Howard Jacobson: A love-hate affair with the ordinary bloke

We can be prejudiced and aware of limits: we can be pigs and still see that we have gone too far
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The Independent Online

It's been said that when Cameron lost Andy Coulson as his communications director he lost not only a skilled operator but a link to the concerns of the ordinary voter.

Cameron, as we know, was born on a cloud, suckled on unicorn milk, and kept apart from untitled men and women until he assumed leadership of the Tory party, a position that guaranteed immunity from the contagions of the common air. Whereas Andy Coulson, as we also know, grew up on an Essex council estate, where he rolled in mud and faeces, hung around with drug addicts and prostitutes, and stole other people's mobile phones, an experience which stood him in good stead when he became editor of the News of the World. That Coulson was earning more as communications director than Cameron earns as Prime Minister, and would, as editor of the News of the World, have probably earned more than the entire Coalition Cabinet put together, only goes to show that when it comes to the ordinary Joe it is hard to be sure who we're talking about.

So are we for them, or not, the ordinary men and women of this country, whoever they are? I know that in principle we must be, because the loss of Coulson's link to ordinariness is considered to disadvantage Cameron, not just electorally, but in the sense that he will be a less complete and sympathetic politician without it. "No politician can govern well, we believe, who does not understand what it is to be ordinary." But what about when an actual example of ordinariness shows his head, tells us what he thinks, allows us a glimpse, inadvertent or otherwise, into his unexamined biases and assumptions? How do we feel about him then?

Let's pluck a name or two at random. How about Andy Gray? Or Richard Keys?

Keys went to a comprehensive in Coventry before co-presenting TV-am with Anne Diamond – than which you can't get much more ideologically ordinary. Gray was born in Glasgow, doesn't give out information about his education, and in his teens signed for Dundee United. That both have exceeded the common as far as fame and wealth (and in Gray's case footballing prowess) are concerned, goes without saying; but otherwise they would seem to epitomise the spirit of the ordinary British bloke. Wasn't it for this that Sky Sports employed and paid them sumptuously? Tone is everything in sports broadcasting. What will cut the mustard for athletics or tennis most definitely will not for football. And Sky in particular wants its viewers, when they're watching football, to feel they're watching it in the company of men like themselves.

Gray and Keys, in fact, did this very well. They reminded you how horrible football could be if you happened to be watching it with people who didn't have PhDs.

But I mustn't sell myself short. Despite not growing up on a council estate, or possessing any aptitude for the rougher sorts of ball games, I like to think I have a bit of ordinary bloke in me. Too much to drink occasionally, the shared appreciation of a woman's looks, a little gender teasing you would have to be entirely humourless (or a lesbian, nudge nudge) to take exception to – I know the pleasure there can be in these. Not least when the teasing is aware that it's going where it shouldn't, that things have changed, that you have to mind your language. There's a version of what we call sexism that's just provocation for provocation's sake. It's not only the professional comedian who feels the need to bust taboos occasionally. And this bit of me that's ordinary revolts from the orgy of sanctimony that Gray's and Keys's remarks about women in football, and women in general, has unloosed. Remembering that they weren't intended to be broadcast, do those words really amount to a sackable offence? Are they any different from what you would hear every night in every pub in Britain: attitudes routinely voiced by those ordinary voters we think Cameron is less the man for knowing nothing about?

But there's another part of me that's not an ordinary bloke, that hates ordinary blokes, that hates the pubs in which they gather, the beer culture to which they subscribe, and even the games they watch when those games become defined by ordinary blokishness. You don't have to be a woman to find men threatening when they jeer and leer in packs. But if you are a woman I can easily see why you would recoil from the unceasing suggestiveness, not just the invitation to put your hand down a fellow presenter's trousers – surely in this case the least enticing invitation ever proffered – but the syntactical employment of that patronising comma followed by the word "love" at the end of every sentence. For saying "Do me a favour, love", as Gray did on the night he will now never forget, a man might fairly lose more than his job.

Whether what I'm describing really is sexism, I don't know. My wife assures me it is. But "sexist" is a hand-me-down term, like "racist", "homophobic", "anti-Semitic" – it silences discussion. Between the full-blown versions of what those words describe, and the ideal state of harmonious acceptance to which we all aspire, there are many levels of offence. I know the continuum argument: you begin by asking a black homosexual Jewish woman to make you a cup of tea, comma, dear, and the next thing you are hanging her from a tree in Dachau. But I don't accept it. We can be prejudiced and aware of limits: we can be pigs and still see that we have gone too far. On the other hand, I do accept the case for our being educated out of thoughtless bigotry, taught to beware every lexical abuse, until we are all so screwed up tight with fear of words that we tiptoe through the minefield which is language, not necessarily kinder to one another in our hearts, but at least mindful of the effects of what we say.

So all right – off you go, Keys and Gray. You are a charmless pair. But we should beware the unanimity of our condemnation. A nation united in self-righteous outcry is no less odious than a nation united in prejudice. And then there's the question of freedom of speech. Not agreeing with what a person says but defending to the death his right to say it. Or is freedom of speech selective? Is it a luxury we withdraw when the person speaking is an ordinary boorish bloke expounding his philosophy of ordinary boorish blokishness?

Reader: what if the consequence of cleaning up our grossest attitudes is gross intolerance?