When is a cliché not a cliché? That’s a question I asked my pupils during a recent lesson. They had been reading through an article from The Guardian that appeared to be full of the little horrors. They had taken great delight in criticising the writer’s hackneyed turn of phrase. They had clearly paid attention to my recent lessons on avoiding clichés like the plague. They weren’t pulling any punches: it was no holds barred stuff. The reason they were enjoying themselves so much? They’d realised that the writer of the article was their teacher.
‘This is weird sir… the writer’s got the same name as you.’
‘Did you write this?’
‘But it’s from 2005.’
At which point I always explain that many, many years ago, in the years BT (Before Teaching), I used to work as a journalist. They’re usually impressed. And then they normally say, with pity glistening in their lachrymose eyeballs, something like ‘So why on earth are you teaching?’. Then I say – in full truthfulness – something like ‘because I enjoyed writing for a living but I love teaching much more’. We then drift off into a scene made for flashback, in which I regale them with tales of perks and glitzy events, and nerve-wracking interviews with minor celebrities they’ve never heard of. I sometimes tell them about the time I interviewed the then poet laureate, Andrew Motion, who was in a very grumpy mood, for half an hour before realising I’d forgot to press record on the dictaphone. Usually, I recognise that I have digressed away from my… ahem… lesson plan, just like I have now digressed slightly off the topic of this blog.
That didn’t matter though. It’s rare that kids get to quiz a journalist about a piece that they’re critiquing, even if it was an obscure column tucked away in an obscure (now defunct) supplement.
Anyway, during the discussion on clichés, one of them came to my defence:
‘What do you call it, sir, when the writer – you I mean – uses a cliché but sort off… knows it’s a cliché and is, well, doing it deliberately? Playing around with the words. Doing a pun with it.’
I call this a subverted cliché. Have a look at the column and see what you think:
The orange man takes his revenge
- Mark Roberts
- The Guardian, Monday 20 June 2005
An amiable and tolerant person, Jules was nevertheless a man with an obsession. The only thing that could get him through the long tedious days our office specialised in was an artificial stimulant. Jules was a non-smoker and was indifferent to chocolate. If offered crack he would probably say he could take it or leave it. For Jules craved only one substance: he was addicted to orange Fanta.
When I first joined the company, Jules used to buy six tins a day from the vending machine. Given our paltry salary and the prohibitive cost of the cans, it became evident that he was spending a fair chunk of his wage on his sugary vice. Like all addicts, he demanded as pure a hit as possible, so insisted that his pop was as cold as the boss’s wife. His solution was to buy a two-litre bottle each day and stick it in the communal fridge.
In it went on his arrival at 8.30am, allowing it to cool sufficiently to quench his raging thirst by exactly 10.27am. Until then he would fidget nervously and chew on a biro until his mouth was blue. When the magical time arrived he would hold aloft the frosty Fanta and make the sound of the contents of a mop bucket being poured down a drain.
Despite the torturous daily wait, things went smoothly until something mysterious happened: Jules’s Fanta began to evaporate. Initially he questioned his sanity – in his pre-Fanta haze had he somehow misjudged how much was in the bottle? Or perhaps the supermarket from which he procured his fix was selling faulty Fanta in leaky bottles? After a week of hell Jules came to a sinister conclusion. One (or more), of our esteemed colleagues was stealing his Fanta.
Jules did the sensible thing. Certain that the thief or thieves would see the error of their ways if they realised it was not a victimless crime, he put a large sticky label on his next bottle, which read: “Jules’s pop – hands off!” Alas the stealing persisted.
Suddenly Jules turned into Agent Orange and life in the office resembled a deranged hybrid of Quincy, Poirot and Murder She Wrote. A man possessed, Jules the Fanta Fiend began the kind of interrogation that would make the Stasi squeamish. Despite wild accusations – aimed at everyone from the company accountant to the 76-year-old toothless cleaning lady – the bad cop/bad cop routine failed to extract any tearful confessions. Subtler methods were employed. Anybody going to the staff room was discreetly followed to see if he could catch them orange-handed. The thorough reconnaissance stage proved equally disastrous – the Fanta vessel continued to empty, but his in-tray overflowed.
Gripped by tartrazine rage, Jules now abandoned attempts to catch the culprits and set out for old-fashioned retribution. He clearly agreed with the adage about revenge being best served ice cold. One day as I entered the gents I saw Jules leave the cubicle zipping up his flies with one hand as he screwed back on the top of his Fanta with the other. He winked at me and told me that he was officially switching to tap water from now on. He said the Fanta thief would eventually come to the conclusion that orange Fanta “tastes like piss”.
They felt the following, were examples of subverted clichés:
- ‘the bad cop/bad cop routine’ – exaggerating the unpleasant atmosphere in the office and amplifying the intensity of the addict’s obsession
- ‘catch them orange-handed’ – taking a clichéd metaphor and tweaking it to fit the motif of fixation on the colour orange
- ‘revenge being best served ice cold’ – The insertion of ‘ice’ saved this by linking back to the second motif of refridgeration
- ‘tastes like piss’ – the obvious colloquial insult was rescued by the removal of the profane simile with the substition of a more literal fact
So that’s it. Case closed. I’d proved that I was so clever that I could manipulate tired, overused langauge to humorous effect.
Except a few of them suddenly began to “piss on my bonfire”. They started to notice – as I stood back like a proud, doting father – some genuine, bona fide clichés:
- Suddenly – a word I had specifically banned in their writing a few weeks ago!
- A man possessed
- see the error of their ways
- raging thirst
I could go on. Strangely, they didn’t pack up and walk out in protest. They’d admired my writing and were impressed that I’d been able to get published (regularly, I naturally added) in a respected national newspaper. They were reassured by the fact that the cliché is so invasive that I – an expert writer in their eyes – had succumbed. They found it interesting that I considered myself a much better writer now, as an amateur scribbler. Growth mindset and marginal gains and all that, innit. You’d never find any clichés in my writing these days, of course, I told them. Any that you did spot would be used knowingly, with a nod and a wink to my educated audience. They would be thoroughly and utterly subverted.
Thanks for reading. Have a nice Christmas,