Is Nice The Meanest Word In The English Language?

(Or: Captain Obvious Rang, He Wants His Insights Back)

Nice guys finish last, so they say (although who ‘they’ might be remains to be seen).

In Austen there are basically 3 types of male love interest: the PHWOAR-gasm – charming, sexy probably-a-soldier (bad guy); the guy she misjudged but she didn’t realise it at first cos’ he seemed like a total dick but actually on second glance is totally a good guy with a rockin’ bod; AND…

The obviously-a-good-guy, but he’s just too nice so that ain’t gonna’ happen but if he’s lucky he might get amongst a supporting character. Alan Rickman played him in Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility. See also: Mr Bingley – good enough for Jane maybe, but then again Jane’s equally insipid so doesn’t really count.

And before we start to sound like one of those vaguely misogynistic blogs by and for men who can’t get girls to fancy them and blame it on their inherent ‘niceness’ as opposed to their inherent personal failings, men are exactly the same, for exactly the same reason:

Here’s a list of things that are nice: BeeGees ballads, vanilla ice cream, pastels.

It’s not exhaustive, obviously, but to be fair it’s also not representative. Because we’re trying to demonstrate a point here. And that point is that ‘nice’ is the compliment people give when they can’t think of anything meaningful to say.

Nice is bland – it’s fine but nothing to get excited about or put any thought into, so far so, well, nice, right? But that’s not why it’s possibly the meanest word (alright, adjective) in the language.

This is: as it happens, nice hasn’t always meant, well… nice. Its archaic meaning around about the 13th century was ‘foolish, stupid or senseless’; your average Kate Hudson movie in other words.

Over time nice came to mean timid or uncertain, before developing to mean fussy or fastidious, then ‘dainty’ or ‘delicate’ (as in ‘of a fragile disposition’) and so on until the 16th century or so, when it primarily meant ‘scrupulously exact’. Which is a quality one expects in one’s accountant, prenuptial agreements and the taxman. Again, not exhaustive/representative, but you take my point.

The latter usage has been preserved in phrases such as ‘nice and early’ (ie punctual), incidentally.

So more or less until it achieved its current meaning of ‘pleasantly beige’, the word nice has signified a series of characteristics that most people would view as faintly insulting, like having your looks favourably compared to Predator.

And when you use the word to describe something, your implying of that narrative of meaning means that you’re being far meaner than you might have meant.

Meanie.

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How To Be A Blogger of Repute

Bloggers of repute write knowledgeably and engagingly about topics people are interested in. Here’s a recommended example:

4th Street Review

I on the other hand write this sort of thing:

“Gather round folks. Women and chillun to the front. I see you guys at the back there; pretending like that’s you on the ID. What is that, your brother’s driving licence? It won’t work, not with that chubby little baby face. You’ll be happy enough with it when you’re 40.

Now, I didn’t get where I am today just by drinking more white wine than is good for me. I had to get here first because here’s where they serve the sauce. To clarify, I’m not a white wine drinker, can’t even call myself an equal opportunities drinker – it’s red all the way or else.

I don’t believe in compromise.

But I digress; you want to know my secret, the secret of my success? Hey that sounds like a Bob Dylan lyric if he ever wrote a blog about how damn good he is at stuff.

Firstarters I like to give advice. Like advice on how to be so successful that every now and then one person will read your blog or at least find it. Here’s how to give advice:

1) ‘Doing’ is for people of little or no education or imagination – if you want to give advice don’t ‘do’, ‘think’. Thinking is how clever people with higher levels of education differentiate themselves from non-thinking ‘doers’ who lack the requisite sophistication to use words such as ‘requisite’ and ‘sophistication’. And remember: experience is over-rated.

2) In order to demonstrate that you are thinking (they will assume about their problem), scrunch your face up really tight, like you’re trying to fit it into a really packed cupboard, or you’re remembering the bitter aftertaste of sucking on a lemon that’s been soaked in iodine and isn’t really a lemon at all but is in fact a weak black hole that’s winning the fight.

3) Laughter is the best medicine. However, it is considered impolite or even insensitive to begin a course of treatment while the advicee is explaining his or her problem.

4) Platitudes are your friend. If you can’t think of any, just say ‘oh no you deserve so much better’ putting the emphasis on so and much and pausing slightly as you say those words (that’s the secret). Then distract them with a magic trick.

Secondly, I like non-sequiturs. “Later traitor!” yelled the Queen as she had someone beheaded for high treason. Just like that.

Remember, having an actual point to make is bourgeois, demonstrating or imparting knowledge is a waste of time because lies are prettier than facts and we all love the pretty things.

Never give in, never compromise. Eventually the world will see that you were entirely correct to dedicate a blog to alternative uses for old, soiled doilies.

Best of all, write crap like: The world is flat – it’s your perspective that’s round. People love that shit cos it sounds deep but it means nothing.

Go you.”

On Why The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy Isn’t What You Probably Maybe Think It Is. Possibly.

“the story of that terrible stupid catastrophe and some of its consequences.”

Arthur Dent enjoys cricket and tea and masks his crippling emotional repression and general reserve with a nice line in dry understatement. He has a friend; an out-of-work actor from Guildford called Ford Prefect. Except Ford’s not from Guildford, he’s not even from Surrey. He’s from a planet near Betelgeuse, which can’t be accessed via the A3.

And then the planet Earth gets destroyed to make way for a hyperspace bypass.

Suffice it to say, Arthur isn’t exactly prepared for this eventuality.

The trilogy in 5 parts (and definitely no more than that) is a clever-but-silly sci-fi saga, gently existential with cups of tea, towels and dressing gowns.

Between the movie, TV show and radio play I’ve always vaguely wondered how I’d gotten it so wrong with the books. After all I grew up on a diet of spiritual bedfellows Monty Python, Radio 4 comedy and Blackadder. Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry exemplified precisely this sort of cosy British humour for people who appreciate that not all jokes need involve penises or naughty words. In fact, author Douglas Adams was 1 of 2 people (the other being Neil Innes) to be given a writing credit by the Python team.

In the interests of full disclosure, I adore the books but abhor the rest. Perhaps it’s because for me the series isn’t Stephen Fry voicing the eponymous Guide and certainly isn’t old-fashioned or gentle.

Because it’s actually properly, nightmarishly, totally fucking dark.

Let’s start at the start: “most of the people were unhappy for pretty much of the time.” The book is written in an easy breezy, light-hearted fashion designed to hide the darkness but it’s there, hidden beneath the witticisms and puns, beneath the cricket, tea, bathrobes, chesterfield sofas, beneath even the fundamental universality of the gin and tonic. And, of course, beneath the towel.

That bloody towel is symbolic of everything lacking in most versions. As the eponymous Guide would have it, a man who knows where his towel is probably organised enough to possess all sorts of ostensibly more important things and is thus more likely to be lent said things by strangers. That is, one of the fundamental uses of the towel is to mislead perfect strangers in order to take advantage of them. Half the joke goes missing if that subtext is jettisoned.

And to make matters worse, Arthur’s in a dressing gown, probably the least appropriate apparel for traipsing around a universe that is at best indifferent to your continuing existence and at worst actively wants to end it. See above.

And finally to make matters even more worser than that (me speak English good), having survived the destruction of Earth, the appalling poetry of officious aliens and the depths of space, he ends up in a stolen spaceship so advanced as to have rendered hyperspace bypasses obsolete. Said spaceship’s existence predates the destruction of the Earth.

Which means that Earth was destroyed for absolutely no reason whatsoever. See above.

The fact that he shares this spaceship with a woman he failed to get off with at a party and the fugitive ex-president of the galaxy for whom she’d quickly abandoned him only adds insult to injury. Awkward…

Naturally enough Arthur’s response is to spend much of the first couple of books pining for a half-decent cup of tea.

But even this is almost pitifully emblematic. Replace the cup of tea with any other edible cultural signifier, particularly one that means something to you personally and you’ll see what I mean. People find comfort in food and drink, particularly those that remind them of home or security. Almost everyone Arthur has ever loved, despised or merely encountered is dead and gone, everything he has ever known no longer exists and will only ever be summed up by the words ‘mostly harmless’.

There’s no going back for Arthur, and he’s not quite bursting with useful talents or transferable skills, let alone any desire whatsoever to embrace his new circumstances. The tea represents a tiny reminder of a lost reality to which he can never return (later on of course he does, several times, but at this point he doesn’t know that).

It’s a form of grief in other words.

Over the course of the series the tone will evolve as we experience the galaxy through Arthur’s eyes and see him in turn become another jaded veteran, eventually turning his back on the galaxy to find a way home in So Long And Thanks For All The Fish.

That novel would have been a satisfying end to the series, offering some semblance of a happy ending for most of the characters. SLATFATF offers a diametric opposite of the previous 3 novels, with Arthur embracing technology and positivity and finding love home on Earth. The novel sees him ultimately making the conscious decision to return to space exploration with his new squeeze despite his previous experiences living as a bewildered refugee from an obliterated civilisation fearful of the galaxy’s next horror. I believe that’s called taking ownership.

But of course that positive outlook was swiftly undone by series closer Mostly Harmless, far and away the bleakest book, which painted the galaxy and its inhabitants as unthinkingly cruel, reflexively cynical; bitter. Mostly Harmless returned to the inherent technophobia of the series with a Hitchhiker’s Guide Mk II and introduced a new character in the form of Trillian and Arthur’s daughter, a girl whose bad experiences of the galaxy are more extreme even than Arthur’s own.

Douglas Adams intended to write a sixth instalment prior to his untimely death. He claimed to have been in a very dark place when he wrote Mostly Harmless and felt afterwards that maybe they’d deserved a slightly nicer send off.

So there you have it, the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy – on balance maybe not all that suitable for your 12 year old kid…

__

If all that hasn’t convinced you, I’ve one last argument up my sleeve: customer service doors that take enormous (and quite vocal) pleasure in opening for you.

Horrifying.

Party Animals

The flowers were, of course, beautifully arranged. “The lily represents both marriage and death. Such a heavy weight of symbolism for such a delicate thing.” Goose said to Badger. It was the sort of thing he said.

“I heard the old man died in bed, not his own, and not from sleeping.” Hyena was such a gossip. Hummingbird slurred in agreement – poor thing was a nervous wreck, what with her condition and all. And she had noted that everyone had noted that they’d seen that little blue dress  before, at another party a few months ago.

“Why yes, thank you,” Badger accepted another drink, “I find it helps the old writing.” The others tittered dutifully but averted their eyes; everyone knew Badger was a lousy writer and a red-eye drunk with wandering paws.

Cat glowered in the corner smoking a Gauloises; he’d been stood up by Arthur Miller. Or at least someone who said he was Arthur Miller (and why would he lie). They were going to talk about Cat’s screenplay, a bittersweet coming of age tale, which he’d been working on for much of the past 7 years. It didn’t help that he was tripping balls off some violent, violet opiate. Pig had fixed his last gin, and everyone knew Pig liked his little practical jokes.

“Taste this,” he’d said, “the secret is lemongrass.” Not much of a secret, but Pig lacked opposable thumbs, so to get a cocktail at all was nothing short of astounding.

“You should see my new personal trainer,” said Rabbit, “Almost obscene the things he wears. And so much…orange…I swear his skin matches his outfits.” She glanced meaningfully at Hummingbird’s indigo feathers. But Hummingbird was too busy distancing herself from sobriety to notice. “Hummingbird, darling, are you sure you’re not overdoing things?” But Hummingbird was too busy distancing herself from sobriety to respond.

“I don’t know where you put it all with that figure,” said Cow, not quite green with envy, “I wish I could eat whatever I wanted like that.” Spider laughed a tinkling laugh (Goose would describe it as mellifluous) “Darling, you’re too kind, but if you listen closely you can hear the creak of whalebone.”

She tapped on her crystal champagne flute. “My late husband would’ve hated the funeral – he was never one for pomp, but he’d have adored the wake – he always was a party animal. I’d like to thank you all for coming to this little send-off. It’s been difficult these past few weeks.

(“I heard she did the old man in herself,” whispered Hyena)

Spider broke off, she didn’t like giving speeches. Badger teetered towards her, wrapping an octopus arm around her waist. “If you need anything…” he said to her cleavage. He stank of whisky. She dismissed him in an Elizabeth Taylor voice: “You’re too kind, dear Badger, far too kind.”

“Have you ever killed a man?” asked Cow. “No.” replied Wolf – he was a creature of few words. They stood in awkward silence for a moment, Wolf stirring his drink with a yellowing stalk of lemongrass hoping to mask the unusual flavour (Pig had made it for him as an olive branch over all that unpleasantness with the real estate last year). Wolf was a mystery – he’d made a lot of money doing something no one understood. And, even more baffling, he never talked about it at all.

Hummingbird and Pig walked back into the room, taking care to appear nonchalant. But her dress was ruffled and her eyes were glazed. It was an open secret that she’d been bankrupting herself even before her husband had been laid off.

It was time. The ladies took it in turns to rummage in the bowl. Spider went first; it was her party. She pulled out the keys to a Mercedes and looked expectantly round the room.

“You know she’s four times a widow?” asked Hyena to anyone who would listen.

New Year’s Revolutions

I found Cary Elwes down the back of a sofa. It all started in a lift, an…elevator. Apropos of nothing, some cat started complaining about an eyelash trapped in his eye like a simile of your choice. I suggested he try blinking, he said ‘Abe Lincoln?’ and from there it all got a bit Mel Brookes. Robin Hood: Men In Tights, easily my favourite 1990s Robin Hood spoof starring Cary Elwes.

Here at Frood we trust that you had an enjoyable end of December-type period and are slowly ramping up to the blank slate of an arbitrarily delineated new year. Two neutrons have been drinking in a bar for several hours. One turns to the other and asks ‘what state are you in?’

Last year I chose not to make any New Year’s resolutions: I wouldn’t decide to join a gym, give up drinking or change my opinion of musical theatre. It was a resolution I managed to keep for the entire year. So there’s that.

But it got me thinking that maybe the problem with these resolutions is that they’re symptomatic of a roundhead impulse in a cavalier mind. That is to say that it’s not that they’re ‘good’ that’s the issue, it’s that they’re so damn worthy. And being good-with-a-capital-sanctimonious takes far too much energy, so they’re doomed to fail. That’s before one factors in the general ghastliness of January/February.

I accept that it probably is good to try and be a little more open-minded about musical theatre even if it is a punishment for theft in some cultures. I’ll even continue to accept that as a proposition unless and until I have to watch 2 minutes of fucking Cats (very poor choice of words).

But all that being said, maybe the point of a resolution shouldn’t be to stick to it. To be trite, maybe the journey matters more than the destination. Maybe it’s not the finding, but the searching.

Some years back I decided to try something new every month that I would ordinarily avoid like a Michael Bay movie.

I signed up for ballroom dancing classes with my then girlfriend, the next month I decided to see if I could condition myself to like bananas by eating one every day (nope). And so on. I’m pretty sure I stole the concept from an episode of Friends but the idea was a minor revolution for me – instead of asking why, I’d ask why not. I wouldn’t let my natural wariness of looking genuinely like a pillock put me off and I wouldn’t dismiss something for being uncool or somehow beneath me.

I figured that some things wouldn’t stick, others might, but either way in trying new things, especially things that I definitely ‘knew’ I didn’t like, maybe I’d get a new hobby, or a new perspective.

Of course a revolution is defined as a turn through 360 degrees, the net result being that you end up back where you started. Which sort of explains the Russian revolution of 1917 if you’re in a callous or even glib frame of mind.

So obviously nothing I tried stuck with me for long except for tennis which lasted a whole 3-4 months. I really wasn’t good at painting and I loathe running. And I failed to change my personality wholesale – I’m still a cynical know it all in need of a sound thrashing.

But with hindsight I enjoyed the process. And I think I’ll try it again this year – not a resolution, but a revolution.

One thing I clearly won’t be giving up on though is silliness. Because everything in life feels far too serious and if I play along with that I’m worried I might get found out.

So I didn’t find Cary Elwes down the back of the sofa. That was a lie. I found him in a box in my attic. It was Kurosawa I found down the back of my sofa, with my self-esteem and some loose change.