SOD THE PUBLIC: A CONSUMER'S GUIDE
Kingsley Amis rehearses an alphabet
of annoyances perpetrated on the public by those who should be serving us
ABOUT this A-Z: 'Sod the public' is the working slogan not only of government, service industry and retail trade, but also, as 'sod the customer', 'sod the audience' and other variants, that of interior desig- ners, providers of culture, playwrights, composers and many more. For further explanation see CAUSES.
ARCHITECTURE: Most artists, or people who think of themselves as such, have to get the public to watch or listen before they can sod it. The famous pile of bricks at the Tate Gallery was powerless against those who never went to see it, and while still on the shelf Finnegans Wake is impotent. Architects are different. They have the unique power of sodding the consumer at a distance, not just if he lives or works in the building concerned, or just when he passes it a couple of times a day, but also when he happens to catch sight of it miles away on the skyline. ARTS COUNCIL: Grants and bursaries from this detestable and destructive body in effect pay producers, painters, writers and such in advance. This is a straight invitation to them to sod the public, whose ticket-money they are no longer obliged to attract, and to seek the more immediate approval of their colleagues and friends instead (see CLUB). The system encour- ages a habit of thought whereby 'creative' people can be divided into artists, who deliver serious, important, innovative, dif- ficult stuff and so of course have to have financial help, and entertainers, whose work is easy to understand, enjoyable and therefore popular — you know, like rock music and John Betjeman's poetry, and whose very title to the label 'creative' is shaky. Thus an organisation created to foster art and bring it to the public turns out to be damaging to art and cutting it off from the public. Only those in the trade profit. Compare NATIONALISED IN- DUSTRIES and MODERNISM.
CAMRA: The Campaign for Real Ale is an inspiriting but lonely example of rolling back a powerful sod-the-customer tenden- cy. Likely to remain lonely because not all such causes have this one's appeal. Move- ment for Cleaner Trains? Alliance for Sensible Poetry? It seems unlikely. CAUSES: The causes, that is, of the phenomena listed. Among them must be centralisation and the tendency to monopoly, the growing power of bureau- crats and experts, and that affluence which has transformed the old relationship be- tween shopkeeper and customer. The shopkeeper need no longer study the cus- tomer because if he loses one there will be another along in a minute, and the custom- er needn't study the shopkeeper because if one purchase goes wrong there is enough money left to try again elsewhere. The Architecture question of causes may well be worth following up and a single, primal one may perhaps be discoverable. What has in- terested me more here has been the di- versity and yet the similarity of the effects.
CLUB, how it will go down at the: Where, 100 years ago, a composer or a playwright or a poet was influenced to some degree by what the general public might think of his new work, today such a person is more likely to wonder instead how it will go down at the club, i.e. in the circle of his colleagues, his friends in the profession, certain critics and a more or less specialised and expert section of the public. The effect of this is to drive him towards the technically stimulating, the obscure and the 'sophisticated' and away from the older goals and values of what- ever can be called pleasing, straightfor- ward, entertaining, popular; sod the audi- ence, in fact. Over-concern with club opinion is often obvious in modern ARCHITECTURE, in interior design (see PUBS), and in several features of film and television style: thrillers made baffling rather than legitimately puzzling, distract- ing use of camera, 'clever' cutting and the whole flood of mischievous send-ups, de- lightful romps, tongue-in-cheek spoofs and hilarious take-offs, particularly to be found in espionage and gangster stories. Nobody outside the industry likes send-ups, as far as I know, though individual examples may be tolerated for their moments of straight action. But a few flip jokes will protect you from being asked by someone at the club, `Going for teenage market now, Cy?' It may be significant that the outrageous- romp school of spy-crime story has never caught on in printed fiction. See also FILM DIRECTORS and SPECTACLE- FRAMES.
Note: The club in the present sense may well be typified by an actual association or place and its members or habituds, like the Green Room, the BBC Club in Portland Place, the bar at Pinewood Studios and innumerable arty places of resort.
COINAGE, decimalisation of: Never accepted by the public, in that nobody talks of tuppence or fivepence or tenpence, as whoever wished it on us might have thought we would one day, if he thought about it at all — always two p and five p and ten p.
CONCORDE: The turned-down nose of this aircraft is rather ugly. The original straight version looked much nicer, very pretty in fact, but it was discovered that the pilot couldn't see downwards properly from it. Sodding the public does sometimes stop short of actually killing it.
COUNTIES: Changing the names and boundaries of half the counties in Great Britain and abolishing others is an effective way of sodding the citizenry not only on a large scale but for a long time, until all those who remember the old ones are dead, in fact. Except for those who are part of the new system, none of them has ever accepted the change.
DENTISTRY: Once you sat in a chair, now you lie down on a sort of couch. Nastier for you, producing feelings of helplessness among the old and nervous, but nicer for him because he can sit down. A good textbook example of sod the patient.
EFTA: Easier-For-Them Association. Other bodies are obviously at work, like NBC (Nasty But Cheaper) and NKVD (Nanny Knows Very Definitely), but in this country, where the ruling passion is not for more money or power but for less work, EFTA rules.
FILM DIRECTORS: For some reason these have become peculiarly devoted to sodding the customer. Successful ones seem to become so powerful, through their ability to attract star actors and so on, that they can be as self-indulgent, whimsical, mannered and digressive as they please. If a new film comes along and you recognise its director's name, think twice about going.
GPO: So called here to suit my conveni- ence for once in my dealings with it. No need to go over Sunday collection, direc- tories, telephone-boxes, telegrams. One possibly new point: have you ever tried to find out the telephone number of your neighbourhood — or any other — post office? If you knew it, you see, you could ring up and ask about second-class postage to Zaire instead of having to go and queue up to ask.
HOTELS (British): No other institu- tions quite touch these in their single- minded devotion to the interests of those who work in them and indifference to those of the idiots who use them. Illust- trations unnecessary. Motto: 'Can I help you, sir/madam?' i.e. 'What the hell do you want?' Founder-member of EFTA.
JAZZ: The first performers of 'modern' jazz in 1941 showed a remarkably clear sense of what they were doing by literally turning their backs on the audience. The first jazz musicians to be given an Arts Council grant were the North-Eastern Jazz Band in 1968.
LAVATORY BOWLS: The old design with a steep inside enabled a reasonably careful gentleman to urinate without spill- ing a drop. The new (newish) one makes it almost impossible not to bounce a couple on to the floor. But it is new.
LIGHT-SWITCHES: When carrying a tray etc. you used to be able to put the light on with your wrist or elbow (and also sometimes open the door-catch in the same sort of way), but now you have to put the tray etc. on the ground or somewhere. Compare TAPS.
MAGAZINES: The growing practice of not numbering advertisement pages, and so forcing the reader to turn through them while looking for what he wants, supposed- ly makes him more likely to buy and demonstrably sods him at the same time.
MEDICINE: Signs here of a turn of the tide. In America a revolutionary new technique is being developed of asking the patient how he feels on the new treatment, etc, and paying attention to what he says.
MODERNISM: This is an immense subject. For now, consider only that the movement in its very beginnings 80 or more years ago set out to 'liberate' the `artist' (the inverted commas are a bit cheap but are also time-saving) from the need to please or be comprehensible to or otherwise concern himself with the public. `I believe that a real composer writes for no other purpose than to please himself. Those who compose because they want to please others and have audiences in mind are not real artists' — Arnold Schoenberg, who does not go on to say whether or not he considers Mozart, Beethoven and others to be real artists. The undoubted fact that Picasso (and not he alone) was immensely successful says a great deal about the art trade and not much about public taste, except its suggestibility. No Jazz modernist composer, film-maker, play- wright, poet or novelist has ever appealed to more than a small, specialist group, nor ever will. In this country the movement would probably have expired altogether by now without the life-support machine pro- vided by the ARTS COUNCIL.
MUSIC ON RADIO: There are several musical publics, including a large occasion- al one (A) that owns and plays some classical records, goes to a concert or the opera a couple of times a year and often listens to music on the BBC when it fancies the selection; and a much smaller one (B) that reads scores, goes to concerts and recitals at least once a week and keeps up with musical developments. What (A) likes best is the period roughly 1770-1920, espe- cially its orchestral and operatic music. Although (B) cannot be described as car- ing exclusively for 20th-century music, not many in (A) like it much, except for a few special works, chiefly operas. A quick survey shows that the music broadcast on Radio 3 divides about equally between (A) and (B), which considering the respective size of each is sodding most of the public most of the time. (By a terrific concession, about a fifth of the (A) stuff goes out at 7-9 a.m., when the car radios are on.) The point is that (B) is much more influential than (A) — it writes in all the time, it throngs the CLUB — and the programme planners and their staffs inevitably belong to (B). Why should they bother about (A)?
NATIONALISED INDUSTRIES: A recipe for sodding the public by providing an employer who can be struck against indefinitely with no risk of bankrupting him. What was conceived of as the means to general prosperity has notoriously be- come its chief obstacle. Remember that stuff about production for use and not for profit?
NEW BIBLE AND PRAYERBOOK: A big one, sodding congregation, Church and people at a single stroke. Nobody except those in the trade wanted it.
PACKETS, POSTAL and PACK- AGED GOODS: Once, you could open these with your bare hands. Who would think of tackling one today with anything less than a power-saw? But putting on the packaging is lovely and quick. Note how on the book-packs they have done away with that little tab-and-tear arrangement down the side, a tiny saving for them and much more trouble for you.
POLITICS: All politicians are, though in varying degrees, sodders of the citizenry, giving them not what they want but what it is felt they ought to have. A British society in which the majority were given what they want would not be attrac- tive to anyone opposed to hanging and flogging, for a start. It should be remem- bered, however, that if years ago the majority had been given what they wanted about coloured immigration, or not given what they didn't want, a large existing problem would never have arisen.
PUBS: Any pub redesigned internally in the last ten years or so is likely to be uninhabitable. (I leave out the question of music, which is a case of the staff sodding the customers.) The designer will usually have concerned himself very little with what the customers might have liked. With what, then? With trend, I suppose, with the ultimate aim of winning a prize awarded by other designers (see CLUB), or having a photograph of the result published in a Swedish magazine. The customers have no way of getting back at the designer and if they go elsewhere they are unlikely to do better. Sodding the public works best either when you are a monopoly (see GPO) or when all or enough of your competitors are sodding it too, a general point perhaps worthy of a heading to itself.
RADIO TIMES: Nobody is going to stop taking this journal because of disgust at its non-programmatic content, and it exploits this strength by sodding the reader in depth. The main departments of this are: 1) Its fairly recently revised and disim- proved layout, which makes it even harder than before to find the day and time and service (TV or radio) and channel or frequency (BBC1 or 2, Radio 1, 2, 3, or 4) you are after. In case you are lucky to start with, page numbers are left out where possible (see MAGAZINES). 2) Filling the programme pages with un- wanted and often seriously repulsive draw- ings and interspersing equally unwanted articles in space partly won from
3) Short-changing you on programme de- tails, especially in casts of films and plays. Even when all the wanted names are there that of one or another character may not be given in full, so that Bill Jones will be just Bill or Jones on the page, not much good when he mostly gets called Jones or Bill on the screen. Radio 3 entries are often minimal, with individual works left untimed in gramophone concerts of two hours or more. (This item, and others on the list, may come rather near grumbling. Perhaps they are grumbling, but I would not much care to be the kind of boss who has to go round telling the folks that there are worse troubles at sea.) All in all Radio Times demonstrates most plainly and usefully that those in a position to sod reader, customer and the rest will do so to the limit of their power. (See this list passim.) SPECTACLE-FRAMES: All the pairs of glasses I have had for the last 20 years have slipped down my nose within a minute of my putting them on. There is nothing to hold them up, since I lack a convenient trench between my eyes and the side-pieces would not hook round any human ear. The frames are supposed to stay up by gripping the side of my head just above the ears. This doesn't help them to stay up but it certainly hurts my head in those two places. But I bet they looked good photographed in The Optician, or whatever that is in Swedish.
SPELLING REFORM: No, not here yet but probably nearer than you think because it has everything required of a quarry for bureaucratic interference, viz: 1) The present system is long established and works perfectly well.
2) No rational person who has given five minutes' thought to the matter wants a change.
3) It would be very expensive. (Transliter- ating all previous writings for a start.)
4) Any new system would be much worse than the present one. (In this case anything more than tinkering with words like centre and favour would be unworkable. An alphabet equally intelligible to an Aberdo- nian, a Chicagoan and a Hararean cannot be devised until we all speak English in exactly the same way. That is probably a little further off.)
5) The most irresistible attraction of the lot to the bureaucrat with a roving eye: the present system is full of illogicalities, in- consistencies, exceptions and things you just have to know, all crying out to be straightened and made uniform.
STAPLES: As paper-fasteners these are more trouble for the recipient than paper-
clips but easier for the sender. As ticket- fasteners on dry-cleaned garments they are much more trouble than safety-pins at the receiving end and not that much easier for the people at the shop, but enough to make them worth while.
SUPERMARKETS: A stunning exam- ple of a sod-the-customer institution passed off as a public benefit.
TAPS, kitchen and bathroom: If you had oily etc hands you used to be able to turn on the water with your wrist or elbow, now you have to get the oil etc all over the tap before you start. Compare LIGHT- SWITCHES.
THIS YEAR'S MODEL: I think I understand that manufacturers (in the broad as well as narrow sense) want customers to buy anew and that this year's model must look a bit different from last year's to encourage them, and also that customers like to have the latest. I plead only that this year's model should be no more lethalirevolting/inconvenient/uncom- fortable/time-wasting/fast-eroding/unnec- essarily expensive than last year's.
TRADE UNIONISM: By definition a sod-the-public enterprise, today and for many years. This is now so much taken for granted on all sides that it was scarcely mentioned during the miners' strike.
TYPOGRAPHY: If the newspaper is
full of literals, transposed lines, etc, what of it? The reader can sort it out, and if he can't, sod him. Similarly with splitting the line halfway through syllables or in the middle of digraphs. Why not print changl ed or chanlged or chalnged, or endelavour or quelue, or penk/nife or higlhlight? Such choppings used to be thought of as discourtesies to the reader, that's to say they're perfectly all right now. Telling the computer it mustn't do things like that takes time.
WEIGHTS AND MEASURES, decimalisation of: Nobody ever wanted this, except bureaucrats and — exporters? Importers? Outside such contexts, adop- tion of it is a serviceable pointer to trendy pisscrs, as when a broadcaster says a mountain is so many metres high, or someone gives a distance in kilometres (pronounced, of course, kilometres). Even children taught only the metric system know what feet and miles are.
STOP PRESS: I have just had my new (October 1985) A-D London telephone directory dropped on my doorstep. The outside is newly designed, so that, for instance, the letters A-D on the spine, visible across the room in the 1984 edition, are smaller, pale, sort of italic, because their purpose is not to be legible but to look pretty. Of course.