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Is it ever sensible to be sarcastic or funny in answering didactic questions from immigration or custom officers?

Not worth it. I once arrived in Sydney and was asked, “Where are you coming from?”, to which I replied, “With warmth and love,” whereupon I was put in a room for an hour for being obstructive to an officer. But if you were to be terribly clever and witty, occasionally you might get away with it. The great Quentin Crisp, a declared homosexual at the time when it was a bit of a big deal, was once asked by an American immigration officer if he was a “practising homosexual”. “Certainly not,” Crisp replied, “I am perfect at it.”

When people decide to take out their phones and show me pictures of their children without being asked, is it rude of my childless self to reciprocate by showing photos of my dogs? If it is OK, should I equal their enthusiasm or do I take it up a notch?

I find it very tiresome when baby photos are shown to me. All newborn babies look the same to me. I often wonder if it might not be something similar that makes westerners believe we Chinese look all alike to them. Even worse is when the proud parent points out how much a baby takes after one parent or, even more miraculously, both of them. I always react honestly by saying that psychologically, it is only a sense of insecurity that makes parents visualise these similarities. But I must admit showing off your dogs is equally tedious. My point is why do we need to carry any photographs at all of our loved ones? They would remain much more treasured if we merely hold their images in our heads. Just consider those who have extramarital affairs. They ain’t about to leave photographs of their secret lovers in their wallets and start showing them off, are they? Yet these unseen characters are perhaps the ones most loved or desired. That’s why I do not take photographs. If I particularly want to be reminded of someone or an occasion, I’d sooner write things down so that I have to use my imagination to invoke their memory. Indelible records always stay in the mind without the need of physical evidence.

There seems to be a growing consensus that it is in fine taste to hang a flat-screen television over a fireplace. Something about this trend has always struck me as tacky, though I can’t say I can really put my finger on why. Perhaps it’s because in the past that space often served as a location for an important object, such as a painting or a sword. Am I being ridiculous? It seems to be very common now, especially in the US, even among the super-rich.

It is indeed exceedingly common to hang a flat screen over a fireplace, and doubly naff if it were to be a working fireplace. Imagine a roaring fire – one of the most warming and comforting aspects to enhance a room – being distracted immediately above by vulgar advertisements in between mindless games and soaps or gratuitous violent movies. A flat screen above a fireplace also anchors it as the centre of gravity of the room, which says a great deal about the wanton relegation of books and conversations that are the very linchpin of civilisation.

And you are right about the TV being a very poor substitute for a proper painting, although you might be wrong that a sword should ever be hung above a fireplace, unless you had thousands of them and they could be arranged magnificently, as in the Sword Room at St James’s Palace. I don’t have a collection of swords but I do have a great variety of flick knives, which I have arranged in a large glass case that hangs in the hallway to my set at Albany. I think it suggests masculine street cred.

As for the super-rich, or more to the point, the nouveaux riches, they seem to hang as many big flat screens as they can all over their vast houses, whether or not there are fireplaces. The proof of this comes from the endless pages of Hello! magazine in which the homes of so-called “celebrities” are consumed in the background by flat screens – in the kitchen, sitting room, dining room, “study”, bedroom and even bathrooms. It is all a bit pathetic if one thinks they could all be substituted and better enhanced by a small Roberts wireless set that is easily taken from room to room, gently issuing intelligent programmes from Radio 4 or wonderful music from Radio 3 or even titillating gems from Classic FM.


Letter in response to this article:

Is the flatscreen ever turned off?/ From Mr Steve Lemon

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