Leo who? Anatomy of a silly-season news story

From Varadkar’s Chicago caper to the Walnut Whip, non-stories are now the real news

Waiter, there’s a Taoiseach in my scoop

Waiter, there’s a Taoiseach in my scoop

 

If you are one of those people who like to type “why is this news?” beneath stories that aren’t about earthquakes or civil wars, then let yourself go.

Reports of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar not being recognised in a restaurant will have already sent you into fits of fury. Be aware that proper news makes only incidental appearances in this column. I am here to praise Silly Season, not to bury it. (Though I fear we may have to do a bit of both.)

That charming Leo story was a classic example of Silly Season in action. Young Emma Kelly, a Dublin student with an admirable lack of vanity, is working in a Chicago restaurant for the summer.

Our new Taoiseach – who apparently holidays in V-necked tops – arrived for a bite of supper. Emma didn’t recognise him and, after making the chief wait in a queue, directed him to a small table right beside a bucket of rotting fish heads. (I made up the very last bit. Somebody has to get the fake news rolling.) More power to her.

After realising her mistake, she had a photo taken and gave various amusingly embarrassed interviews for the domestic media. Who expects to see smart-casual taoisigh in midwestern diners?

All the elements are in place. The story has a human-interest angle. It involves important people, but it is not about important things. It comes with a nice photograph that spreads a bit of cheer about the place. With all the foul garbage elsewhere on news feeds this comes as a welcome release.

Whipping out the walnuts

You could say the same about the story telling us that Walnut Whips are set to lose their walnuts. We actually learnt something from that. Who knew that the price of that nut had risen by 20 per cent over the last year?

It looks as if poor Nestlé – whose spokesperson claimed British people don’t like walnuts anyway – will have to market their delicacy as a mere Whip. Whip? The rhythm has gone. Odd connotations are kicked up. How much nicer it is to consider this nonsense than monstrous upheavals across the Atlantic.

The Silly Season has been around longer than you might suspect. British publications were using the phrase as long ago as the 1860s to describe the period covered by the parliamentary recess.

The notion is that reporters all head off for their holidays and allow catastrophes to happen unobserved. If a tree falls in a forest and there’s nobody around to write a think piece, does it really make a sound? Giant lizards may, for all we know, have stomped through Toronto in August of 1924. The only thing in the papers was that story about a ferret that looked like Buster Keaton.

In several north and east European languages the period is, rather deliciously, referred to as some variation of “cucumber time”. When the cucumbers came into season the people that mattered were safely ensconced in quiet resorts far from telegraphs and printing presses. Busy nonsense cluttered headlines displayed in newsagents visited only by stray tufts of tumbleweed.

Every month is Silly Season, but no day is allowed the relief that Silly Season used to bring

There is a darker side to Silly Season. Moral panics and confected hysteria occasionally fill the vacuum in the dog days. The British mid-market tabloids like nothing better than rounding on the BBC when August works its sweaty muscles.

Send in the scary clowns

The Surrey Panther will be seen haunting the undergrowth as visitors from other planets probe the citizens of Arizona. Last year’s “scary clown” sightings began in August. That story grew throughout that month before withering away when the US election loomed.

More often, however, we are dealing with harmless blather such as that surrounding the bare breasts seen on a screen behind Sophie Raworth when she was reading the BBC news.

The actress Anna Paquin expressed herself amused that the clip from True Blood had caused such a fuss. Everybody laughed. Everybody was distracted from the bloody awful mess into which the world seems to be inexorably sliding.

For a month or so the media spreads a coma of triviality that allows brief, blissful oblivion. It is a lovely accidental tradition. You may not be able to afford a real holiday. But you can at least enjoy a holiday from reality.

Well, this is how it used to be. The rise of social media has put us in a weird situation. Every month is Silly Season, but no day is allowed the relief that Silly Season used to bring.

Trivial lies concerning things that don’t matter are forever at our elbow. Reminders of genuinely ghastly truths are equally hard to avoid. We are better informed and more poorly informed than ever. No shift in the seasons can halt the endless flow of variously coloured information. That doesn’t always feel like a good thing.

Here’s a cat that can say “marmalade”.

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