Friday, 18 March 2011

Wider Reading | We need to talk about Dick

Every time I say I’m not going to write anything else about the Daily Mail, too good an opportunity to miss avails itself. In this case, a glorious chance to shed light on the MASSIVE EMPTY SPACE at the heart of Richard Littlejohn’s intellectual project / ‘common sense’ / soul / etc. And before you accuse Silkworms of being unimaginatively uniform in its predictably left-of-centre politics, today’s opportunity is an issue of writing, rather than argument.

And so I’m not going to introduce an editorial of Littlejohn’s I came across in an old copy of the Mail in my local the other day, via snide remarks about the fact that his biggest problems with Question Time seem to be that one, it once featured one of our most eminent ceramicists as a panellist (‘For me, Question Time lost all credibility when it wheeled out that ludicrous “cutting edge” artist dressed as Little Bo Peep’), two, it was horrid to Nick Griffin (‘I’m all for giving the BNP a good kicking, but this was a licence fee-funded lynching, with Dimbleby acting as head of the posse, rather than a neutral chairman’) and three, there are too many brown people in the audience:

Last time I was on the programme, it came from Stevenage, Herts, where 93 per cent of the population is white, and which elected a Conservative MP in 2010 with 41.4 percent of the vote. Yet the audience looked as if it had been bussed in from central casting, carefully selected to reflect the BBC’s view of what Britain should look like. If 41.4 per cent of that audience were Conservative voters, they did a damn good job of disguising it.

Nor am I going to reflect upon the fact that the principal insinuations in the above quotation seem to be that:

  1. Brown people couldn’t possibly be Conservatives.
  2. If a brown person is a Conservative, then their very brownness represents a ‘damn good disguise’.
  3. The image of the BBC ‘bussing in’ non-white people into a principally white area is in no way EXACTLY THE GODDAM SAME as the sort of immigration-based conspiracy theories espoused by the BNP, who rather deserve a ‘good kicking’. I’m Richard commonsense Littlejohn for goodness’ sake, I’m not a BNP thug, don’t worry Daily Mail readers, you can maintain your sense of moral superiority whilst buying into a world view identical to the BNP’s, it’s okay.
  4. The fact that the Question Time audience contains a disproportionate number of non-white, left-of-centre individuals COULDN’T POSSIBLY BE a reflection of that fact that non-white, left-of-centre individuals just might, y’know, be more politically engaged than the lazy, probably overweight, Middle English living room philosophers who buy the Daily Mail. THAT’S PREPOSTEROUS.
Khush Klare, one of those nasty ol' people who tried to lynch Nick Griffin. 'Bussed in,' presumably, 'by central casting'. Whatever the fuck that means.

To be honest, I’m not sure whether it’s better that the dedicated followers of Littlejohn continue to fail to realise that the BNP are making exactly the same arguments as they are subscribing to, thus ensuring the BNP continues to be stonewalled by the political mainstream. Or whether Dick’s blinkered hypocrisy is so irritating, I’d actually rather see him nail his colours to the mast and start hanging out with Lee John Barnes and that EDL man called Tommy whose name isn’t actually Tommy. At least that might jerk the complacently intolerant half million people who buy the Mail into actually interrogating their views, and questioning whether the ideology they’ve been identifying with all these years, possibly without even realising it, actually has a fucking ugly face. As disillusioned Daily Star journalist Richard Peppiat put it in his much retweeted letter of resignation,

You may have heard the phrase, “The flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil sets off a tornado in Texas.” Well, try this: “The lies of a newspaper in London can get a bloke’s head caved in down an alley in Bradford.”

The rather silly Sky News dust-up between Johann Hari and Littlejohn illustrates precisely the kind of tension I’m talking about. The poor BNP gorilla in a suit looks completely lost once Littlejohn has referred to his party as ‘knuckle-scraping scum’ – having comfortably dealt with Hari’s accusations via a muttered suggestion that he’s ‘stepping onto very fin ice here’ – and I’m a bit, a tinytinytinytiny bit sympathetic, really. He’s being insulted, rather pathetically I might add (where ‘gorilla in a suit’ is ingenious satire, obviously) by a man who essentially makes the case for the central tenets on the BNP’s manifesto on a weekly basis. (Incidentally, whilst Hari’s points are correct, he’s making them in an unbelievably smug, irritating way. The bit at the end where he holds his hands up and cries ‘failure’ is just dreadful.)

But, as I say, I’m not going to talk about all that. Rather, I’m going to talk about the way Richard Littlejohn actually goes about his business, writing – and, specifically, about clichés. Cleverly, I actually inserted a cliché into one of the above paragraphs in order to subconsciously introduce the topic into your streams of thought. Did you spot it? ‘Nail his colours to the mast.’ Looks ridiculous in isolation, but slips into the casual prose of a blog easy as the first Scotch before breakfast, no? To most writers’ minds, one of the first rules of writing is to sidestep cliché whenever it rears its trite, convenient head. Shit, ‘rears its head’ – is that a cliché too? Possibly not, because I inserted a couple adjectives in the middle, but still, I’m on fin ice. Oh yeah, that’s one too. WHEN IT’S BEING ENUNCIATED PROPERLY.

Yes, clichés are indicative of bad writing because they display a lack of originality, specificity and, ultimately, a core of genuine description, insofar as they are representative of an inability to describe something in terms other than those which have previously been used to describe something else. However literarily elegant. My own choice of cliché first appeared, for example, in a thrilling poem by Walter Scott, ‘Marmion’: ‘Record, that Fox a Briton died... Stood for his country’s glory fast, and nailed her colours to the mast.’ But that doesn't make it okay. No, in using a cliché, a writer is basically holding his hands up (there’s another one) and saying look, I’m just not good enough to describe this new thing in an effective new way, so I’m going to use an effective old way and hope that the sense of comforting familiarity it inspires in my readers will help gloss over my own lack of inventiveness, and the phrase in question’s lack of specific relevance.

Not too difficult to spot the relationship between the above attitude and the Mail’s default approach to political commentary. Throwing phrases about ‘once-GREAT Britain’ and Britannia ‘ruling the waves’ at contemporary political situations as though centuries-old imperialistic slogans are a sensible means to understanding these things. Fucking idiots.

And guess who just loves clichés? That’s right kids, Littlejohn is bloody famous for them. In an exquisite fragment of actually rather avant-garde stand-up, here’s Stewart Lee reflecting on that fact:

Lee picks up on two of Littlejohn’s fave clichés, ‘it’s political correctness gone mad’ and ‘you couldn’t make it up.’ Fair enough, both are fabulously meaningless. But I think he’s missed an even better opportunity – an opportunity so good I’ve spent 1200 words preparing y'all for it. An opportunity which presents itself in the Question Time editorial as it has done in numerous Littlejohn articles before it, and much more besides… I’m getting ahead of myself; I refer, of course, to the following:

I took one look at them and thought to myself: if this is a true representation of the people of Stevenage, then we really are all going to hell in a handcart.

Once again, I’m not going to talk about the fact that Littlejohn’s insinuation here, via the word ‘look’ (i.e. he’s talking about physicality, i.e. race, there’s literally no doubt about it) is basically that if there ever comes a time when the number of brown people in Britain exceeds, what, ten, fifteen percent of the population, we can consider ourselves on a path to HELL with no chance of turning back. No, I’m going to focus on that closing phrase instead: ‘hell in a handcart’. Weird one, right? I mean, when I read it the first time I most certainly did not gloss over it (but then I suppose I am a more careful reader than most). Rather, I stopped and thought to myself, hmmm, that is a silly thing; first, I bet Richard Littlejohn uses that phrase all the time, and second, I’m sure it has an interesting linguistic history. Which might just about be said to justify one of the best-paid columnists in the country relying on it with such regularity – perhaps it’s piece of Walter Scott pith. Or Popian wit. An effective old way, in other words.

Well firstly, I was bloody right. Richard Littlejohn doesn’t just toss it into an article every now and then. Readers, it's the name he gave to his novel. He called his fucking novel ‘Hell in a Handcart’. Hell in a Handcart IS Richard Littlejohn’s credo, summed up in a single phrase. Don’t understand what I mean? Have a read of the following Amazon spiel; it makes lucid sense of how Hell in a Handcart’s narrative essentially functions as a laboured summary of Littlejohn’s paranoia in its entirety:

What right do you have to protect your family and property from violent criminals? Richard Littlejohn has explored this and other burning social issues in his work as a journalist. Now he has written a fast-paced powerhouse of a novel, part polemic, part comedy, part tragedy, in which a former policeman seeks justice for an attack on his teenage daughter, and is thwarted at every turn. Mickey is an ordinary bloke, doing what he thinks is right to protect those he loves, but when he is attacked in his own home he is forced to take the law into his own hands, with fatal consequences. His arrest for murder turns him into a cause celebre and he is soon lost in a maze of dodgy lawyers, illegal asylum-seekers, self-publicising politicians, politically correct social workers, desperate journalists and rabble-rousing shock-jocks. To Hell in a Handcart is a rollercoaster thriller with an unforgettable cast of characters that grabs on page one and never lets go.
Rather than comment on this myself, I’m going to include the best-rated Amazon review of Littlejohn’s hard-hitting, hilarious novel. For objectivity's sake:

Richard Littlejohnson has to be one of the greatest minds of our generation. The breadth of his knowledge of UK politics is immense. His devastatingly witty and repetitious use of comic stereotypes has catapulted him to his rightful place as Islington's favourite comedian.

Buy this book. Alternatively, smash yourself over the head with a brick. The effect is quite similar. 

And secondly? Well. Now. I bet you’re SUPER interested in hearing what the basis of Littlejohn’s entire approach to his craft, not to mention a four-word synopsis of the full spectrum (ha!) of his views, actually means. And where it comes from. Be assured, sports fans, this is big.


Nothing. Or rather, nobody knows. Or rather, it doesn’t mean ANYTHING because nobody knows what it means or where it comes from or what it means or why it exists. It is an empty, lifeless, meaningless phrase that not even the people who hang out on etymology messageboards have got a clue how to deal with. Or William Morris and his dictionary of origins, for that matter. Here are the highlights of one such messageboard dialogue:

*I did a bit more rootling round on the net, and found a reference to the stained glass windows of Fairford church in Gloucestershire, England, which depict many biblical scenes and are known as the Poor Man's Bible.

These date back to about 1500AD, and are the only complete set of medieval stained glass windows to have escaped the attentions of Mr Cromwell, O. and his men.

According to one source, one of the windows includes an image of a blue devil taking a sinner to hell in a wheelbarrow...

*An alternative explanation of "To hell in a handcart" is found in the building of the transcontinental railroad. There was a mobile town of saloons, gambling and whore houses that followed the railhead. This town was known as "hell".   A handcart is the small four wheel conveyance that has handles that are pumped up and down for motion.

*The People's Palace Museum in Glasgow has a special-purpose handcart that was used by the police for carting drunks off to the cells. If you were drunk enough to require that sort of attention in 19th century Glasgow, you had to be *really* drunk: the cart was a wheeled stretcher with a lot of heavy-duty leather straps that even the strongest and craziest drunk couldn't get out of. I would guess that most large cities in the late 19th century had something similar.

Brilliant. If a racially diverse, politically articulate group of people asking intelligent questions is a true representation of the people of Stevenage, than we really are all violently paralytic Glaswegians on our way to a 19th century gaol. Truly, you could not make it up.


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