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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Meet the Brits protesting Donald Trump’s inauguration this weekend

The British campaigners joining in international anti-racism, pro-women’s rights demonstrations against the new US President.

On Friday 20 January, across the UK, in cities spanning York, Aberdeen, Bradford, Cambridge and London, huge banners will be dropped from bridges, emblazoned with the words: “Bridges Not Walls”.

A tightly coordinated direct action, the intended message is one of solidarity: by standing up for one another’s rights, we can prevent the further marginalisation of vulnerable groups of people. “In London, there are about ten bridges,” says Harry Jefferson-Perry, a 23-year-old gay man who’s involved in the organising. “There’s a bridge run by people fighting Islamophobia, an LGBTQ bridge, and a women’s bridge. It’s about smashing borders – physical and metaphorical. It’s a form of protest against the rise of the far right everywhere.”


Harry Jefferson-Perry. Photo: Malaika Ibreck

The #bridgesnotwalls protest is one of several nation-wide actions taking place in the UK this weekend as Donald Trump is ushered into the White House and attends his first day of presidency. The campaign group Stand Up To Racism is holding a rally outside the US Embassy in London on Friday evening, the day of Trump’s inauguration, with more than 3,000 people confirmed to attend on Facebook and 20 corresponding sister marches set to take place around Britain.

On Saturday, the international Women’s March is scheduled in approximately 600 sister locations and counting, in all 50 states of America, and countries spanning Norway, Nairobi and Japan. In London, around 30,000 people have confirmed attendance to the march, the real number expected to be much higher.

The goal of the Women’s March is a street-level demonstration that women’s rights are human rights. Their manifesto maintains that they’re not directly targeting Trump (it seems they wouldn’t want to give him the credence), but to the kind of racist, sexist and homophobic ideology his presidential campaign spun.

The demonstrations are bigger than the man himself, as illustrated by their apparent global appeal. “It’s about bringing the point home that just because equality is an everyday issue, and it doesn’t go away or rise and fall with who’s in government, that doesn’t mean it’s not urgent,” says Isabel Adomakoh Young, a 24-year-old British-Ghanaian student and activist from West London who will be attending the Women’s March on Westminster this Saturday.


Isabel Adomakoh Young​

Adomakoh Young says she heard about the original Women’s March on Washington in November via black feminists she follows on Twitter. For her, going along to the London march is, in part, an act directed at the US government. “Between Trump and Brexit things aren’t looking good for people suffering oppression,” she says. “As a queer, black, cis female, I’m worried that Trump normalises unacceptable behaviour. He’s also seemingly immune to journalism, fact-checking and video, so I think people being in the street is going to hit home harder than op-eds in middle-class newspapers.”

The second reason she’s going, she says, is to show solidarity with other women: “With social media and technology people get lonely. You read the news and you think you’re the only person having feelings of isolation or, specifically as a woman, feelings of diminishment.”

As well as lobbying with a gender equality campaign group called 50:50 Parliament, for whom she’ll be making a speech in Trafalgar Square on Saturday, Adomakoh Young is also an organising member of the activist group Sisters Uncut, who focus on fighting domestic violence.

However, it’s clear that many of the people who are attending marches and rallies this weekend don’t come from an activism background at all, but have been moved by recent political events to seek out a way to protest. Kimberly Tyler-Shafiq, 41, from Texas, lives in Surrey and works in HR. She is married to a British-Pakistani man with whom she has a four-year-old daughter. When we speak on the phone she tells me that she hasn’t been to a protest since those against the war on Iraq in 2003.

“After the election results I felt devastated,” she says. “We were on the precipice of having the first woman president in the US and I was so happy to cast my vote for a woman. I know I’m from a conservative state but when I saw Texas come in red it still lit a fire in me – people cannot be allowed to get away with what Trump has in terms of racism and sexism. I started looking for groups on Facebook and found the Stand Up To Racism rally.”

Tyler-Shafiq wanted to meet, “likeminded people who want to make a change”, and in this online group she found people with the same agenda. As she sees it, Friday night’s demonstration isn’t an act against democracy, just a message that people “are not going to roll over and play dead”. Tyler-Shafiq plans to take her four-year-old to the event with her.

Over in Ireland, American Fanya O’Donoghue and her Irish husband Donal have similar motivations to Tyler-Shafiq. “After the election I was so stunned and embarrassed for my nation that it spurred me into action,” says Fanya. “I’ve always felt strongly about immigration because that’s affected us. Now I feel like, if we were to go back to the US, what would my husband’s green card mean?”

O’Donoghue decided to set up her own Women’s March on Galway as a response to these feelings. Again, like Tyler-Shafiq, she’s been uninvolved in politics before. “This is the first time I’ve been active like this because it’s the first time politics have made me cry,” she says.

To register her sister march, she contacted the US March on Washington team, and they added her to the admin groups, global Slack messages, and emailed over organising kits, press kits, posters and guiding principles. Then she reached out to Irish non-profits who might be interested in spreading the word; anti-racism groups, pro-choice campaigners and the like.

When asked why the march is relevant to Ireland, Fanya replies, “the rights we want to defend for America apply to every country where women are paid less, have unfair maternity rights or experience sexism”. That’s every country in the world then.

She sees the action as “linking arms”, and wholeheartedly believes that when the 600-odd marches happen on Saturday, people will be forced to pay attention. “Women are like a sleeping giant,” she tells me passionately. “It’s like they say – if you want something done, ask a busy person – and the busiest people are mums and working women. It’s important for my sons to see how powerful a woman is.”

She passes the phone over to her husband and he reiterates her sentiment: “Our kids are half American so they’ve had a bunch of questions about the election at school. We thought: what better way to show them that democracy is an active process than organising our own march? Change starts with people coming together and fighting for their beliefs.”

It’s yet to be seen how many people around the globe attend Saturday’s Women’s Marches, but from estimated attendance it currently looks set to be the biggest global demonstration since the anti-Iraq war protests that Tyler-Shafiq and millions of others attended.

Perhaps it is the open-door policy and lack of specificity that’s seen the marches seized upon by so many disenfranchised groups around the world. “I don’t think people feel obliged to read up or be intellectually infallible before they go,” agrees Adomakoh Young. “It’s just for anyone who is pro-equality. A universal cause to rally around.”

Likewise, Jefferson-Perry encourages anyone to get involved with #bridgesnotwalls. “Look on the website, see who you affiliate, drop in and join them,” he says.

For Tyler-Shafiq, the march will, she hopes, be an outlet for the frustration that her and many other Americans in the UK are experiencing. “It’s hard to sit over here watching what’s going on in my homeland and feeling helpless.” And yet, while it’s “good to be involved as an expat”, she is aligning herself with likeminded Britons who want to influence UK leadership to stand up to homophobia, racism and sexism too.

“We can’t allow ourselves to be complacent about how Trump’s agenda is trickling into British politics because of the close relationship between the two countries,” she says, before adding that this weekend cannot be a one-off. “It’s good that people are making a stand, but it’s important that we get organised all over again when Trump decides to visit the UK.”