Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Apart from the kid with the nuclear bomb, what could go wrong?

Every vaguely intelligent person accepts that you cannot believe everything you see in the media.

Generalist reporters irritate us as they trample heedlessly over our specialist subjects. Train nerds like me seethe at every reference to “a steam train” that actually means a locomotive, or the notion that freight is conveyed in carriages rather than wagons.

If Radio 4’s Today programme foolishly pronounces Alnwick as it is spelt, how many more of its “facts” may be similarly flawed?

Then there are those endless surveys suggesting that the great British public is bestially stupid, and recognises the name of Churchill only as a nodding insurance mascot.

Spot the difference: 1

I console myself with the belief that resentment of intrusive market researchers must tempt people to offer ludicrously wrong answers. At least until the next time I chance upon a TV or radio quiz show.

Then there are reports of the latest research proving that eating meat or drinking tea will give you cancer, or cure it. Usually both, on successive days.

Plus the news of fresh EU directives and European Court judgements, usually calculated to cause something to be thrown across the sitting room with a shout of “Haven’t they got anything better to do?”

At the highest level is live news footage of events that one can’t quite believe are actually happening. The fall of the Twin Towers on 9/11 and last year’s Japanese tsunami both fell into this category of a reality so dreadful that it seemed more likely to have been invented by a Hollywood studio with all the resources of computer-generated imagery at its disposal.

And then there is North Korea. Can any of us quite grasp the utter weirdness of that closed society: a hereditary monarchy that claims to be communist and whose leaders apparently enjoy lives of almost unbelievable self-indulgence while its people starve? Yet who stage epic displays of public grief when one Kim drops of the perch to be replaced by another, looking even stranger than the last. We have seen nothing like that in Europe outside Enver Hoxha’s Albania and the Miliband family.

Watching film of the elder Kim’s state funeral, I could not help thinking that the whole thing seemed far too much like a spoof conceived as a Christmas entertainment by the CIA. But then the catchphrase of another columnist kept echoing in my head: “You could not make it up.”

Dreaming up the sheer barminess of North Korea would have been beyond the satirical powers of Swift or Orwell, never mind the sort of American civil servants whose most original idea of the last century was trying to assassinate Fidel Castro with an exploding cigar.

I have only made one New Year resolution for 2012, in response to strong representations from my wife, and that is to spend more time counting my blessings. I shall begin by giving thanks that I do not live anywhere near the Korean peninsula, and in a free and open society.

Those of us of a Eurosceptic cast of mind are sometimes dismissed as “little Englanders” but I, for one, am anything but. I am delighted to live in a country that punches far above its weight in so many areas of art and science, and which has given the great gift of its language to the world. As communications improve, why on earth do some people insist that we must narrow our horizons and hop into bed with the girl next door, particularly when it is Frau Merkel?

Spot the difference: 2

There is only one thing that slightly dents my unusual sense of optimism at this time, and that is the fact that a chubby kid who appears a dead ringer for Timmy Timpson, the legendary spoilt brat from Viz comic, is currently sitting in Pyongyang nursing a nuclear trigger. That and those predictions that the world will end on 21 December, when the Mayan calendar runs out.

But, apart from that, what could possibly go wrong? Happy new year, everyone.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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