culture


Why would someone say the opposite of what they mean? The usual explanation is that irony creates an incongruity setting up mockery or humour. It seems a dangerous stratagem if it evinces puzzlement or incredulity in their listener. It can backfire embarrassingly. Yet it prevalent in all cultures to a greater or lesser degree.

The benefits associated with using verbal irony must be significant if they are to outweigh the social risks. Suppose there were a country whose history was characterised by colonial subjugation and famine. The people were powerless but had to find hope. They used the power of the word to achieve three things: transcendence, solidarity and humour.
Irony stresses the absurdity in the contradiction between substance and form. Whatever fate or man would throw at the benighted peasants, they could maintain their dignity. They embraced the world as it might be, not as it was. Their language was of transcendence not of supplication. Furthermore, they wanted to show solidarity with their fellow souls. Given that the overt expression of defiance could be detrimental, it was necessary to have a different way of interpreting language. The simplest code was to reverse the usual meaning . A shared awareness of this doublespeak provides an element of control over the situation and numerous opportunities for humour.

Verbal irony has developed to a refined level amongst the Irish who are famous for their wit and repartee. Irish authors from Jonathan Swift and Laurence Sterne to Samuel Beckett and Oscar Wilde have been masters of irony. Their irony is not just a literary device – it is an essential element to communication in their contemporary culture.
American culture has a more circumscribed role for irony given the need to find a common language for the waves of immigrants speaking different tongues. If verbal irony was ever widespread, it was doused by the dynamics of economic growth and social progress. Yet it is visible in creative media such as The Simpsons which comments brilliantly on the modern world whilst appearing to be a childrens’ cartoon. Where there is social or political stasis, irony will bloom. Why are three Russian policemen travelling in a car? One to read, one to write, and one to monitor the two intellectuals.

There are five pubs closing every day in England. This trend has been increasing over the last few years. The pubs are giving way to more modern pastimes such as coffee houses and fast food joints. Beer sales are at their lowest since the 1930s. Supermarkets offer discounted prices on alcohol enabling domestic alcoholism and youth binge drinking. It is rare to plan a night’s entertainment as an evening in the pub. The public house has served as one of the most distinguishable aspects of culture in the British Isles. The uniqueness of the pub experience, its cosy friendliness, is what visitors to these shores remember. Yet, as usual, the tradition is fading fast.

Some pubs remain resolutely traditional. No recorded music, no Big Screen TV, no one-armed bandits. Many of these still have a loyal following. Yet vast numbers of this kind were disposed of during the property price boom. It was more profitable for landlords to sell the pub to develop some “luxury” or even “affordable” housing. The adverse impact on the community was not of their concern. Other pubs have become, in effect, restaurants. These “gastro-pubs” offer a sophisticated menu with the choice of fine wines. They are a few steps up from the traditional pub experience.
Another way forward is for pubs to adapt so that they retain a traditional feel whilst providing some of the experiences demanded by their younger clientele. Tradition requires some combination of a mixture of regular customers, traditional real ales, seats by the bar, a real fire, a snug, friendly bar staff, a pub landlord who had a career before, crisps and nuts and perhaps a sandwich as the only food available (because people would have a drink before eating at home). The next step up requires reasonably priced basic pub food such as fish and chips, a Sunday Roast and to be fully modern, a vegetarian option.

I was at a pub last night in Camden Town, the The Liberties Bar, which provides the next level of diversions. It has sophisticated recorded music- from jazz and reggae to rock and electronic chill- downstairs, but an acoustic set playing upstairs. The upstairs room also hosts comedy evenings and other events. It is an intimate atmosphere with lego sets and crayons and paper on the table to permit creativity.

The bar downstairs is in the centre with comfortable settees around solid wood tables. The lighting is as for a theatre with tiny hanging spotlights changing the mood periodically. The pool table attracts a group of young musicians and their entourage laughing and flirting as they played. A birthday party arrived comprising blue-painted smurfs with accompanying head gear. It was all very cool, very fashionable, very London. It is part of a trend. Pubs have a future.

Australians gave harrowing accounts of how they had survived the recent forest fires which had burned down their homes. They would have to rebuild their lives from scratch. In the emergency, their priorities were clear – to save family, neighbours, pets and animals. What struck me was that several spoke of their regret that they couldn’t save their photographs. Whereas a house could be rebuilt, and animals bred, photographs are irreplaceable. Photographs refresh cherished memories. Without the photographs, many memories would be lost. The memories of loved ones would be dimmed or lost forever.

Photos from the last century are generally on prints. I acquired my first digital camera in 2000. Not only did this make it easier to archive photos on digital storage, it also meant that I took many more photos. Rather than a photograph only being taken on special occasions it meant that all occasions became special. My parents used the famous Kodak Brownie to take pictures on film. We looked forward to when the developed prints would be returned from the chemist in a week or so. Each photo was pored over and discussed. It was the viewing as much as the taking which was special. The sentimental value built up.

Now I have thousands of digital and scanned photos and I struggle to keep them in order. I am therefore pleased with latest version of the Mac photo album software called iPhoto. It lets me classify photos by face in the easiest way imaginable: it suggests names for faces. After a few trials of yes and no, it gets the idea of who’s who and the tagging proceeds smoothly. The photos can also be linked to places. I can revisit a photo itinerary of my life. I enter geographical data manually but even this will be avoided with a GPS camera.

I would not want to lose my photos. I still get worried about whether I have a secure backup. No doubt remote sites like Flickr are of some help. Nor would I want to lose the albums I have created, the photo-histories, the itineraries and the presentations. They are irreplaceable.