It is going to take a while to get used to the idea that we have just lived through a summer of love, and that London has briefly been the world capital of caring and happiness. Already, though, what we have seen and heard over the past two months has had some surprising side-effects.
It will be difficult, for example, to consider bravery – and self-pity – in quite the same way. Reading this weekend an extract from the memoirs of Pamela Stephenson, the New Zealand comedian and shrink, I found myself wondering whether real courage in the face of adversity has not exposed the tearful, show-biz version to be something of a fraud.
Tales of childhood misery are a staple of the celebrity memoir. If there is a creative writing course for such things, its first rule would be: pile on the agony in early life, and then show how you have triumphed over the odds to be the successful person you are today. The traumas of the famous are as varied as life itself. There is child abuse, of the type revealed in Stephenson’s biography of her husband Billy Connolly. There are cruel parents and, later, addiction, rape or psychological trauma.
Stephenson’s childhood was horrible, as she recalls it. The daughter of two academics, one who had “poor mothering skills”, the other who was too ambitious for her, she lived, unloved, in an ugly, concrete-sprayed house in an arid suburb of Sydney. At school, her classmates ganged up on her. Yet she came though, and can write today, “Thank God that resilience never left me, despite the punishment I took – and not just for my braininess. I was just never liked.”
Worse followed. Miserable as a teenager, Pamela hung out in the dodgy Kings Cross area. There, aged 16, a heroin addict lured her to his flat. “I had an inkling that it might be the route to my desired destruction,” she writes. “I suppose it was rape. What was the age of consent back then? I don’t even know.”
There is something strangely tentative about the way this miserable episode is told but, by this stage, it is clear that the story of little Pamela is one of the beastliness of the outside world against her own plucky innocence.
There is no loneliness quite like the loneliness of childhood, but memoirs like these seem to be competitively miserable. Since Princess Diana, queen of all our hearts (and, as we learn amidst much name-dropping, a pal of Stephenson’s), shared her pain back in the 1990s, vulnerability and unhappiness have become assets on the road to fame. The more successful a person is, the more he or she seems to feel obliged to reveal the personal cost paid.
Tales of celebrity hardship are almost always propelled by vanity and ego. The message to the rest of us is a simple one: if you thought it was easy becoming me, think again. This is what I have had to overcome.
Until this summer, self-pity has been accepted as part of the culture, an almost obligatory part of a famous person’s memories. Even someone as tough as Edwina Currie will, in her writings, show herself to be lonely and misunderstood by all around here. Now all that suddenly seems silly and out of date. There are few people who have not been through hardship and unhappiness; being famous does not provide an excuse to blub about it.
As we have heard so many times in the past few weeks, suffering and disability need not define a person. If those who have come through unimaginably traumatic experiences can move on without recalling their pain and congratulating themselves on overcoming it, the famous should be able to manage it too.
The BBC is too indulgent to religion
Although the voices of religion and spirituality are heard, endlessly it seems, on BBC discussion programmes, the nags and zealots of organised faith are becoming ever more vocal about what they believe is the creeping secularisation of the corporation.
Their campaign has worked a treat. Tomorrow, at a major conference on ethics and religion organised by the BBC, its head of religious programmes Aaqil Ahmed will confirm that Radio 4’s Thought for the Day on the Today programme will remain untainted by the thoughts, however virtuous and interesting, of anyone deemed to be a non-believer.
What nonsense it is. The Today programme frequently allows religious leaders to comment on issues of the day. Then, at 7.50am, they are also given the exclusive run of the airwaves to preach their message.
Why should an intelligent non-believer be barred from delivering a sermon about morality? At its major conference on religion, it would seem that the BBC might usefully discuss whether it is not becoming a touch biased in its determination to be fair to those within the club of organised faith at the expense of listeners – and also of intellectual freedom.Reuse content