How I Spend It: Lionel Shriver on absurd headlines
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I collect absurdity. Having clipped idiocy from newspapers for years, a while back I assembled my treasures into a massive collage that now looms over our dining table to disconcert guests. If the assemblage is an artwork, its genius isn’t my own, but that of the many loons and petty bureaucrats behind stories that, novelist or no, I could not make up.
The mounted clippings cluster into sections: civilian absurdity, government absurdity, violent absurdity, and absurdity beyond category, like “Wife swap vicar in leather too drunk to lead the choir”. I wasn’t sure where to put “Dwarfs in suitcases rob coach passengers” either.
My violence corner identifies an unexpected connection between carnage and food: “Husband smashed plate and bit wife on the nose because she gave him too many Brussels sprouts” or “PC assaulted wife when he ran out of bread to toast”. A customer lays waste to a bakery for running out of “sweet tooth fairy cakes”.
The lunacy of officialdom is the gift that keeps on giving: “PE teacher sacked for wearing trainers”. A Manchester train station puts up “No Kissing” signs to speed up commuting. The EU fines an English vintner £30,000 because his liqueur bottles hold 37.5cl rather than 35cl. A government initiative sends “food champions” door to door to teach householders how to use leftovers. France deploys 175,000 “cigarette police” to enforce its smoking ban, but has only 136,000 soldiers in its army. After a year of investigation and costs of £10,000, “a council is finally on the verge of discovering the identity of a man who kept saying ‘baa’ during a planning meeting”.
More fun with food! M&S spends 13 years and £2m in a legal fight with HMRC over the status of marshmallow teacakes. Tesco refuses to sell a slice of quiche to a shopper unless she proves she’s 21.
Aesthetically, my creation might have been improved had I solely pasted headlines, but some text was so delicious that I couldn’t allow all that precious madness to scissor to the floor. In one full article, a PC who put a dying, run-over cat out of its misery is prosecuted by the RSPCA across two years and eight hearings. The case cost £50,000. Another full article enjoying pride of place describes an £8,000 court case after a teenager was forcefully arrested and handcuffed by two officers for barking at dogs.
Unsurprisingly, airport security features. An airline pilot has his nail clippers removed lest he “hijack himself”, though a crash axe is installed in his cockpit. An airport police officer routinely sails through security with CS spray, baton and handcuffs, but always has his bottle of water confiscated.
There’s an existential section: “One in 10 thinks that life is not worth living” (according to a survey, “10 per cent of the population believe they would be better off dead”) and “People with boring lives are twice as likely to die young.” And the classic: “Woman sues for being born.”
Naturally, political correctness provides. Sydney instructs public Santas to avoid saying “ho, ho, ho!”, a word “too close to the US slang for prostitute” that “might offend women”. EU guidelines forbid the phrase “Islamic terrorism” as “too emotive”, recommending instead, “terrorists who abusively invoke Islam”. Snappy.
Since finishing the collage – which I’ll ignore for months, and then suddenly “Agoraphobic man dies after going out” is funny again – I’ve accumulated a whole new tranche: “Woman used fake penis for sex with duped lover”. Yet I can’t clip digital newspapers, and lately I have relied on my husband to rescue prize specimens like “Pet ban for man who fried gerbil” from the Evening Standard when he takes the Tube. Printout isn’t the same. If we lose hard-copy papers forever, I’ll have to find another hobby.
What, you ask, do I get out of it? I make a regular effort not to take myself too seriously. My clippings remind me not to take anyone else too seriously, either.
The Motion of the Body Through Space by Lionel Shriver is published by The Borough Press, £16.99.
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