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10 February 2021

A reader accuses me of banality. I object to being singled out like that: aren’t we all banal now?

This accusation is a problem that the observational, humorous or lifestyle columnist is going to have to run into from time to time...

By Nicholas Lezard

I got into a Twitter row the other day. This happens from time to time. My antagonist was objecting to my column which touched on, among other things, the naming of storms.

“More banal crap,” wrote the Twitter user, “from a magazine that is now just a substitute for budgie cage sand sheets!” I’m not entirely sure what a budgie sand sheet is, but I think I get the drift. I asked the person in question when he or she thought the rot had set in. I was expecting an answer along the lines of “When they hired you”, but in fact what I got was “When they merged with New Society they let the trash in”.

Well, I have to say that’s quite the long view. This magazine let New Society’s trash in in 1988, and for a while it was actually called the New Statesman (in big letters) and Society (in rather smaller letters); and after a while – I forget how long – the words “and Society” were dropped. I would read this magazine occasionally around this time and remember the acquisition, but I can’t remember the Statesman being much changed.

But I digress. The word that arrested me in my online fisticuffs was “banal”. “Crap” I can kind of live with, as it is pretty much implied by the word “banal”. Now, although I am reasonably confident that my critic never actually read past the headline, the word “banal” stung. I prefer “mundane”, as its etymological roots are from the Latin mundus (the world, and also “clean, elegant”); but then, in the end, everything is banal. In Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, the writer John Courteney Boot meets a precocious child who keeps using the word:

“You seem to find everything banal.”

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“It is a new word whose correct use I have only lately learnt,” said Josephine with dignity. “I find it applies to nearly everything.”

[see also: Now that Christoph has blown through, perhaps it’s time to spice up the names we give our storms]

And this is a problem that the observational, humorous or lifestyle columnist is going to have to run into from time to time. The other day I read a column about ranch dressing by Adrian Chiles in the Guardian which, on first reading, enraged me with its banality; but who am I to cast the first stone? At least by the time you’ve read his column you will have his own recipe for vegan ranch dressing, which presumably no one else on the planet save him and his partner (who, by an endearing coincidence straight out of a romantic comedy, happens to be the editor of the Guardian) had ever known. He then wrote about brushing his teeth, and I began to see his virtues as a columnist: taut, focused, alert. (“The hygienist gave me three sizes of those little pokey brushy things, explaining they work better than flossing,” etc.)

I was once told that I could write an essay about the inside of a ping-pong ball if I was asked to; this used to be a punishment from a certain kind of teacher at a certain kind of school, and although I was never given the task, it seemed like an amusing challenge.

But now we are all stuck inside our ping-pong balls; pity, or at least indulge, those of us who have to describe them. Yesterday the internet started acting up so I visited the downstairs neighbours to ask for their password again, and even though I only stepped a pace or two into it, I actually got to see the inside of someone else’s flat. I think the last 11 words of that sentence should be in italics.

From what I could see, it looked like a very nice flat, chief among its virtues being that it was not mine. You have probably heard enough about my flat over the past few weeks, but it occurs to me that the colour scheme, from carpet to ceiling, is pretty much what you would see from the inside of a ping-pong ball on a dull, sunless day, and not much larger.

“How big is your flat?” asked one of the neighbours. It was, he soon realised, perhaps not the most tactful of questions. I gestured at the kitchen to my right.

“Two rooms, each about the size of that,” I said, “plus a kitchen” – I gestured to the 6ft stretch of corridor to my left – “about the size of that.”

“Ah,” he said. He and his partner looked a little abashed. “I thought all the flats here were the same size,” he said from the distant depths of their living room which, compared to my flat, seemed to be about half a day’s walk from where I was standing.

“Have you made it nice?”

Again, not the consoling question, not that this was his fault. (I must stress that they are really nice neighbours.)

“No,” I replied, “I have not.”

Still, there are things that are nicer in my new flat than my old one: the desk, the bed, the fridge (it is still the size of a student fridge, but has a little freezer compartment that works fine sometimes), the view, and… oh God, how banal. But then, we’re all in the same boat now, aren’t we?

[see also: The novelty of idle time has worn off. Life in a pandemic is repetitive, and I am bored]

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This article appears in the 10 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, End of the affair