It is the season for self-mortification with the start today of Lent, one of Christianity’s better inventions. There is much to be said for a short, bracing spell in our personal wilderness, without booze or chocolate or fags or TV, and pre-spring, these few glorious weeks of chilly anticipation, is the perfect moment for it.
But perhaps it is time to extend the list of Lent resolutions to include less obvious, more emotional indulgences. We might, for a start, deprive ourselves of the heady pleasure of flashing around feelings when what is needed is argument and thought. When, to take a small example, the actor Richard Wilson wanted to express his disapproval of the Government, as he did in an interview this week, he would, during Lent, avoid deploying the term “deeply upset”, as if the policies of Tony Blair had made him want to cry.
Recently, supporting a view with a tidal wave of feeling has become an easy way of declaring your own passionate sincerity. It is no longer quite enough to be in disagreement with a point of view; to be taken seriously, you need to express emotion, outrage, offence.
This new sensitivity to more or less anything can sometimes be confusing. I was recently contacted by a woman who had just read a book I had written almost 20 years ago for children, and was deeply offended by it. It was a story about a character called Ms Wiz, who was a witch but was so opposed to gender stereotyping – politically correct before the term came into use – that she insisted on calling herself a “paranormal operative”.
My correspondent was disturbed by the use of the term “Ms”. Although the story explained why Ms Wiz used that prefix, and she turned out to be the very model of female empowerment, this adult reader was still affronted. She seemed unclear as to the specifics of my inappropriateness but sensed in the way that I used “Ms” that there was something here to offend her.
Then there were the doctors. A few weeks ago, at a time when GPs were revealed to have annual salaries in excess of £100,000, I told the story of friend of mine who had a brain tumour and was slackly treated by two local doctors. Now that GPs were being well rewarded, I suggested, they should not be above criticism.
The response was startling. Two doctors put sensible counter-arguments but the other emails from GPs were mind-bogglingly emotional. Three doctors were “deeply offended”. Several were personally abusive. Two suggested that I had made the whole story up. One told me that, since my friend was anyway under a sentence of death, the way the GPs behaved was neither here not there.
Those remarks, as it happens, would justify a certain amount of offence but, in preparation for this period of self-denial, I merely took them, with their bizarre combination of emotionalism and insensitivity, as confirmation of the very attitudes within some parts of the medical profession to which the article was attempting to draw attention. The following week, yet another reader was “deeply offended” by a column supporting the political establishment against modish cynicism.
What is all this huffiness and affront? When did merely disagreeing become inadequate and emotion obligatory? On the whole, the more personally affronted people are, the less clearly they think. If we could all just give up taking offence for the next 40 days, it would do us the world of good.
Clarkson flogs a dead cow
If only there were some way that one could apologise to the people of Florida for the behaviour of three publicly-funded Britons who have just made fools of themselves out there. Filming for Top Gear, the Desperate Dan of the motor trade, Jeremy Clarkson, and his two giggling sidemen were in humorous mode.
Never ones to let a crass cliché go unexplored, they drove into redneck country with gay-rights slogans and “We hate country and western” painted on their cars. Clarkson was then filmed with a dead cow on the roof of his car.
The BBC’s defence is : people watch, so where’s the problem? Perhaps they are right. Desperate Dan, at the wheel, under a dead cow, is the perfect metaphor for this depressing programme.
* Bloodhounds are on the way out. Field spaniels and smooth collies are on the brink of extinction, too. The problem, an expert has said, is that there is no demand these days for working dogs.
This is not entirely true – it is more that the type of work has changed. It has just been reported that dog thefts in London were up by 74 per cent last year. By far the most stolen breed – 56 per cent of the total – was the Staffordshire bull terrier, prized by the criminal fraternity as guard dogs and canine back-up in muggings. Given that rare breeds are unlikely to find work on the wrong side of the law, the thought occurs that perhaps it really is time that they should be allowed quietly to vanish. Not only are they unlikely to have happy lives, but they increasingly suffer the various genetic weaknesses of the pure-bred. Unlike pigs, cattle, sheep or apples, rare types of dog are preserved largely for reasons of human sentimentality.