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

CHILDREN, UNLESS they are revoltingly precocious, loathe being asked the question "What do you want to be when you grow up?", and generally understand pretty quickly that the way to move the question on is just to mutter the conventional answers of "train driver", "footballer" or, like Salvador Dali, "Napoleon". A friend of mine claims that he always used to shut up polite inquiries about his future by saying "When I grow up, I want to be the first two bars of Debussy's Suite Bergamasque," which usually had the desired effect. But, bad as the question is, being told what you ought to aim at is, I'm sure, a hundred times worse.

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.

Arts and Entertainment

photography
Arts and Entertainment
Adolf Hitler's 1914 watercolour 'Altes Rathaus' and the original invoice from 1916

art
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tvThe two new contestants will join the 'I'm A Celebrity' camp after Gemma Collins' surprise exit
News
The late Jimmy Ruffin, pictured in 1974
people
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Northern Uproar, pictured in 1996
people

Jeff Fletcher found fame in 1990s

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the new Paddington bear review

Review: Paddingtonfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Tony stares at the 'Daddy Big Ears' drawing his abducted son Oliver drew for him in The Missing
tvReview: But we're no closer to the truth in 'The Missing'
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

    Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

    Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
    The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

    The young are the new poor

    Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
    Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

    Greens on the march

    ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

    Through the stories of his accusers
    Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

    The Meaning of Mongol

    Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible