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.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle