Having completed reading Lynne Truss’s book, I’ve found that I must choose between two possibilities; either I am becoming increasingly intolerant and grumpy as I, too, grow older, or that she is right. I don’t want to think that I am living out what I believe was Churchill’s maxim about being liberal in one’s twenties and conservative in one’s forties, I really don’t. But there was a lot which resonated with me in Talk to the Hand (in itself a dated reference of a title). Ms Truss, well-known as author of Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, is forthright about her intent: it is a rant, and it’s a very personal sort of rant. And what I found worrying and rewarding in equal measures was that the rant more than once resonated with me, and made me think “she’s got that spot on.”
What didn’t resonate, however, was enough to give me pause. I suspect that Ms Truss is more conservative than I typically count myself to be. I am not bothered by some of the things that she is, or at least, not in the same way. Her fury at technology, for example, is not the same as mine, nor is it for the same reasons. She seems to simply fail to comprehend its intricacies, but I worry about what it’s doing to the way in which people (and more specifically my immediate family and I) think (qv; The Shallows). Further, I have no problem countering rudeness with escalated rudeness, and apparently my non-smiling demeanor is usually sufficient to ensure that I win such rare encounters. I will stop patronizing businesses that are rude, and I will write letters and emails. And as one of those people with a regular fixation on behaving in a civil way, and teaching my kids to do the same, I can honestly say that I’ve never been lectured on equality by anyone for holding a door (fingers crossed), which is something that I still do, because I had family members who accepted nothing less. The difference there may simply be a question of place: Lynne Truss lives in London, a city of ten million (or more, I’ve lost count): I do not.
Ms Truss has picked up the things which make her cringe in society, but honestly, they aren’t the sorts of things which would make one stay home to bolt the door. Zombies would make me stay home and bolt the door. Or Republicans. But this book is a rant, as I mentioned: the rant, one says hesitatingly, of Middle England. It’s a bit like listening to characters wittering on in the later series of Midsummer Murders, and finding the disconnect from reality to be almost too much to bear the suspension of disbelief that the murder with a bowlful of eggs and eels requires. In fictional Midsummer, it seems that everyone will always vote Tory, except for the wild youth (bless!), but there will still always be an NHS and a BBC and a local post office and library, despite the real-world Tories having sold all of those things off and turned them into wine bars for City types. There’s a slippery paradox at the heart of this book, which is that everyone should always want the same sort of society: that of the ‘good old days.’ And of course, nostalgia, the longing for the perceived simplicity and superiority of the way things used to be is a trap, the biggest trap of all.
I am led to wonder, too, just how much worse the state of manners has gotten for Ms Truss in the past ten years? Not only has there been the rise of the dumbphone, with its commensurate drones with their slack jaws and dull eyes flickering across tiny text (thanks, Apple – I don’t think), but also a rise in so-called “social media,” with its endless driveling “updates” from whatever you’d call the opposite of “the great and the good” – the hoi polloi, perhaps – about what kind of sandwich they had for lunch. Sure, it’s used for other things (this blog is even linked for promotional purposes to Twitter and Tumblr, wink), but a lot of what is written is, let’s be Frank, Alice, and Ted about this, complete bullshit. If it were possible to waste electrons and if pixels had feelings, there’d be dismay all around. And I’m relatively certain that Talk to the Hand’s author may well have thrown her hands up in disbelief at how much further things have devolved in a decade’s time.
Quite recently, I saw the “news” that Facething was going to add a “dislike” button, and that fact was treated as news by the BBC?! I’m sorry, but that isn’t news – news is something that matters. Not that we would know as much, of course, in a world where many of the newspapers have gone as well, and those that are left are generally pale imitations of anything resembling “journalism,” preferring instead to proffer bland pablum to anything resembling the gathering of timely, important news. For that matter, all of the surviving media have gotten into the game, to the point where many television and radio outlets seem to have also forgotten what journalism is (hint to my local NPR affiliate: it isn’t trawling around your listeners and viewers to get them to send in story ideas, or making up programmes out of uninformed “listener feedback.” You’re the bloody media, you’re the ones getting paid. Report something, and do your own damned legwork).
In the end, though, none of this really matters. We of any given generation have always failed to live up to the previous generation’s expectations, since we first put pen to paper or chisel to stone. Every generation’s thoughtful membership feels at some point – if it has any self-awareness whatsoever – that the world has gone to hell, that everything is falling apart, and that surely we’re not too far from the end. And yes, civilizations have ended, but generally, as T.S. Eliot once said, “not with a bang, but a whimper.” That is the uncertainty of endings: you can’t know them until you have lived through them, and definitively seen the New Thing, whatever it may be, start. Truss may rage, rage against the dying of the light, but in my darkest moments I can honestly say… what’s the point? So roll on, the next big thing. Some of us are ready to face you down, and demand that you stop spitting your gum on the pavements, working a till while jabbering on your mobile, and driving while texting (though hopefully natural selection and aggressive trees will pick off most of those).
Originally reviewed 18 September 2015.
Find your copy of Talk to the Hand on AbeBooks.com.