I can remember being fascinated by an image, probably in a Guinness Book of World Records, of a jar containing what I suppose must have been a world-beating quantity of someone’s bellybutton fluff. It was blue, which surprised me because most of the fluff I produced seemed to be white. Why should this image have interested me? Maybe because it seemed disgusting and kind of taboo (an irresistible combination for a child). Maybe because it made visible something usually hidden, and vaguely shameful. Or perhaps I found something satisfying in the quantifying aspect of it. There in the photograph of the jar, as in a stumbled upon infographic, was a visualisation of data I never knew I needed, probably how much bellybutton fluff one person could produce in a year. Fluff, when used to refer to speech or art, indicates a kind of void, a lack of substance, and yet here was a jar full of the stuff. I could see it (if I were the producer of the fluff in the photograph, or the photographer, I could even touch it if I were so inclined).
Fluff is everywhere. It’s in the rise of political spin, the relentless churn of the 24-hour news cycle, our social media feeds. It may be, in a sense, without content, and yet it is also ubiquitous, and fills up our lives. We sometimes seek it out – as in when we really just want to watch a bad film or trashy TV series – but mostly it comes to us unbidden, accumulating in the spaces between where we make meaning for ourselves. It is somehow dispensable and indispensible at the same time. Wilde said that we should treat all the trivial things of life seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality. We would not be able to get through our lives without fluff, I suspect, without the ephemera it would be useless to fight anyway. In Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, the teacher Hector makes his pupils learn songs like ‘When I’m Cleaning Windows’ as a sort of inoculation against the seriousness of life.
Speaking of The History Boys, which is about a group of English grammar school boys preparing for the exams they hope will get them into Oxbridge, fluff also means to do badly at something (‘the actor fluffed his lines’). This would seem to have generally serious connotations, the result being one kind of failure or another. Perhaps these senses of the word are linked – to fluff something is to have failed to have taken it seriously enough to get it right, to have treated an important thing like something that could simply be brushed away, or stored uselessly in a jar.