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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Ken Livingstone says publicly what many are saying privately: tomorrow belongs to John McDonnell

The Shadow Chancellor has emerged as a frontrunner should another Labour leadership election happen. 

“It would be John.” Ken Livingstone, one of Jeremy Corbyn’s most vocal allies in the media, has said publicly what many are saying privately: if something does happen to Corbyn, or should he choose to step down, place your bets on John McDonnell. Livingstone, speaking to Russia Today, said that if Corbyn were "pushed under a bus", John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, would be the preferred candidate to replace him.

Even among the Labour leader’s allies, speculation is rife as to if the Islington North MP will lead the party into the 2020 election. Corbyn would be 71 in 2020 – the oldest candidate for Prime Minister since Clement Attlee lost the 1955 election aged 72.

While Corbyn is said to be enjoying the role at present, he still resents the intrusion of much of the press and dislikes many of the duties of the party leader. McDonnell, however, has impressed even some critics with his increasingly polished TV performances and has wowed a few sceptical donors. One big donor, who was thinking of pulling their money, confided that a one-on-one chat with the shadow chancellor had left them feeling much happier than a similar chat with Ed Miliband.

The issue of the succession is widely discussed on the left. For many, having waited decades to achieve a position of power, pinning their hopes on the health of one man would be unforgivably foolish. One historically-minded trade union official points out that Hugh Gaitskell, at 56, and John Smith, at 55, were 10 and 11 years younger than Corbyn when they died. In 1994, the right was ready and had two natural successors in the shape of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in place. In 1963, the right was unprepared and lost the leadership to Harold Wilson, from the party's centre. "If something happens, or he just decides to call it a day, [we have to make sure] it will be '94 not '63," they observed.

While McDonnell is just two years younger than Corbyn, his closest ally in politics and a close personal friend, he is seen by some as considerably more vigorous. His increasingly frequent outings on television have seen him emerge as one of the most adept media performers from the Labour left, and he has won internal plaudits for his recent tussles with George Osborne over the tax bill.

The left’s hopes of securing a non-Corbyn candidate on the ballot have been boosted in recent weeks. The parliamentary Labour party’s successful attempt to boot Steve Rotheram off the party’s ruling NEC, while superficially a victory for the party’s Corbynsceptics, revealed that the numbers are still there for a candidate of the left to make the ballot. 30 MPs voted to keep Rotheram in place, with many MPs from the left of the party, including McDonnell, Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John Trickett, abstaining.

The ballot threshold has risen due to a little-noticed rule change, agreed over the summer, to give members of the European Parliament equal rights with members of the Westminster Parliament. However, Labour’s MEPs are more leftwing, on the whole, than the party in Westminster . In addition, party members vote on the order that Labour MEPs appear on the party list, increasing (or decreasing) their chances of being re-elected, making them more likely to be susceptible to an organised campaign to secure a place for a leftwinger on the ballot.

That makes it – in the views of many key players – incredibly likely that the necessary 51 nominations to secure a place on the ballot are well within reach for the left, particularly if by-election selections in Ogmore, where the sitting MP, is standing down to run for the Welsh Assembly, and Sheffield Brightside, where Harry Harpham has died, return candidates from the party’s left.

McDonnell’s rivals on the left of the party are believed to have fallen short for one reason or another. Clive Lewis, who many party activists believe could provide Corbynism without the historical baggage of the man himself, is unlikely to be able to secure the nominations necessary to make the ballot.

Any left candidate’s route to the ballot paper runs through the 2015 intake, who are on the whole more leftwing than their predecessors. But Lewis has alienated many of his potential allies, with his antics in the 2015 intake’s WhatsApp group a sore point for many. “He has brought too much politics into it,” complained one MP who is also on the left of the party. (The group is usually used for blowing off steam and arranging social events.)

Lisa Nandy, who is from the soft left rather than the left of the party, is widely believed to be in the running also, despite her ruling out any leadership ambitions in a recent interview with the New Statesman.However, she would represent a break from the Corbynite approach, albeit a more leftwing one than Dan Jarvis or Hilary Benn.

Local party chairs in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is profiling should another leadership election arise. One constituency chair noted to the New Statesman that: “you could tell who was going for it [last time], because they were desperate to speak [at events]”. Tom Watson, Caroline Flint, Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall all visited local parties across the country in preparation for their election bids in 2015.

Now, speaking to local party activists, four names are mentioned more than any other: Dan Jarvis, currently on the backbenches, but in whom the hopes – and the donations – of many who are disillusioned by the current leadership are invested, Gloria De Piero, who is touring the country as part of the party’s voter registration drive, her close ally Jon Ashworth, and John McDonnell.

Another close ally of Corbyn and McDonnell, who worked closely on the leadership election, is in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is gearing up for a run should the need arise.  “You remember when that nice Mr Watson went touring the country? Well, pay attention to John’s movements.”

As for his chances of success, McDonnell may well be even more popular among members than Corbyn himself. He is regularly at or near the top of LabourList's shadow cabinet rankings, and is frequently praised by members. Should he be able to secure the nominations to get on the ballot, an even bigger victory than that secured by Corbyn in September is not out of the question.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.