There used to be a very useful shop in King’s College Hospital selling everything patients, visitor and staff might need. It had all the usual magazines, crisps, drinks, etc. but it also had nightwear, underwear, T-shirts, playing cards, small games, paperbacks, manicure sets, headphones, sewing kits, etc.
That has all been swept away, replaced by an M & S and a Costa that look as antiseptic as one of the hospital’s operating theatres. It will be of small consolation to someone needing a cheap replacement for their less-than-fresh pyjamas that they can now buy a pot of wasabi-coated nuts.
Yet again the modern penchant for chains, with their controllable orderliness and a limited and predictable range (ruthlessly monitored and culled should sales of units fall below a certain level) has put paid to the serendipity of the one-off.
It makes me wonder whether it is this relentless surge towards uniformity that has expanded the way the word ‘random’ is used. As I recall, it was mostly applied to a noun, to denote the opposite of ‘specific’ or ‘selected’. But about 15 years ago, I heard my teenage nephew exclaim, in a tone of some delight, ‘That’s so random!’ It still meant ‘accidental’ or ‘unplanned’, but this informal use of the word was clearly a term of approbation.
This then got me to thinking about how wonderful randomness actually is. Where would still lifes be without it? It is precisely the (apparent) ‘uncuratedness’ of a jumble of fruit, veg, flowers, crockery, cloths, insects, and, if necessary, dead animals, that give these paintings their charm, with their contrasts of colours, textures and reflections.
It was the very lack of randomness that disappointed me about the Millennium Dome. I had been looking forward to the hyper-randomness of an epic combination of the Ideal Home Exhibition and the Boys and Girls Exhibition, only to find that it was mostly a display of flat images and legends printed on small white cards. Where were the THINGS?
However, the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics more than made up for this. How to follow the jaw-dropping precision and uniformity of 15, 000 well-drilled Chinese performers? Simple: don’t even try. Bond, Bean, Berners-Lee, dancing doctors, stovepipe hats and smoking chimneys – Danny Boyle knew the protean approach would strike a chord.
At a personal level, I am all for randomness. I have finally realised that I will never achieve ‘soignée’ so I may as well go for the opposite – and I am delighted to have the endorsement of the great Anna Wintour, whose coining of the disparaging term ‘matchy matchy’ has gone down in fashion history. The poet Robert Herrick back in the 17th century praised what he called ‘a sweet disorder in the dress’, and Bunuel’s film That Obscure Object of Desire plays explicitly on the contrasting personalities of the leading lady, played by two actors, one all neat and trussed up, the other with wild hair and flying shirt-tails.
So resist the clone high street, clipped privet hedges, branded leisure wear, etc. with messy gardens teeming with wildlife, and bring on the jumble sales, markets and the dressing-up box – they’re so random.