From Polonius to American Pie, there's an aphorism out there for everyone

Popular culture is bursting with handy tips.

Erica Jong once wrote: “Advice is what we ask for when we already know the answer but wish we didn’t.” Now that we have that at the forefront of our minds, what is to be the reaction to two bits of advice I came across recently? The first, in a women’s magazine, came under the title “Brilliant love advice you haven’t read before” and featured tips gathered from people in all walks of life – a barman, a nurse, a travel agent, a hotel concierge, and so on. From a member of British Airways cabin crew came this: “Want to boost your chances of chatting to a cute stranger on a flight? Ask for a seat on the aisle, somewhere near the toilet. You’ll get noticed every time people get up to stretch.”

The second bit of advice came from a counsellor in a newspaper column, in response to a woman seeking guidance on what to do with a boyfriend who found her vagina “repulsive”. She was advised to read a book on sexual and physical diversity with her boyfriend and “discuss the material as equal adults, not teacher/pupil, and reward him when he demonstrates maturity”.             

Both of these bits of advice struck me as so incredibly odd that I have been unable to stop thinking about them. Was I missing something? Were these the answers that had already occurred to the readers, as Jong might argue, or were these just two examples of seemingly absurd and incorrect advice?

Dispensing wisdom, informed or not, isn’t hard. We can all do it and often do: despite having no degree (or real interest, to be honest) in economics, I could tell you my thoughts on what we should do to turn this financial downturn around, at 20 paces.

Personally, I like to deliver my perceptive titbits of good judgement with a languid stroke of my chin and a thousand-yard stare, which gives unearned gravitas to the most idiotic utterances. The internet is a mass grave of advice – good, bad, misogynist and racist. When you have a spare few hours, I urge you to trawl the “advice” tag on Tumblr; humanity’s problems are laid bare, from the anonymous person who wants to know a noncreepy way to procure the phone number of a crush to the person looking for book recommendations for the summer. Your screen will squeak at the platitudes unironically held up as wisdom from the lips of King Solomon himself.

There is guidance on how to survive your miserable teens, your footloose twenties, your regretful but now appropriately grateful thirties. Conclusion: we’re a mess at all times and there is foolish advice to be foisted on us at every turn.

But back to popular-entertainment culture, which is what this column is all about. What instructions from the finest fictional minds out there have you squirrelled away for everyday living? Are you a fan of Polonius (a twinkly-eyed Ian Holm, for fans of Franco Zeffirelli’s adaptation), clearly destined for an Oprah-esque talk show before Hamlet puts paid to that, who advocates “To thine own self be true”? Perhaps you prefer the new age/The Apprentice contestant-style braggadocio of Yoda’s “Try not. Do, or do not. There is no try”? The dignity in the words of Ree in Winter’s Bone (played by the Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence) – “Never ask for what ought to be offered” – is admirable but somewhat misplaced. Saddest of all, I’ve yet to utilise this gem from Vizzini, the wily Sicilian hunchback in William Goldman’s The Princess Bride: “Never get involved in a land war in Asia.”

And so, with best wishes, here are my current top three bits of useful, pertinent advice from the movies.

This unstintingly truthful nugget from the non-rom-com (500) Days of Summer: “Just because she likes the same bizarro crap you do doesn’t mean she’s your soulmate.”

This bit of quiet, overlooked profundity, from the comedy Bridesmaids: “Make room for someone who is nice to you.”

And this useful tip for 99.9 per cent of human interactions, from American Pie: “You ask them questions and listen to what they have to say and shit.” See? Just when you thought gross-out comedies from the late 1990s had nothing to offer you, there it is. My advice for you is to skip the other movies in the franchise, though – no good ever came from watching those.

Thought gross-out comedies from the late 1990s had nothing to offer you? Wrong!

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, You were the future once

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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