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The Evil of Banality

Earl Fowler

There’s a wonderful scene in Ian McEwan’s 1998 Booker Prize-winning novel Amsterdam in which senior staff of a British newspaper gather for a subdued meeting after what was intended to be a career-ending exposé of a loathsome politician has blown up in their faces.

(That’s as much as I’ll say about the plot, but I will enthusiastically encourage anyone unfamiliar with McEwan’s work to give him a boo. He’s extremely insightful, concocts cracking plots and is unquestionably near the top of the heap among living English-language novelists.)

Meanwhile, in medias res, let’s — you and I — quietly slip into the meeting via a backdoor:

“It’s time we ran more regular columns. They’re cheap, and everyone is doing them. You know, we hire someone of low to medium intelligence, possibly female, to write about, well, nothing much. You’ve seen the sort of thing. Goes to a party and can’t remember someone’s name. Twelve hundred words.”

“Sort of navel gazing,” Jeremy Ball suggested.

“Not quite. Gazing is too intellectual. More like navel chat.”

“Can’t work her video recorder. Is my bum too big?” Lettice supplied helpfully.

“That’s good. Keep ’em coming.” The editor wiggled and paddled his fingers in the air to draw out their ideas.

“Er, buying a guinea pig.”

“His hangover.”

“Always gets the supermarket trolley with the wobbly wheel.”

“Excellent. I like it. Harvey? Grant?”

“Um, always losing Biros. Where do they go?”

“Ehm, canna keep his tongue out of the wee hole in his tooth.”

“Brilliant,” Frank said. “Thank you, everyone. We’ll continue this tomorrow.”

First, since you’re possibly as clueless as I was, a Biro is a type of ballpoint pen in Britain, similar to a Bic.

Second, sooner or later, everyone gets the supermarket trolley with the wobbly wheel.

Third, while McEwan is indulging in what we fellow belletrists, savants and littérateurs like to call satire, the trivial topics aired in trivial columns are precisely what most readers do in fact crave, judging by surveys of what newspaper readers actually read and — more to the point in this ever-changing world in which we’re living — what works best as cash-generating internet click bait.

C’est-à-dire, much ado about nothing.

In the last two days, and I am not making this up, friends, acquaintances and — more to the point in this ever-changing world in which I’m living — my spouse — have sent me ostensibly amusing website links to lists of: a) ACTUAL STUPID THINGS stupid customers have said to store clerks (eg., Where does PetSmart stock the condoms?) ; b) SUBTLE DIFFERENCES between the nouveau riche (universally ostentatious, rude to underlings, cheap, and — not to put too fine a point on it, possums — mostly American) and patricians who come from old money (casually attired in wellies and wisteria hues, confident in their superiority to the lower classes so not inclined to show off, considerate toward the help, generous tippers, predominantly European), and c) TEN THINGS ABOUT YOU THAT REALLY IRRITATE YOUR SPOUSE.

I was particularly taken by that last one, which almost seemed to be about me. Especially that bit about cutting one’s toenails in bed while scarfing down mini-sandwich Ritz biscuits and watching the Welsh Regional Darts Open from Cardiff on the Samsung 65-inch Ultra HD HDR Smart TV at the same time as Grace and Frankie is playing on channel 11.

(Always figured I was kind of special in that respect, but obviously not. She even took the trouble to copy out the list in long hand. The writing was unusually sloppy, like she was pressing really hard with the Biro. Sometimes right through the foolscap, but I didn’t mention the carelessness because I felt it might upset her. I like to be considerate that way.)

So speaking of the utterly insignificant, incidental, inessential unimportance of daily living, you will no doubt have observed that you can’t leave a respectable news site in the ever-changing world in which we’re living without coming across an enticing BEFORE YOU LEAVE label with such alluring come-on hooks as:

[GALLERY] 25 Shameless Vintage Photos That Were Once Socially Acceptable (dunno what the other 24 are like, but the first one on display features what is unquestionably one of the busiest, best filled-out bras ever to catch my stern disapproval).

Urologist: 92% of Men with ED Don’t Know About This Easy Solution (dunno whether it works either, but the woman with the satisfied smile accompanying this advice from is certainly an encouraging sign. Any idea where I can get my hands on some fenugreek gingko biloba or horny goat weed?)

Best Rock Bands of the 1970s, Ranked (didn’t bother checking, but this gives you some idea of the demographic for the average respectable news site; and anyway, everyone knows Edison Lighthouse was the very incarnation of 1970s rock’n’roll. Love still grows (where my Rosemary goes).

[GALLERY] This is Real, And It Happens Every Day in Datar (no idea what or where Datar is, but judging by the photo, they must have an awful lot of beautiful, big-breasted women and a dire shortage of tops that aren’t extra small; you might be sensing a theme here).

15 SIGNS HARRY IS ON COURSE FOR HIS OWN MESSY MEGSPLIT (like the British tabs and the Toronto Sun I made this one up, but I understand he’s been professing a latent interest in the Welsh darts scene).

The point is this: Unless we’re starving or oppressed or abnormally interested in debt ceilings and the collapse of the international order, bourgeois people are comfortably bourgeois — and that’s the way we like it. So currently, it’s 13 brain cells devoted to the war in Ukraine, 27 to the Alberta election, 78 to transgender bathrooms and 529 on everything Succession taught us about just how fashionable the amoral super rich can be while stabbing each other in the back (which I thought Dallas had covered already, but never mind).

You’d think that people would’ve had enough of silly love songs. Or silly anything. I look around me, and I see it isn’t so.

So for anyone thinking of becoming a newspaper columnist or writing a viral blog — especially if you find yourself of low to medium intelligence (which always works for me, notwithstanding a complete, utter and thoroughgoing paucity of virility in any form) — we here at On Our Last Legs Central hereby freely offer some promising topics to pursue.

Masticate on these for a bit and you’re bound to kick-start your inner Seinfeld into generating a mess of your own:

Why dog kisses are just the best.

Say, where do all the mismatched socks go? (It’s the missing Biro gag all over again!)

Is your parrot with the listless eyes pining for the fjords?

Pretentious Starbucks coffee names. What’s the deal with chocolate java mint mocha cookie crumble frappuccino blended beverages?

Shoulder tattoos flashed by single seniors at funerals: Turn-on or Ewwwww?

While we’re on the topic, is it better to give or receive the eulogy at a funeral?

Handicapped parking: Iron or wood?

Dr. Cheryl Kinsey’s top three twitchy catchphrases for faking orgasms (“Make me a woman, big boy” was one. Can you remember the others? If so, oh, you’re good. You’re so good. You’ve got the music in you. You’ve got the music in you.)

Unrepentant Nazi sympathizer Martin Heidegger’s concepts of Sein (being), Dasein (there-being) and Daseinfeld (there-being-a-show-about-nothing) or Simone de Beauvoir’s previously verboten descriptions of sexual experiences with other women: Which one makes for a livelier discussion at a Seder meal?

Is life worth living? Merleau-Ponty and Jaspers say yes, Camus not so sure.

Triviality: Nihilism, existential mauvaise foi or a cure for what ails ya?

In conclusion, yes, indeed we know that people will find a way to go no matter what the man said. And love is fine for all we know, for all we know, our love will grow, that’s what the man said, so won’t you listen to what the man said.

Oh, look! A kitty!

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My bait invariably involves people shopping at Walmart, the come on a woman whose chest couldn’t fit through a door sideways and something about a blue pill I should try tonight that has little to do with inducing sleep. You must have West Coast click bait.

Ritz in bed? Cheese flavoured popcorn the way to go. The fallout is larger than cracker crumbs. Are Ritz really crackers or salt and sugar delivery systems?

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Whenever possible, I go with the low sodium ones. Texture, taste and nutritional value on par with the remaining mismatched socks.


Nice, but over-written,

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Thanks but you should have seen all the dreck I cut out about what Eve fed her cats. — Erma Brombeck

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