I saw a dispiriting newspaper placard the other day. "Yet another knife killing" it read... and this was before the weekend had added more deaths to the running total. And what struck me as depressing about that poster, one of those used to sell the late edition of a London daily, wasn't just the information it contained, but the suggestive ambiguity of the phrase that had been chosen to publicise the fact.
How exactly would you voice that sentence aloud? The intention of the person who wrote it, I guess, was that it should sound a note of anguished concern. The paper was presenting itself not only as a reporter of the blunt facts but also as a guardian of the public safety. "Yet another..." economically conveyed the sense that it was vigilantly keeping a tally of such incidents and wouldn't let one pass without scandalised notice.
But in my head I heard the remark uttered in a different tone too – an intonation which put the recent alarm over knife crimes into more perspective. The voice was still editorial in origin, but this time "Yet another" carried an undertone of journalistic tedium. It belonged, perhaps, to a desk editor responding to offers for that night's front page and might be paraphrased as follows: "Not another knife killing, surely. We've had nothing else for the last five days. Can't we come up with something fresh?" The very phrase used to advertise a currently marketable story hinted at the eventual fate of that preoccupation, in a culture which has its problems with extended concentration span.
I did imagine the phrase being spoken by another speaker too, with yet another variation in delivery. This time the voice belonged to a senior civil servant, leaning around the office door to pass on apologetically yet more bad news to a Home Secretary already under pressure. And this time the paraphrase would run something like this: "Terribly sorry minister ... but it looks like there's no immediate prospect of things easing up. If we'd had a couple of quiet days I think they might have been distracted by something else ... but I'm afraid these cases are going to keep it going a bit longer. Would you like us to come up with an initiative in time for the Six O'clock News?" Judging from some of the things said recently by Jacqui Smith, the latter conversation, or something very like it, must have taken place – and those involved obviously hadn't had long to come up with anything decent in the way of a response. How much reflection does it take before it becomes clear that compulsory hospital visits for those found carrying knives is a hopelessly feeble response to the issue?
As dimwitted as that reflex was, though, I couldn't help but think that the blame for its flustered, we'd better-to-do-something quality didn't lie with the Government alone but with a press that barely mentioned knife crimes two months ago and which will, almost certainly, return to that state of broad indifference another two months hence. And when they do it's likely that the Government will also unclench – and address itself instead to whatever social shortcoming has replaced knife crime as the headline priority of the day.
The reason for that dual failure of concentration is perfectly summed up in the ambiguity of "Yet another knife killing" – words which encapsulate both the assumption that a statistical cluster is hard evidence of permanent change – and the sensation fatigue that will eventually drive it off the front pages and off the top line of the political agenda.
Holding a mirror to prejudice
Can you caricature a caricature? The New Yorker appears to think so, running a cover showing Barack Obama in the Oval Office, fist bumping Michelle as the Stars and Stripes burns in the fireplace and Osama Bin Laden looks down from a portrait over the mantelpiece.
According to the magazine's editor, David Remnick, this was intended to "hold up a mirror to the prejudice and dark imaginings" about Obama and his wife, which entirely misses the point that a lot of ignorant people are going to approve of what they see in the mirror. Sure, the New Yorker's readers might get it. But others will just gleefully reprint it. The New Yorker should put the safety catch on while they still have one good foot left.
* I found myself at the Pontefract Liquorice Festival on Sunday, an event which struck me as being disappointingly light on liquorice-flavoured components. True, the life-sized liquorice Dalek in the town museum was attracting quite a bit of attention and I spotted some bottles of Tomlinsons Liquorice Stout and some liquorice-flavoured cheese. True, too, that a charming woman from the Pontefract Liquorice Trust handed over her own bag of Pontefract Cakes when I asked plaintively where I might find some of the town's namesake product.
That seemed to be it. The "extraordinary array" of liquorice-based products promised by the website came down to about three items. I couldn't find liquorice ice-cream or liquorice tea or even Liquorice and Tomato Soup, the recipe for which features on the Liquorice Trust's own website. Perhaps I'm alone in the extent of my zeal but if you're honouring roots this delicious, surely a bit more obsession would be in order?