Every year, the talented interior decorator Nicky Haslam releases his famous Common List, a compilation of humorous observations printed on a tea-towel. Unsurprisingly, it never fails to trigger someone's anger. This year, the normally serious money-saving expert Martin Lewis found himself becoming the fall-guy, infuriated by Haslam's inclusion of grieving and the Northern lights. He took to Twitter to vent his frustrations, describing Haslam as a "prat".
Britain has a long-established tradition of causing offense, often seen as one of its defining qualities. Haslam is a skilled practitioner of what the late Auberon Waugh called "the vituperative arts". His lists are designed to ensure that every person in Britain is offended by at least one item. Haslam's 2018 list included a range of targets, from breakfast meetings, swans, hedge funds, to mindfulness, Bono, and Woman's Hour. It's likely that those who agreed with his views on hedge funds would be upset by the inclusion of Woman's Hour, while those who dislike Bono may very well love The Proms.
As I perused Haslam's latest list, I found myself laughing and agreeing with most of the entries - Zoom meetings, fly pasts, 110 percent, podcasts, Grayson Perry, Wimbledon. But then, I stumbled upon Petroc Trelawny and couldn't help but protest in righteous indignation. How could Haslam include the charming Petroc Trelawny, whose Radio 3 breakfast show is a sanctuary of serenity and beauty?
But a sudden realization struck me - by becoming indignant at the perceived injustice, I had fallen squarely into Haslam's well-orchestrated trap. The Common List exists to puncture the self-satisfaction of its readers, leaving no escape. Once we have finished laughing at others, we must ultimately learn to laugh at ourselves.
It has been four decades since the publication of The Complete Naff Guide, a precursor to Haslam's Common List. Spanning 250 pages, this comprehensive guide provided roughly 500 lists of what not to do, say, or be, ranging from Naff Clothing to Naff Things The Royal Family Do. Surprisingly, many of the targets still hold relevance today, remaining resolutely naff. For instance, Naff Things People Do At The Theatre included talking, explaining the plot to a deaf aunt, crying "bravo," laughing at Shakespearian jesters, and even snoring.
One of my personal favorites was the extensive list of Naff Personal Habits And Behavior, encompassing activities such as sharing a bath or sending Christmas cards adorned with photographs of oneself, family, or house. Self-referentially, the authors included: "write a non-book specifically crafted for the stocking-filler market." As an author working on a new book, I couldn't help but smile when I discovered the list of Naff Things Publishers Say To Authors - filled with infamous phrases like mistaking the author's name and mentioning the Sales Director's wife's opinion.
Much like Nicky Haslam, the authors of The Complete Naff Guide enjoyed biting the hand that fed them. After chuckling heartily at Naff Smells like tweed, fringe theaters, wet dogs, and boiled eggs, I stumbled upon the list of Naff Surnames, filled with amusing choices including Proops, Biggs, Pile, Nobbs, Humpage, and yes, Brown.
In the end, Haslam's Common List continues to both offend and amuse, reminding us of our ability to find humor even in our flaws and idiosyncrasies. It serves as a testament to Britain's unique skill of simultaneously causing offense and creating laughter, and after four decades, it shows no sign of losing its charm.