I miss office gossip, so Robert De Niro and his cucumber will have to do for now

Recently I learned that Robert De Niro will only drink martinis if they’re garnished with English cucumber, and he goes to great lengths to check its provenance. I don’t have concrete evidence of this, just as I can’t prove that the first gig Banksy attended was Erasure in Shepton Mallet, that Maradona kept his cocaine inside footballs or that Jennifer Aniston and John Mayer are enjoying the company of the same dog. But given we’ve been in a bit of a joy drought lately, reading this sort of celebrity nonsense online has provided me, endlessly housebound me during the pandemic, with some sliver of relief.

I never expected gossip to be something I missed, particularly in a year defined by profound loss, but here we are. I don’t miss mean gossip. More the banal, over-a-tea, occasionally scream-quietly-into-your-sleeve stuff. The sort of whispered chitchat that takes place in a lift or when you bump into a friend, and thrives on spontaneity but sometimes – sometimes – leads to something positive. Like revelations about pay discrepancy between colleagues, or conflicts of interest previously undisclosed. The casual stuff that weeds out low-grade sex pests or allows you to discover the person you fancy actually fancies you back. When the census asked if anyone was staying over in your property on Sunday night I wondered whether the celebrity gossip newsletter Popbitch had somehow hacked the system.

The common term for benign celebrity gossip is “blinds” or “blind items”. Stories are sent in by unverified tipsters, who often refer to the gossip as “tea”, and details are framed as questions by anonymous accounts such as Deuxmoi and Popbitch (which posted the de Niro and Maradona tales). This stuff used to pass me by: perhaps I just didn’t need it because too much was happening in the real world for me to care about how many cardboard cutouts Paris Hilton once requested backstage (seven), or that Prince Charles apparently refers to fivers and tenners as “blue granny” and “brown granny”, respectively.

In the absence of office and in-person gossip, celebrity gossip has been particularly compelling during the monotony of quarantine, partly because it has a good dollop of schadenfreude built in. We don’t know that the rich and wealthy are having an easier time, but we can guess they probably are. Popbitch doesn’t Covid-snitch but it does “highlight the gap between the public perception and private reality of the celebrity-media world”, it recently told me. “And that gap has been quite stark in the pandemic.”

Of course, more mundane gossip hasn’t really stopped. It’s simply moved online. I hear WhatsApp has had a fantastic pandemic. But there’s just something a bit grim about gossiping on a medium that is engineered for it. Messaging sites are also vulnerable to misinterpretation: they have tone immunity, and irony is hard to convey.

The gossip I’m thinking about is all a bit silly. Often I get the urge to share some gossip – that so-and-so might have a new job, or that A saw B with C – but it probably doesn’t warrant alerting a whole WhatsApp group. There’s also a paper trail of sorts. And screen shots! In the time it takes to type something, it suddenly doesn’t seem worth sharing. Or requires more context after the fact. Or worse, it seems meaner than how you meant it. Gossiping in real life simply invites your co-conspirator to react, but sending it online demands it. If the tidbit is met by no reply, the deafening silence will haunt your dreams and make you question your very identity.

We usually think of gossip as a bad thing. And too much of it can be, of course. But I prefer Edmund White’s definition of the word as “talking with and about your friends about the good and the bad things in their lives”. In an interview last year White, a self-described archaeologist of gossip, spoke about picking up men, taking them home for casual sex, and how in that moment when it’s all over you can just lie there and tell each other about yourselves. To White, this is a sort of casually intimate gossip that can, in some cases, become “clarifying moments of discovery”. Gossip among friends can also create its own intimacies and new understandings.

I’m not proud to feel suddenly so invested in gossip – celebrities, friends, colleagues or otherwise – but I’m surely not alone. Large parts of Lauren Oyler’s new novel, Fake Accounts, are written as if gossip were a genre, while the protagonist of Eliza Clark’s Boy Parts watches slices of her life appear in her friend’s online gossip blog. On TV, we’ve recently had the Netflix hit Bridgerton, and there’s the impending arrival of a Gossip Girl reboot, both of which avail of anonymous gossip as a narrative device.

If you still feel wary about gossip, perhaps treat it like the satirist Pietro Aretino – the subject of a great episode of the Bad Gays podcast – did in medieval Italy. It is claimed that he was employed by the French king to write propaganda about the Spanish king, while being paid by the Spanish king to write propaganda about the French king, effectively weaponising gossip to game the system. He was stabbed a few times, but he survived and apparently died laughing, literally laughing. See? Gossip’s not all bad.

  • Morwenna Ferrier is the Guardian’s deputy fashion editor

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