Irony has a distinguished history in English writing - Dean Swift and Dickens - but its ambiguity makes it a tricky specialism. A little goes a long way. Now there are sneering floods, almost as though the country does not know what it means to say any more. Post-modernism - the idea that the past is there to be ruthlessly ransacked for modern convenience - carries some of the blame, but the roots go further back. The memo on the opposite page by Harold Macmillan may yield a clue. The young of the 1950sand 1960s had for him " a curiously introspective attitude towards life, the result no doubt of two wars and the dying faith". That is too elegiac a note to start the new year. We wish our readers a happy and prosperous one, without the quot ation marks.
DID ANYONE happen to catch Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie on television last week? In black bow ties and dinner jackets, they were presenting a show called A Christmas Night with the Stars on BBC2. Or perhaps that should read "A Christmas Night with the Stars". What's the difference? Answer: the second version of the title carries quotation marks. And what, pray, does that imply or signify? Answer: irony. This was an ironic show. There are a lot of them about. When Mr Laurie or Mr Fry introduced on e of the old film clips from Christmas shows of long ago they would say words to the effect that here was something jolly splendid, but they spoke (to quote the dictionary definition of irony) to give "expression of their meaning by language of opposite or different tendency, esp. mock adoption of another's views or tone". In other words, when they said that something was jolly splendid they meant that it was made awful or pathetic by the passage of time. Some old black-and-white footage of Dixon of Doc k Green was shown, in which Jack Warner as the good sergeant rose at the police station's Christmas dinner and made a speech about the decency of the average British citizen. Mr Laurie said that it had made him cry. We were not meant to believe him.