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Covfefe

There are only two types of people. Those who divide people into types of people and those who don’t.

Only those who don’t. Don’t exist.

Ever since Genesis got oddly specific in dividing things into categories, heaven, earth, “grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit,” and the frankly catastrophic decision to allow man “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth,” humans have been obsessed with justifying that supremacy through systematic categorisation.

By the time the Victorians rocked up we thought we’d nailed this categorisation game producing the Dewey Decimal System, Rogets Thesaurus, the Oxford English Dictionary, and most of the research academic institutions that are still providing grants and jobs today.

And every time we find and name something, we can divide it up into ever finer grains and names: from atoms and molecules, genomes and bacterium to the Higgs boson “god particle”; as if we might one day peel back the final layer of the universe’s onion and behold its ultimate secret.

The Victorian mathematician Augustus de Morgan quickly spotted the problem in all this, adapting Jonathan Swift’s couplet:

“Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ’em, And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum. And the great fleas themselves, in turn, have greater fleas to go on, While these again have greater still, and greater still, and so on.”

There is a sort of primal superstition behind all this, an ancient belief that may well have inspired homo sapiens to language: once you can name something you somehow have power over it. I helped name all my kids and I can tell you now, it’s not true.

The notion of magic, the sort practiced by Scottish hags, Faust and Harry Potter, is predicated on this power of verbalising. The idea of a spell is that certain words in a certain order have the power to make manifest or, at the very least, summon some slobbering supernatural creature to make it so. It goes against all our rational thinking to suggest that a simple assembly of words, a string of sounds from your voicebox, could bring about something concrete and real. Yet the possibility of this is so ingrained in our imaginations, kids’ magicians try to disempower it with “sizzling sausages” and “Izzy Whizzy Let’s Get Busy” whilst J.K.Rowling used Codum Latinus invocations, rather than anything that sounded like it might possibly have a chance of summoning the devil.

The magical belief that somehow “saying it makes it so” goes beyond art and conjuring, not just in the power of prayer, and “positive visualisation” but in the cold cash of advertising and politics. The phrase du jour post-Brexit was “a period of uncertainty”. Was it any wonder that the Conservatives campaigned for re-election in a direct response to that? “Strong and stable” was their simple substance-free mantra used so monotonously, it was as if simply saying it enough times would make it true. Like “Make America Great Again” it was a phrase full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Of course words can have power as persuasive tools and information carriers, just not in themselves. Great speeches have convinced people to do extraordinary things. Religions are founded on writings, and just the words “Allah Akbar” have been co-opted to strike terror. Jokes, well told, can bring forth involuntary laughter. But even in this world of technology and rationalism a belief persists that you can cut out the middle man as such, the agent of change, and simply affect change with words themselves.

A few years ago, when Islington Council found the end of a Tax Year looming, with some extra budget to spend for a project to improve the community, they canvassed the locals where it would be best invested. Perhaps a kindergarten, towards drug rehab, or a children’s playground? No. The scheme that won was, basically, an incantation. They invested in street signs telling people that they were in the “Neighbourhood” of Islington as if, once stated, it would somehow make it a real neighbourhood where petty crime, graffiti, fly-tipping and the ASBO magnets would magically disappear. Or, as Yul Brenner in The Ten Commandments kept repeating, “So it is written, so it shall be done.” Honestly – I’ve been writing for over thirty years and I still can’t get anything done.

But the potentially diabolical power of words is reaching its apotheosis – and words like apotheosis will be the first up against the wall when this revolution comes – thanks to a growing movement to disempower our language.

Jacques Derrida

Half a century ago Jacques Derrida, the French-Algerian deconstructionist philosopher, believed we should strip power from words by pointing out their constantly slippery, endlessly different, meanings. He saw this as a revolutionary act. Because language is, historically, developed by the wealthy, literate, educated classes, Derrida argued, clarity in speech promotes and prolongs the rule of the elite. The many should reject clarity and develop their own gobbledygook. At this point it’d be great to give you a pithy Derridean quote to back this claim up. Unfortunately he practiced what he preached and his writings were somewhere between impenetrable and gibberish. And worse than that, in French.

But basically: words and grammar and the like are them things the elite use to show they’re superior and enchant and entrap us with their spells and suchlike.

Well, against all the odds, Deconstructionism has made it to the mainstream. A populist movement led by no less than the Commander-In-Chief of The United States is stripping away the very point of words by rendering them meaningless. He tirelessly tweets authoritative untruths and a covfefe of meaninglessness. After which, his press secretary confirms that he doesn’t mean exactly what he says. His administration constantly assert inconvenient facts are “fake news” and there are always “alternative facts” anyway. You simply can’t rely on words anymore.

Political movements in other countries, wanting to recreate the popularity of such revolutionary linguistic anti-elitism are embracing this paragon of meaningless wordage.  So what if a lie appeared on a Brexit battle bus they were only words and what do they mean anyway? We’re not experts and we’ve had enough of them.

Finally, reason has won. That superstitious belief in the power of words – used by the expensively educated, Politically Correct, liberal elite to terrify us plebs – has had its day. This baby can go out with the bathwater. Whatever that means.

 

First appeared in

Gill and Brill

The time-bomb of substance abuse, even when it was no more than youthful folly, finally caught up with many of the brightest last year as a long furrow of celebrities began their gardening careers pushing up the daisies. But of all those beautiful and clever things the one that hurt me the most was A.A. Gill.

To many he was just the guy who did the funny restaurant reviews and the acerbic TV commentaries for The Sunday Times. For a plethora of others he was all that was wrong with privileged poshos, a crass, merciless, hateful man who was as willing to mock the weak and vulnerable as anybody else. Personally I never stopped cringing at the endless objectifying of his partner Nicola Formby as “The Blonde”. And with a clear predilection for intelligence and wit, maybe the hardest to comprehend was his friendship with Jeremy Clarkson. But then again perhaps Clarkson is mostly a persona, in which case they had much in common.

A.A. Gill had a secret. He and Adrian Gill were not exactly the same man. Adrian was performer, and, as an entertainer, he was one of the most dedicated I have ever met. An actor beyond the scope of any from the RADA, I watched him gently create A.A. Gill when we were young, a brilliant, compelling, raffish character, and he committed to acting it every day for the rest of his life. Angry, bitchy, superior, a vile hobnobber who never cared whom he insulted or hurt … but everyone who knew Adrian would tell you he was something different, in reality he was one of the most loving, big hearted, thoughtful and warm men you could ever meet.

I first met him when I was a puppy-excited 18-year-old, keen to get into journalism. He was cool and sophisticated in his late twenties and editing Artseen, an art magazine which seemed to exclusively employ the ex-inmates of Britain’s poshest drying out clinics. Though I fell short of the employment criteria, he still sent me off to rip-up Rodin, argue with artists and write for nothing.

My reward though was a seat at his table for Sunday lunches in Hasker Street, with the great and the, well, trying to be good. Because his guests were generally creamed from his ‘anonymous’ meetings; by far Chelsea’s most star-studded gatherings. Adrian’s genius was his charm. From rockstars to choirmasters, a glittering cast would come after the Sunday morning meetings, enchanted by his relaxed wit, his ability to put you at your ease and to make you laugh. Some were clearly swapping one addiction for this other entrancement.

One afternoon I looked around the table, which included at least two platinum selling pop stars and several residents of Burkes Peerage, and declared that I wasn’t entirely sure if his commitment to meetings wasn’t more about networking than battling demons.

“You’re too young to be so cynical.” Adrian chided me.

“And you’re not cynical?” I protested a little petulantly.

“No,” Adrian replied archly, “I’m experienced.”

He was right. He had a knack for exposing phoniness. My cynicism, my willingness to see the worst in people and wheedle out dark agendas, was a façade, a trick to make people think I was oldersmarterwiser than I was. But I was fresh out of school, he was fresh out of rehab.

Some of us were regulars at the table, stars would come to twinkle, and I was never less than a full fathom out of my league. I found myself being an Alan Davies to his Stephen Fry. The idiot that only amplifies the shining light of the host. But then, I got to sit next to Lionel Bart every week, who loved Adrian. Think of it. The genius who wrote Oliver! striking up a friendship with, a part-time doorman and occasional journalist still retaking the A-levels he failed the year before: me.

As Adrian’s star rose, as it was almost inevitable that it would, we saw less of each other. First at The Tatler and then The Sunday Times. The last time I saw him work a crowd was at his wedding to our present Home Secretary Amber Rudd. I only say that because I know he would be proud of the name dropping.

His greatest kindness, and biggest lie, was when I was being considered for a post at The Sunday Times. I’m sure it wouldn’t have happened if Adrian hadn’t rung the editor and said “he’s the best writer I know.”

The next time we met up I thanked him. “It wasn’t exactly high praise,” he said, “you know I’ve got absolutely crippling dyslexia.”

Of course when Adrian announced he had both cancer and proposed to Nicola, I was hoping it was one of his spelling mistakes and he had actually got a “racing car” instead. Or perhaps it was one of his poor taste jokes. But it was that trusty, ever ready, cynicism that immediately pointed to the truth:  there’s no inheritance tax on property passed to a spouse. Adrian was dying.

I wrote to him, begging for him to tell me I was wrong, that it was just my cynicism.

The silence was deafening. Barely a week after the announcement, he was gone.

Adrian wasn’t a brave journalist who jumped in front of tanks, or a writer of deep profundity, but he touched millions and worked hard to make sure every week he made them laugh, or angry, or disgusted or just think. And for that he deserves to be celebrated. “If there’s just one thing you should make the effort to do in an article,” he once told me “it’s to try and make someone laugh. At least once.” I always have.

But now he’s gone I don’t much feel like laughing.

Still, for you Adrian. It reminds me of the time I got arrested for stealing helium balloons. The police held me for a while, and then they let me go.

 

This article first appeared in:

Losing the Will

Not even cyanide spoils a drink with a friend faster than discovering he’s in love. That’s when you buy yourself a triple; you know you’re in for an evening of ridiculous superlatives, and specious speculation. And you’ll listen to all of it aware that when, or if, you ever meet this paragon they will never be as perfect, sexy or brilliant as the hype. No one could be. The idea of the loved one, in their absence, is always more exciting than any reality. It’s the fisherman’s “one that got away” or Donald Trump’s genius; we fill the vacuum of absence with everything from the improbable to the impossible, the stuffing of legend. By the time you’re getting your second drink, trying to draw out the order for as long as possible by feigning an interest in third division football with the bar staff, you’re not sure how much more fantasising you can take as it’s all just air and you’re finding it really hard to give a s**t.
That’s how I feel when people start talking about Shakespeare. And, what with this month being the 400th anniversary of his death, it might just be, as T.S. Eliot would have it, the cruellest.
Don’t get me wrong I love a bit of Shakespeare me: I came of age enrapt with Withnail asking the London Zoo wolves, “What a piece of work is a man?”;

I can see why Shakespeare’s responsible for a tenth of the most quoted lines in English ever; the words are sublime, the poetry mesmeric, the drama… well, not exactly captivating but epic, definitely epic; I spent a year of my degree studying his works; I’ve indulged the pretensions of Day-Lewis, Branagh, Gibson, Tennant, Cumberbatch and even Frances de la Tour trying to play that morbidly articulate Danish teenager, decades their junior; I even committed some of his more sonorous soliloquies to heart believing a little bit of “shall I compare thee” might lend me an air of culture and fill awkward silences on dates – a misapprehension which, I later discovered, almost entirely accounted for my remaining a complete stranger to the taste of postprandial coffee, the 20th century “Netflix and Chill”.
But that’s not why the mention of Shakespeare makes me feel “I would give all my fame for a pot of ale.”
In leaving his works without an in-depth CV of his life, not even a kiss and tell exposé, Shakespeare created a perfect vacuum. An absence of details which our information hungry, celebrity life curious, age abhors.

alice stallard shakespeare

Illustration by Alice Stallard

Ever since the 19th Century the idea of Shakespeare, the mystery of the man himself, has gradually eclipsed his works. Now, outside the academic world, no Shakespeare conversation is complete without a discourse on identity. Not the identity crises evident in his almost Mengele-like obsession with twins, nor his “To be or not to be”, not even his gender challenging drag acts, but just, “Was that William Shakespeare William Shakespeare or what?”
This severing of the man from his work started with the Victorians, with their passion for propriety and hierarchies. It just wouldn’t send the right message to the lower orders to allow a grammar school oik to have moulded the language of empire, let alone invented 3000 of its words. So into the void of Will’s life new, elite, posh candidates suddenly looked more attractive. He could only know this if he went to University, he could only know that if he had travelled, was a sailor, a tree surgeon, a spy or royal privy sanitiser. Names were aplenty while William Shakespeare of Warwickshire became simply “The Stratford Man”.

You’d have thought, by now, with our enlightened view of bare table legs, we’d have moved on from Victorian snobbery. But the “Authorship Question” has continued to escalate, even becoming a Hollywood film. In 2011 Anonymous cast Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford as the true writer.
So Shakespeare turns out to be, pretty much, the only secular figure to transcend into a meme, an idea that has evolved as it has passed through generations. And I can see the attraction. It’s a lot more exciting to imagine and speculate about an absence rather than go mine those old texts for yet further depth and meaning. But I can’t help feeling it’s like enjoying a steak whilst arguing about the name of the cow.
RolandBarthesBut it’s almost 50 years since goggle-eyed Gallic literary critic Roland Barthes declared “La mort de l’auteur” dampening enthusiasm for the Hello school of biographical criticism and championing the appreciation of art for its own sake; rather than as some misshapen reflection of the writer.
So don’t talk to me about Shakespeare without buying me a stiff drink first. Any story of his life is going to be little more than “sound and fury, signifying nothing.” When we have secular words so transcendent they still feel fitting at our significant life events, births, weddings and funerals (if not embarrassing dates), when the subtle shades of our enlightened world are threatened by the brutal certainties of ISIS style medieval thinking that will flatten a Palmyra, knowing that at some time, someone, was bothered and able to express the tenets of the modern world as poignantly as: “The quality of mercy is not strained; It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest; It blesseth him that gives and him that takes: ‘T is mightiest in the mightiest;” I just can’t find it in me to care who he, or she, was. And I don’t care when he was born or when he died or who he was sending his poetry to. Who was Shakespeare? In a few words he didn’t coin, I really couldn’t giveth two shiteths.

First published in

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