Philip Hensher: Honourable egging tradition under threat

Notebook: You could do some damage with a heavy shoe, but an egg is only going to cause a loss of dignity
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The Independent Online

Tony Blair's book-signing tour got off to a violent start in Dublin, where it was reported that the crowd threw not just eggs, but shoes at the budding author. People have been throwing things at politicians since the ancient Romans at least – we know that the emperor Vespasian had turnips thrown at him.

The shoe is an interesting new addition to the repertoire of flung things, or rather, it is something that has spread in recent years beyond its place of origin in the Middle East. When an Iraqi journalist hurled a shoe at a visiting George W Bush, we were told that it was a specific local insult, with what authority, I don't know. Subsequently, vast sums of money were reportedly offered by anti-American oligarchs for the shoe itself. Evidently, the practice has now spread as far as Dublin.

More traditional objects for throwing include vegetables, tomatoes, and of course the humble egg. Probably a seamless line of incidents connects the throwing of eggs at the miscreant in the medieval pillory to the pelting of politicians, and others. William Booth's Salvation Army was a favourite target of egg-throwers in the nineteenth century. George Eliot records a "hail of eggs" being thrown at her character Mr Brooke, electioneering in Middlemarch. In 1906, we are told that a candidate at a by-election in Galway was assaulted not just by eggs but by rotting fish as well.

Egg-throwing has continued without a break ever since. In past, more robust times, the eggs thrown were usually rotten ones of the sort one never sees nowadays. Politicians have learned to be better-humoured about it. When Richard Nixon was pelted in South America in 1958, he reportedly blamed the vulgarity of the car he was riding in (an Edsel). Malcolm Rifkind was not the only one to make a wise observation when he said that "there is a long and honourable tradition of throwing eggs at politicians". Custard pies, chocolate éclairs, blue paint, and, very recently, shoes have been thrown at politicians as well as eggs. Most duck or force a smile; very occasionally, a hot-blooded politician returns a blow, as John Prescott did in the 2005 general election campaign.

Perhaps the honourable tradition is under threat, and frequently we have been asked to consider the mere chucking of an egg as tantamount to a security risk or even a terrorist threat. Certainly, you could do some damage with a heavy shoe, but an egg is only going to cause a loss of dignity. I propose that the only things that may be respectably thrown are things which will cause a mess, but not injure; and that only active, serving politicians should be considered legitimate targets. The time for egging Mr Blair, I feel, is now long past; his reception in Dublin shows a certain lack of imagination.

Could this X Factor teen lingo actually be scripted?

A couple of weeks ago, the ITV talent show The X Factor came under fire for its blatant use of retuning technology. It isn't exactly the biggest news that this show tweaks and manipulates both its contestants and its audience, but watching it over the weekend, I seriously wondered how far its planning goes. A pair of plump teenage girls came on, and Simon Cowell asked them why they wanted to enter. Then they began to speak.

"Cause, I dunno, it's just like, it's, basically, we're just random – can everyone just stop laughing at me, oh my God, yeah, basically, we just kind of randomly sing with each other, and we just wanna like, dunno, prove people that we can like get confidence to do things. SHUT UP."

What are we looking at here? Do teenagers genuinely, spontaneously, speak like this? Do they, in real life, imitate parodies of their language on sketch shows? Or could it possibly be that everything about The X Factor – Simon's put-downs, the single-mother aspirations to "give their kids a better life", Louis's moues and head-tossings – are exactly scripted?

The truth is that reality is banal and full of clichés, and there is nothing more plausible than the grossly exaggerated. When people say that Dickens's characters are incredible and grotesque, I seriously wonder whether they ever walk the streets. And no sooner does a script editor invent a teenage girl who would say "Yeah but no but yeah but," than a pair of real ones come along, calling out "Oh my God, yeah, basically."

The democratisation of baseless gossip

Immediately after William Hague's peculiar denial that he had had an affair with a young male aide, the worldly wisdom ran something like this: "Oh yes – everyone's known these stories for years. No truth in it, of course – but it's just one of those rumours that everyone knows for decades before they get into print." From time to time, absurd rumours do start up – famous baseless ones from the past include John Major and that poor cook, the affair between two (male) cabinet ministers of Mrs Thatcher's. They get, eventually, into the papers, with rare exceptions. I can think of the case of a suicide attempt of a person on the fringes of public life, much talked about at the time, never reported, and a current one about a sportsman with a glamorous wife and a string of male lovers.

Somehow the stories about William Hague had completely passed me by. I don't remember anyone ever producing a fabricated tale of Mr Hague and a sexy assistant in tight jeans for my entertainment, though one's appetite for such gossip is strong. Nor had I ever heard the slightest whisper about a very different case, David Laws and his genuine male partner. Could it possibly be that everyone nowadays gets their gossip directly from the internet, and hardly at all from the word of mouth?

The result, on the one hand, is that at least there is a democratisation of gossip, a long way from the days when "everyone" knowing something meant, at most, 2,000 people living in central London. On the other hand, if you are disinclined to spend your days reading (mostly) total nonsensical fabrications on blogs, it is possible that you will only find out what everyone else is said to know when its subject issues a full denial.