Learning From Edna Welthorpe

Some green ink, yesterday.

I’m trying to break a bad habit.  No, not the one you’re thinking of.  I have no intention of breaking that one, however shameful and disgusting you might think it is.  I mean, it’ s my life, isn’t it?  And it’s not like the anteater really feels anything…

No, the habit I am talking about is reading the comments underneath opinion pieces on newspaper websites.  I just can’t resist it.  If I read an article that’s even vaguely thought-provoking, I have to see what people are saying about it.  And often, what they seem to be saying can be roughly summarised as ‘GGGRRAAAARGGGGGGHHHHHH!!!’

After reading message upon message filled with bad feeling, intolerance and pure blind rage, the world often seems a bleaker, more cruel place than it did before.  But time after time I go back for more.  Yes, I have become addicted to green inkers.

The phrase ‘green inkers’ originated, of course, in the pre-internet age, when correspondence to newspapers of an overly angry, obsessional and seemingly deranged nature was observed to be for some weird reason to be often written in green ink.  These letters were generally treated at best as sources of humour for the recipients, or at worst inconveniences to be ignored.  They very rarely, however, made it to the letters page of any publication they were sent to.

With the arrival of the internet, all that changed.  Now, with the opportunity to add comments to articles, the green inkers could display their bile for all to see, as long as they stayed vaguely on topic and didn’t threaten to kill anybody.  Consequently, any attempt at expressing an opinion in a popular publication with an online presence is now often met with an awe-inspiring public wave of negativity, running from sneering contempt to the plain strangeness of paranoid thinking, where anything can be seen as part of a plot by the government to punish people with reggae, or make fun of people in wheelchairs through the medium of dance.

The upshot of this is that the green inkers now have a much louder voice than they’ve had since Mary Whitehouse had the ingenious idea of mobilising them as a campaigning army back in the sixties.  On the one hand, it’s a great demonstration of free speech, albeit one that can be quite grim to wade through.

It does, however, also create a false impression of what people actually think, while discouraging others of a more moderate and timid sensibility from saying anything at all.  It’s sometimes hard to remember, when reading these shrill missives, that the vast majority of people who read any given article aren’t going to bother commenting on it.  The views at the bottom of the page aren’t a cross-section of all the thoughts the piece has prompted.  It’s just a cross-section of the views of those who could be bothered to type something.

Now, I’m not saying there shouldn’t be lively debate, and the issue is complicated by the fact that even the broadsheets run opinion pieces and blog entries that are clearly designed to wind people up as much as possible (the late Steven Wells was a master of this, over at the Guardian music blog).  Also, sometimes the piece in question is so vile in itself that nothing but contempt is appropriate.  See: Jan Moir.

But wouldn’t it be great if, in general, it was all gone about in a more civilised way?  Then, many who might have something to say but are scared off by the sheer intensity of some posters’ style of expression might feel more inclined to put forward their thoughts.  The key, in my view, is to recognise the spirit in which something is written and respond in an appropriate manner.  For example, if some idiot journalist writes a thinly-veiled hate-piece about a minority group, tell them that their attitude is disgusting.  If, however, someone puts forward a thoughtfully constructed argument about an issue, the conclusion of which you happen to disagree with, just point out the flaws in their argument and present a counter-argument.  Don’t jump down their throats for daring to exist on the same planet as you whilst in the possession of an opinion that in some way differs from your own.

I was thinking about all this because I’ve been reading the diaries of the playwright Joe Orton.  While the diaries themselves contain some things that are unpalatable (No Joe, don’t sleep with underage Moroccan boys!), in the appendix you will find what I consider to be some of Orton’s finest achievements.  There, collected together are the various letters Orton wrote under the pseudonym of Edna Welthorpe.  In this guise, he wrote to various organisations, individuals and publications, railing against home shopping, raspberry pie filling, Juke Box Jury, and his own plays.

The Welthorpe letters are hysterical, because she is the ultimate green-inker.  Her world-view is blinkered, uncompromising and egomaniacal.  Because of this, she can never be satisfied.

This is worth remembering, I think, when navigating the reams of mean-spirited verbiage online.  There’s no way you could ever make these people happy.  They don’t seem to do happiness.  Writing a nasty comment in a box and posting it is probably the closest they get to pleasure.  Equally, it’s not very much good arguing with them, as admitting they’re wrong doesn’t appear to be in their arsenal either.

As it stands, the best way to deal with the new online breed of green inkers 2.0 is the old-fashioned way.  Ignore them.  Unfortunately, that essentially means ignoring the forums for reasoned debate that they’ve set up camp in.  Oh well, I guess somebody’s got to compromise round here.


2 Responses to “Learning From Edna Welthorpe”

  1. Anyone wants to buy a green felt-tipped pen? One careful owner.

  2. Smart review 🙂
    Im not a journalist in 100% but I really try to “Learnin from Edna Welthorpe”

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