Why can't British people talk to celebrities?

Experiencing extreme social awkwardness on meeting a minor celebrity seems to be a peculiarly British talent.

Many years ago, as a teenager, I was lucky enough to meet the legendary West Indian cricketer Gordon Greenidge. Mr Greenidge MBE, the scorer of 7,558 Test runs, was absolutely lovely to this stuttering, nervous child. He signed my thigh guard, gave me some splendid advice on how to bat better, and wished me all the best for the future.

This week, I was lucky enough to be at a swanky lunch, where I found myself introduced to Greenidge once more. What a fantastic opportunity! Now, as an adult, I could ask all those interesting questions that I hadn't felt bold enough to ask as a child. Was he ever scared of a bowler? Did he really feign injuries when he was at the top of his game? Who was the best cricketer he ever played against? Think Parky meeting Mohammad Ali, but with more subtle, teasing questions, and more mutual respect.

"Hello," said Mr Greenidge.

"You...you signed my thigh guard!."

"I'm sorry?"

"I was 16, and you signed it, and ever since that day I was much better at batting!"

"Really?"

"Yes! Absolutely."

"I'm not sure that could have made you better."

"Um."

"Um."

"Well, thank you anyway Mr Greenidge. You must excuse me."

What is WRONG with me? Mind you, I have some inkling that the aforementioned Parky-style interview wouldn't have been much fun for Mr Greenidge either. I'm a cricket tragic and have managed to wrangle my way into all sorts of events attended by former professionals. I've realised that if there's one thing they don't want to talk about - and you do - it's cricket.

"Who's the fastest bowler you've faced?" "What's your favourite ground?" "How do you make it reverse swing?" It might be fascinating for you, but for them, it's essentially like being asked the same 10 questions about Sharon from accounts and what's in the office vending machine, over and over again.

So respect must go to the man I saw later on at the event who was sitting next to Henry Olonga, the former Zimbabwe bowler. Rather than talking about his brave black armband protest against Robert Mugabe at the World Cup, or even Olonga's opera singing career (which all of us cricket tragics know about in quite some detail), he instead got into a passionate debate over who had the best mobile phone tariff.

Anyway, this has set me thinking about celebrities, and the British reaction to them. Of course, as a nation we have no respect whatsoever for The Famouses, do we? If we're not ruthlessly mocking them in the pub, we're probably sending them abusive tweets or laughing at pictures of their cellulite in Closer. Except, I'm not sure that's the whole story at all. I consider myself a mature, urbane adult, who is self-confident enough never to be intimidated by someone simply because they've been tapped by the arbitrary Sword of Celebrity. And yet, here are some of the things nerves made me do back when I used to work as a TV researcher:

- Offer David Mitchell a cup of tea, even though I'd actually progressed slightly beyond the tea-making role and there were eight other people in the room whom I'd completely ignored. Having had my offer correctly rebuffed, I then turned to the room and said, "Oh, and would anyone else like one?" which of course made it a lot worse.

- Looked after the actor James Grout from Inspector Morse in a hotel bar before an interview, which I did by sitting him down with a cup of coffee, ordering myself a double whiskey and coke even though it was 11am (even now, I really have no idea why I did this), then launching into a 20-minute monologue which started with the fact I'd gone to Brighton for the weekend, segued into my thoughts on theatre in the UK and somehow journeyed via the South Downs to a discussion of the epitaph on Virginia Woolf's gravestone. At no point did he do anything other than politely nod his head.

- Attempted to compliment Ari Up of The Slits by telling her my Dad was a huge fan (which he wasn't).

- Ranted - pretty much to the point of shouting - at Andy Parsons (whom I'd never met before) about the fact that the Happy Eater on the A303 has really bad customer service even though if I'm absolutely honest the restaurant I'm thinking of might be a Little Chef and I'm not even sure it is on the A303.

And these are just a few examples - honestly, there are a great many more - from my professional career. What about chance encounters? What about staring pointedly into Rob Brydon's eyes in a cinema queue before tutting, shaking my head and scowling at him, because I thought I'd recognised him as a mate from work, realised he wasn't and felt a bit disappointed, then realised who he was and that I'd been staring straight at him, and for some reason my instinctive response to the situation was to show my disapproval of his very existence?

And let's not pretend I'm alone in this. What about my significant other in Boots, frantically jabbing her friend and saying "Look! Look! It's Stephen Fry!" over and over again, so loudly that Stephen Fry was obliged to turn around and wave at them both, right there in the middle of the shop? I just don't think she's the first person to have done this sort of thing.

Part of the problem, of course, is the ridiculous emphasis and semi deification of celebrities - and with all due respect, some of the above names are hardly 'A' List - by the television industry. Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe has explained this ridiculous treatment of the "Talent" far better than I ever could. As a junior researcher, which I was when most of the above took place, you are taught that these people are GODS, rather than people, and so it's no wonder you treat them as such.

But I think there's rather more to it. I think it comes down to being English. It's a subject which has been touched upon by Kate Fox in her classic work of social anthropology, Watching the English, from 2004. As she explains, the people of this island race have a bit of a problem with, well, other people. The "core" of Englishness, she argues, is "a cogenital disorder, bordering on a sort of sub-clinical combination of autism and agoraphobia.. It is our lack of ease, discomfort and incompetence in the field of social interaction; our embarrassment, insularity, awkwardness, perverse obliqueness, emotional constipation, fear of intimacy and general inability to engage in a normal and straightforward fashion with other human beings."

This discomfort, she says, lead to our tendency to become "over-polite, buttoned up and awkwardly restrained or loud, loutish, crude, violent and generally obnoxious." For her, a stiff upper lip and hooliganism are sides of the same coin. No doubt, this is the problem with which we're dealing, amplified a hundred times by the social pressure that fame generates for the person in its presence. There's only one thing for it. I'm going to have to become a sleb myself. The Apprentice, here I come. All I have to do is interact with my fellow humans for a few weeks without breaking down in tears, mortally offending them or punching one of them in the balls so hard we both scream. Shouldn't be too hard. I'm English, Goddammit.

 

David Mitchell: Not that much of a Famous, really. Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

Photo: Getty
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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn become historical investigations because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.