We need to be reminded that, as Montaigne said, no matter how high a man sits, he still sits on his own arse

A couple of days ago, I drove past a second-hand shop called "Junk and Disorder", which raised a smile. But I always wonder what it would be like to work in a shop with a name like that for month after month, as the joke wore thinner and thinner. Yet, when a name really works, you forget about the silly joke it was based on. You have to make an effort now to remember that the name "The Beatles" derived from a pun.

On the other hand, I have a weakness for really terrible names. Like most people who live in the country, I spend my life picking children up from one place and transporting them to another, and so I'm always hearing the final ten minutes of strange programmes on Radio 4, in which people are being given advice on buying an ISA or dealing with an ants' nest on their patio. This week, I tuned into the closing minutes of a programme about vegetarianism called Veg Talk. This isn't one of the all-time great bad names, such as Spud-U-Like, which is so strange that I've spent years wondering whether it's a pun or a distorted quotation or a cultural reference that I haven't spotted.

"Veg Talk" is good because it is almost comically dull, accentuated by the apparent belief that a note of thigh-slapping jollity can be introduced by using an unstuffy word such as "veg". It's rather like the belief that Anglican church services can be made relevant to teenagers simply by having someone shaking a tambourine. Veg Talk itself was very enjoyable. The bit I heard consisted of a phone-in. People rang in with their problems about vegetables and vegetation and, as often as not, the two cheery men presenting the programme didn't know the answer. A woman rang up because she had a favourite old plum tree growing by her house. She was moving house and wanted to plant it in her new garden. She thought there was a sapling from the tree growing beside it. Could she transplant it? Or would it be better to take one of the plums and plant the stone in her new garden? It was like Gardener's Question Time, but without the answers. The presenter wasn't sure what was best. However, his wife was a gardener and he'd ask her later. So if the woman could just write them a letter, they'd write back to her with the answer.

This was of limited usefulness for the rest of us, but for the first time I imagined I could have a future giving out advice on radio phone-ins. The next caller is R S from Southend. What's your problem? "Hello, Sean, I suffer from premature ejaculation. What should I do about it?" Hmm. That's a tricky one. Erm, well, I suppose, there are probably some good books that might help. Next we have D H from Halifax. "I think my wife's having an affair. What should I do?" That's awful. Maybe you should talk to someone.

I was cheered by Veg Talk, because it was one of those rare moments in the media when you get a flash of what real life is like, the way most of us don't really know much and flounder around doing our best. We live so much through TV and movies and the newspapers, and we need those glimpses that show us how false, or at least how contrived, most of it is.

Sometimes artists do this deliberately. It can be a form of self-sabotage, such as John Lennon's plans to record the Let It Be album without any "production", so that the Beatles legend would be exposed and destroyed. Now the "unplugged" style, the deliberately shaky camera, has itself become a form of artifice. Celebrities give their out-takes to Denis Norden to show that they are good sports. There are even fake bootlegs. Currently bouncing around the internet is a transcript of "out-takes" from an episode of Have I Got News For You, featuring obscene abuse of a famous guest. It is, in fact, a (very skilful) fake. I believed it until I was told - but then, I've still got an open mind about the Easter Bunny.

Obviously we need the media. If you've got a problem with your greenfly, it's useful to speak to people who know what they're talking about. But you also need those strange touches of reality, out-takes, leaks, pirated recordings and all manner of unauthorised things, just to remind us that, as Montaigne said, however high a man sits, he still sits on his own arse.

This article first appeared in the 24 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Miserable small-mindedness