Michael Heath

Diary - 13 March 2004

The perils of being ‘amusing’

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I see that the papers have finally given a name — ‘chavs’ — to the new working class. They are the type of people I have been drawing for years: trailer trash covered in bling bling, wearing Burberry baseball hats, white tracksuit bottoms and white trainers. They couldn’t be more different from the docile ‘pint-of-mild-please’ working class of the 1930s. I remember Mass Observation and the films by Humphrey Jennings, which collated their behaviour as if they were animals in a wildlife documentary. Try doing that now: ‘Wot you looking at?’ ‘Er ...nothing. I was just observing you drinking a large Jack Daniel’s and Coke so as to understand the sociological dynamic of the prole ...Ow! For God’s sake, don’t hit me!’

They’ve taken down the wonderful turnstiles that used to let you into the London Zoo with a click-click sound, and replaced them with boring PC turnstiles that can take a wheelchair, an elephant — perhaps even an obese child. The original turnstiles will always remind me of Carol Reed’s 1948 film The Fallen Idol. The scene lasts only about five seconds but it has remained with me. The boy in the drama is taken to the zoo by the caretaker of the French Embassy in London so that the caretaker can meet his French lover. I think they just manage to hold hands. On the way out the boy stops the turnstiles for a moment, jamming in some old codger in a dirty mac who becomes very irate. The boy offers him a peanut by way of apology. That’s all! I don’t know why I love this scene, but I like to think that it may have been an ad-lib, slipped in by Carol Reed without anyone noticing. Nowadays the kid would have ‘done ’im’. Know what I mean?

Every now and then some poor person makes a joke to an official in an airport. ‘What have you got in that rucksack?’ asks the customs officer. Not long ago a woman answered ‘A bomb!’, so she was rushed off to prison in Fort Lauderdale to cool her lip. I would warn against making ‘amusing’ remarks to anyone you don’t know these days. I had to go to a whizz-bang doctor recently, and to ease the tension I made a joke: ‘I came to you because I understand you are the top bottom doctor,’ I said. There was total silence and I was rightly written off as unstable and suffering from Munchausen’s Syndrome. Trying hopelessly to get a chocolate machine in the Underground to take my 50p, I gave up and said to the girl behind me, ‘If you want to stay slim, this is the machine for you.’ I agree it’s not very funny. She backed off in terror, and looked around her for a policeman (some hope). Yet we were once renowned for our friendliness and off-the-cuff repartee with strangers. It got us through the war: ‘Half a mo, Hitler’, ‘Yes, we have no bananas’, ‘Cheer up, it may never happen.’ Now we just talk into mobiles.

I’m told there are many teens who have never heard of Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando, Hitler or Winston Churchill (‘Is he a dealer?’). Oldies have been shocked by this but have you ever heard of Yulia Volkova or Beyoncé Knowles? Well then! Each to their own. Mind you, it could have repercussions for future editions of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. ‘Whatever’: Dave Sweat, footballer, on being asked if he’d like more sugar in his tea. ‘So?’: Janice Dim on being told she had had a nice chin lift.

I am puzzled by several new magazines that have just hit the news-stands with a dull thud. I won’t give you their names: that would be advertising — but you wouldn’t understand them anyway, you’re too old and sad. They have names like Light Bulb and Sock. I assume they are fashion magazines as they are printed on very expensive paper and cost £5.50 up. They are often huge, and when you heave them open there’s nothing inside them. Here and there are some pictures taken at night on a run-down housing estate, with some goofy youths who weigh about a stone hanging about. Sometimes a full-page photograph of a child’s toy. Some more photographs, maybe of a girl looking tragic, sitting in a used-tyre dump. Then there’s some typewritten guff set out upside-down on the page in bright pink. You can’t read them; presumably they are meant to be flicked through while you’re having a Brazilian.

Art News: ‘You simply MUST, MUST go and see Dave Rott’s new exhibition Nothing, now showing at the Cod Gallery. Rott’s Nothing is awesome and disturbing. Nothing is shocking because Rott has moved on from his Turner-winning Nothing 1 to Nothing 2 and the overwhelming Nothing 3,’ writes blind critic Sharon Rott (relation). ‘Nothing is for Nothing. What yer sees is what yer gets.’ Rott’s Nothing will be touring Britain in the summer before going to Berlin. So if you’ve got nothing on, and nothing to do, why not give it a look? Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

After being cajoled by people whom I admire, and thinking that I should expand my cultural frame of reference, I went to see Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Goat? at the Almeida (where else?). Terrified at what might ensue on stage (I’d been told it carried a health warning and contained scenes of appalling bestiality that would shock even Noah), I had fortified myself with a bottle of white wine before squeezing myself into what could only be described as a cockpit in the middle of the balcony. After about five minutes I realised I was busting for a pee and there was no way out without disturbing the audience, who sat rapt as the wife shouted at her husband for having it off with a goat. When that wasn’t happening, the scenes were very sotto, with the son kissing his father. I managed to sit it out, sweating, until the shocking ending, which involved a moth-eaten stuffed goat. Then I made a dive for the loo, leaving my hat and goat behind. Just kidding.

I’d like to share with you a bit of fan mail I received recently. On the back of a small white postcard, addressed to me:

Children bury birds

To their heads in sand, throw stones.
It is disturbing.

Thank you for that.