Yes, Giles Coren is absurdly thin-skinned, but aren't most writers?

The restaurant critic's Twitter "flounce" is typical - writers are just terribly insecure people.

We’ve all been there. You’re merrily pottering away on Twitter, minding your own business, laughing at hilarious Essex lion parodies, when all of a sudden something rather smelly turns up in the @-mentions column.

What happens next? Depending on your mood, you can simply ignore it, write something polite in response, write something angry in response that you’ll regret, or "do a flounce". The web flounce is a time-honoured tradition of pretending you’re so upset you’re going to leave, getting lots of people to tell you you’re lovely and you shouldn’t leave, then leaving... and sheepishly popping your head back around the door a while later, like someone who’s stormed out of a pub but forgotten their coat.

Poor old Giles Coren. The “what I had for dinner” correspondent says he didn’t flounce, and accidentally deleted his account – but he did get a wee bit angry when someone called him (and steel yourselves for a truly abominable insult that will have you reaching for the smelling salts) a “numpty”.

Despite not really liking anything he’s ever written, presented or done, I do have a lot of sympathy for him. Who can say they haven’t misread the tone of what someone else said, overreacted or written something they shouldn’t have done? I know I have; you probably have too.

Then again, Giles hasn’t exactly trodden a delicate path through the lawn without squashing any daisies along the way. He once looked back on his early career, saying: “I wasn’t happy unless jobs were lost, reputations were ruined and ‘closed’ notices were up in the window by the end of the week. I remember reading an interview in the Financial Times with the owner of a restaurant I’d just panned, in which he declared that ‘Giles Coren’s review cost me £150,000,’ and thinking, ‘Is that all?’”

Sounds like some of us can dish out out but can’t take it, then. Giles was so devastated when a sub-editor weakened a feeble joke some years back he sent a stinging missive of petulant complaint which has since passed into legend. One of the first things you learn as a journalist is not to upset the subs – they might wreck one of your weaker jokes, but 19 times out of 20 they’ll save you from looking like a tool. Giles, however, decided to ignore that rule and go nuclear – and guess what? He ended up looking like a tool.

What is it, then, about writers that makes us mimophants – slightly bizarre beings who go trampling into an argument like a rampaging elephant, but curl up like a shy, sensitive little mimosa when we’re subjected to the slightest bit of criticism?

I don’t think it’s just writers, by the way, but creative people in general. Some of them even search for their own name on Twitter, and end up fizzing off expletive-laden tweetbombs at hapless proles – cuddly Simon Pegg, of "used to be funny" fame, couldn’t resist a peek the other night, with disastrous results. When has searching for your own name ever had a happy ending? So you have to wonder, why do they do it, these fragile types?

I think writers (including columnists, and especially bloggers) are the caricature of stand-up comedians: representing a strong persona when they’re up there holding court (on stage or in print), but terribly needy at other times. Most writers have the thinnest of rice-paper-thin skins when it comes to writing a headline, or changing a single word of text; from scribblers at the crappiest little parish pump newsletter to the biggest publications in the world, we are deeply sad individuals who desire constant praise, and magnify even the mildest criticism to a gigantic scale of enormity.

Take comments, for example: most writers don’t read them, unless there’s a gun pointed at their head. Why not? We just can’t take it. The right thing to do is to engage with your readers and try to keep a lively debate going, while encouraging the right kind of commenters who really add something to the discussion... but the easy option is to publish, then run away and hide in a dark corner, waiting for it all to go away. It probably goes to the heart of why we became writers in the first place: the need to communicate to others in a mediated way, because we were too shy, or too awkward, or too introverted, to be able to manage it effectively face to face.

So, I think we should cut Giles a bit of slack. He was a bit rude, I’m sure he’s said sorry (he has said sorry, hasn’t he?) and now he’s back, after having accidentally deleted his Twitter account. It’s not his fault; it’s just that writers are terribly insecure folk, on the whole. RT IF YOU AGREE!

 

Giles Coren's Twitter page.
Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
BBC/YouTube screengrab
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Why hasn’t British Asian entertainment built on the Goodness Gracious Me golden age?

It is 20 years since the original radio series of Goodness Gracious Me aired. Over two decades, the UK media portrayal of Asians hasn’t used its success to evolve.

Save for a handful of special one-off episodes, Goodness Gracious Me hasn’t occupied a primetime TV slot for nearly two decades. Yet still it remains the measuring stick for British Asian comedy.

The sketch show, which transitioned seamlessly from radio to screen (it started as a BBC Radio 4 series in 1996), has stood the test of time and is as much a staple of modern British Asian culture as Tupperware or turning up an hour late.

What Goodness Gracious Me did so expertly was to take a set of serious issues facing first, second and now, I suppose, third generation migrants, and turn them on their heads. 

In making light of the pressures of academic expectation or family drama, Goodness Gracious Me wasn’t playing down the poignancy of such concerns; it was raising awareness and combatting their uglier side with humour.

It offered resonance and reassurance in equal measure; it was ok to have an embarrassing uncle who insisted he could get you anything much cheaper, including a new kidney, because other people like you did too.

That Goodness Gracious Me was broadcast on a mainstream channel was also a victory for minorities; it made us feel integrated and, perhaps more importantly, accepted. Against the backdrop of Brexit, what wouldn’t we give for that treatment now?

Really, though, the jewel in Goodness Gracious Me’s crown was its willingness to recognise diversity within diversity. It is a relic of a departed era when discourse on TV around Asians was different, when the broad church of that term was truly represented, rather than reduced to one catchall perception of British Muslims.

Goodness Gracious Me offered insight into the experiences and idiosyncrasies – religious or otherwise – of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and even English people. It’s what made it so accessible and, in answering why subsequent programmes have failed to reach similar heights, this is a good starting point.

Without the flexible sketch format, the modern Asian sitcom Citizen Khan has struggled to cover multiple topics, and, by being specifically about a Muslim family, it leaves many non-Muslim Asians wondering: where’s ours?

I hasten to add that I feel plenty of sympathy for the British Muslim community, hounded by tabloid headlines that attack their faith, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that non-Muslim Asians are sitting pretty in 2016 and don’t need a similar level of support in terms of positive public perception.

The current volume of British Asian media products is fairly good. The BBC has its dedicated network, The Good Immigrant essay collection was one of the outstanding reads of the year, and we still have champions of comedy in Romesh Ranganathan and Nish Kumar.

But I think ultimately it comes down to the broadness of appeal, rather than the quantity of products. Goodness Gracious Me was not only able to engage the full spectrum of British Asia; it transcended its target audience and was on terrestrial TV.

The British Asian media on offer now is up against it, released as the country’s attitude towards foreigners completes a full circle back to the same suspicion my grandfather encountered in the Sixties.

Fewer outlets are willing to explore the stretch of what it means to be Asian, either by denying it due consideration in mainstream shows or by peddling their own monolithic observations. The BBC Asian Network, for example, is laudable in its existence, but does little to engage the young Asians who aren’t into techno spliced with Bhangra.

The mainstream representations of Asians in Western film and television that are commissioned, meanwhile, are irritatingly limited and sometimes inaccurate. In an article for the Guardian last year, Sara Abassi lamented the disproportionate appetite for “gritty post-9/11 films about conservative Pakistani families”, and that the researchers of American series Homeland failed to realise that the national language of Pakistan isn’t Arabic.

When I interviewed the actor Himesh Patel for the No Country for Brown Men podcast, he suggested that the answer to re-establishing Asians in mainstream media, both here and in America, was three-fold. The first challenge to overcome was for outlets to acknowledge that not all Asians fit the same religious or cultural profile; the second was to be open to placing Asians in non-Asian specific products to better reflect their presence in society.

Patel, who is best known for his portrayal of Tamwar Masood in the soap opera EastEnders, made his third recommendation based on this role. He felt that characters should be written with only their personality in mind, making the ethnicity of the actor who plays them incidental. Tamwar’s awkwardness but underlying kindness, Patel said, was what defined him – not his skin colour.

Goodness Gracious Me, though a primarily Asian show and a comedy at that, actually taught some salient lessons about representation. It succeeded in providing a window into a multiplicity of cultures, but at the same time wasn’t a total slave to the politics of identity – several of the 100-plus characters needn’t have been Asian at all. It was reflexive to the times we lived in and a perfect advertisement for empathy. That is why we still talk about it today.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.