The importance of being liked

One of the best questions to ask children (especially if you want them to talk amongst themselves and leave you alone for a while) is this: ‘if you could have one super-power for the day, what would it be?‘  These discussions can go on for hours.  Would I choose a cloak of invisibility? the ability to fly? an ability (inspired by the advert) that means that everything I touch turns into skittles (a sort of candy-based King Midas)?  All of these would no doubt prove useful, but bringing a sense of adult realism to the proceedings, I think that the ability to make people like you is probably the most important power once can possess.  I don’t mean the ability to make a small section of your friends like you because you always buy the first round, I mean a like-ability so strong that makes even people you have never met break out into a smile at the mere mention of your name. 

It’s a universal rule of sport that you like the players that play for your team and you dislike virtually everyone else involved with that sport.  When players are purchased by your team, you immediately like them and when players are sold from your team, they are disliked as soon as the pen signs the new contract.  Most of us would admit to having a soft-spot for players who aren’t currently playing for our teams, but they tend to be in no direct competition with the players we idolise.  I don’t supposed that Lionel Messi is likely to be running at the Palace back four any time soon.

The one player who seems to buck the trend is Mario Balotelli, the Manchester City striker.  This man seems to inspire love and admiration from everyone.  There are numerous (mostly apocryphal) stories about him all over the internet, and most seem to exist only to promote him as a sort of cross between black-and-white slapstick comedian Norman Wisdom and philanthropic walnut Mother Theresa.  He seems to spend his time paying library fines for all and sundry, buying petrol for strangers or going mental in Argos, purchasing an scaletrix set when he should have been buying an ironing board for his Mum.  People are keen to believe these stories too; Balotelli is held up as the anti-footballer; he’s what we would be like if we played in the Premiership.  Not for us the tedium of rhetorial interviews hung heavy with the dissemination of carefully media-trained non-information.  Not for us the cliched footballer’s night out on Cristal champagne in celebrity-studded London clubs.  We understand far more the wish to set off fireworks with our mates in the kitchen, or late-night visits to the flesh-clubs of the North East, or late-night curries the day before a big game.  We understand the passion of the fans and the need for a passionate player to inspire them.

But isn’t Balotelli also the epitome of everything we hate about modern day footballers?  He’s over-paid, brattish, surly, under-performing, involved in continual training-ground bust-ups and is totally un-apologetic for his actions.  Joey Barton must be wondering why he ends up the vilified hate-figure, and yet Balotelli is clutched to the breast of the Nation like a favorite comfort blanket.  

Part of the country’s love for Balotelli is because we feel sorry for him, which is all rather patronising and I doubt he could care less.  He is Ghanain by birth and was raised from a young age by his adopted parents in Italy.  He speaks lovingly about his Italian mother and father, with an endearing child-like innocence.  He has been the victim of racist abuse and chanting in his adopted country and perhaps we need to show Balotelli the love that the Italians have been unwilling to.  Part of the country’s love is linked to the fact that he is genuinely entertaining on the pitch; he is super-talented, but is as likely to be subbed at half-time having shown little interest or effort as he is to score the goal that wins the game.

But perhaps the main reason that we love Balotelli is that we can relate to him.  We have a national aversion to perfect sportsmen like Michael Schumacher or Pete Sampras.  These people are born winners, racking up trophies with a single-mindedness that we cannot comprehend.  When we accuse them of being devoid of personality, it is simply because there is nothing in their life that is anything like our own.  We accuse them of being automatons, with their drive for excellence being mistaken for a lack of humour, grace and above all, fallibility.  This is why our sporting heroes always tend to be the most fallible (think George Best or Shane Warne).  We can’t connect with Best or Warne’s genius on the pitch, but we can with their drinking bouts or saucy texting.  Balotelli is the link between us and the perfect sportsmen and women; he allows us to connect with these higher forms of athletic life. He’s not so very different from us, and therefore we’re not so very different from Mike and Pete after all.  

We may have no idea what it feels like to play on Centre Court at Wimbledon, but we’d all rather play with toy cars than do the ironing, wouldn’t we?

Much more than a spoonful (of Sugar)

I went to a pub quiz in Peterborough two weeks ago.  It was to celebrate a friend’s birthday and I think we were being ironic.  It was dark by the time we parked up so I could be wrong, but the pub seemed to be in an industrial estate; I was reliably informed that this was the posh part of Peterborough though it still looked a little like the Slough Trading estate.  The quiz was supposed to be the main event of course, and a large number of teams had turned up.  In the end, it wasn’t the most highbrow affair, with three of the four rounds being ‘General Knowledge’ (or at least questions taken from the GK section of the quizbook that the barman got for Christmas).  The other round was the more intriguing ‘Things that happened in 2010’ – not exactly topical, but I was looking forward to a few brain-teasers about the recent local history of this Town.  Not a bit of it – each question started with ‘Who won…’ and ended with the name of a reality TV show.  Dancing on Ice, X-Factor, Strictly were all there, though I was disappointed to note an absence of winners from ratings success ‘Pointless’.  I’m not sure if we got any right – my only stab was at the winner of The Apprentice 2010, which I got wrong.  I think this has a lot to do with the fact that he/she has disappeared without trace (though may be on QVC I suppose) or maybe because all these pinstriped wannabe Sugars just tend to merge into one homogenised mass of macho soundbites and trouser suits after so many years.

I always used to think that The Apprentice was the standard bearer for non-shit reality TV.  At least there was some talent involved, a worthwhile prize at the end and some genuine business-based tasks for some of the more promising of Britain’s young business minds to get their teeth into.

This has now disappeared, and the series is yet another lazy tired piece of reality dross, being flogged to death by an unimaginative corporation to a public that seem to be able to stomach year after year of formulaic posturing.  There are many flaws and aspects that really grate, but here are the worst IMO:

1.  The show is no longer about finding ‘The Apprentice’.  The winner now gets to set up a new business using some of Alan Sugar’s money.  In fact, after the first series, the show become less about finding an apprentice at all and more about creating water-cooler TV where pushy 20 and 30-something business people could play-off against each other for who had the more cringe-worthy soundbite.  Listening to 21 year-old yuppies talking about how they ‘always get results’ and ‘don’t care who they trample over to get them’ gets rather tired by series 8, though the line of ‘don’t tell me the sky’s the limit when there are footprints on the moon’ was a personal favorite.

2.  The tasks themselves are the same every series, and in the same order.  There’s the one where they have to make a food product (ice-cream, ready-meals) and then sell them (farmers’ market, tube station); there’s the one where they get a mystery set of items they need to buy for as little money as possible; there’s the one where they get interviewed by some of Alan Sugar’s cronies (questions tend to be along the lines of ‘you’re not very good are you?’ and other playground insults); there’s the one where they have to go and buy some original Art and then sell it on.  The tasks are of course designed to make good TV, not to identify anyone with particular business sense.

3.  The ridiculous set-up of every task.  This usually begins with a phone-call from Alan’s PA at 4.45am, asking them to be at a London Landmark (British Museum, Tower Bridge) by 6am.  ‘The cars will pick you up in 15 minutes’.  I’m never sure why this should be part of the test.  Do all top businessmen and women have to prove their skill in the early morning and limited make-up time, or are we just supposed to think that Alan’s up selling Amstrads at this time?  The links between the locations and the tasks provide the most entertainment in the whole show, and I’ve not once guessed the nature of the task from the start location.  Usually Alan’s cronies will be standing six feet apart, when Alan makes an entry between them from a lift or a pile of dry ice.  His first few lines tend to go something like:

‘We’re in the British Library; there’s lots of books here; books have pages; Elaine Paige once sung Total Eclipse of the Heart; lambs have hearts; you’re going to Smithfield market to buy offal which you then need to sell to paying customers at St John’s Wood tube station….

4.  Team names.  Why?  This merely adds to the cringe-factor as they come up with names that sound like the ones rejected from 90s TV series Gladiators (think insignia, prime, triumph, Hunter (ok, so maybe he was a Gladiator…)

5.  The fact that Alan Sugar is now thought of by the new generation as someone to whom people should aspire.  When I was growing up, he was the person that got his fingers burned at Spurs and whose company made crap computers.  He’s now Branson and Trump rolled into one, pretending that his Essex offices occupy most of the Gherkin and regaling us with tales of how he built up a business from nothing (every week).

6.  The way they hold their mobile phones as though they’re suspiciously sniffing the area where you connect the charger.

Or maybe the most disappointing thing is that so many people still tune in.  The Apprentice is now adopting the old Perry/Croft maxim: if you just do and say the same thing every week, people will like it.  It’s like a big pin-striped comfort blanket.  And I don’t care who I hurt by writing this blog, because I’m on my way to the top and I won’t stop trampling on people until I get there.

Whatever happened to the enfant terribles?

One sure-fire way to guarantee that you’ve made it in life is when you’ve been awarded your very own epithet.  It’s that short phrase that characterises you and before your name is even mentioned everyone knows what kind of person is being discussed. It’s even better if the epithet leads to you directly; surely there’s none finer than the ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ Lord Byron, and at the opposite end of the scale I’m sure that King Ethelred wouldn’t have been too happy with his own moniker ‘The Unready’.  Harsher still is to be found in the list of Ottoman Sultans, where sandwiched in between Ahmed III (‘The Warrior’) and Osman III (‘The Devout’) lies the rather unforunate sounding Mahmud I (‘The Hunchback’). 

Various people have been given the epithet ‘enfant terrible’, and it doesn’t seem to matter what field you are in.  All of the following have been described as ETs at one time or another: you can be the enfant terrible of the kitchen (Marco Pierre-White, Tom Aikens), the enfant terrible of music (Jonny Rotten) or the enfant terrible of comedy (Ben Elton).

Marco Pierre-White ejected diners from his restaurant if they made negative comments about the food and cut open a chef’s whites when he complained of being too hot; Aikens had 2 michelin stars by the time he was 26, became obsessed by detail and even branded one of his sous chefs with a hot palette knife for failing to make his exacting standards; Jonny Rotten was the epitome of anarchic youth in the late 1970s and the face of the punk movement; Ben Elton was a lead figure in the alternative comedy movement of the 1980s, attacking Thatcher’s Government with his original brand of left-wing satire.

But what’s happened to these principled passionate firebrands now?  Elton is more likely to be seen at the Royal Variety Performance, toadying up to the Royals as he counts out the cash from the uber-dull tourist trap Queen musical ‘We Will Rock You’.  Aikens is now a ‘celebrity’ chef, appearing on the mind-bendingly awful ‘Ironchef UK’, Marco now advertises Knorr Chicken stock cubes and John Lydon has become the face of British butter.  That’s right – butter.  Growing up has never seemed more dull.  Where once Lydon offered a voice for disenchanted youth, he now champions one particular brand of dairy produce.  Where once Elton dripped with political satire, he now drips only with cash.

The enfant terribles have become national treasures by virtue of not dying along the way.  We shouldn’t be drawing these washed-out folks to our collective breast, we should be putting them out to pasture, their work done.  There’s plenty of quiet places for them to go, like weekends on radio 2.  When the great old British eccentrics become simply part of the furniture, it is indeed a sad day. 

And to give you an idea of what a proper enfant terrible looks like, here’s Ken Russell’s obituary:

Barking mad, and quite brilliant.