Comment: Our real role models are drunks, failures and lunatics
The young much prefer an eccentric like Robbie Williams to Lady Jay's approved pantheon
Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Exeter, Philip Hensher was among Granta 20 Best of Young British Novelists in 2003. The author of six novels, a collection of short stories and an opera libretto, he has won numerous prizes including the Somerset Maugham Award and the Stonewall Journalist of the Year. His 2008 novel, 'The Northern Clemency', was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Commonwealth Prize. A regular presence in the British media, alongside his Wednesday column for The Independent, he writes for The Spectator and Mail on Sunday.
Friday 13 November 1998
Your eye may have slid over the last-but-three of the Government's idiocies, as mine certainly did. But apparently, a week or two back, the Minister for Women, Lady Jay, started going round saying that what young women needed was positive role models in life, to stop them going off the rails into a hell of motherhood, powerlessness, and, no doubt, reading novels in the mornings and eating too many violet creams while doing so.
What they needed, in short, even if they hadn't realised it until that moment was a Women's Unit, stuffed to the gills with bright-eyed clones of Lady Jay and inspiring models for the young such as, er, the portly teenage idol Billie and the suddenly ubiquitous Ginger Spice. And - this is the fingerprint of Lady Jay, the unmistakable moment when she goes one step too far and lands herself in the mire of her own frightful enthusiasms - the actress Emma Thompson.
Unfortunately, nobody had troubled to ask Ms Thompson whether she wanted to have anything at all to do with anything called a Women's Unit or to be bossed about by Lady Jay, or, indeed, whether she wanted to be anybody's role model.
Thompson is a national treasure without a doubt, a Margaret Rutherford for the next millennium, with her unfailing knack of saying the honest, intelligent and deeply eccentric thing about any subject under the sun, and what she said made you want to stand up and cheer.
She was, she said, "rather pissed off" at the notion. "It's very nannyist. I wasn't asked if I'd be a role model. I found out when a friend rang me to jeer at me. My immediate response was an overwhelming desire to go out and score a load of cocaine in rebellion. Because when I was young my role models were Mick Jagger and Marlon Brando."
If Emma Thompson hadn't been a role model before, she instantly turned herself into one with this excellent and admirable outburst. The idea that anyone would be the better for the daily contemplation of government- approved role models is one worthy of wonder. All this "role model" rubbish is, I think, American-inspired psychobabble. Rapists on Rikki Lake these days are always claiming that their crimes are due to the lack of a "positive male role model in the home environment".
Personally, I think the more useful thing for the growing child is a negative role model in the home environment, or elsewhere, pour encourager les autres. How many of the successful women of today have got where they are by looking at their mothers, doing the washing-up, and thinking, Please God, let me not end up like that?
It shouldn't be underestimated as a means of stimulating people to do their best. I remember, when I worked in the Journal Office of the House of Commons, every day looking at my boss and saying to myself, That's what's lying in store for you if you don't get your finger out.
And I don't think that's unusual. I've certainly got my own heroes, but they're an odd, ramshackle bunch, and, like everyone, I came to them on my own, and not because anyone told me they were the sort of people I ought to admire.
Henry Green, a novelist who spent the last 20 years of his life in a drunken stupor, would never be approved by Lady Jay for any kind of list. Others, like Alexander Burnes, the great Afghan administrator, or Marco Pantani the cyclist, are a bit more orthodox, but the point is that they're my heroes, and not ones which the Government has suggested to me. And they are certainly not there for behaving better than most people, but, usually, for behaving rather worse. I was always rather keen on Jarvis Cocker, but he wasn't a hero of mine until he unforgettably Spoke For England by waggling his bum at the appalling Michael Jackson.
One of the nicest features of the English has always been the fact that they much prefer heroic failures to more conventional role models. The great national role models tend to be drunks, lunatics, and, rather than the people who discovered DNA or conquered India, a man like Captain Scott, who got to the Pole second and whose expedition ended in disaster. And the young are no different, much preferring an eccentric like Robbie Williams to the squeaky-clean blameless spectacle of Lady Jay's approved pantheon.
Teenagers, as everyone knows, have a limitless contempt for adults. Rather than work against it by telling them the sort of people they ought to emulate and the sorts of heroes from history that they ought to revere, perhaps the government ought to go with the flow, and propose role models who can be the recipient of boundless amounts of contempt, ridicule and contumely.
Let the Government hold up Michael Winner as a fine upstanding example of what you might become if you work hard. Let them appoint Tara Palmer- Tomkinson to the Women's Unit; let a photograph of Barbara Cartland in a baseball cap be affixed to the wall of every classroom in the country; let the biographies of the Duchess of York and the novels of Edwina Currie be set for the GCSE in English; let the young, in short, have their laughing stocks. And when they stop laughing, they will, at least, feel relieved to be themselves, and start to find their own role models.
Actually, now I come to think of it, I might have hit on the reason Lady Jay was appointed to head up the Women's Unit in the first place.
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