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Home > Media

The Observer: why doth it irk us so?

John Camm launches a broadside at the poor, unsuspecting Observer

29 January 2004

What is it about The Observer that makes it niggle at my brain like a brain parasite?

Perhaps it's because so much of its content is intellectual candyfloss: superficially appealing but fundamentally not very nourishing. And boy, is there a lot of it. Things like:

1) Outright intellectual fluff

The Observer is full of articles aimed squarely at the university educated but which are the intellectual equivalent of hanging around a shopping precinct for six hours, aimlessly booting an empty Coke can around.

This week one columnist speculated that Martians - had they existed - might have died out through loneliness and ennui. It's an article that was crying out to be written. Just like 'What do people keep in boxes?'

Another repeat offender is Barbara Ellen ('I have long been of the opinion that women are more complicated than men...') and whoever commissions the articles in the rest of the magazine: stuff like 'William Shaw goes behind the classifieds...' (usually with the aim of producing an account of some prole who collects fragments of Skylab, or some other ultra-minority interest).

Weep as you think of all those Sunday afternoons you'll never get back...

2) The hobby horse columnists

Some of the Observer's columnists slag off their personal bete noires week in, week out. Richard Ingrams is one of them (do we really need to be reminded that Alistair Campbell is a bit of a twat?) but the master of the craft is easily David Aaronovitch.

Dave's hobby horse is atoning for his leftie past by slagging off lefties, with the same fervour as a reformed smoker who starts opening windows and complaining about having to wash the curtains if you so much as bring a pack of fags into their house. This week Dave manages to contort an article about Howard Dean and how opinion polls can be wrong into, among other things, a pop at CND. They didn't represent public opinion, you see. Gasp.

Shockingly, the anti-Iraq war movement didn't represent Britain as a whole, either. The absolute fuckers. How dare they have an opinion that not everyone else shares!

But don't for a moment imagine that Aaronovitch is dressing up rather obvious ideas in intellectual finery. He uses expressions like vox dei and if that doesn't make you right, we don't know what does.

3) The letters page

We love letter pages. The Guardian's letters tend to be well-informed (even the tragically unfunny funny ones). The Times' letters are either well-argued or hilariously pompous. The Daily Mail letters are fixated with returning to a past that never really existed. The Sun's letters page is so full of truisms ('Our boys in Iraq should have the equipment they need') that it's a genuine puzzle how anyone worked up the enthusiasm to pick up a biro instead of just choosing to stare at a wall for a bit.

But the letters in the Observer are just boooooooring. Try these irresistibly tempting subjects:

"Contrary to Frank Kane's article there are 63 building societies in the UK who are delivering excellent value to their members..."

"I am delighted Will Hutton recognises some of the outstanding work being done in the state education sector..."

"While many cyclists ride responsibly, there are a significant minority who ignore the rules..."

4) Nigel Slater's schtick

In this week's food supplement, Nigel proclaims: 'I would rather die than live without a sausage sandwich.' We would dearly love to test the veracity of this claim. Bullet through the back of the neck, or no more sausage sandwiches. What's it to be, Nigel?

Like most cooks, Nigel is a one-trick pony. It's a porky little pony, and the trick is making simple 'comfort food'. In fact, such is the emotional support Nigel seems to require from food, we can't help but think professional psychiatric help might be more appropriate. It's surely only a matter of time before Nigel devises a recipe for 'Extra creamy bereavement mash'.

Like candyfloss, or a stomach parasite, the Observer leaves you feeling a little bit empty inside. You've got the inside track on Labour rebellions from Andrew Rawnsley, you know there's going to be a conference about the changing class structure of the UK in London this week, you've read Mariella Frostrup's advice on living with a partner who's HIV positive. But what can you do with this information? You can't sell it. You can't eat it. You certainly can't entertain your friends down the pub with hilarious quotes from Will Hutton's article about the myth of negative economic effects resulting from a declining population.

But the voluminous Observer does have some positive effects. For a start it makes you want to get a life instead of just reading more stuff, stuff, stuff. And just one Observer will provide ample newspaper to line a cat litter for a whole week. Which, coincidentally, is when the next one is published.

More than mere coincidence? We should write a think-piece about it for the Observer...

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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