Whatever happened to…

…Steve. My colleague Steve. I only spent 2 years teaching with Steve in London, but the memory of him is so vivid it’s almost as though someone has etched it onto the back of my eyeballs. In an era where it’s virtually impossible to lose contact with anyone, I have managed to lose contact with Steve. It’s been seven years, and most days I never think of him. One those rare occasions that he pops into my head, I can’t help but smile, because he really was the most extraordinary fellow; Steve out-Spencered Frank Spencer, not just in general, but on an almost daily basis. He was remakably amusing, but one ever laughed with him. He had no idea quite how funny he was, which made him all the more funny. I’m certainly not sure that I can do him justice, but I hope if you can be bothered to read to the bottom, you’ll wonder how I could ever have lost touch with such a comedy genius. He rarely failed to surprise, and during my dealings with Steve, we were treated to Steve in many guises:

Steve the awkward:

Never one to put people at their ease, the parents at the School where we taught were rather unnerved by him. We shared a Sixth Form set one year, and I can’t say I was looking forward to performing a double act for the parents. Steve’s opening gambit was to describe the two of us as ‘bloody good teachers’ to a pair of surprised Indian parents, who clearly felt that this was a parents evening, and not a second-and car dealership. This was nothing, because his next move (having noted their shock) was to reassure them that ‘don’t worry, we’re not gay’. I’m not sure why he felt this was necessary, but the knowing smile he gave me afterwards as if to say ‘that’s how to do it’ might have had them thinking that he was protesting a little too much. At the end of the evening, and very David Brent-esque, he got up and asked ‘so where are we going now? The pub?’. My silence said it all, and we slunk off into the night, towards the same part of London, but very much in opposite directions.

Steve the navigator:

Steve decided that moving from his home in Cambridgeshire was not really necessary when he got the job in London. The communte by car was only 90 minutes. Sadly this was only the case if you left home at 5am and stayed in work until gone 8pm. Steve managed to spend 14 hours a day in the department, either in his classroom or our shared office. No-one was quite sure what he got up to during this time, though at one point he decided to bring his washing from home, in a desperate attempt to find something to do. There was a set of washing machines in the pokey staff accommodation on the other side of the School site, and Steve would wait until the end of the School day, get his washing done, and then lay his clothes out over the department radiators and furniture until they were dry on his return to School at 6.30am the next morning. For about six months our office looked like a Chinese laundry, and Steve clearly would have done this for longer, but for the fact that he decided to rent a place in London during the week…

Steve the social pariah:

Steve rented out a room in a flat in a gritty part of North London, and he clearly decided that this would solve his two problems: the three hour commute every day, and the lack of an exciting night life. Steve’s landlady lived alone with the exception of her 14 year-old daughter. Within a week, the woman had added a padlock to her daughter’s room. Steve was hardly a danger, but she clearly thought his manner was a trifle odd, and it was hard to argue with her. The incident with the back-door catflap can’t have helped, when in true Benny Hill style, Steve was apparently fixing the screws on the catflap when the daughter opened the door from the other side quickly, knocking Steve over, who somehow ended up on the floor looking up between her legs. The mother was into the house a millisecond behind, and presumably demanded some explanation as to why he was looking ‘up-skirt’, with a screwdriver in his hand. These were just the sort of things that happened to Steve.

Steve the lover:

Ok, so the London flat wasn’t going too well, but at least it gave him the opportunity to try out a bit of nightlife. Deciding that the best place for nightlife in London was St Albans, Steve headed out on the train, wearing a chunky jumper and stonewashed jeans. You can probably guess the rest. He claimed to have had some success with one member of a hen-party, though she was whisked away just at the wrong moment by her ladette chums. Steve’s shouted question as they departed of ‘does anyone know anywhere where I can get a good bop round here’ must have fallen on deaf ears. I asked him if he’d then spent most of the night drinking in the corner. He answered: ‘not in the corner, no…’ before pausing, and continuing ‘…but I was pretty close to the corner’.

Steve the disabled:

Talking of deaf ears, Steve came into School one day with a new hearing aid. Nothing odd in this you might say, but he’d never had an old hearing aid. There was nothing wrong with his hearing. His dandruff was another thing, as we noted from his shoulders, and also from the pouf that was regularly left out to dry in the Chinese laundry of an office, but his hearing was fine. In the same way that some vain men wear clear glass spectacles to look intelligent, Steve seemed to be wearing a fake hearing aid to make him look….well, deaf? Did he read somewhere that women go for deaf men?

Steve the unlucky:

I guess that this one doesn’t need too much justification, especially if you’ve read the above, but unfortunate things happened to him on a daily basis in a way that wouldn’t happen to other people in a year. I remember arriving at work one morning about half past 7, to see Steve walking from the department back to his car, carrying a large bucket of hot soapy water. He had trodden in a dog turd upon leaving the house, hadn’t noticed, and had spent the remainder of the 90 minute journey smearing dog poo all over his car carpets, accelerator and brake. Steve was unlucky to the last. I went for a job interview far over to the West of the country, and found myself in the same carriage as Steve, off to the same interview. 4 hours there. 4 hours back. I got the job, and when our then Head of department came in the next morning, he looked at the pair of us, and smirked ‘50% success rate then?’. Steve gave a good comeback, though all at his own expense: ‘33% actually. I didn’t get the job the day before’. He then gave me a bottle of champagne.

Where is he now?

What’s new?

This is a particularly irritating way to start a conversation; similar to saying ‘how’s tricks?’. No-one is quite sure how to respond to either of these, and I’m not even sure what the second one means, unless you’re talking to an member of the magic circle, which seems unlikely.

The only acceptable answer to the question posed by this blog is: nothing. Nothing’s new. We as a nation seem to have run out of ideas. Everything is a re-working of something else, and if it’s not, it’s simply a straight repeat. I do genuinely worry that in popular culture, we’ve run out of stuff. There is nothing new, and it’s just something we’re going to have to get used to.

TV is one of the worst culprits, with I heart 1975, the top 100 best family animated musicals ever, take me out (bawdy blind date), Have I got news for you, Have I got old news for you all spamming the airwaves with their unoriginal tune. TV is stuck in a mass of repeats and nostalgia, and when someone tries to be original (10 o’clock live) it’s unbearably bad, pandering to a Guardian-obsessed sub-species of uber-cool City dwellers and students that don’t really exist anywhere. Films at the cinema tend to be part of a ‘franchise’ , such as the Fast and the Furious, which I now believe has churned out 5 films (when did film sequences become ‘franchises’? I’m pretty sure I never admitted to watching the later offerings from the Police Academy ‘franchise’), or re-makes of successful films, such as the Italian Job. The hangover wasn’t particularly original, but it was quite funny, which means the inevitable sequel (a la SATC) where the plot is indentical, just taking place in a different time zone.

Theatre, often a bastion of originality, is not immune. The Mousetrap inexplicably enters its sixth decade (surely even tourists are now bored?), the Rattigan revival continues to celebrate his centenary, and there’s Jersey Boys and other assorted singalongs from the past to entertain the proles.

Music, surely? Well not really. The last really original thing I heard was The Streets in 2002, and Mike Skinner ended up sounding like the voice of the whinging chav generation. The last band I went to see was Suede, and they were going through their back catalogue of albums, one by one (again). They were great, as always, but these songs are nearly 20 years old. Manufactured pop is back in, just like the 1960s, and everyone who was anyone has reformed, from Pulp to Dollar, to feed the nation’s bottomless appetite for nostalgia. The best music programme I saw recently was a retrospective of 1990s music on bbc4, and my twitter timeline almost exploded as other 30-somethings relived the days of Doc Marten boots and global hypercolour T-shirts. I listened to some Gil Scott Heron just after his death, and the commentator prounounced that his tunes were ‘as relevant today as they were in 1971’. Maybe so, but that’s because there’s been nothing new in between. Fashion? Judging by the 70s revivial (and 80s revival) of recent years, I sense not, but at least no-one’s going to force me to grow back my PJ and Duncan-style 90s curtains.

So what is genuinely new? The only thing I can come up with is reality TV, specifically to incorporate ‘scripted reality’. Jersey shore, Geordie shore, Made in Chelsea. This is the present, and maybe the future.

So next time you’re asked ‘what’s new?’, assuming that you have irritating friends, you can tell them.

‘Nothing’s new; and so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back caeslessly into the past…’.

Cheltenham Average

I read an article by Polly Toynbee in the Guardian yesterday, entitled ‘Chav: the vile word at the heart of fractured Britain’. Quite a dramatic title. The article received a huge amount of praise on twitter, presumably from middle-class Guardian readers who are far too right-on to use the word themselves, especially bearing in mind that its very use has led to Britain becoming ‘fractured’; this can’t be a good thing. I suspect that these folk subscribe to the Orwellian paradox in that they harbour a great respect for the working class, so long as they don’t have to spend any time with them in day to day life. To quote ‘Yes, Minister’, they are similar to Radio 3: no-one actually listens, but it’s vital to know that it’s there.

As with so much that is trotted out by ‘columnists’, it’s a complete non-story. Incidentally, the rise of columnists seems to have occurred simply because we’re all so busy that we don’t have time to read the news and formulate an opinion ourselves; it’s far better not to have to read the news, but to have a columnist that we like and trust to do the reading for us, before wrapping it up in a mass of neat soundbites for us to quote and pass off as our own. It’s a dangerous development, this translation of news by the chosen few, and the lapping up of ‘opinion as fact’ by a public whose mind is elsewhere; certainly far more dangerous than using the word ‘chav’ occasionally.

The problem with the word chav is two-fold. Firstly, it’s a relatively new word, in that I don’t believe that anyone was using it 15 years ago. As Toynbee points out, the words ‘oik’ and ‘prole’ have fallen into abeyance, and the word ‘chav’ is simply a reinvention of this term. The second is a question of definition. If you asked 100 people, family fortunes-style, to define the word ‘chav’, would you be confident that any two people would give the same answer? I’m pretty sure that the etymology of the word is not ‘Cheltenham Average’, as a former colleague of mine claimed, insisting that the girls at Cheltenham Ladies College had invented the term to describe the local females (he also insisted that the word was pronounced ‘sharve’, thus discrediting himelf further). Toynbee defines the word purely in class terms, in the same way that oik and prole were used in yesteryear; it is a word used by the prejudiced upper classes to describe those in the lower classes (at one point she even describes these lower classes as Wills and Harry’s ‘subjects’). She then goes on to define ‘class’ purely in terms of luck and money. In the age of social mobility and widening access for university entry, it’s surprising that people like Toynbee seem desperate to keep the class divide intact. We all have to earn a living.

I’m pretty sure that most people don’t see it this way. The word chav is synonymous with bad and antisocial behaviour, not with the working class. The word chav tends to be used to describe groups people playing ringtones loudly on the bus, or drinking and swearing on the tube, not groups of builders sat drinking tea on the site, or people chopping lettuce in McDonalds. The ‘posh chavs’ who colonise Polzeath each summer are hardly traditional working class, and yet the word neatly describes their behaviour, which fails to take the feeling of others into account.

Until one is satisfied with the definition of a word, there’s very little point entering an argument on whether the use of the term has led to Britain becoming fractured. I can’t imagine wanting to debate the atheist v agnostic viewpoint without being sure that the person with whom I was having the discussion was of the same mind as me regarding definitions.

I’m still left with a real ‘so what?’ feeling having re-read the article. By the luck and money argument, Wayne Rooney should be calling me a chav. He’s got far more money than I have, and he’s been far luckier than me, bearing in mind that his major talent is far more widely recognised than any of mine.

I was far more shocked and revolted by the article in the Guardian weekender magazine where the young children of the columnists were invited to take over their columns for the week. Cue much middle-class smug hilarity from the mini-Petrides and Hugheses. If there’s anything likely to start a class war, that was it.