On Gareth Cliff, the Aromat of Opinion-Makers

An opinion, when you think about it, is really nothing more than an invitation to an argument. You don’t even need to RSVP: you just roll up your sleeves and join in.
It’s always opinion-party-time somewhere in South Africa, be it around the dinner table, around the braai, in the queue at Home Affairs, in the stands at Loftus, in the festering cauldron of the footnotes on news24.com, or in the fast lane of the N1 when someone is driving in front of you.

We are fortunate enough to live in a society where anyone can say what they want, without fear of contradiction, because why should you be afraid of being contradicted when that’s the very point of having an opinion?
So whatever I personally may believe about Julius Malema, the rugby, Libertarianism or the new Coldplay album, you are very welcome and expected to believe the opposite and say so, out loud. That’s what makes our society so noisy and interesting.
Now let’s adjust the volume a little to the left, as we move on to a topic of conversation on which we can all wholeheartedly agree. Gareth Cliff.
I remember well the first time I heard Gareth on the radio. He was just a young whippersnapper, or at least a slightly younger whippersnapper than he is today, and he was trying to make a name for himself as a daytime talkshow host on 702.
He expressed his opinion on a matter, I forget which, and some bloke took up his invitation and dialled in to argue with him.
It was a heated debate, at least on the part of the caller, whose temperature and voice rose to the point where he ran out of rhetorical devices and called Gareth a rude word beginning with a C, and I don’t mean Cliff.
My jaw dropped, and I drove along in a mixture of perverse glee – swearing on South African radio is still uncommon enough to feel like a cosmic event – and cringing empathy for the host, who had just been subjected to the ultimate professional test at so early a stage in his career.
But he handled it with aplomb, not by sheepishly cutting to commercial, but by calmly giving the caller a lesson in etiquette and linguistics that ended with a C-word of Gareth’s own choosing. Capice. Ca-peesh?
There was something about the way he said the word, nerdy and mock-gangster, enough so to make Joe Pesci whip out a pistol and shoot him in the foot, that made me laugh out loud, and I stayed tuned even after I reached my destination.
Nowadays, of course, Gareth Cliff is amultimedia personality, famous for being heard and seen and having an opinion on, well, everything.
In fact, he has just launched a book called Gareth Cliff On Everything, the title of which makes him sound a bit like a condiment, like Aromat, the artificially-flavoured seasoning that you sprinkle on everything to make it taste like something.
So Gareth, we learn, has opinions on organised religion (he doesn’t like it), fat people in aeroplanes (he doesn’t like them), cooking reality shows (he doesn’t like them), Julius Malema (he doesn’t like him), celebrities (he doesn’t like them), hospitals (he doesn’t like them), vegetarians (he doesn’t like them), His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI (he really doesn’t like him), and opinions (he likes them, his own especially).
Given the premise of the book, which is designed to “engage, enrage, and derange you”, I find myself in the awkward position of agreeing with many of Gareth’s opinions, which isn’t too hard, since so many of them now swim comfortably in the mainstream of contemporary thinking.
Everyone hates politicians and celebrities and Reality TV, for instance, and honestly, speaking as a vegetarian, I can confirm that even vegetarians have a hard time tolerating other vegetarians, particularly at a braai.
These days, if you really want to enrage and derange your constituency, you would be better off saying that you believe in an omnipotent supernatural being, because blind faith has become a form of stubborn heresy in this age of secular reason.
What Gareth’s book does reveal, though, is just how far we’ve come as a society, and how disc-jockeys are now among the least edgy and contentious commentators on the quirks, foibles, and evils of that society.
In the 80s and early 90s, before democracy and the Internet opened the dam-walls of public opinion, it took a lot of courage and madness and, possibly, drugs, for a deejay to declare what they privately believed or didn’t believe on air.
Sometimes, they didn’t even need to declare; Stan Katz of 702 once got into big trouble just for deviating from the playlist to suffix a pronouncement by PW Botha with a recording of the Talking Heads singing Road to Nowhere.
But now Gareth can pretty much say anything he wants, capeesh, and we accept it as part of the price we pay for being free to say what we want in return.
The point is, Gareth is as much a part of the landscape of South African social and political discourse as anyone with a Twitter account and a News24 log-in, the only meaningful difference being that when he complains about the Government, a Government spokesperson takes him out to lunch. Well, all right, just that once.
This book is an easy and diverting read, and the only thing I actively didn’t like about it is that Gareth spends too much time reminding us that he is a cynic and that he is opinionated, which is something no opinionated cynic should ever feel the need to do.
Worse than that, Gareth takes a page and a half to apologise for some of his previously-held opinions, such as the opinion that Blade Nzimande is ugly and that Cindy Nel…who is Cindy Nel again?
Please, Gareth, don’t apologise. There are more than enough opinions to go round, and you are fully entitled to hold two diametrically opposing opinions in your head at the same time. Just swap the one for the other as circumstances and company demand, and you’ll be fine.
For now, one thing I do actively like about this book is its cover, which shows Gareth with his arms folded, wearing a tasteful shirt and a Gareth Cliff expression.
It is an expression, thin-lipped, with a hint of an upward curve, steely-eyed, with a hint of a downward gaze, that has become Gareth’s trademark, more even than the GC logotype that defines his Personal Brand.
It is an expression that says “I am Gareth Cliff, and you are not”, which, in my opinion, is  a better title for this book, reminding us that in a world of clones, carbon copies, and wannabes, Gareth Cliff is one of a kind, and for that we should all be grateful.
*Gareth Cliff On Everything is published by Jonathan Ball Publishers, and is available now wherever books are sold. Aromat is manufactured by Knorr, and is available on the bottom shelf in the top right-hand kitchen cupboard.

7 comments on “On Gareth Cliff, the Aromat of Opinion-Makers

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