Clichés? Don't touch 'em with a barge pole

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The Independent Online

"It all started one day when I was reading the paper, and this fellow was saying that the Middle East was like a powder keg waiting to explode, and I said to myself..."

"It all started one day when I was reading the paper, and this fellow was saying that the Middle East was like a powder keg waiting to explode, and I said to myself..."

General Max Devenish pauses dramatically.

"I said to myself, I bet the fellow has never seen a powder keg in all his life!"

General Max Devenish snorts derisively.

"And I happened to mention this to a friend of mine who runs a national newspaper, and he agreed. He said, Max, old boy, a journalist is someone who describes something he has seldom seen first-hand in terms of things he has never seen in his life. Show me a journalist who has actually seen a tinder-box, Max, and I will pay you a thousand pounds, but that doesn't prevent the blighters describing everything remotely inflammable as being as dry as a tinder box!

"Anyway, one thing led to another, and I was given the job of opening and running this place."

"This place" is the Press Cliché Research Centre, a place where journalists can come to road-test their clichés, and then justify or abandon them.

"Watch out!" says General Devenish. "Don't trip over ..."

Too late. I have sprawled over a length of timber lying in the grass. But what is it?

"A barge pole," says Devenish. "Didn't recognise it, did you? Most journalists don't, unless they work for canal magazines. No, don't go near that ...!"

"That" is a colony of buzzing insects a bit like wasps. It turns out to be a hornets' nest.

"Interesting, isn't it, that any new trouble spot always turns out to be a hornets' next, and yet very few people could actually identify a hornet for you. A lot of journalists have trouble with this as well."

And he indicates a small field full of those shaggy animals which you know, instinctively, are rare breeds of something but you are not quite sure what.

"Some are sheep, some are goats," says General Devenish. "It would take a smart operator to separate one from the other. Certainly smarter than the average journalist. Now let's go in here ..."

And he plunges into a museum building which houses the smaller, more portable objects used in the clichés of our trade. He shows me first a tinder box. It is the first time I have ever seen one.

"I am not sure I even know what tinder is," I tell him.

"Oh, it's anything burnable you have to hand," he says. "Dry leaves, bit of cloth, bit of paper ... They didn't have matches back then, so they got fire by making a spark from a flint and setting fire to the tinder - Know what this is?"

He waves a thing like a big ruler at me.

"Give up? It's a yardstick. The thing that journalists measure everything by. Unless they use a ... a ...?"

"Benchmark?" I hazard.

"Excellent!" he says. "Know what a benchmark looks like?"

Of course I don't. So he shows me. He also opens a big box and shows me several fierce-looking swords.

"Swords?" I say.

"Sabres," he explains.

"Sabres?" I say.

"In the days of the Cold War, one side or other was always being accused of sabre-rattling," he says. "But how is it possible for a sabre to be rattled? Look!"

And he picks out a sabre and shakes it. It makes no noise.

"Maybe two being rattled together? Maybe a box of sabres being rattled? Possible, but unlikely. No, we think that is a cliché which was flawed from the start. Now, let us pass into the greenhouse where I shall demonstrate the gilding of the lily, and having the first bite of the cherry ..."

More of this fascinating place some other time. Meanwhile, as we journalists say, without knowing what the hell it means, I'll take a rain check.

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