Johann Hari: Jade Goody showed the brutal reality of Britain

In her short life, this big-hearted and big-mouthed woman reflected our own bigotry and stupidity

view gallery VIEW GALLERY
Share
Related Topics

There will be no rewrite of "Candle in the Wind" for Jade Goody's funeral, but in her own glottal, gobby way, she jabbed a knitting needle into the subconscious of Britain just as surely as Diana Spencer did, and revealed something dark and darkening about us. Why was a big-hearted, big-mouthed young woman who came fourth on a reality show back in 2002 seized on with such glee and turned into one of the most famous people in the country? Because we needed her, to salve our own soiled consciences.

In her short life, Jade showed how as Britain has spiralled into one of the most unequal and immobile societies on earth, we have begun to openly jeer and sneer at the people trapped at the bottom. We gleefully seized on her as "proof" that the people rotting on abandoned estates were not there because of the grim accident of birth, but because they were stupid and ugly and bigoted. And all we proved – with unwitting irony – was our own stupidity and ugliness and bigotry.

Here was a 20-year-old girl with a noisy laugh, a quick wit, and almost no knowledge. She thought "East Angular" was a separate country, and wondered what currency they use in Liverpool. So the press jeered that she was "a moron", "the High Priestess of the Slagocracy", and "proof of Britain's underclass".

That summer, a string of images of white, working-class women presenting them as bestial imbeciles dominated our screens. Vicky Pollard – a single mum so thick she swaps her baby for a Westlife CD, played by a multimillionaire private schoolboy – was becoming a national icon. A chaotic single mum established Wife Swap as one of our favourite shows. Words of straightforward snobbish abuse – "chav" and "pikey" – were becoming acceptable again.

Go to any extremely unequal society, say, South Africa, or South America, and you will find a furiously suppressed sense of guilt. It's hard not to ask, at the back of your mind, "Why am I here in this mansion, while they are in the slums?" This guilt is resolved one way: by convincing yourself that the poor are sub-human, and don't have feelings like you and me. Oh, the people in the barrios and townships? They're animals! They stink! They're stupid! Jade and Vicky and the labelling of the poor as "chavs" filled that role for us. They know nothing! They are repulsive!

Nobody wanted to stop and ask: why doesn't Jade know much? Here's why. Her mother was a seriously disabled drug addict, so Jade didn't go to school much because she stayed at home to look after her. From the age of five, she was in charge of doing the cooking and ironing and cleaning. Jade explained: "As early as I could remember, I'd spent my whole life trying to protect my mum, frantically hiding the stolen chequebooks she used to have lying around the house when the police barged in on one of their raids; desperately denying to the teachers at school that she'd hit me for fear of being sent to social services."

Her father treated her even worse. He stashed a gun under her cot, and her first memory was of him shooting heroin in her bedroom, his eyes rolling back and his body juddering. Eventually, after periods in and out of prison, he was found dead from an overdose in the toilet of a Kentucky Fried Chicken. "He died without a single vein left in his body," Jade said. "In the end, he'd injected every single part of it and all his veins had collapsed, even the ones in his penis."

Despite this, Jade always worked, in shops, for minimum wage, and stayed away from drugs (apart from weed). She applied for Big Brother because her mum was sinking into crack addiction, and she couldn't think of any other way to avoid witnessing it. To the end, she was terrified of matches, and couldn't bear to have tinfoil in her house, because they reminded her of crack.

And so she appeared in British public life, and we jeered and howled and held her up as a poster-girl for "the underclass". Jade soon proved her latent smartness by turning her fourth place on Big Brother into a fortune, launching her own brand of perfume, a beauty salon, and a series of sensitive, rather beautiful autobiographies, all appealing to young women who had never seen people just like themselves on television before. The perception of her slowly changed. As people learned about her life story – and saw her chaotic, broken mother being interviewed – many realised that their gleeful poring over her mispronunciations had been vile. The sense of superiority was, for a moment, scrambled.

Then came Celebrity Big Brother, and oh, how we rejoiced. Jade was placed in the house with Shilpa Shetty, a sweet, unworldly Bollywood star who had been raised with servants and never had to do anything practical for herself. She activated all of Jade's feelings of being sneered at and patronised all her life. Jade said: "Ultimately, we were fighting because we were from different classes ... I didn't want anyone to think they're better than me, just because they have more money or have had a more educated upbringing. And, to me, she was a posh, up-herself princess."

One day, Shilpa tried to flush an entire cooked chicken down the toilet. Jade, enraged and perplexed, started to scream at her. "Who the fuck are you? You aren't some Princess in Neverland!" she yelled. She said Shilpa clearly had no idea how ordinary Indians lived, and howled: "You need a day in the slums!" This was seized on as racist, equivalent to telling her to go back where she came from. But it wasn't. Other housemates did say despicable, racist things about Shilpa: the beauty queen Danielle Lloyd said "I think she should fuck off home ... She can't even speak English properly." But Jade didn't; her own father was mixed-race, for one.

But here was a way we could rehabilitate our Jaded view of the white working class, and feel self-righteous about it too. If we can't feel superior to the poor because they are stupid, then we can feel superior to them because they are racist. One newspaper ran the typical headline "Class vs Trash" over a picture of Shilpa and Jade, and a columnist huffed that Jade's problem was "hating her social superiors". Once more, we could hate the poor and feel good about it too.

And even when she was dying, we continued to jeer. Nobody said John Diamond was "exploiting" his cancer by writing about it in The Times, but Jade's decision to talk about it on TV so she could leave a pot of cash for her kids was apparently evidence of her "vulgarity". One newspaper huffs that now we will be subjected to "a chav state funeral".

Even as she rots, we still want to see Jade Goody as a "chav" imbecile, subconsciously reassuring us that our own higher place in the class pyramid is earned by our intellect and sensitivity and anti-racism, rather than by the fluke of birth.

Believe that if you want, but you should know it's not Jade you are condemning, but yourself.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper

£23000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small, friendly, proactive...

Recruitment Genius: Photographic Event Crew

£14500 - £22800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developers - .NET / ASP.NET / WebAPI / JavaScript

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Software Developer is required to join a lea...

Austen Lloyd: Corporate Tax Solicitor - City

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: A first rate opportunity to join a top ranking...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

After Savile, we must devote our energies to stopping the child abuse taking place now

Mary Dejevsky
A ‘hugely irritated’ Sir Malcolm Rifkind on his way home from Parliament on Monday  

Before rushing to criticise Malcolm Rifkind, do you know how much being an MP can cost?

Isabel Hardman
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower