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You know, Zoe, you’re kind of a pain in the neck


HOW proud the paymasters at the Guardian must have been the other day when they heard their columnist Zoe Williams say that lobbing milkshakes over people you don’t agree with is, well, you know, just completely OK. Williams says ‘you know’ and ‘kind of’ a lot. It’s unclear whether it’s a verbal tic or a way of playing for time as she attempts in vain to order her thoughts and her sentences. Williams was certainly proud of having the word ‘ludic’ handy, using it at least twice, once with the word ‘playful’ and another time with the phrase ‘ironic sensibility.’ Oddly enough, she didn’t twin it with the descriptor ‘pretentious tripe’.

Williams had been invited on to the Radio 4 PM programme following Monday’s incident in Newcastle where a milkshake was thrown at Nigel Farage. Presenter Evan Davis introduced the piece by framing it as part of the country’s tradition of non-violent protest, satire and mockery, citing recent slogans such as Lactose Against Intolerance and Milkshakes Against Racism. He wanted to explore with his guests whether it was ‘a healthy phenomenon’ at such a ‘fraught time’. Fellow guest Anna Soubry was clear and concise from the outset, stating that it was ‘dreadful behaviour’, that it was ‘wrong’, done to ‘humiliate somebody’ and represented a ‘coarsening of discourse.’ From here, courtesy of Williams, the discussion unravelled into barely listenable incoherence.

Amidst a stream of ‘you know’, ‘kind of’, ‘essentially’ and ‘in the sense that’, we discerned that she was saying it was Farage’s own fault that he had a milkshake thrown at him because it was the Brexit Party and ‘Ukip before them’ that ‘introduced this top note of violence . . . they have raised the spectre of violence’. There was then a convoluted anecdote about a friend of hers once hearing threatening words being shouted by ‘far Right’ people, causing Davis to protest mildly that it was ‘just words’, not actual violence. Williams’s longwindedness continued as she barrelled on ‘cos I haven’t got to the milkshake yet’. We then had ‘a symbol of undercutting’, ‘the violence of the language’, ‘white supremacy message’, and then ‘a custard tart in the face is quite playful, a milkshake on your suit is quite playful’.

Understandably, Soubry could bear no more. She apologised to Williams but said calmly, ‘This is twaddle.’ Williams was flummoxed, uttering simply ‘OK’. The listener realised just how much when Williams accused Soubry (twice) of using ‘very pompous language’ and then resorted to impersonating Soubry by saying, in her most practised Lady Bracknell voice, ‘This is twaddle’. Williams was struggling not just because she probably knew she had broadcast her confusion between the words one chooses and the tone of voice in which one articulates those words, but because the listener knew full well that Soubry had used no pompous tone. All she had said, properly, non-pompously, was ‘twaddle’. And even if she had, so what? Pity that the ridiculous, apparently hurt, Williams was not asked whether she would prefer to deal with pomposity or a milkshake over her head.

Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, Williams tried to take on Soubry’s surely reasonable point that however much one might disagree with someone, it has to be with ‘honest, rigorous argument, you do not sink to their level’. Bizarrely, she claimed that Soubry was somehow making her point for her, everybody being ‘so tired of this pompous, aerated language . . . nobody with a sense of humour . . . everybody on about how they have the moral high ground . . . how they’ll win power with their trusty sword of reason . . . everybody’s so tired of this self-involvement . . . just something a bit playful is such a relief’. Soubry’s push back that milkshake-throwing is done ‘to humiliate’ was scoffed at and denied by Williams who said ‘It’s done as a joke’ and ‘Loads of people are laughing, Anna, people are laughing all over the place. I’m laughing.’

It was true, of course. Williams was laughing. Breathy little snorts and guffaws at what she feels is her own edgy irreverence and languid wit is what she does and, as with her other tic, she does it frequently. Remember, she is not amongst those tedious humourless people who deploy words rather than slapstick, knockabout, playful milkshakes. She then attempted to deride Soubry for her pointless ‘highfalutin debates’ on the grounds that Change UK was on a hiding to nothing if the polls were to be believed. At least here, Williams was making as explicit as she could her stance that if you can’t win an argument, if you’re a tongue-tied twerp, then just get yourself over to Burger King and ask for something strawberry flavoured. That’s the way to go. That’ll sort it. It was an odd, puerile position from a person who presumably makes some kind of a living using words.

It was nearly all over. Williams got in one more snort of mirth before attempting to argue against something that nobody had been arguing anyway: ‘This idea that it’s completely novel to throw a dairy product at somebody is ridiculous.’ Presumably, even Evan Davis could bear it no longer, cutting Williams off mid-drone, and fittingly just as she was saying ‘kind of’. What I’m now kind of wondering is how Williams will feel next time someone, taking against what she has to pontificate on, says: `I’ve had enough, Zoe, but I am feeling playful, ironic and a bit ludic. So what do you want? Chocolate or banana?’

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Julie Lynn
Julie Lynn
Julie Lynn, a former journalist, teacher and full time mother, currently tutors teenagers in English and French.

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