What I don’t like about American novels

July 30, 2015 § Leave a comment

When I read American novels I am struck by the number of products, food in particular, that are given their brand name. It is true that these ‘consumables’ are very common in America but are they quite as common as American novels would lead you to think? Identifying food or drink by brand is not as evident in English literary novels. The branded food, mentioned in American novels, is usually bad (unwholesome) food.

You will find brand-naming in novels written in the 1960s, perhaps earlier. And also in novels, set in 1950s, though written in the 1990s, for example, Elizabeth McCracken’s The Giant’s House and Alice Hoffman’s Seventh Heaven. Why do American novelists advertise denatured mass-produced consumables that don’t do people or the environment any good?

Any Irish or English or Scottish or Welsh reader of American novels should be able to answer the questions below.

Give the brand name for the following:

A fizzy non-alcoholic drinks (four letters or two four-letter words)

A breakfast cereal (eight letters)

A biscuit (four letters)

A fast food ‘restaurant’ (nine letters)

A cake (seven letters)

Shouldn’t novelists be a little bit charier of mentioning branded products and so giving free advertising to companies who have enormous advertising budgets? And clearly are doing their jobs very well if the branded product has, in the consumer’s mind, become almost become synonymous with the biscuit or drink. Aren’t small ethical companies, aiming to give farmers a living wage, or trying to preserve traditional skills, or providing for the education of children, far more in need of novelists’ gratuitous advertising? Why must novelists always be helping those giant multinational companies?

Before your made-up character reaches for a very real and much-advertised cold drink, think.

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Please respect that this is a Barbie-free zone: Does the world need any more plastic?

March 8, 2013 § Leave a comment

Some years ago a woman I know received an invitation to a party for her very young daughter. Words to this effect appeared on the invitation: Please respect that this is a Barbie-free zone

These words caused a frisson among those that had been invited. These things do. Most of us, I presume, wish to pass as normal: normal in the sense of not being odd or peculiar. At the same time, the wish to be normal is opposed by a wish to think one’s life out for oneself and not mindlessly follow what others do.

We have impulses which we fear are ‘peculiar’, and to which we do not have the self-confidence to succumb. Yet we wonder when we resist such impulses, if we are denying the true expression of ourselves. Do you, as I do, envisage (Fowler or Gowers did not like the word) a tribunal, composed perhaps of family, friends and acquaintances, judging your actions and finding them wanting?

To me, the Barbie-free zone message is not at all offensive, provided the doll was excluded on grounds similar to these:

1. A sweat shop toy ( I imagine so, perhaps Barbies are made in America)

2. Made of plastic, which like the poor, will always be with us

3. Limits a child’s notion of female beauty

4. Does not truly aid the child’s creative imagination

5. Does not develop a child’s aesthetic

6. The child does not really want the doll but feels bound to want it, to be like other children, or the child has been too strongly influenced by advertisers

There are messages I would like to put on invitations about acceptable gifts:

1. Gifts made in England out of natural materials

2. Gifts made by small communities that are paid enough, and treated well (fairtrade/ethical)

3 Well made second-hand gifts. (A thing of beauty is a joy forever.)

In this way, I would receive no plastic, or things made in China (by exploited workers?), few logo-bearing goods of international companies, and few product lines from supermarkets. (Why give more custom to supermarkets?)

I don’t put messages, on invitations, that indicate my prejudices and preferences but I do try to get such messages across. I give only European-made* gifts or fair trade gifts. But I am not at all sure that actions speak louder than words: an invitation bearing the message, Please respect that this is a Barbie-free zone will not be so quickly forgotten.

*There is, of course, legal truth. Made in [a European country] might mean that a few final touches were put to a product which had been, by and large, made in China.

Why have the English and the Irish made such a poor thing of tea?

March 6, 2013 § 2 Comments

Charles Dickens is reputed, when handed a hot drink, to have responded along these lines: If this is tea, take it away and bring me coffee, and if this is coffee, take it away and bring me tea.

I believe he was in America, at the time. However, you don’t have to travel to America to get a terrible cup of tea. When you cross from Fishguard to Rosslare, or back again, all prospect of a decent cup of tea will be lost to you.

When I am offered a cup of tea, I usually opt for herbal tea. The herbal tea will be drinkable whereas the tea may be weak and tasteless. The tea bag has contributed greatly to the decline in the standard of tea. And then there are tea bags and tea bags. Is it not astonishing that these big tea companies employ tea tasters? Have these weak insipid concoctions passed some kind of test? Have these teas not been randomly selected?  What would the tea be like, if it had not been tested? It is hard to imagine that it could be worse than it is.

In contrast, coffee-drinking (not on the Fishguard-Rosslare crossing) has changed beyond recognition. My mother tells me that in the remotest parts of Ireland a cappuccino is to be had. The variety of coffees increases, and the making of coffee improves, but the same could not be said of tea. Yet more tea than coffee is drunk in Ireland and England. (The Irish, apparently, drink more tea per capita than any other nation.)

People, who would not baulk at making coffee with ground coffee in a cafetiere, baulk at making tea from loose tea in a pot.

The English and Irish may find it amusing that French people don’t boil water to make tea. Boiling the water may be all the Irish and English get right. The tea they often use is so deplorable that it needs more than boiled water to make it taste good.

Besides I would not even bet that the water is boiled. A friend of mine’s fledgling relationship was snuffed out when he offered to make her tea, or warm up the tea she was drinking, and carried out his offer by turning on the hot tap. When I was in Paris an English girl told me that they made tea from a defective hot tap; the water came out at, or close to, boiling point. You get used to it, she assured me. Get used to it? I can’t even get over the shock of anyone making tea from water, however hot, direct from a tap.

What would the French, so much more the connoisseurs than the English or Irish, have made of tea if it had been their national drink? Could the French have sunk to the low level of the dreary tea bag, so unsightly looking when it is used?

St Augustine, I think, stated that though people may be unable to fast, or give alms, they should forgive those who have offended them. So I would say that though you may resist loose tea (less paper used) and find it too much trouble to put tea leaves in your compost, could you, at least, buy fairtrade tea bags?

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