A POINT OF VIEW
By Clive James
Why do companies feel compelled to needlessly change their names and confuse people? Because they're fidgets, says Clive James in his weekly column.
I once knew a young man who tapped his fingers on the table while he spoke.
It's the local Consignia-man
He didn't tap them loudly. He just tapped them to accompany the rhythm of what he was saying, so that the general effect was more varied than monotonous.
But it drove me crazy, and I went even crazier because I wasn't allowed to say that I was going crazy. In the polite Anglo-Saxon culture from which the Australian culture derives - and I want to examine this word "culture" in a minute - you don't tell people who have the fidgets to stop fidgeting.
This young man was in our house quite a lot, tapping away for a couple of years, and never once did I feel that I had the leeway to tell him to stop doing that or I would arrange to have him escorted outside and inserted upside down into the wheelie bin for compostable matter.
The mental version of the fidgets is practically a defining mark of the age we live in
Then he married one of my daughters and I felt free to speak. I spoke gently, trying to leave room for the consideration that I might be unusually sensitive to the fidgets in other people, and might even have a case of the fidgets myself that I didn't know about.
The possibility that there are deliberate cases of the fidgets is one that we will have to examine, but surely the fidgets in general are just a sign of nervous energy, and almost all young people fidget.
My son-in-law has been exemplary since I finally felt free to explain my point with the aid of a mallet, and lately he hasn't even needed to keep his hands in his pockets during a conversation.
But fidgeting is a bad sign in adults, and the mental version of the fidgets is practically a defining mark of the age we live in now, when the liberal democracies, as if they couldn't count on enough trouble from illiberal forces of all persuasions, nevertheless behave as if they had a duty to demoralise their own populations by changing the name of everything that people have learned to rely on.
The excellent social commentator Christopher Booker once called this widespread official urge to change the name of everything that works Neophilia, but I think we need a new name, the Fidgets.
Thinking that anything needs a new name is, of course, an example of the fidgets, but in this case I think we need it because the word Neophilia suggested that the urge came from a mere love of the new, whereas I think it comes from something more comprehensive, a demonically playful urge to see how far people can be driven towards insanity before they protest.
Not long ago, at Paddington, I ran to catch a train that was called First. The long version of the name is First Great Western, which is already bad enough because it suggests the possible existence of a Second Great Western. But the First Great Western company insists on referring to itself and its trains as just First.
My problem, as I ran with a heavy bag in each hand from the barrier end of the platform, was to find the first second class carriage in a train all of whose carriages were marked First. I cursed First in the worst language at my command, but my outburst at First was nothing beside the imprecations I rained on One.
Yes, what used to be simply called Anglia Railways is now even more briefly, but far less simply, called One. This leaves the way clear for the railway station announcer to inform potential passengers that one One train will leave from platform two and the other One train will leave from platform three.
If the first One train leaves at twenty to one it's the twenty to one One train and if the other one leaves at ten to one it's ten to one on that it's the one One train one actually wanted but one couldn't understand the announcement.
What happens when you have to change from a First train to a One train I leave to you, but you might face a situation where you should catch the first First train if you want to change to the one One train that will get you to the mental hospital before you crack up.
Except, of course, that it's never now called a train, it's called a service, just as the passenger is now a customer. Linguistic philosophers have already written theses about how the vocabulary of marketing has invaded the realm of transport, which logically should have no need of marketing, because people know exactly what they want and demand nothing except for the means of transport to be safe, clean and on time.
But the language of marketing spreads inexorably because it gives those who use it a chance to be creative, which everybody has been taught is a desirable thing to be.
It's a rule that this rearrangement of the name's verbal components should only take place at a time when the system's mechanical components are melting down
In fact, the last thing that a passenger who has already been outraged by being called a customer wants to hear when he is sitting, or probably standing, in a train running late, or probably not running at all, is a voice on the public address system calling the train a service, when providing a service is exactly what it is currently in the process of not doing.
Nor does the voice on the public address system show any sign, once it gets started, of wanting to shut up. The voice supplies the information that the buffet car is situated in the middle of the service, for the benefit of anyone who thought that it might be travelling along separately some way behind the service. The voice apologises for the delay caused to your journey, a way of softening the fact that the delay had been caused, not to your journey, but to you.
The voice continues to audition for a career in broadcasting by pointing out that the first One service to arrive at the next station will be the last One service to continue any further until the engineering works have been completed.
Problems began when British Railways became British Rail
Where did all this start? Well, it probably started when the name British Railways contracted to British Rail.
Contraction of a system's name is a bad sign and rearrangement of the name's components is another. It's a rule that this rearrangement of the name's verbal components should only take place at a time when the system's mechanical components are melting down.
London Transport, for example, changed to Transport for London in the very period when the Jubilee line extension was in a continual process of coming to a halt because its hyper-sophisticated signalling system was doing what state of the art technology always does, ie proving that the technology you want is the stuff that used to work. The total cost of changing a logo for an organization that big is so frightening that the figure is seldom published.
Sometimes the total cost happens twice. History has forgotten the brief period when the name Royal Mail, which everyone understood, was changed to Consignia, which nobody understood. The cost of changing the name on every facility and product of the Royal Mail to Consignia was astronomical, and the cost of changing the name back again was astronomical twice.
A country that could do that to itself was ready to construct the Millennium Dome, a monument to the fidgets said to be visible from the moon, an attribute valued by the kind of people who think they have already been there.
But perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Millennium Dome is that it still has its "the". The unwanted, unwarranted and unwieldy suppression of a preliminary "the" is a sure sign of the fidgets at executive level.
The Tate gallery, for example, in either of its manifestations, Tate Britain or Tate Modern, is now officially not the Tate, but Tate. This leaves the way open to meet at eight at Tate to eat, in which case we ate at Tate, or we were late at Tate and had to wait, and thus missed our Tate at eight tete a tete.
Calling it "the gun culture" not only solves nothing, it actually compounds the offence
Such changes of name were once made by freshly appointed executives who wanted to announce their arrival, and who, unable to change what they should, changed what they could. But by now, surely, it's done out of a kind of desperation, as if words could work magic.
It happens throughout the culture, and the misguided use of the word "culture" is a disturbing further development of what is essentially voodoo.
Regularly now, we hear about young men shooting each other and sometimes shooting their own girlfriends as a response to what they call "disrespect". The misuse of the word "disrespect" is just a pitiful sign of the vicious stupidity by which young men demand to be respected when there is nothing to respect them for.
But when the upmarket newspapers run worried articles about what they call "the gun culture", that is something else.
Calling it "the gun culture" not only solves nothing, it actually compounds the offence, by tacitly conceding that the responsible authorities can't be expected to confiscate the lethal weapons from the individual boneheads waving them, but should wait until a complex sociological phenomenon has been explained in the appropriately elevated words.
But you can't blame the responsible authorities for waiting: actually to do something about a young crackhead fidgeting with a gun takes more than high flown language - it takes bravery, but that's another subject.
A Point of View is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 2050 on Friday and 0850 on Sunday.
Thanks for your comments. The debate is now closed.
Clive - you've hit the nail on the head with so much that is wanting in our society, who is going to take up the mantle of promoting and propagating what you have so articulately espoused? Do we leave it to politicians - in which case the problem will simply get worse or is there someone out there who will champion these rights to fight the good fight and make our society an all together better place to live or at least understand?
Jeremy Yeomans, Farnham, England
Great critique Daniel, perhaps you could make an original point of your own.... CJ rules!
C. R., London
Don't forget the farce of British Airways calling themselves "British" for a week or two, then changing it all back again. And remember those 'ethnic' tails? Just today, I went to FOCUS DIY to get some matt black paint. I could only find "Flat" black. "Is flat black matt black?" "Yes," I was assured. "Then why isn't flat black called matt black?" said I. Matt blank look. Sure, people don't like stupid changes, made by stupid people. Daniel, Guildford, take note.
Clive Kerr, Dunmow, Essex.
After being referred to as a "customer", being repeatedly told my "service" is late/cancelled, the final insult is when the driver (sorry, train operator) says over the PA "Please move down inside the cars". They are carriages - not cars! A car is what I was sitting in quite comfortably until getting to the edge of London, where I'm left with no option but to suffer the Tube...
Seems to me that the types who have to shoot guns to express themselves are uncultured, rather than cultured. CJ, not a gun in sight, hits his targets perfectly
Nick, Edmonton, Canada
Well done CJ. Common sense isn't that common so more of CJ, please. In my business experience, name changing is sometimes down to the personal vanities of the top brass who are bored whilst everyone below is battling on. It confuses the staff, takes ages to implement, is far too expensive and your customers turn away. Remember the Price Waterhouse Cooper name-change to "Monday"? If you knew someone who kept changing their name - would you not be just a little circumspect in your dealings?
Luath Ceasar, Leeds
So that's why we acquired a DfE, which doesn't have to bother providing an education as long as it can measure the decline in literacy, Primary Care Trusts who withhold care for as long as possible and aren't trusted by anyone, and why MAFF was renamed to DEFRA, and has since done it's best to kill agricultural research establishments, farming and fishing. By the way, I think Penny from Edinburgh still misheard it. And as for First Crapital Connect - the people who first decided that providing a service meant repainting all the trains so they weren't available for passengers to use and then replacing all the free cashpoints at the stations with ones that charge you - so nobody wants to use them...
This may be a whinge from an old man and the points may have been made before, but he is more succinct, and this is what gives him a high score! Clive, well done, and let's have some more!
I have to completely disagree with the other comments. Clive James is writing about what other people are doing instead of what they could be doing that would be useful, which in itself is writing when HE could be doing something useful. Name changes are for nothing more than publicity and wow, it works. After all how many people just read an article full of company names by Clive James.
This is inadmissible. I have raised four children and have grandchildren in high school. I have suffered through two divorces defending my grasp of reality. Along comes this guy 30 years too late and finally talking common sense, when common sense is no longer permitted. What a nerve. There has to be some method of suppressing this kind of blatant truth and forging forward with our way of life.
Jack Hough, Philadelphia PA USA
Mr. James, brilliant comments as always.
Ilian Assenov, Phuket, Thailand
The clearest, well-collected expression of what many of us "customers" think. "Culture" has a lot to answer for.
Andy, Edinburgh, Scotland
Mr. James, you are truly a genius!
Superb! A rant from a disenchanted man which ends on a very pertinent issue. Shame Mr. James never went on to ponder why many UK train companies have the word 'Great' in their extended names.
James Smith, Manchester
Clive James has insightfully identified the age old trend of renaming something problematic in the hope that the problem somehow goes away.
This was always going to occur in an age where labels are everything. Well Done 'CJ'
Andrew, UK, London
What a wonderfully clear view of our country's stupidity. For some reason we just cannot get sensible people making decisions. May I suggest that everyone has a meeting with Clive James (must be worth a few £m) to discuss their scatterbrained ideas so that he can just point them in the right direction. My employers changed their name, just slightly, costing them millions, before they went down the chute and had to sell up. Just glad I don't use the trains, never visited the Dome and, hopefully, will not meet a disrespected idiot with a gun.
Sometimes name changes can have a more sinister practicality, like the way the Eurofighter Typhoon was supposed to enter service in the mid-1990s. When it obviously wasn't going to be ready in time, the company changed its name from "European Fighter Aircraft" to "Eurofighter 2000" so it wouldn't seem quite so late. Maybe the London Olympics committee should consider a similar move and change the name of their games to "the 2014 Olympics"...just in case?
Andrew, London, UK
Strictly speaking, and in a strange inversion of the NHS's current practice, the correct term for train passengers is now "patients". It just sounds so much better than "impatients", or, perhaps, "delay-induced prospective homicidal maniacs".
Jon Green, Cambridge UK
These "Point of View" programmes have improved mightily since someone with something interesting to say has been hired. Good on you Clive!
John Gammon, Brighton
A funny article which makes, I suppose, some good points. But it seems odd for the articulate Clive James to be arguing against the power of words. I thought The The was a good band. Maybe that is why you don't hear so much about them any more. They suffered two iterations of definite article suppression!
Robert Miller, Tokyo, Japan
As a WILLIE (works in London, lives in Edinburgh) I regularly travel from Luton Airport Parkway into central London on what the announcer tells me is a "First Cattle Connect" service to wherever. Notably, it took the lucidity of the spokesman at London Bridge to correct my misunderstanding. Apparently, my conveyance from Bedfordshire into the capital relies on "First Capital Connect".
As a daily commuter on One trains, I smiled with recognition at just about everything said about this sometimes "service" provided by a onetime railway company. To compliment this experience, I complete my daily commute by using the Central Line, another example of the use of Newspeak. Having decided that the absence of delays constitutes a "good service", we get regular updates about the "good service" running across the network, including the Central Line. What makes this galling is, despite the regularity of Central Line trains coming into Liverpool Street, there is almost no chance of getting on to 90% of them. To be told that the timely arrival of trains too full to board constitutes a "good service" is enough to make one consider starting a small riot.
Mike Hoffman, Colchester and London
As far as 'First Great Western' is concerned, presumably Isambard Kingdom Brunel, if he were still alive could sue?
Mick Masters, Tonbridge, UK
First Great Western. I too have witnessed the confusion caused to passengers thinking that the First logo liberally scattered around carriages meant it was 'First Class'. On another point as a regular traveller there is nothing 'Great' or 'First' about FGW. They might scrape in on the 'Western' front. They really don't have a clue about running a railway so fiddling around the edges and repainting the rolling stock keeps management happy.
mike hemsley, Abingdon, Oxfordshire
The horror is compounded when the conductor ('or train manager') apologises for the 'slight delay' to the 'service'. They should apologise for the delay, to me, I can determine the magnitude or effect of that delay. How dare they tell me that their failure is merely 'slight'. There, that feels better.
george woods, London
Very very interesting and true. Well written!
Once again Clive James has hit the nail on the head, his brilliant wit and observations are top class. So called leaders of our societies take note - WHY fix something that isn't broke?
Please for all our sakes, channel your energies into something useful and productive & think!! before doing so.
Ronny, Whitwick, Leicestershire
Wonderful stuff, but how could Clive James miss the fact that the Millennium Dome has also been re-named - it is called the O2.
Richard Broke, London
Very good- only let down by claiming that the Tate has only two manifestations - Britain and Modern. However, it does show that Clive has given up trying to use the railways to get out of London Village any more.
This is just a depressing whinge from an old man who doesn't like change! I agree with some of the points he makes but they've all been made before.