Cliches aren't what they used to be

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The Independent Online
There's a story called "William the Intruder" by the great Richmal Crompton which starts, as many of the William stories do, with elder brother Robert falling hopelessly in love with a girl. The opening dialogue between William and Robert about the girl has always appealed to me. It goes like this:

"She's different from everybody else in the world," stammered Robert ecstatically. "You simply couldn't describe her. No one could!"

His mother continued to darn his socks and made no comment. Only William, his younger brother, showed interest.

"How's she different from anyone else?" he demanded. "Is she blind or lame or sumthin?"

Robert turned on him with exasperation. "Oh, go and play at trains!" he said. "A child like you can't understand anything."

Now, the reason Robert got cross with William was not because William was being stupid or obtuse. It was because William was being intelligent. He was actually listening to what Robert was saying and reacting to the meaning of the words. This girl was different from everyone else, was she? Therefore she must have some amazing physical characteristic. It stands to reason.

But Robert didn't mean that at all. All he meant was that he was smitten.

If Robert had thought about what he was saying, he would have noticed that every time he fell in love, he described the girl as the most wonderful girl in the world, and a moment's thought might have told him that they couldn't all be. In fact, only one could be. But grown-ups don't think about what they are saying most of the time. They use bolt-on sentences to make conversation, automatic phrases that spring to mind like trusted licks which blues guitarists fall back on.

Here's an example. If people want to describe somebody as ultra-conservative, they don't call him ultra-conservative. They say that he is somewhere to the right of ... anyone? That's right! Somewhere to the right of Genghis Khan. Never to the right of Attila the Hun or Tamburlaine the Great, always Genghis Khan. Genghis Khan has now replaced Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells as a right-wing figure. And it was always Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells, never of Weston-super-Mare or Eastbourne. That's because grown-ups don't think about what they are saying. They just react to the other person, and bolt a phrase on to what he has just said.

(How about a composite right-wing figure called Disgusted of Mongolia?)

Here's another example. If people attack the monarchy from a republican viewpoint, the inevitable answer used to be that the monarchy couldn't answer back so it wasn't fair to criticise them. That no longer holds water. If the royals want to defend themselves they can now go on television with Jonathan Dimbleby or Martin Bashir and defend themselves till the cows come home or the sets are switched off. So a new cliche is sought, and it has been found. When republicans attack the monarchy, the answer often is:

"If you get rid of the Queen, who are you going to have as president? Roy Hattersley?"

I have heard this several times on the radio. It's a silly answer, not because Roy Hattersley would be a bad president, but because if we did have a president, nobody would know or care much who he or she was. The Germans have a president. Hands up who knows his name. Nobody? Me neither.

When a politician goes on the media and announces some reform, nobody ever asks him if it is a good or bad reform; they always ask him: "Where are you going to find the money to finance it?"

When someone is asked how he is going to vote in the next election, he or she almost always prefaces the answer with the introductory phrase: "Well, I think I have voted for all the main parties in my time ..."

When the subject of American humour is raised, someone will say, sooner or later: "Of course, the Americans have no sense of irony."

When someone is required to answer criticisms, he will almost always say: "Well, we do get a lot of flak, but we get a lot of congratulations as well, so I think that shows we are getting it about right."

When a politician is being asked a question by the other side in Parliament, he hates answering it - he would much rather use the formula: "Well, that comes well from the honourable member considering that ..." and then there is a choice of formulae from "considering that in 1988 he said, and I quote ..." to "considering that he belongs to a party which, when last in office, actually passed legislation ..."

And if anyone notices these cliches, they promptly use another cliche to describe it. Here it is. If I had a pound for every time I've heard that phrase ...

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