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From Gove to Gogglebox - books in the background can be so revealing

PUBLISHED: 10:22 02 June 2020 | UPDATED: 11:29 02 June 2020

GIles and Mary in Gogglebox - their bulging bookshelves have given Paul Barnes an insight into their personalities Picture: CHANNEL FOUR

GIles and Mary in Gogglebox - their bulging bookshelves have given Paul Barnes an insight into their personalities Picture: CHANNEL FOUR

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A library of books behind a face staring into a laptop camera has become a sign of the times. Paul Barnes wonders just how staged those backgrounds are

I see the book-burners have been at it. With all these bits of telly coming from peoples’ homes with bookshelves often being in the background beady eyes have been scanning the spines for stuff to huff and puff about. It’s easy to spot the huffers and puffers. Their heads spend so much time tilted to one side in order to read the titles they walk around with a permanent crick. They have a season ticket to the local osteopath. If they spot an offending work it can even put a shoulder out.

If you’re well-read it stands to reason that you’ll have on your shelves a handful of volumes that might give some people the vapours. Michael Gove found this out when pictures of his library revealed the presence of some seditious-seeming stuff. There was The Bell Curve, by a psychologist and a political scientist, not exactly light reading. Published in 1994 it was widely criticised for suggesting that ethnicity might be involved in determining IQ. Might be, not certainly was, it weighed evidence and debated the pros and cons.

A couple of shelves away (social distancing?) there’s a book by the notorious Holocaust-denier David Irving. This was the cue for an attack of the vapours, enough to unhinge Doctor Jennifer Cassidy, an academic (Oxford, as if we couldn’t guess) driving her to take a snap of her own shelf. “Here’s a picture of me NOT reaching for the work of prominent Holocaust-denier David Irving or having The Bell Curve on my shelf.” Ah, the academic rigour of Oxford where it’s advisable not to expose yourself or your students to upsetting stuff. Stick to the honey-and-blue-skies brand of certainty where snowflakes may safely settle.

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What the Gove-bashers chose to overlook or ignore is his work on the Holocaust Commission, set up to explore ways where Britain could establish a Holocaust memorial and provide future generations with educational material, doubtless including thoughts and opinions that might be disturbing in books that some would prefer to burn, a practice that the Nazis were rather good at.

Persephone Gargoyle’s just phoned. She does it most days. This time it was to say she’s fed up with Gogglebox. She does have a way with words. “The gogglers have become too self-aware and rather monotonous caricatures of themselves,” she warbled. She’s got a point. When you think about it the best things about Gogglebox were the various dogs and the untidy den of rambling Giles and sensible Mary with its bulging bookshelves. I scanned the titles once. There were three books about organic gardening, two identical copies of The Story of a Norfolk Farm by Henry Williamson, an Encyclopaedia of Fungi, assorted works on trees, including Woodlanders and a Forestry Commission pamphlet on broadleaves.

Not stuff to set the average mind ablaze, but they are right up Giles’s street as he is always grubbing about and getting soil under his fingernails.

Now I come to think about Gogglebox, there are few if any books to be seen in the other gogglers’ viewing rooms, which is a shame. I can’t believe none of them ever read anything at all, though it wouldn’t surprise me if that was the case when they fill the sofas with celebrities who are far more important than the programmes up for consideration.

Without huffing or puffing I do rather enjoy the glimpses of other peoples’ bookshelves now we’re in an age of remote reporters, isolated interviewees and locked down presenters, but it is a bit frustrating when the background is out of focus or too far behind the subject to discern the quirks of their literary tastes. Being as close to the camera as he is Jon Snow’s library corner is well-defined. His book of Byzantium is big enough to claim a show of its own. As he’s broadcasting from home all we get of Snow these days are large facial close-ups, a bit too much of a good thing some might think, but at least we are spared the sight of his socks.


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