Harriet Walker: No one wants to be pretentious, but no one wants to be dull, either

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The Independent Online

I have long been under the impression that the great age of pretension was over. I thought that nothing was original enough to be pretentious any more, and that anyone purporting to be slightly higher-minded than the rest of us was probably doing so with good reason, given that popular culture has sunk so low into the mire as to be accessible only with a snorkel.

But it's been rather a pretentious week for me, through no fault of my own. I decided to do, you know, some stuff that took me beyond either the sofa, the pub or the sofa in the pub. And suddenly it was me who needed the snorkel, at risk of getting the bends from camped-up intellectualism.

I took in an experimental music concert that made me snigger so much I almost had a panic attack. "Didn't you realise it would be like that?" asked one colleague, when I described the venerable artist walking on-stage like a cartoon zombie, dressed in a black feathered cape while the stage manager asked us not to clap or make any noise before the interval. "No," I floundered. "I thought he was supposed to be quite plinky-plonky and jolly."

Next, I went to see a foreign film that bored me to tears. Scene after scene of sexually dysfunctional people going for walks in the rain. "That means they're passionate and complex," my flatmate pointed out. "Doesn't it just mean they're tossers?" asked our rather earthier friend.

After that, I went to a fashion exhibition. "I definitely see the relevance of this stuff," my boyfriend said, pointing to a dress made of that fuzzy synthetic cotton wool you use to pad cheap teddy bears. "It's kind of fascinating really." Ten minutes later, we were watching archive footage of a naked man painted like a dalmatian flinging himself around the empty floor of a large warehouse. "I might go on ahead," said my boyfriend. "I appear to be falling asleep."

But one person's pretension is another's pease pudding. I like to think I'm about as grounded as they come, but I did after all elect to go on all these highfalutin jaunts. It's a tricky line to tread between trying too hard and not making any effort at all. It's the modern inertia – no one does anything in case they don't get it and it makes them sleepy, or they do get it, like it then hate themselves for being too complex.

I once went out with someone who described me as dull and unadventurous, and it has now become a self-imposed moniker I find hard to shake. "Maybe you are dull and unadventuruous," said my earthy friend, "but he was definitely a tosser, and which is worse?" If you need to find me, I'll be the one asleep at the back of the cinema, wearing a snorkel.