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
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

    The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
    Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

    When two worlds collide

    Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?