Media Matter Nick Thomas
RiEGULAR READERS of this column will be aware that I am no great fan of the European Union and its works, but I would hate it to be thought that am some sort of cultural isolationist. When cross-fertilisation occurs naturally between neighbours, the result is enriching, and I have recently encountered an expression from abroad which could be usefully incorporated into the English language.
Talking to a Dutch journalist friend of mine the other day, I mentioned that we are now in what is known here as the Silly Season, and wondered if some similar term obtains in his own country. Indeed it does. When politicians disappear on their hols, and the flow of news slows to a trickle, Dutch hacks know that they have entered Cucumber Time. The cucumber is a significant crop for the Netherlands, but hardly a fascinating subject for the general reader, so it has come to represent the last resort in the desperate filling of column inches through the summer.
I love this. The idea of the cucumber frame as the paradigm of pointless journalism is irresistible; it can supply the template for all strands of this particularly irritating genre which we have to suffer every year. We begin with a happy, up-beat piece informing the public that we have been experiencing, er, whatever is really good for cucumbers (fill this in old boy. Not my patch), and so this year's harvest is going to be the best since records began. A few weeks later we learn that the cucumber glut has depressed the price of the vegetable, threatening the livelihoods of specialist market gardeners across the land. Doubtless my colleague Alice Thomas Ellis could fmd in her vast culinary archive dozens of exciting ways to prepare the cucumber, and share them with us by way of light relief.
Another week, and scientists in Germany, which would like a bigger share of the of the market, publish research showing that everyone else's cucumbers owe their luxuriance to intensive farming methods which make them dangerous to eat. Only the small, pickled variety can be consumed with confidence. But then British boffins hit back by revealing that the form-feeding of gherkins to rats results in terminal levels of rodent indigestion. Meanwhile the EU decides to ban the English cucumber sandwich on the grounds that the combination of triangular bread and circular filling contravenes a new directive on edible symmetry.
By now the story has run into September, so it's time to turn weird. A farmer in East Anglia claims that he grows prize-winning cucumbers by singing to them at midnight. His solo rendition of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody, while not a big hit in the pub (from which, indeed, it regularly results in his ejection), goes down a treat in the greenhouse. But in Berkshire, experimental genetically modified cucumbers have been growing themselves into complex patterns, miles across, which are only discernible from the air. The Sunday Sport prints a picture of a cucumber shaped depression on the surface of the moon.
Now everybody joins the scramble. One broadcast doctor warns that cucumber skins are carcinogenic; nonsense says another, they are one of the best sources of roughage. On the beauty pages, where slim slices of cucumber have been known for years to reduce laughter lines, we are advised to go the whole hog and bathe daily in green puree to achieve wrinkle-free skin. On TV, Hugh Fearnly-Whittingstall travels to Botswana, where he fmds a rock-hard, bitter variety infested with grubs, and merrily scoffs a few on camera At last the party conferences arrive, followed by the Queen's Speech. Curiously, there are no questions in Parliament about the Cucumber Scare, the Cucumber War, or the Great Alien Cucumber Mystery. The papers fall silent on the subject, and the vegetable returns to its humble place in the salad bowl. Until next year, that is.