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.

Getty
Show Hide image

What does it mean for Ukip if it loses in Stoke-on-Trent Central?

The party’s prospects are in question if it fails to win over the “Brexit capital” in Thursday's by-election.

“The Only Way Is Up!” blasted through a hall in Stoke-on-Trent Central on a damp Monday evening earlier this month. It was the end of a public Ukip meeting, in which Nigel Farage and his successor and by-election candidate Paul Nuttall made their rallying cries to an audience of around 650 supporters.

But even then, a fortnight ago, the note of triumph in the dance classic was tinged with uncertainty. “We’ve won the war, but we’ve yet to win the peace,” Farage admitted to the sympathetic crowd. And while this message is supposed to make Ukip’s fight relevant even in the context of Brexit-bound Britain, it betrays the party’s problem: the battle that was its raison d'être is over.

Failing fortunes

Since then, the party has had more to contend with. Its candidate in the Labour seat has been caught lying about having “close personal friends” killed at the Hillsborough disaster. This comes on top of a number of other false claims, and an investigation into whether he falsely registered his home address as being in the constituency.

After these scandals – and a campaign seemingly unable to turn out apathetic voters (which I covered a couple of weeks ago) – Ukip’s chances in the West Midlands seat look worse than expected.

Initially the main challenger to Labour, Ukip is now being predicted for third or even fourth place in the seat, behind a Tory party that essentially stood aside to give Nuttall room, and to focus on a concurrent by-election campaign in Copeland.

It’s in Labour’s interest for the campaign to continue looking like a close Labour-Ukip fight, in order to keep hold of tactical voters. But both the Conservative and Lib Dem campaigns are feeling more buoyant.

“We are relatively confident that Ukip are not going to win, and that is quite a change,” the Lib Dem campaign coordinator Ed Fordham told me. “That has actually relieved lots of voters of the emotional risk of letting in what they perceive to be an unpleasant, far-right option . . . and voting for who they would like to represent them.”

One local activist chirped: “It will hopefully be a terrible result for Ukip.”

So what will it mean for Ukip if it loses?

Great expectations

Ukip has a lot riding on this seat. Farage called the by-election “absolutely fundamental” to Ukip’s future. Its new leader, Nuttall, took the risk of running as the party’s candidate there – riding his reputation on the by-election.

This created a lot of hype about Ukip’s chances, which the party has privately been trying to play down ever since. Even before the scandal surrounding Nuttall, he was emphasising that the seat had only been Ukip’s 72nd target, and told me he had taken a gamble by running for it. “The way it’s being written up as if this is the one – it wasn’t,” he insisted.

But Stoke-on-Trent, where 69 per cent voted Leave, has been labelled the “Brexit capital”. According to political scientist Rob Ford, the author of Revolt on the Right who has been studying Labour’s most Ukip-vulnerable seats: “It should be a pretty favourable seat for them, pretty favourable demographics, pretty favourable [negative] attitudes about the EU, very high Brexit vote there and so on.”

In other words, if Ukip can’t win here, against a weak Labour party, where can it win?

Struggle for seats

Brexit is central to Ukip’s by-election campaign. The party has highlighted Labour’s splits over Europe, pointed out the Labour candidate Gareth Snell’s Remainer credentials, and warned that the government needs to be held to account when negotiating Britain’s exit.

But Ford believes this rhetoric is unlikely to work, since the Tories are already pursuing a “hard” Brexit focused on immigration control. “A difficulty for Paul Nuttall and Ukip is that people are going to say: why would we vote for you when we’re getting what we want from the government? What’s the point right now?” he said. “I can have all the Brexity stuff, all the immigration control stuff, but with none of the incompetence and serial lying about Hillsborough – I think I’ll take that!”

So if rerunning the EU referendum doesn’t work, even in such a Brexit-heavy seat, this means trouble for Ukip elsewhere in the country. A Ukip councillor in a top Ukip target seat with similar demographics to Stoke believes it’s “crisis time” for the party.

“It is very sad to say, but Ukip has lost its way,” they told me. “It’s still a strong party, but after losing Nigel, it’s lost a little of its oomph. The new gentleman [Nuttall] has been silly with the comments he’s made. That’s a big worry in some regards. You need to be a people person. It’s a serious situation at the minute.”

If Ukip can’t prove it can win parliamentary seats – even in favourable by-elections – then it will be difficult to prove its authority as a political party come the general election.

Leadership lament

Should Nuttall lose, Ukip’s leadership will come into question. Again. During a tumultuous time late last year, when the favourite Steven Woolfe left the party after a physical altercation, and Diane James quit the leadership after 18 days, commentators asked if Ukip was anything without Farage.

When Nuttall eventually took over, the same voices warned of his threat to Labour – citing his northern and working-class roots. It’s likely this narrative will change, and Farage’s golden touch pondered again, if Nuttall fails to win.

But rather than panic about its national leader, Ukip must look carefully at those who commit to the party in local campaigns. On the ground in Stoke, running Nuttall as a candidate instead of a local Ukipper is seen as a mistake.

“I don’t know why they did that,” one local activist for an opposing party commented. “If they’d run Mick Harold, they would’ve won. He’s a Stokie.”

Harold, the deputy chair of Staffordshire County Committee, and chair of Ukip’s Stoke-on-Trent Central/North branch, won 22.7 per cent of the vote for Ukip in the constituency in 2015. He insists that he stands by his decision to step aside for Nuttall, but does highlight that Ukip should increase its vote share.

“If we’re increasing our percentage share of the vote, we’re still moving forward and that’s how we’ve got to look at it,” he told me. “I got 22.7 per cent in 2015. I would think this time we’re going to certainly get somewhere around the 30 per cent mark.”

Would it have been more likely to achieve this with Harold as candidate? “Whatever happens, happens, we’ve just got to move forward,” he replied. “If you’ve made a mistake, you move on from it.”

I have heard similar misgivings from local activists in other parts of the country – people who have achieved impressive results in local elections and the general election, but haven’t had much thanks from the national party. “We need to get professionalised now,” one such campaigner said. “Because we’ve got grassroots people who are not career politicians [doing all the hard work].” They say their local party is fed up with leadership being dictated by “personal grudges” at the top of the party.

***

As I’ve written before, I don’t think this is the end of Ukip. Once Brexit starts to bite, and it’s clear immigrants are still needed to fill jobs, there will be resentment enough to make space for them again. But losing Stoke will highlight the challenges – of purpose, leadership and local organisation – that the party will need to overcome for its next stand.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.