22 January 2007

This is the state we're in

Last Friday I experienced a serious urge to do something I had never done before. No, no, settle down, it was not that exciting. I decided that I would quite like to vote for Jade Goody on Celebrity Big Brother. Unfortunately, neither I nor the people I discussed it with (who agreed with me) knew how to go about it. So, we did not vote.

For the benefit of our non-British readers and those who are too superior to admit interest (though they admit to a great deal of disgust) in the Big Brother developments, let me explain what has been happening. (Those who are disgusted at the thought of such lowly subjects and people being discussed on this elevated forum can stop reading now.)

There is no need, I believe, to explain what Big Brother or Celebrity Big Brother are, there being similar programmes in most countries of the developed world. The participants in the latter tend to be rather moth-eaten celebs, either wannabes or ones way past their sell-by date. (There was one occasion when the winning celebrity was not one at all. She had merely pretended and nobody noticed the difference.)

So, there we were, a couple of weeks ago, with a number of moth-eaten celebrities gathering in the house, among them one Jade Goody, who is famous for being the only Big Brother participant who had made it as a celeb, her mother and boyfriend and assorted others, including a Bollywood wannabe, who had made a number of unsuccessful films and was clearly looking to this programme to do something about her career.

Whether the programme was more or less boring than the previous ones I cannot tell as I have never seen a single episode not even accidentally, as so many pontificators, both journalists and letter-writers seem to do. Nevertheless, the ratings remained lamentable and Channel 4 clearly decided to do something about it. Now this may be libellous and I would not dream of suggesting that Channel 4 created a situation in which racist insults and epithets were flung around with gay abandon but their editors do make a decision as to which part of the repartee is broadcast.

Some years ago Ben Elton wrote a wickedly funny satire on Big Brother, entitled “Dead Famous”. In that a murder is carried out in the house, the police investigate and the ratings go up. As a detective story it is no good at all but as a novel of satire on the media and its canon fodder it is superb. Every single series since then has resembled it more and more. I do hope that Mr Elton will manage to cash in on the whole business somehow.

Not murder but a crime that is considered to be even more serious in modern Britain, at least by the great and the good: racism. The Bollywood wannabe, Shilpa Shetty, who had already managed to annoy, I understand, most viewers and critics by being pretentious, incompetent and clearly horrified by having to share a house with people she considered to be Untouchable, became the focus of various sneers, attacks and rather unpleasant and ignorant comments.

All these were broadcast, complaints multiplied and viewing figures went up. Her own rather tearful references to people born in the gutter or by the roadside went unnoticed though, as Julie Burchill pointed out, this is true about millions of people in India. I suspect the dainty actress was referring to her housemates rather than the Untouchables back home.

Then, several things happened. First of all, David Cameron made a sensible comment. I do not think the media made enough of this. For the first time in his political career he used common sense and announced that every TV set had a regulator called the off button.

In India the reaction was varied, despite the headlines here of uproar and outrage. The Bollywood wannabe is apparently a great hit with teenage boys because she wears more revealing clothes than is usual in that country. Some of these boys gleefully burned effigies of Channel 4 producers and directors.

Since nobody actually knows what these people look like the effigies were rather random and as teenage boys are, by and large, notorious pyromaniacs, not a lot can be deduced from that.

The Indian Finance Minister shrugged his shoulders and said that the continuing negotiations with Britain will not be affected by something so unimportant and the Indian Tourist Board invited Jade to visit that country and sample its yoghurt. We already know that she is quite keen on Indian take-aways but the food in India itself might come as something of a surprise to her.

That was the end of the more or less sensible comments. Gordon Brown rushed in there, demanding that viewers should vote Jade out, “a vote for Shilpa being a vote for Britain” in his somewhat confused argument. Perhaps the fact that he has been a wannabe Prime Minister for several years made him feel a certain affinity with all those third-rate celebs.

Alan Johnson (I think he is the Education Secretary) has announced that all school children will be taught that being British meant being open and unprejudiced (with one important exception, as I shall explain below). Hizonner, the Mayor of LondON made a statement. The Commission for Equality and Human Rights rushed in there and criticized Luke Johnson, the chairman of Channel 4’s board and all the great and the good have been pontificating, having called for the eviction of Jade.

Now, if this country were still one in which the people refused to be slaves (if it ever was) and did not simply do as they were told or sat on the sidelines sneering then there would have been a collective two-finger salute to Gordon Brown and the pundits of various hues. Alas, the public did as it was told and Jade was voted out with a massive percentage (so my vote would have made no difference) and to gleeful headlines in the Sun and the Daily Mirror about bigots and stupidity.

For Jade it must have all looked rather familiar. I suspect most of our readers are too superior and refined to recall what happened when this rather unappealing female started her career. She was in the Big Brother house and was abused considerably more freely than the pretty little Indian actress by her colleagues and the audience. She was called fat, ugly, stupid; a bitch and a pig. When she was evicted, she came out to posters that said, “Kill the Pig”, and a carefully collected mob that was screaming abuse at her.

The point about Jade (and the other so-called racists on that programme) is that she belongs to the class in this country about whom you can say anything you like, be as revoltingly abusive as you like and get away with it. Neither the Mayor nor the Chancellor, socialists though they are, will ever speak up for the underclass in this country. Come to think of it, they will not speak up for what remains of the working class either. No British school child will be taught that one must not be prejudiced against chavs.

Where Jade went wrong last time was not to sit down and cry prettily in front of a camera, daintily dabbing her eyes so the mascara will not smudge. Instead she took her tormentors on and won. Well, at least temporarily.

She is the only Big Brother participant who has become a celebrity with her own cable TV show, her own perfume, and endless media stories. Who remembers the ones who called her stupid and laughed at her bulk? In other words, she is even worse than a chav; she is an uppity chav. Up with this we will not put.

Of course, you might argue that chav or not, she has not actually done anything. She is famous for being famous. Plenty of those around and they do not get the sort of abuse she does. Nor is it a particularly new phenomenon, so I hope that none of our readers put up comments along the lines of “o tempora, o mores”.

What were those famous Edwardian beauties, whose pictures adorned all photographers’ shops? What of the subjects of Regency gossip sheets? The so-called hostesses and denizens of nightclubs in the thirties? Some were actresses or singers (as some are models or pop singers now) but most were famous for being famous.

Who were Emerald and Nancy Cunard but the wife and daughter of a shipping magnate, though the latter played at left-wing politics and journalism (particularly if there were handsome men around)? Come to think of it, who is Carole Thatcher, so beloved by the nice public, who are so scornful of Jade et al? She, too, has played at being a journalist and has recently emerged as a sausage taster but, actually, she is famous for … all together now ….. being Margaret Thatcher’s daughter. And for being famous.

Well, Jade Goody’s parents are nothing to write home about but she obviously has some flair of her own. Otherwise she would not have got anywhere. I notice that this time round she has learnt her lesson and has allowed the Sun to publish a photograph of her, red-eyed with weeping. She still cannot manage that pretty dab at the eyelashes but she has reinvented herself as a victim to be pitied and someone who is almost suicidal with guilt. She is reported as being treated for depression. Way to go, girl. That’s how we like our chavs. In their lowly place.

We have seen this with other uppity chavs like the Beckhams who have excited incomprehensible levels of hatred. This dislike of people trying to move up from their lowly position has extended to those well-known figures of fun, Essex man and Essex girl, who are, if truth be told, East End lads and lasses, who earned or made money and moved out to small Essex towns not least in order to give their children a better start in life.

They know better than anyone how bad the schools and how unsafe many of the areas in the East End are and how little will any modern, hectoring politician do about it. In fact, they know better than anyone else that those modern hectoring politicians will prevent anything being done while ensuring that their own children do not mix with the hoi polloi.

While the “racism on Big Brother” story played out in parts of our media, I also managed to read a theatre review by the Daily Telegraph’s Charles Spencer. Well, I read part of it. I hardly ever manage to get through Mr Spencer’s articles. Even more rarely do I agree with him.

He was lauding a play that sounded utterly dire by any standard by a (to me unknown) young playwright, Roy Williams, “Days of Significance”. Clearly Mr Williams is known to the art establishment of this country as this work is being performed at the Swan Theatre at Stratford.

The play seems to be a “sensitive” and, no doubt, “thoughtful” study of how revolting squaddies are. When they are not drunk out of their minds and have sex with every female in sight (presumably at different times) they beat up Iraqi prisoners (undoubtedly innocent and well-meaning). In fact, they are a disgrace to the human race.

Oh for a Kipling, I thought, as I abandoned the review, who will tell Messrs Williams and Spencer that
We aren't no thin red 'eroes, nor we aren't no blackguards too,
But single men in barricks, most remarkable like you;
An' if sometimes our conduck isn't all your fancy paints,
Why single men in barricks don't grow into plaster saints;
Kipling’s Tommies and our own squaddies are nothing like plaster saints and their behaviour is often appalling (as is the behaviour of City bankers on Friday and Saturday night in London). But they are other things as well. They are people who are asked to risk their lives for many reasons, often not clearly defined.

They are, as my colleague has pointed out tirelessly, sent into battle with inadequate kit and protection. They are ill-educated and often prevented by the army structure and their superior officers from acquiring further training or education even to the point of becoming as articulate as their American counterparts. (Yes, I know we, as a country, despise the American services but that is only because the Yanks allow anybody rise to the top, simply anybody.)

One of the disgraceful aspects of homelessness in this country is the number of ex-soldiers who are on the streets. Not all and not the majority but far too many for us to be smug and satisfied with the situations. Young lads from working-class and even lower families, ill-educated and without training go into the forces where they do well enough. All too often they come out ill-educated and without training, with little help from their employers as to adjustment to civilian life and acquiring a job.

In fact, their purpose is to be fodder for clever-dick playwrights, theatre critics and columnists. They are chavs, low and vulgar and we can all abuse them as much as we like with no fears of statements from the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Why should any of us care, beyond a sentimental attachment to the idea of the glorious British soldier? Because, with the destruction of most of the working class communities, through social engineering, intrusive welfarism, appalling education and, let us face it, laziness and lack of ambition within those communities, the underclass is extending.

There are more chavs than were really hopelessly poor in the Victorian era. Furthermore, throughout the nineteenth and early century stupendous efforts were made to enable people to climb out of their hopelessness.

Victorians did not scream abuse (well, some did but many did not) or just turn away fastidiously to sigh about the dumbing down of society. They did not just write studies for think-tanks (or blogs, I suppose). They went into the slum areas and set up boys’ brigades, scouts and guides; they collected money to open child care centres instead of sighing about working class women having to earn their living; they set up Workers’ Educational Assocations.

All that was then taken over by the state and gradually destroyed. And the chavs are ignorant and uneducated, there being nowhere for them to get education. Given that Oxford professors like Tim Garton Ash, as the Booker column points out this week, know very little of the subjects they pontificate on; given the perennial ignorance of our politicians, our journalists, our experts, the undereducation of the underclass may not seem to be all that important.

I beg to disagree. A society in which a large and growing class is not to be allowed from where it has been corralled (and they must not be encouraged to buy property either) is not a society with a particularly high potential for future development.

My colleague has detailed the effects on the armed services. Sooner or later, we shall have to ask ourselves whether this country has the stomach to be a military power, even to the extent of saying:
While it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy fall be'ind,"
But it's "Please to walk in front, sir," when there's trouble in the wind-
There's trouble in the wind, my boys, there's trouble in the wind,
O it's "Please to walk in front, sir," when there's trouble in the wind.

We shall also have to decide about our economy. More and more of our children remain uneducated and untrained, unable to hold a simple conversation or turn up for a job or an interview on time and reasonably dressed. Businesses have responded by increasingly hiring foreign labour at various levels.

Banning immigrants or temporary incomers from taking up employment here, the preferred solution of a number of our readers, will not work. That will simply take investment and entrepreneurs to other countries.

Nor does the answer lie in Gordon Brown’s daft new idea of keeping teenagers at school till they are eighteen, thus massaging the youth unemployment figures.

It is, however, time to start wondering what is to be done with all those chavs apart from screaming abuse at them.

There is a strong possibility that this series of Celebrity Big Brother will be taken off the air. What will happen to the Bollywood wannabe I cannot tell. I doubt if her career in India will take off any more than it has done in the past but I foresee numerous appearances on chat shows here, still clutching that dainty handkerchief. She might not be able to avoid a photograph with Gordon Brown or Ken Livingstone. But, eventually, she will be forgotten.

The problem that crystallized around her, on the other hand, will not go away. Personally, I hope Jade Goody wins out this time as well and fights the good fight for the chavs. But, of course, nothing will change until we realize that they, too, need education and ambitions.