Amy Jenkins: Raised hopes, destroyed souls – must be X Factor time again

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It's The X Factor season again. October comes, the Santa chocolates appear in the shops, and The X Factor moves from auditions to live shows.

Now starts the countdown to the big day of celebration that gets us through the winter darkness; a symbolic day when an age-old story is recounted once again to give us faith. But – as I'm sure you've guessed – it's no longer Christmas Day and the birth of Jesus that we await. No. It's the X Factor final and the arrival of someone once in rags to dazzling, celebrity riches.

It's a story that's hard to resist. "Shall we watch it this year?" I always say at this point to my partner. I am half hoping he will demur and save me. Sadly, his love for Cheryl Cole has a habit of outweighing the fact that he's an interesting and serious person. He nods guiltily and I breathe a sigh of relief as we settle down to yet another soul-destroying autumn on the sofa.

A friend of mine has likened watching The X Factor to eating a Big Mac. It's easy, it's cheap, it's addictive, but it's ultimately unsatisfying and afterwards you're left with a bad taste in the mouth. Even Simon Cowell is visibly bored with it this year. His reptilian demeanour has an air of contrivance these days and his forked-tongued criticisms seem phoned in. He must be delighted, then, that an unexpected controversy has suddenly enlivened proceedings.

Cheryl Cole is in charge of "the girls" this year, and last Sunday night she had to choose three to go through to the live shows from a group of winnowed-down hopefuls. Instead of choosing a lively young black woman who could sing up a treat and carry herself with confidence, Cheryl chose a fragile, stick-thin, deeply vulnerable 17-year-old called Cher Lloyd who sobbed all through her final audition and seemed the least likely to be able to withstand the pressures of the X Factor circus.

As for the lively young black woman – that was Gamu Nhengu. She's sweet, she's adorable, she's a good singer and people actually hit the streets in protest at her rejection. Angry fans went to her unprepossessing Scottish housing estate and waved placards. The plot thickened when it was discovered that Gamu has visa problems and may have to return to her native Zimbabwe. Gamu's mother has been studying nursing in Scotland for the past eight years on a Fresh Talent scheme. Gamu has been in the country as a dependant but now the family's right to remain has expired. It was then reported that Gamu's problems with the immigration authorities affected Cheryl's decision. Apparently, Cheryl had doubts about including Gamu among her outright winners but, if it hadn't been for the visa problems, Gamu might have gone through to the live shows on a wild card.

Whatever you might think of The X Factor you have to admit it has an uncanny ability to fire the political imagination. Last year, a Facebook campaign meant that downloads of an obscure single by a 20-year-old rap metal band called Rage Against the Machine beat the X Factor winner to the Christmas No 1 spot. This year, Gamu's possible expulsion from the country will do far more to highlight the pitfalls of an immigration policy that takes no account of talent than a sack full of letters to The Times from Nobel prize-winning scientists ever could.

The thing is, The X Factor may be frivolous; it may be shallow and it may be entertainment-lite – but its con is a profound one. Every year this show serves up the dream of rags to riches as if it were a cornerstone of 21st-century British life. "Don't stop believing!" sang the winner last year, with all his heart. The real truth is that social mobility has been decreasing in recent years. In this country, if you are born into poverty, you are very unlikely to get out of it. The X Factor doesn't get you a visa, whatever you believe.

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