Tension on the surface of things

No matter how many proverbs deny it, book covers and first appearences are what count in this skin deep world that we live in

Critics of marketing accuse it of dwelling more on surface than substance. It is a grave charge. From earliest childhood we are adjured to avoid superficial judgment. You can’t tell a book by its cover, we are told. Don’t go on first appearances. Or more poetically, there’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face.

And yet we do it all the time, all through life, heedless of the injustice and hurt we inflict. But as two items recently in the news show, things are never quite as simple as home-spun philosophy would wish. Physiognomy may be a bogus science, but we all think we know a wrong ‘un when we see one.

The important distinction is between appearances made by Nature and those chosen by ourselves. It is not, for example, Eric Cantona’s fault that he has but a single eyebrow beneath a half inch of forehead. To pronounce him a man of thuggish tendencies on that evidence alone would be harsh. But when he shaves his head to the scalp and struts the pitch like a turkey cock, we begin to believe our first impressions.

Which brings us to the first news item: Stephen Glascoe, the family doctor who was booted out of his golf club because he refused to remove a silver ring from his left ear when playing the course. The decision left him so indignant and piqued that he told his story to the newspapers, hoping to embarrass those who had caused him hurt. Had he perhaps reflected on the words of the poet whose nation gave golf to the world, he might better have understood his discomfiture. “O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us to see oursels as others see us.”

When Dr Glascoe first put a ring in his ear – in 1976, he tells us – who knows what was his mind’s construction? Perhaps he imagined it would make him look fashionable and different in an intriguing way. Maybe he thought it was daring, even a little piratical? Or did he crave some outward sign of the gypsy in his soul? Being 26 at the time and possibly still a medical student, he might be forgiven all of those fantasies. But as a mature, middle-aged professional man, he ought to realise that what people see in his pierced and adorned lobe is not the mark of a stylish extrovert but the folly of a prat.

Earrings are worn by impressionable youths in imitation of each other. And while most of us would happily delegate the repair of our lavatories to a man wearing a ring in his ear or through his nose, we might feel less sure about subjecting our internal plumbing to the care of one whose appearance suggests infantilism and lack of judgment. It would be like taking flying lessons from a man wearing a revolving bow tie. Dr Glascoe may well cry snobbery – and did – but GPs are meant to understand human nature. In provincial golf clubs, more than in most places, appearances count for everything. They have to: golf is a hellishly difficult game and for most members looking the part is all they have to cling to.

And so to the second news item: the boys and girls of Rochester in Kent whose faces were blackened for the city’s ancient and annual Sweeps Festival. For them, this year was to be special because for the first time the centuries-old tradition was to be filmed by Blue Peter, which for a children’s event is akin to receiving a papal blessing.

But it was not to be. Blue Peter editor Oliver Macfarlane took one look at the tiny blackened faces and immediately his BBC-conditioned mind tumbled with thoughts of darkest racism, stereotyping, prejudice, colonial oppression, slavery, gollywogs, black and white minstrels, hell and perdition. Recoiling with indignant horror, he took his cameras away, followed by heart-rending looks of disappointment in little eyes shining white and tearful amid their frames of burnt cork.

The following morning, he explained on the Today programme that it was the sheer blackness of the faces that shaped his decision. He had tried to persuade the organisers to contrive a smudged piebald effect instead, but they would not listen. So more in sorrow than in anger he had folded his tent. Surely, he was asked, as Blue Peter was good at explaining things, wouldn’t the viewers be told that the children were dressed as sweeps? Yes, he replied, but viewers don’t always hear what is said, they may not be in the room at the time, they may come in later, see the screen, and be sore wounded.

Never has the essential superficiality of television been better expressed. TV is pictures and nothing more. And first appearances are everything. The Macfarlane doctrine means the BBC must cause more offence than it might ever imagine. What of all those fat people who promenade on the Nine O’Clock News? Try telling a sensitive overweight person whose eye casually falls on the screen during one of these parades of flab that they’re illustrating a report about obesity. It’s too late, the harm is done, the hurt is there. And when Morris dancers are seen wielding their sticks, jangling their bells, and shaking their garlands, can you imagine the offence caused to victims of transvestite wife-beaters?

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