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 overnight audiences in a thirty year-plus history - almost five and a half million. It would be wonderful, at this point, for this blogger 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. Keith Telly Topping 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, this blogger suspects this is too simplistic a claim to make. Even for a one-trick blogger like himself. 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 sparkling graduate from Oxford and the star of this series 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 a 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 that Gail has attracted from the darker corners of 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 be 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 are 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 remotely like it then let me assure you, you do not represent this blogger or anybody that he knows. That Gail was, according to media reports, privately educated should be neither here or there when it comes to praising her achievement.

This blogger finds himself, at this point, somewhat conflicted. Because the very organ that is giving Gail the most support from the kind of green-eyed worthless scum that have set themselves against her is the loathsome Daily  Scum Mail. And, for once, Keith Telly Topping actually finds himself agreeing with them. Which is, trust me, horrible. This blogger does not agree with every word, of course – how could he? This is the Daily Scum Mail we're talking about, after all – and he particularly disagrees 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 have 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 this blogger hold his own hand up here 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 all of the stuff that you don't like as enthusing about what you actually do. It's something Keith Telly Topping tries to avoid as much as possible on From The North but, no one is innocent, this blogger wholly included.

Jade Goody's story is an undeniably tragic one but - and, again, this blogger can't believe that he is 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 correct 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 Goody's wedding) by ambushing her in the street and asking her five questions along the lines of 'who is Moscow Chelski FC's manager?' And 'what the name of the thirteen year old who has recently 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 wickedly sneering story in yesterday's paper about how, whilst 'Clever-Clogs Gail' (their phrase, this blogger hastens to add, not his) might know her dead Greek poets, but she doesn't know that Duffy won a Brit last week. Well, spank her bare bottom with a dirty great belt for such shocking lack of priorities …

This blogger has disliked the media circus surrounding Jade Goody since she first appeared in Big Brother seven years ago. Keith Telly Topping has 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. This blogger is sorry that the lass is dying and he feels even sadder for her two little boys who are going to grow up without a mother but Keith Telly Topping is really not sure about whether she has been 'exploited' as many people have claimed over the last few weeks. Everybody who goes on Big Brother know exactly what they are getting into and most of them go on there willingly 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 get a dmaned good lick of 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 now she's seemingly become a surrogate Princess Diana all of a sudden it really doesn't look good to be seen criticising her. This blogger notices 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 didn't/doesn't know much about anything. The country 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, this blogger supposes, 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?'

This blogger repeats, I am 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. Keith Telly Topping wouldn't wish that on anyone (and, as someone whose father died from cancer and whose mother is currently in remission from cancer he means 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 z-list 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 - almost overnight - got 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, this blogger thinks, 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 has said that she wants to ensure a nest egg for her children. That's entirely understandable. 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 have 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 'bad' 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 itself 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, this blogger 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.

Keith Telly Topping thinks that he would like Gail Trimble in person tremendously - this blogger certainly likes everything that she stands for. From the evidence of the interviews she has been doing this week, I think she'd be bloody good company for a dinner party or an evening in the local pub. She is, 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 to the magazine was 'Seriously mate, would you give your sister's contact details to Nuts?' Nice one.

Again, this blogger finds this horrible to contemplate but, as the Daily Scum Mail noted, fifty years ago Gail would not have been subject to the kind of abuse she's been getting. In fact, she probably would not 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 is 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 his very self (this blogger 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 this blogger when he tells you that he is 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.