April 1, 2011 10:40 pm

In the mood for mediocrity

In a crisis, the second-rate has a great deal going for it

When your prevalent mood is “I’m-fine-as-long-as-no-one-asks-me-how-I-am”, how best to navigate life? When hard times strike and you spend more hours hospital-visiting than you do in your own home, and the merest pleasantry is liable to reduce you to a snivelling pulp, how do you safely leave the house, do your job, not alienate your loved and liked ones? How do you get through the days until things pick up? For they will. They will!

There are obvious things to avoid in a highly vulnerable state: junior choristers; school nativity plays; childbirth; Old Master paintings; pale pink camellias; the letters of Van Gogh. Music altogether should probably be given a wide berth; likewise poetry, churches, very crisp spring days, beautifully ironed linens.

All rites of passage will do you no favours: avoid any event liable to feature sugared almonds. In this mood, garments with raw-edged necklines can seem a bit close to the bone. Even a slice of white bread, springy and elastic, may seem unutterably poignant. A puddle of English mustard uneaten on the edge of the plate can strike you as a case of abandonment of the first order. Someone opening the oven door makes you jump a foot in the air. They could have warned you, surely?

I loathe the expression, “The best is the enemy of the good,” for the best is always worth striving for when so much in life is second-rate. But in a highly vulnerable state, the best is not your pal. In a crisis, the second-rate has a great deal going for it. You need porridge, light grey clothes, repeats of comedy shows where you can say the lines along with the characters. When Jane Austen and the first blossom seem almost more visceral than you can take, caution is everything. People you quite like are possibly more use than people you are crazy about. When you need catharsis, reread Herzog, listen to Bach; but when it’s distraction that you want, something lower middle-brow (the back of a Cheerios box, even), can be comforting in the extreme. Read it slowly, memorise it even, but do try not to think too much, or you’ll be sunk.

So, on Saturday night I went, specifically, to a film I chose because I knew it would not be very good. The film was limp and glib. Hooray! It was about some people, most of whom were quite thin, who made some decisions good and bad, and muddled along a bit and were a bit rude to their mums. Oh, at one point someone got a new kitchen, I think, and it was all done in a white-gloss finish. A pair who were not married went out to lunch in a restaurant with quite a bit of gold-leaf decoration. Later on someone else attended a seance, and meanwhile her daughter gave serious thought to opening an art gallery.

. . .

The film was set in a version of London that does not exist and never will. A writer lived on the ground floor of a shop in a little mews that was wall-to-wall books. Some time later he went into a coma. An Irish woman with blow-dried hair painted badly in a vast studio. Another character (I use the word loosely) bought a pair of earrings in the Burlington Arcade for £15,000, looking rather wistful.

Soon after that, the film ended. It was perfect: a film that was utterly unharrowing. They do still make them! I had felt nothing for 93 minutes. Success.

Dinnerless, I had allowed myself to eat popcorn compulsively throughout, scarcely pausing for breath, which always feels deluxe in a tranquillising way, and later on there were soft white kernels everywhere: in my pockets, in my shoes.

As my fellow movie-goers and I traipsed down the steps together to the weekend revellers and the odour of the streets below, I caught snippets of conversation.

“Where was the plot? Where were the characters? Halfway through I felt like poking myself in the eye with a chopstick.”

“Yes, you would say that, but then you’ve never been faithful to anyone in your life.”

“I know, but I’m still entitled to an opinion.”

One young woman was trying to get her money back. If she had been my daughter, I would have been insane with pride. She argued strenuously with the man at the ticket-booth, strong and feisty (which, incidentally, is what Marks & Spencer now has printed in a lacy script on the front of their jars of creamed horseradish).

“If the cinemas gave your money back every time the film was bad, they’d go out of business tomorrow,” I murmured to my date.

We sauntered home. Another day: tick!

susie.boyt@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/boyt

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