cliché /ˈkliːʃeɪ/ [noun]: a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought: that old cliché ‘a woman’s place is in the home’; ’the usual worn-out clichés about the English’
cliché [mass noun]: a mixture of good humour, innuendo, and cliché; a very predictable or unoriginal thing or person; each building is a mishmash of tired clichés; you’re a walking cliché
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A tweeter fellow, or fellow tweeter – follower and followee, phew! – friend and inhabitant of Manchester, recently tweeted me in praise of a blog post regarding “British edge”. Praise is nice; it makes it all worthwhile – we write for other people as well as to ward off madness.
My gratitude aside, it also got me thinking about my novel, Wood, Talc and Mr. J, about one of the book’s numerous recurring themes:
I offer you a snippet from chapter 12, in which our hero, Phillip, has recently filched a pair of bowling shoes – Soul dancing essentials – from his local bowling alley:
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… And by the time I’d slipped into the iron-hot slacks, even my mum recognised I’d been putting off the taut, end of week debate: to wear or not to wear the shoes en route. I leaned against the mantelpiece. ‘’Practically brand new.’
‘They soon won’t be,’ said my mum. ‘When have you been to Wigan and it’s not rained in Manchester?’
My grom agreed: ‘What are the odds it won’t rain in Manchester tonight?’ Neither of them looked for an answer.
‘They’re right, Phill,’ said little Sam. ‘Manchester’s rainy.’
‘You risk getting caught every week,’ stated the last in line, to close a lid on it, ‘and they get half wrecked by rain walking through Manchester…’
Once more, consensus sat on the multi-badged bowling bag, bowling shoes nestled within. And once more, I wouldn’t listen. For while ever their clichés rattled my cage – as well as the nag there was no straight-through train – I’d look up and raise the two figurative fingers like my figurative hand were no longer my own, and put on the shoes from the outset…
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Now, an analytical eye may have discerned that all four speaking characters use ‘rain’ and ‘Manchester’ in their respective lines. I recall tittering to myself when writing those lines, like might a naughty school boy. Why is that? I wonder… I mean, it does rain in Manchester, doesn’t it?
Is it, then, the mischievous thought of me rattling the odd Mancunian cage, with my cliché, as is the case for Phillip, target of the family onslaught?
No… Categorically, no. I wouldn’t want to do that: during the cold war, I recall hearing that, because our strategically aimed nuclear missiles were, in effect, two thirds fiction, if ever the Russians were to invade, our political and military leaders would rely on City supporters.
I should point out that, although Phillip, a Sheffielder, conveniently blames all on some ridiculous cliché – he’ll wear those shoes en route if it’s the last thing he ever does! – the trouble he encounters further down the line is due to Manchester rain, however indirectly. And if he were honest, he’d agree with his family – we need only ask ourselves why he’s so disgruntled about there being no straight-through train.
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… Piccadilly ahoy, I tucked up the shoes beneath the jacket, at either side of the prized white powder – a voice proposed gondolas for our Lancastrian Venice; he’d be writing to the town council first thing Monday morning. I wasn’t in the mood tonight, for shunning puddles like pools of pestilence until Victoria…
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I’ll say no more about the “trouble” – that’s for you to find out for yourselves.
‘So what, it’s only fiction!’ I hear you scoff.
Which brings me back to my naughty titters, and possibly to the real reason for them: perhaps I wanted to get something off my chest. The book’s based on personal experiences, when all’s said and done; and my memories swear to me that on my trips to Wigan’s Casino Club, it rained in Manchester more than it didn’t…
Or, are my memories but fragments of a forgotten, bigger picture? Memories due, then, only to their re-enforcement of… yes… the CLICHĖ?
I did, in fact, mention writing about Manchester rain to my Mancunian friend, who, however subtle with it, became a tad defensive, which is natural: she’s proud of her great and vibrant city. But it is phenomenal, how some, otherwise intelligent, people, can, as with the idea of, say, conspiracy theories, appear to possess something of an automatic defensive shutter, and are ready to raise it the instant such matters are, indeed, raised. It’s more of an intransigent bloc – as with Phillip’s own world view: “up or down, us and them, black, white and nothing in-between”; admirable, is his passion, but…
Another reason for my friend’s being a tad defensive is that, well, what may seem normal to her may not seem normal to the rest of us.
BUT, to a large degree, my friend is still right – even despite the fact that stats don’t lie.
And this, I believe, is what this blog post is about: about how we, as human beings, will quite naturally combine part truths with our uniquely human love of, and need to, tell stories.
What was it Blavatsky said?
“… the universe is never the same for every word spoken.”
And I say: Yes. Stories guide us; our world is in narrative form.
Thus, the cliché is born.
They’re very convenient, clichés, for a writer – whether Phillip likes that idea or not.
My personal intrigue for the concept, I think, stems from the number of people I’ve met through the years who actually remind me of Phillip, in their own way: people of the black, white and nothing in-between variety.
And it matters not their politics: left or right, apparent blindness is apparent blindness.
As with conspiracy theories, when it comes to the cliché, the political right are purists, fervent advocates of the cliché – ‘O’ course the French smell, it’s just that nob’dy dare say it! All frogs’ legs, red wine and garlic, that lot, an’ they don’t brush their teeth, grrrr…!’
‘When were you last in France?’ I might ask.
‘Jokin’, aren’t ya! Wouldn’t get me over there!’
Going back the other way, to the other end, the left, well, it’s different but… kind of the same – ‘Look, I’ve been to France enough times to know better!’ barks the university professor, all China-tea-stained teeth and stale breath. ‘Nothing more than a cliché – Look, it’s where I take my holidays, for heaven’s sake! We have a gite in the Loire Valley… Thriving ex-pat community, actually, we recently founded a bridge club…’
I don’t speak, at this point: I simply desire to smack him in the face… And that’s just for his breath.
What I ascertain from all this is, firstly, that the latter one, of the left, via his lovely, liberal-minded ways, is utterly fearful of offending anyone, whoever it may be – as for ‘les banlieus’, the extremely rough housing estates, out there, out of harm’s way, they’re just too far off the map. Too far off to exist.
It is a form of blindness.
The former, of the right, on the other hand, is just utterly fearful. And therefore endeavours to hide behind a too thinly veiled, forged worldly wisdom.
Again, it is a form of blindness.
One student of mine, in Lille, hated England and the English so much – barring your author; I was “différent des autres”, and “un type bien” – that he wouldn’t have visited the country even if you paid him.
“Why is that?” I once asked him.
“Because the food’s shit!” he replied. “All roast beef an’ fried crap” – his best friend had told him, who’d heard it from his other best friend, who’d…
“So what do you normally eat, Pascale?”
“Ben… poulet et frites quoi – Qu’est-ce-que tu veux, j’suis du Nord, moi!” – “Oh, ya know, chicken an’ chips, I’m a Northerner!”
And yet, however ignorant Pascale’s viewpoint may appear, there is still some truth in what he says. And, either way, I would never have acquired that viewpoint without having acquired his tongue….
Maybe I should say having acquired his language… and culture.
Yes, Pacale spouted French clichés like they were ready to become extinct, but they, clichés, are born of truths, of differences of cultural behaviour, however big, however small, nothing more; they’re simply there to be recognised. We may even learn from them, and should never be afraid of them.
They exist. They are truths. And they can be fun:
About ten years ago, my partner and I decided to spend Christmas in Whitby, North Yorkshire – as you do. It meant a coach ride from Lille to Dover before a hired car onward…
Aiming to avoid the Dartford Tunnel at all costs, we certainly hadn’t foreseen traffic problems elsewhere, around East London – Tilbury way… During the standstill, after about an hour or so, someone further up the chockerblock lane got out of his vehicle, proceeded up a side embankment and, for ours and everyone’s pleasure, peed for… well, not exactly Harry, England and….
“‘Got to be French,” tittered my good lady.
“Too right,” I sighed, fed up with all this traffic.
And, low and behold… It was the number plate on the back of his car, which eventually informed us of his nationality. How we laughed! Well, I did once the traffic started moving again. Other than that, it wasn’t too out off the ordinary…
We’re told never to make sweeping generalisations about people and things, at all costs; taught to conveniently pass matters off, even when confronted with visible facts. And I wonder just how unhealthy, and stupid, it may be to turn two blind eyes. And the fun we may miss out on!
‘Is a Frenchman, then, liable to get it out anytime anywhere, whenever the need grips him?’ you may ask.
No. But don’t be too alarmed, if, when in France, you do happen to see, generally an older man, with it out on a busy high street. I guess it all depends just what he’s doing with it…
‘So, does it always rain in Manchester?’ you may also ask, ‘because it sounds to me like you’ve been there lots, too?’
No, of course not. But what I will say is that if you are planning to spend a decent amount of time in Oasis country, a), don’t be disappointed if you don’t see gondolas, and, b), an umbrella may just come in handy…
Your literary, soulful friend