Tuesday, March 01, 2011


I think that I may have been "had" by Liz Jones.

British newspapers fairly often print spoofs, and people fairly often get taken in by them. The Independent is currently running a satirical column by Talbot Church "the man the Royals trust". If Private Eye is to be believed, several of his most far-fetched spoof stories have been followed-up by serious royal reporters.  If that isn't a contradiction in terms. For years, the Guardian ran a column by one Bel Littlejohn: however outrageously right-on her views became, readers failed to realize that her columns were an exercise in self-parody, not to say self-flagellation.

Melanie Phillips, on the other hand, is a real person.

People can also become conscious parodies of themselves. Auberon Waugh's personal values were undoubtedly consonant with the ones he expressed in his newspaper columns: nostalgic, Catholic, aristocratic. But his print persona took these views to such bizarre extremes that they couldn't possibly have been what he really believed. (The problems with the health service stem from greedy nurses who expect to be paid for work any decent human being would undertake for nothing; corporal punishment ought to be retained because teachers have a difficult job and deserve some fun from time to time). They were clever and witty columns, although it wasn't always easy to work out where the joke lay. Jeremy Clarkson uses much the same technique today, only without the "clever" and "witty" part.

It's a dangerous game to play, though. You always risk being taken seriously. People would sometimes come up to Warren Mitchell (who played the appalling Alf Garnett for 30 years) and say "I loved the way you were having a go at all those nig-nogs on TV last night.".

"I wasn't having a go at the nig-nogs" he would reply. "I was having a go at ignorant arseholes like you." 

Now, after reading her Daily Mail column about the Clifton murder, I naturally assumed that Liz Jones was a vacuous middle class snob, whose column was intended to appeal to other vacuous middle class snobs. I think I erred. I think her column is a parody of a column by a vacuous middle-class snob: a joke at the expense of vacuous middle-class Daily Mail readers in the same way that Bel Littlejohn was a joke at the expense of leftier-than-thou Guardian readers.

Melanie Phillips, on the other hand,  is probably a real person.

It was her new year column that alerted me to the fact that Liz Jones cannot possibly intend us to take her seriously.

It was full of this kind of stuff:

"My moan of the year has to be reserved for NatWest, the unhelpful bank that refused to let me withdraw £20 to buy pet food. At the end of this year, I received a letter from another costumer to say that he had been refused a £400 loan to bury his son, who had been killed in a hit and run. Shame on you, you evil money-grubbers."

Modern life is full of minor inconveniences. When I shout at the automatic till in Sainsburies ("It's a pint of effing milk! It can't be that unexpected! People must come in here and buy milk all the time!") I'm not really expecting it to answer. I am expressing frustration. If anything I'm making a joke against myself, for being so pointlessly annoyed by a bit of machinery which doesn't work. Most of us sometimes feel frustrated in the face of machines, rules and bureaucracy. We always feel that there is a special reason why the rules should not apply to us, and are annoyed that bureaucrats won't treat us as a special case. Of course the aerial repair man is going to come out more urgently, and charge less money to fix my TV if I explain to him that my Doctor Who reviews are read by literally dozens of people. If I explain my employment circumstances to a minimum wage bank teller, then of course he will allow me withdraw money beyond my agreed overdraft limit. Of course Mr Branson will delay his train by an extra five minute to give me a chance to retrieve the wallet I dropped at the ticket office.

Lots of people have spotted that bureaucracy can be particularly heartless when dealing with bereavement. The are lots of stories about recent widows getting letters addressed to "Mr John Smith, deceased". On the other hand, the process of probate is quite complicated: if I walk into the bank and say "I want a £1,000 out of my Mum's account so I can bury her" the bank is very likely to reply "We'd like some evidence that she's really dead, and that you are really her son, please." This is why insurance companies offer cheap life assurance for the over 50s, payable upon death, along with an attractive carriage clock yours to keep however you decide.

The bit about needing £400 "to bury his son" is pretty obviously a terminological inexactitude. Funeral directors don't refuse to bury you if you don't pay upfront. They do the work, and then, several weeks later, they send you the bill. They are quite good at treating bereaved people in a sensitive way. They've had a lot of practice.

And if you can't afford £400, that doesn't mean your son goes unburied. It means social service help you out. There is no such thing as a pauper's funeral.  

If you aren't eligible for a loan, then you aren't eligible for a loan. You aren't more eligible for a loan because your loved one was the victim of a hit and run than you would have been if he had been the victim of a responsible driver who had pulled over, called 999, and waited for the police.

But the really weird thing is the way that Liz leaps from her correspondent's sad story to her own, ludicrously trivial one. Did she really need £20 to feed a cat? Couldn't Tiddles have had some Happy Shopper food from the corner shop for one night? Couldn't she have mashed up some human food in the mincer, or borrowed something from next door? Did she really think the bank would open specially, or let her go overdrawn just because Tiddles is one of the nine out of ten cats who prefer Whiskers? If you are so stupid as to be left with no food and no cash no and money in the bank, does that really make the bank "evil" (a word more commonly associated with war criminals and serial killers).

And do you really think that there some comparison between "feeding the cat" and "arranging my son's funeral"?

It's in poor taste. It's not very funny. But it is surely intended as a joke -- a parody of the me, me, me mindset of certain columnists, diarists and, admittedly,  bloggers.

It is, on the other hand,  just possible that Melanie Philips is a real person.

UPDATE: Oh god, it's more complicated than that. At the point at which the evil moneygrubbing bank wouldn't give her £20, she apparently reached the end of a £15,000 overdraft. She was so deeply in debt that her readers started to send her money. Old ladies send her tenners out of their pensions. (What do you reckon a key brand-name columnist workign for the second best selling paper in the country takes home in a year? £80K?)  And she feeds her cats Marks and Spencers organic prawns. All of which tends to confirm the "Bel Littlejohn" theory. Doesn't it?


SK said...

'Funeral directors don't refuse to bury you if you don't pay upfront. They do the work, and then, several weeks later, they send you the bill.'

You haven't buried anyone lately, have you? I don't know what would have happened had we been unable to pay, but they were very specific about wanting a fair whack up front and the rest v. quickly afterwards.

Apparently some people abused the old 'honour' system, and spoiled it for everyone.

Was Liz Jones the columnist who was complaining about being the 'new poor' because all her wealth was tied up in houses she had bought at the height of the boom and now was unable to rent or sell, and so she was forced to not buy her children their games consoles for Christmas? We did have a good laugh at that article down the pub.

James Wallis said...

'If I walk into the bank and say "I want a £1,000 out of my Mum's account so I can bury her" the bank is very likely to reply "We'd like some evidence that she's really dead, and that you are really her son, please."'

Not really. When my father died a simple phone call was enough to get everyone from his bank and stockbroker to Sky TV and the MCC to either close his account or freeze it pending hearing from whoever was dealing with probate. The only company that demanded actual proof that he was dead--in the form of a death certificate (not a copy) which they would only accept if it was taken into one of their branches--was Carphone Warehouse.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I am beginning to get a "picked a bad example" vibe...