of a talentless hack in the script department?