Trying to explain the peculiarly British nature of Monty Python, an American writer once told his American audience that it was partly due to the habit of British Universities stuffing their pupils with useless information. It wasn’t strictly necessary, for instance, to know about Marcel Proust or Jean-Paul Sartre, but these six English lads did know about them; hence the appearance in Monty Python’s Flying Circus of the ‘Summarise Proust in fifteen seconds!’ contest or the shouting matches between Parisian housewives labelled Mrs Sartre, Mrs Camus, etc. This sort of thing just wouldn’t happen in America.
He was right. The only American comedian I can think of who uses useless information is Woody Allen, who sometimes drags in scraps of Freud or existentialism. The English love useless information, far more than another nation. That’s why our crosswords are the hardest in the world, depending on a severe knowledge of geography, literature and science, not to mention a twisted mind. That’s why it was us, not anyone else, who came up with the Guinness Book of Records.
Where I disagree with the American is in classifying all this as useless knowledge. Using it in crosswords, Monty Python, even daily conversation, makes it immediately worthwhile. I am all for useless information: it is colourful, irrelevant, interesting and appealing. You can’t have enough of it. What you can have too much of - and we have far too much of it – is useful information.
Useful information is all the statistical analysis on the side of cereal packets. (1.4mg of Riboflavin per 100 grammes, etc). It’s the credits at the end of films or TV programmes. (‘Assistant to the Wardrobe Mistress: Cindy Birdbottom’.) It’s the biographies of the actors in a West End theatre programme. It’s the result of the 1981 Census. It’s the Sunday Times telling us that at 9.05 am on Thursday April 30 President Regan got into his size 10 shoes, took his two daily boiled eggs and turned to the sports pages, as he always did. It’s statistics, measurements, back-up data, in-depth breakdowns, more statistics. It’s any briefing that isn’t brief.
Useful information on the back of a long vehicle, for example would be a sign telling us that the vehicle is 17.0 metres long, 3.4 metres wide and 5.6 metres high. Some genius, thank God, has ditched all that useful information and put a sign on saying LONG VEHICLE. That is all we need to know.
Useful information is telling us the likely temperature in the next 24 hours in both Centigrade and Fahrenheit, and getting it wrong in both.
What we should be told is: ‘The temperature will be average for the time of year but will feel colder because of the north-east wind.’ That is what we really want to know.
Useful information, except in very small quantities, is useless. It gets in the way. Who was it who said ‘I want to sweep aside the facts and get at the truth’? I don’t know (it’s useless to know, really) but he was right. All through my adult life I have read, at five-year intervals, that a new set of bones has been discovered in Africa, older than anything known before and upsetting all our previous ideas on the origins of man. I have not taken in the new theories attached to these bones, partly because it makes little difference to me whether our ancestors walked or used tools first, partly because it never settles anything. The important and only really useful fact, which no one ever mentions, is this: ‘Every five years someone discovers a new set of bones which upsets all known theories.’ Even more briefly: ’There will be another skeleton along in a minute’- just as we know that sooner or later the Treasury will confess to an error that invalidates all previous calculations, or the estimates for a new motorway or space satellite have to be doubled owing to the discovery of a new skeleton in someone’s financial cupboard.
What makes it all worse is that the saturation of our lives with useful information gives us a false feeling of confidence that someone somewhere has got all the answers. Therefore we, personally, do not need to know. Therefore, as information increases, we ourselves know less and less. I used to love those stories I read as a boy of some modern character being transported back to the Middle Ages and showing the amazed medievals how to build a wireless, make a car or organise a unit trust. I now realise that that fewer and fewer of us actually know enough, in our own brains, to do these things. We would have to have our data retrieval systems transported back with us.
The chief symptom of our almost religious belief in useful information is our urge, every time something goes drastically wrong, to set up a commission to look into it. A commission, in other words, to collect so much useful information that nobody has the slightest idea, or much less idea than before, what to do about the problem, the only hope being that in the years it takes the commission to collect all available useful information, the problem may have either gone away or been labelled as insoluble.
So bully for useless information, I say. I don’t mean statements like ‘All the inhabitants of the world could stand side by side on the Isle of Wight’ or ‘Every day a forest the size of Rutland is chopped down’. That’s merely useful information boiled down to the consistency of a government health warning or scare headline. I mean really useless information. Like that the country in the EEC with the highest proportion of teetotallers is (guess? Go on!) Ireland. Like that the only Hollywood star who had previously been awarded the Iron Cross for fighting on the German side in the Great War was (any idea? You’ll never guess) Rin Tin Tin. Like that if you leave bits of raw white fish in lemon juice, it cooks it. (Old Peruvian recipe, since you ask. Fascinating, eh?)
I prefer useless information because you can be sure of it. Useful information, beyond the bare minimum, is so unreliable. I have almost given up reading financial columns now, because I know that after the opening blast of useful information about the many kinds of insurance policies, or mortgages, or pension schemes, there will come a point when the writer says: ‘However, the kind that is most useful for you depends on your personal circumstances and it is better to consult an expert.’ In other words, he abdicates just when he has got through the useful stage to the really useful stage.
The late great Groucho Marx had the right attitude to useful information. He once was taken to a spiritualist séance at which the medium finally got through to the other side. Had anyone any questions? What a chance! To find out if there really is an after-life, and if so, whether to dress casually for it or not. To ask who was going to win the 3.15. To find out how Dickens wanted to end Edwin Drood.
‘Yeah,’ said Groucho. ‘What is the capital of South Dakota?’
Or, as Fats Waller said when he was asked what rhythm was: ‘Lady, if you got to ask, you’ll never know.’
What I think I am trying to say is that if it’s in a statistical table, it’s probably not worth knowing. The only really useful information we ever pick up is what we learn despite what we are told.
Miles and Miles 1982