The value of clichés

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I went to see an extraordinary new play recently – London Road at the National Theatre. It is a verbatim record of interviews with neighbours in London Road, Ipswich, in the aftermath of the murders of prostitutes by serial killer Steve Wright – performed by actors and set to music. The words themselves are unremarkable in the extreme, consisting of clichés and platitudes – often repeated several times – of the kind uttered unthinkingly by people who don’t quite know what to say but feel compelled to say something. It is the context and the performance as well as the verisimilitude that make the play so mesmerising.

It made me think again about clichés and language. We should acknowledge, certainly, that clichés and platitudes and jargon are comforting. They reinforce human solidarity. They show empathy.

What they don’t do is enlighten, motivate, or persuade the reader or listener to act in a certain way – which is what Clarity and its clients are usually trying to achieve. Nonetheless, we should never underestimate the power of ordinariness, so brilliantly highlighted in London Road by the writer Alecky Blythe and her musical collaborator Alan Cork.

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