Belfast Telegraph

It could be a relief for Northern Ireland to start having a 'silly season'

By Paul Connolly

Most readers will be aware of the famous term "silly season", often deployed sniffily by a protagonist in a conversation to pooh-pooh something he or she doesn't like.

Mainly, you hear it during the summer, because that's the time of year its context comes alive.

According to Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia, the phrase is used mostly in the UK, Ireland, Israel and some other countries. But other many countries have similar phrases.

It originates from newspapers and came into fashion to describe the dog days of the summer when, supposedly, nothing happens and frivolous news stories are over-represented and over-hyped in the media.

Apparently, the first documented use was in an 1861 Saturday Review article and it was listed in the second edition of Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable in 1894.

The 15th edition of Brewer's expands on the second, reportedly defining the silly season as "the part of the year when parliament and the law courts are not sitting (about August and September)".

This period has, of course, lots of names around the world. The Americans apparently call it the "slow news season", which, from a nation that brought us Hunter S Thompson, Jack Kerouac and, er, Lou Grant, is, frankly, a national disgrace.

Slow news season? Where's the earthy New York newsman's colourful prose, or the LA TV hack's cynical moniker?

The blunt Germans just prefer "news hole". The French are more eloquent, if somewhat strange, with their "la saison des marronniers" ("the conker tree season").

The Spanish are better – the "Summer snake" is apparently their phrase for it, given the Iberian media's alleged penchant for Loch Ness monster and other daft scare stories during the "slow news season".

Bizarrely, across much of the rest of non-English-speaking Europe, cucumbers feature in the phrase, although admittedly "cucumber time" was also used in England in the 1800s to denote the slow season for tailors (a big hat tip to Wikipedia for much of the above).

The practice of explaining newspaper summer sales slumps on the closure of parliaments and courts is over-wrought and probably makes MPs and judges feel more important than they really are.

The real reason is because people go on holiday in the summer – usually overseas – and stop buying newspapers. As "normal service" resumes in September, sales pick up again.

There's a serious point to all this meandering: Northern Ireland doesn't really suffer silly season-itis as acutely as other places do.

Yes, we have a holiday season and probably a longer one than most. Across the water, most people in the private and public sectors go on holiday in August, when the schools are closed.

In theory, our silly season should last all of July and August, since Northern Ireland virtually closes at the end of June and awakens on September 1.

But most years it seems we barely have a silly season at all. Certainly not in news. When they were on, the Troubles raged all summer. And even after the 1994 IRA ceasefire, Drumcree, Ardoyne and the other parading controversies have ensured July is anything but a "news hole".

Even August has traditionally been a tense time, with republican internment bonfires and protests, although these have given way to festivals thanks to wise community leadership since the late 90s.

I was pondering all of this on Saturday night, finding myself, for the first time in many years, at a police barricade at the much-contested Ardoyne "interface".

Dreary and depressing as the scene was, I was struck by the determination and ability within unionism to avoid physical confrontation.

The Orange Order and unionist political leaderships were both strategic and successful, as the absence of violence showed.

Who knows? If this keeps up, we might even start having proper silly seasons. @BelTelReadersEd

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