Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A Little Learning Is A Dangerous Thing

This weekend, ITV’s latest crass, paint-by-numbers Chris Tarrant vehicle, The Colour of Money, got a first night audience of just over three-and-a-half-million overnight viewers – a further reason (if they didn't have enough reasons already) for ITV's bosses to be crying into their collective muesli on Monday morning. Last night, the final of the BBC's University Challenge achieved one of its best ever audiences in a thirty year-plus history - almost five and a half million. It would be wonderful, at this point, for me to be able to write an lengthy essay about how this simple statistic clearly proved that people in Britain are far deeper and have more thirst for knowledge than they are often given credit for by the shallow media. I could try pulling in evidence from the success of shows like Qi (and, indeed, pretty much everything else Stephen Fry does) and Balderdash and Piffle and mention the way in which most recent reality show formats have, to a greater or lesser degree, died on their feet. Sadly, I suspect that is too simplistic a claim to make. Even for a one-trick blogger like me. Not least because, one of the main reasons for the enormous ratings for this particular episode of University Challenge was the attendant publicity surrounding it.

Two vastly different young women hit the headlines in Great Britain this weekend – and the contrast between them has been the focus of articles in several national newspapers in the days since. Jade Goody, who – it is suggested in the Daily Scum Mail, for one – 'made a fortune from her ignorance' and Gail Trimble, the young graduate from Oxford and the star of this season of University Challenge who has, it would appear, become vilified by a section of society for that most dreadful of crimes, in British eyes at least, 'being smart.' In the case of the former, Britain - it would seem from the depth and range of media coverage - is now well-and-truly captivated by life and impending death of a young woman who is famous only for 'being famous' and her wedding to (again to quote an exterior source here) 'a violent ex-convict' who was only given permission to spend his wedding night with his bride because somebody at the Home Office didn't fancy any bad publicity from the tabloids and bent the rules covering his court-imposed curfew. Jade Goody has been given one million pounds for exclusive photographic rights of the ceremony and had her wedding (which reportedly cost three hundred and fifteen thousand smackers) paid for by 'well-wishers.' Complete strangers queued up to leave presents at the doors of the palatial country estate where the marriage took place. Meanwhile Gail Trimble, the girl who scored eight hundred and twenty five of the one thousand two hundred and thirty five points amassed by Corpus Christi College, Oxford, on their all-conquering road to the final of University Challenge - has become a new public pariah. At least, in the eyes of 'some people of no importance on the Internet.' Across the country, several bloggers have given out the kind of stick usually reserved for child molesters and mass murderers to a woman whose knowledge extends from the works of Rudyard Kipling to Kazakhstan banknotes and from Homer’s Iliad to Homer Simpson.

'Smug,' 'irritating,' 'a vicious bitch' and 'a horse-toothed snob' are, apparently, just some of the nicer comments Gail she has attracted from blogland. And, it would appear, that with every insult there emerges a new member of the growing ranks of a nasty, hard-faced and insecure tribe of people who, seemingly, need to be comforted in their own numbing lack of knowledge, rather than impressed by someone else's brilliance. You have to be a pretty shallow and wretched individual if, the moment a smart woman come along, you're so threatened by this that you're allowed to attack her for being 'smug' and 'snobbish.' That 'snobbish' jibe is a particularly depressing one to see. To associate intelligence with class, and to damn them both, is a truly wicked lie and, in and of itself, a piece of quite sick inverted snobbery. If you are working class and you wrote - or, indeed, even think - that about Gail, publicly or privately, or anything even like it then let me assure you you don't represent me or anybody that I know and that's a fact. That Gail was, according to press reports, privately educated should be neither here or there when it comes to praising her achievement.

I find myself, at this point, somewhat conflicted. Because the very organ that is giving Gail the most support from the kind of green-eyed scum that have set themselves against her is the loathsome and worthless Daily  Scum Mail. And, for once, I actually find myself agreeing with them. Which is, trust me, horrible. I don’t agree with every word, of course – how could I? This IS the Daily Scum Mail we're talking about, after all – and I particularly disagree with their using their championing of Gail to have yet another go at 'fifty years of failed Socialism and comprehensive education' whilst seemingly oblivious to the fact that some of us who came out of the comprehensive system can, actually, string a sentence or two together. Just as more than a handful people who went to Eton or Winchester, would (and do) have considerable difficultly tying their own shoelaces. 'It's not where you're from, it's where you're at' as Ian Brown (Salford Comprehensive … probably) once, very wisely, noted. Being the Scum Mail, of course, they've also completely misunderstood the nature of blogging and bloggers in assuming that people who write blogs which have a pop at Gail are the kind of people who, by and large, would lionise Jade Goody. Not even close. Indeed, Jade will probably be getting it twice as hard and for twice as long from the self-same people. Blogging, and here I hold my hand up as much as the next man, is an artifice which positively invites cynicism in all areas. It's far easier to tell the world – as if the world is even remotely interested - about stuff that you don't like as enthusing about what you actually do. It's something I try to avoid as much as possible on here but, no one is innocent, this blogger wholly included.

Jade Goody's story is an undeniably tragic one but – and, again, I can't believe I'm actually quoting the vile and odious Daily Scum Mail - 'how extraordinarily inverted our values have become when she is treated like some modern-day Joan of Arc staring death in the face, while another young woman has bile poured upon her for the wicked sin of intelligence.' Well, yeah. Guy's got a point, you know? Even a broken clock is right twice a day. As for the other newspapers, the Sun tried to stitch Gail up the other day (on the same day that their front page was entirely devoted to Jade's wedding) by ambushing her in the street and asking her five questions along the lines of 'who is Chelsea's manager?' And 'what the name of the thirteen year old who's just fathered a child?' Gail, bless her, didn't know the answer to any of them - and there's no earthly reason why she should, she's not a computer, for goodness sake. But in best Supersoaraway scum Sun style we then got a sneering story in yesterday's paper about how, whilst 'Clever-Clogs Gail' (their phrase, I hasten to add, not mine) might know her dead Greek poets, she doesn't know that Duffy won a Brit last week. Well, smack her bare bottom with a dirty great belt for such shocking lack of priorities…

I've disliked the circus surrounding Jade Goody since she first appeared in Big Brother seven years ago. I have nothing against the women, per se, and it would be callous of anyone with a beating heart in their chest to feel anything other than sympathy for a mother dying so young. But that doesn't draw any attention away from the fact that she has achieved little of any lasting merit or value in her short life. So, there's another thing to feel conflicted about. I'm sorry that the lass is dying and I feel even sadder for her two little boys who are going to grow up without a mother but I'm really not sure about whether she's been 'exploited' as many people have claimed over the last few weeks. Everybody who goes on Big Brother know exactly what they're getting into and most of them go on there for exactly those reasons - to become 'famous for being famous' as quickly as possible. And now, we've had 'Jade, the Wedding' get ready for, well, you can imagine a whole string of stories over the next few months: 'Jade, the second to last interview,' 'Jade: if only I'd had more time to see my little boys grow up,' 'Jade: My dad never loved me,' 'Jade: I regret nothing,' 'Jade: The Final Interview,' 'Jade: The Final hours,' 'Jade: The Funeral.' Et cetera.

Who, exactly, is exploiting whom, here?

And, of course, we've also got people like Gordon Brown praising Jade for 'her courage and determination' in fighting the disease. Having, seemingly forgotten that almost two years ago to the day he was publicly criticising the same woman over – let us never forget – a series of perfectly vile and obscene racist remarks she made against her fellow Celebrity Big Brother contestant Shilpa Shetty. Something for which Jade was - publicly - castigated by the very newspapers which are now scrambling over each other to get another exclusive about her and lick her metaphorical arsehole. The Prime Minister and the tabloids, it should be noted, are not the only ones who have been doing that sort of hypocritical about-face either. Because, you know, now she's seemingly become a surrogate Princess Diana all of a sudden it really doesn't look good to be seen criticising her. I notice that Dave aren't playing that episode of Top Gear in which Jezza Clarkson described Jade as 'a pig-faced waste of blood and organs' anything like as much as they used to. Jade's perceived shortcomings in the way of saying or doing anything remotely worth hearing are, it would seem, exactly what she became celebrated for in the first place. The reason why she became so famous was precisely because, unlike Gail Trimble, she doesn't know much about anything. The country absolutely ridiculed her in 2002 when she was heard to say on Big Brother that Cambridge was in London, called East Anglia 'East Angular' and is alleged to have thought that it was a foreign country. But that didn't stop some people from queuing up to buy her perfume range and her two – yes, two - autobiographies. Bobby Robson was in his seventies before he wrote his first one, and he got England to a World Cup Semi-Final. One can, I suppose, if we're being charitable here, see how much easier it is for a person to take somebody like Jade for a role model ahead of a Gail Trimble. If you are pig-shit ignorant and know nothing, and see someone getting rich and famous for exactly that reason, then you become automatically validated yourself. You, too, could become the next made-it-ma, top-of-the-world poster boy or girl for 'I’m fick and it never held me back none, innit?'

I repeat, I'm sorry the lass is dying, really I am. And I'm sorry it's the undignified horror of cancer which is going to take her. I wouldn't wish that on anyone (and, as someone whose father died from cancer and whose mother is currently in remission from cancer I mean that as sincerely as it's humanly possible to). But I'm not gonna go overboard and suddenly find her some kind of misunderstood saint. Jade is, I'm afraid, a classic example of crass Twenty First Century celebrity culture - get rich, quick, by doing as little as humanly possible and using absolutely no inherent talent or intelligence whatsoever. She got everything she wanted by being an obnoxious, loud, crude court jester and she was, seemingly, quite happy to play that role to the hilt. Until she said the wrong thing, at which point everybody got – almost overnight - sick of her. Then, she herself became sick, and - in the blink of an eye - she was back in the public's affections. The public, I think, have to ask themselves a lot of hard questions about that. Both the decision to be so judgemental in the first place and, then, the decision to quietly forget all about that like it never happened when they found out she was dying.

One can hardly blame Jade Goody herself for taking the money on offer from various sources, of course - particularly in the period since her terminal cancer was diagnosed. She's said that she wants to ensure a nest egg for her children. Yep, fine, I get that. But, again, it's hard not to shake ones head in disbelief about a culture which celebrates empty achievements. One which allows people to disguise their mawkish fascination with the thinnest of veneers of sympathy. It's one thing to swim in the shallowness of celebrity culture. But, what the Internet attacks on Gail Trimble seem to show is that it's not enough for some people to merely praise abject stupidity as a means of getting ahead in life. You need to go further. Intelligence itself must be attacked and spat upon and damned. Stamp it out, before any more people get infected with it and start getting uppity ideas above their station.

It's striking how most of the people who've laid-into Gail seem to treat her as some kind of outrageous freak of nature – 'I get the feeling that she may well celebrate alone,' said one - no doubt perfect - example of humanity at its peak on an online message board. In fact, Gail is a very pretty girl who has, reports all suggest, a long-standing boyfriend, many friends at university and a stable, loving family at home. The naysayers, it seems, need to assure themselves that vacuousness and shoulder-shrugging is the norm in this society. That the really unattractive (and, desperately uncool) thing to be in 2009 is brainy. A 'girly swot.'

Gail is clearly not only very intelligent, with four A-levels and a first-class degree in Classics, but she also seems to possess all the attributes of a broad education that the Scum Mail argues used to make 'good' British schools the envy of the world. But, not 'ba'" British schools on council estates, full of horrid 'common people,' of course. Oh no. Very hot water. That said, Gail didn't just know the answers to academic questions about Latin, Maths and Shakespeare - subjects that many people, from all sorts of schools, study for A-level. She could also answer questions about subjects as diverse as the works of Hilaire Belloc and Rudyard Kipling and aspects of pop culture. Then, of course, the Scum Mail went and spoiled it (as you kind of knew they would) by asserting :'You used to be able to take a taste for reading and an interest in the outside world for granted in the average Briton. Now you're considered a Nobel Prize-winning freak if you know the first few elements in the periodic table, or can remember a line of Macbeth.' Typical arrant nonsense from a newspaper which has done far more to foster the ugly caricature of the insular arrogant Little Englander who takes no notice of the outside world whatsoever than anyone else. And also, I must say, rather disingenuous to many people who can tell you that the atomic weight of Hydrogen is one just as easily as they can name West Ham's manager or Oasis's last hit single. All knowledge is power, it doesn't have subdivisions within it. Intelligence should be our first weapon/stop revelling in rejection. Paul Weller. Shearwater Comprehensive, Woking.

I think that I'd like Gail Trimble in person tremendously - I certainly like everything that she stands for. From the evidence of the interviews she's been doing this week, I think she'd be bloody good company for a dinner party or an evening in the local pub. She's clearly a young lady with a very good sense of humour, telling BBC Breakfast that her brother had received a Facebook message from Nuts magazine asking if they could get Gail's e-mail address as they wanted her to do a 'tasteful' photo-shoot. His reply was 'Seriously mate, would you give your sister's contact details to Nuts?' Nice one.

Again, I find this horrible to contemplate but, as the Daily Scum Mail noted, fifty years ago Gail wouldn't have been subject to the kind of abuse she's been getting. She probably wouldn't have been all that remarkable. As she, herself, notes if you grow up interested in stuff, read a bit, watch a lot of TV documentaries and try to be aware of what's going on in the world, then you will, like as not, end up with a fairly broad general knowledge. Pub quiz teams and trivia buffs up and down the country know that and have done for years. She's on a far greater level than most of those, of course, but if you were a teenage girl wouldn't you want aspire to be like Gail Trimble? Or, would you sooner cut out all of the hard work and try to look pretty and marry a footballer instead? The Scum Mail's article concluded with the following thought: In 1960, a university professor earned as much as a Liverpool footballer (about twenty quid a week, roughly). If Gail Trimble, now studying for her doctorate in Latin literature, eventually becomes a tenured professor, she is unlikely to earn in an entire lifetime what Steven Gerrard will be paid in a single season - or, indeed, what Jade Goody earned over the course of this last weekend. And, tragically, you don't need to have a massive IQ to work out why, these days, many teenagers grow up believing that intelligence is, generally speaking, for idiots.

Having never been to university myself (I had to bring a living wage into the home, blah, blah, blah), yer actual Keith Telly Topping didn't have the opportunity to go on University Challenge. As regular blog readers may know, however, he did once appear on Fifteen To One with William G Stewart. He made the final three and then blew his chances on a question about National Insurance (which was ironic as he was working for the Employment Service at the time). Tragically, nobody ever insulted him for his worthless – albeit brief – display of knowledge of inane trivia on national television. Now's your chance, dear blog reader. Trust me when I tell you I'm a far more deserving target for your withering sarcasm than Gail Trimble.

Yer actual Keith Telly Topping. Walker Comprehensive, Newcastle. Currently reading the Daily Scum Mail. And - genuinely - feeling unclean as a consequence.

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