Flying ducks

by John Q on May 19, 2006

From Rachel Aspden’s New Statesman review of Alain de Botton’s latest

None of this [pretentiousess] would matter so much were de Botton not selling the promise of taste. The Architecture of Happiness is being advertised on the Tube with a poster of flying-duck plaques – middle-class shorthand for “naff” – asking: “Is this your idea of good taste?” … If this is happiness, I’ll take the flying ducks any time.

Reading this in the kitchen, I naturally glanced up at the wall, which is adorned by a classic flight of flying ducks. I acquired them in my youth in a spirit of irony, but that has long since transmuted into genuine affection (if indeed, the irony was ever genuine). They used to be accompanied by a koala, masked and caped as a flying supermarsupial, but the wall wasn’t a safe place for such a unique item, and we’ve never found another.

So is it OK to like flying ducks? Or is this the crime against the holy spirit of Good Taste that can never be forgiven?

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Brendan 05.19.06 at 2:34 am

‘Or is this the crime against the holy spirit of Good Taste that can never be forgiven.’

I think it is a crime against the holy spirit of good taste to like Alain de Boton. On the other hand, a friend of mine went to a literary conference once and de Boton turned up with a (beautiful) different woman every morning of every day of the conference. If his intention was to prove that beauty (or ‘handsomeness’) is subjective he certainly succeeded.


Max 05.19.06 at 3:02 am

As an aside to this, let me link to Paul Graham‘s essay Taste for Makers.

One of de Boton’s many problems is that he’s a snob.

But I always think in view of hip hop superstars wearing gaudy “ice” and drinking expensive Champagne that “money can’t buy you taste”. And good taste isn’t necessarily expensive (c.f. Ikea).


Chris 05.19.06 at 3:20 am

Was your flying duck irony genuine or did you ‘really’ like them?
As you say, probably a bit of both.
Would you have installed ‘swirly’ brown carpet in your sitting room for the irony value??

This is a disappointing de Botton I agree, though he is more subtle about e.g. the lunacy of Le Corbusier’s paln to demolish the centre of Paris.
A totalitarian scheme of which the New Statesman in its time would no doubt have been a leading cheerleader.


Chris Bertram 05.19.06 at 3:44 am

The real put-down in the review:

bq. His own taste, as this suggests, is relentlessly Country Living: a faux-rural Farrow & Ball confection of high ceilings, large sash windows and “playful” fruit-and-flowers stencilling.

As any fule kno, the real aristos disdain _Country Living_ but subscribe to _Country Life_ .


ajay 05.19.06 at 3:48 am

There is only one crime against taste: trying and failing. The man who sets himself up as a wine-lover and then confuses Bordeaux and Bourgogne has committed it. The man who admits that he would much rather have London Pride has not.
Someone who wears a tracksuit because it’s comfortable and practical – no. Someone who wears a Gucci tracksuit – oh, yes.

And, yes, anyone who reads Alain de Botton (who, I am convinced, was christened plain Alan Botts) for advice on taste has definitely committed it.


Chris 05.19.06 at 3:51 am

I’m not sure that is his own taste is it?
(Though hardly unattractive…oh inverted snobs!)
He can of course live as and where he likes, as I believe he inherited hundreds of millions from his financier father (Gilbert de Botton), yet I thought he lived in a terraced house in Shepherds Bush, and claims to hanker most after the anonymous functional modern apartment in which he was brought up in Zurich.


bad Jim 05.19.06 at 3:53 am

Call me a gosling if you must, but otherwise, what the duck?


Mr.Bill 05.19.06 at 4:23 am

“I’ll explain to you, then,’ said the gentleman, after another and a dismal pause, ‘why you wouldn’t paper a room with representations of horses. Do you ever see horses walking up and down the sides of rooms in reality — in fact? Do you?’
‘Yes, sir!’ from one half. ‘No, sir!’ from the other.

‘Of course no,’ said the gentleman, with an indignant look at the wrong half. ‘Why, then, you are not to see anywhere, what you don’t see in fact; you are not to have anywhere, what you don’t have in fact. What is called Taste, is only another name for Fact.’ Thomas Gradgrind nodded his approbation.

‘This is a new principle, a discovery, a great discovery,’ said the gentleman. ‘Now, I’ll try you again. Suppose you were going to carpet a room. Would you use a carpet having a representation of flowers upon it?’

There being a general conviction by this time that ‘No, sir!’ was always the right answer to this gentleman, the chorus of NO was very strong.”-Charles Dickens Hard Times


Chris 05.19.06 at 5:02 am

For those unfamiliar, I should say that Shepherds Bush is a not wholly salubrious, nor wholly unsalubrious, London suburb.


Belle Waring 05.19.06 at 5:09 am

the kinks addressed this issue in their song “ducks on the wall”. “my baby’s got the most deplorable taste/but her biggest mistake/is hanging over the fireplace/she’s got ducks, ducks on the wall.” etc. perhaps the best?:”I love you baby but I can’t ball/when I see those ducks on the wall.”

ironically in the states, ducks on the wall have a high/low valence, possibly skewed high. there may be some trailer-dwellers with ducks in flight up there next to the kincaid paintings, but in my experience you are most likely to encounter such a painting in the home of the high WASP. massive collection of duck miniatures/actual decoys also nice. brass lamps made of real ships lamps? yup. commissioned oil portraits of your english setters are also good*.
*for some value of good. don’t blame me, he’s only my grandad.

I would be happy to have a good ducks on the wall painting over my fireplace. if i had a fireplace. and a good painting of ducks.


Sharon 05.19.06 at 5:19 am

Aren’t we all into ironic-retro-trash chic these days anyway? 50s, 70s, 80s (why? why? wasn’t that decade bad enough the first time round?), take your pick. If the middle-class tastemakers laughed at it 20 years ago, chances are it’ll be the latest must-have either now or very soon.


Belle Waring 05.19.06 at 5:21 am

I’ve now realized we are apparently talking about plaques of flying ducks rather than original oil paintings of flying ducks. hmmm. could still be good, but more in the way the cool “nukes keep america running” shirt I got for John at a thrift store. he never wears it. bastard.


Rich 05.19.06 at 6:03 am

Jeez, Belle.

I thought I was going to be the one to place an obscure Soap Opera reference here.

You took Ducks. I’ll just say “…Shepherd’s Pie, or eggs benedict, or whatever…”



Kieran Healy 05.19.06 at 8:05 am

If it were good enough for Hilda Ogden (and also Wallace) it’s good enough for me.


SomeCallMeTim 05.19.06 at 8:24 am

So is it OK to like flying ducks?

I think it depends on whether you’re listening to The Smiths as you enjoy them.


Richard Bellamy 05.19.06 at 8:40 am

Is not this issue fully and decisively covered by the Ironic Gnome Rule?


City Life 05.19.06 at 8:45 am

Would you consider selling the koala?
I have the perfect spot for it.


taj 05.19.06 at 9:01 am

I am inspired to share a pun about not giving a flying duck, but in the interest of good taste I shall keep it to myself.


Jimmy Doyle 05.19.06 at 10:11 am

Thanks Taj. That was a close one.


harry b 05.19.06 at 1:08 pm

You’ll be telling us you have some of those escher posters up next, John.

I like the ducks too. I’d own garden gnomes if my wife would let me. In fact whatever sophistication I appear to have is largely constructed by my wife’s vetoes.


eudoxis 05.19.06 at 4:42 pm

There’s nothing tasteless about flying duck paintings.

The plaques are odd. Not as odd as the black iron american eagles over the entry.


John Quiggin 05.19.06 at 5:25 pm

Escher posters were considered seriously cool when I started collecting, so I don’t have any. I did have a gnome, but left it behind on one of my many moves.


nameless 05.20.06 at 10:16 am

We went through the same process in the early 70’s we had a framed print of “Poker Playing Dogs” in our house–it’s hard not to get to like those beings after living with them for a while. I got over my superior attitude toward black satin paintings (and their owners) the same way.

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