What are you up to, Euan Kerr?

The Beano has become more crass, more cautious and more commerical since I last looked
Click to follow
VIBRATION WHITE-FINGER - what a name. It has a fine tribal ring to it. Too serious to be a character invented by P G Wodehouse, too modern to be a Sioux chieftain, it's obviously the name of a guy who has seen life - someone not afraid of a challenge, whether in some tight-knuckle ride over the Appalachian rapids or in the scarcely less alarming environs of the boudoir.

Whatever Mr White-Finger actually does for a living (front a same-name rock band? Hire himself out as a James Bond villain, on the lines of Oddjob Gold-finger?), you feel you'd love to meet him, though not necessarily shake him by the hand.

And then light dawns and you realise that the name you've been hearing all over the news is a disease, affecting coal-miners and other people who handle road drills and kango hammers and things that vibrate all day long. It is part of a legal action, dating back to 1991, in which thousands of miners are taking the Government to court, demanding compensation for breathing in coal dust and related ills. British Coal won't admit the miners are suffering from it, and I can't say I'm very surprised. VWF sounds, if not exactly bogus, then certainly spurious - one of those instant conditions created by hindsight indignation and retrospective suffering, rather than an accepted pathology.

It goes with that other newly-minted condition, the one affecting four sub-editors on The Financial Times, who lost their compensation claim in the High Court last week. The court reports were full of grand phrases - "upper-limb biomechanical personal injuries", "musculo-skeletal disorders" - that carefully skirted around mentioning our old pal Repetitive Strain Injury, a condition that's never been proven.

When I get laid off with atrophied muscles, I'll eat these words, but all this quasi-medical paraphernalia seems designed merely to avoid statements of the obvious: if you work with lions, you may get eaten. If you work with drills, you'll probably get shaky fingers. If you overwork at a keyboard, day after day, you could get aching limbs and seized-up hands. It comes with the territory. It's the risk you take. Otherwise, you might as well sue the local off-licence for giving you a disease called Bourbon Shaking Hand or Marlboro Catarrhal-Wheeze.

ON HEARING that the Beano, the most passionately-devoured reading matter in my early years, was celebrating its diamond jubilee, I rushed to the newsagent for a plunge into the Memory Lane septic tank. Things have, I note sadly, become decidedly more cautious, more crass and a good deal more commercial since I last looked. You can't turn many pages without encountering an advertisement for Jaffa Cakes or Rice Krispies or Dairylea Slices rendered as a strip cartoon, or a marketing opportunity with Franklin Mint-style collectible figurines of Dennis and Gnasher, both enterprises served up as childish fun.

The Numskulls, who were once an inventive crew of boffins living inside a human head with control panels for monitoring the body's behaviour, are sadly dumbed-down and one-dimensional. Romance, once unthinkable in the Beano, rears its head with a strip called Crazy for Daisy while another, about an annoyingly speedy adolescent, is named after the street slang for cocaine - Billy Whizz.

On the other hand, I'm glad to see the Bash Street Kids haven't acquired trainers and baseball caps (the one called "Erbert" still wears his jumper pulled up just under his nose), all the characters still say: "Grrr!" and "Chuckle!" and "Argh!" and "Gasp!" and "Tee-Hee!" and the parents actually say "Fume!" out loud.

The only humorous moment hitherto unnoticed is that the editor of the comic is allegedly called "Euan Kerr". This is such an old schoolboy joke (try saying it quickly with the stress on the second syllable) that I'm surprised the chaste DC Thompson didn't have a word with Mr Kerr long ago.

I'VE BEEN working in the British Library lately, and have discovered the exciting rules of Laptop Management. Everyone at the desks on my left has a laptop computer. The days when a library was a place of silent absorption and intellectual wrestle - the rapt trinity of student, book and scribbled notes on an A4 pad - are now history, passe beyond belief. Oh, some people still insist on sitting and reading away taking notes, poor deluded Luddites; but they're frankly objects of scorn to the clued- up technocrats who daily invade the place with our Apple PowerBooks and Hewlett Packard 360LXs.

The first rule you learn is, surprisingly, that noise is still frowned on. I don't mean talking, of course (that old thing), I mean failing to turn down the noise your computer makes - "doinnnggg!" - when you switch it on. As a dozen aggrieved faces turn to yours, they all convey the same message: if you want to be taken seriously as a scholar, you should have discovered the volume control long ago.

Second, security. Nobody is very likely to nick your laptop in the British Library - would any aspirant computer-blagger go to all the trouble of acquiring a reader's pass? But you never know what one of the tragic book- reading types would do in a sudden fit of jealousy. So you need some form of lock. And to appear in the Library without a chain to attach your computer to the desk - and a damn hefty chain at that, the kind with which you might ostentatiously secure your expensive bicycle outside a football ground - is to be hopelessly provincial. The coolest users buy laptops with a little metal flange sticking out of the back, which a strong but discreet little wire connects to the desk. To be seen without either of these restraining devices, to have to physically carry your computer like a metal handbag on every trip to the catalogue screen or issue desk, is just social death.

I see what's happening here. The rumour that we will soon have to pay pounds 300 a year to use the Library means it's taking on the identity and fee structure of a London club. Those who are already members, as it were, are becoming rather snotty and undemocratic about their peers. ("My dear - who let him in?"). Hence the attitude-striking, the H M Bateman responses to inappropriate behaviour.

The other day, having studied the works of Synge and Brian Friel quite long enough, I decided to do some writing. But the only way I can comfortably reach the keyboard of my machine is by resting it on eight good-size hardbacks. So I gathered the five volumes from which I'd been working, stacked them up, added a couple of other books from a neighbouring desk, balanced my Powerbook on top and started writing. The look of horror on my neighbour's face when he returned was a picture. "Do you mind?" he said. "These things are for reading, not resting on." I felt about two inches high. Did this man really believe that, needing some books on which to rest my computer, I had made my way down the Euston Road, gone into the big building and joined its ranks because I'd heard they had, ooh, dozens of these useful items going free in there?

Comments