Reading a recent hard-luck story about Sir Steve Redgrave and a group of young rowers from Liverpool, it was difficult to keep at bay the remark that once landed Boris Johnson in trouble the one about Liverpudlians having a tendency to wallow in their victim status.
The Redgrave story was admittedly rather sad. There was to be a new reality show, commissioned by ITV. Called Redgrave's Raw Recruits, it applied the tired old boot-camp formula to rowing. Eight young men from Toxteth were selected for training by the multi-Olympic gold medallist. They sweated, trained and dieted over seven months until they were prepared for that great annual event, the Henley Regatta.
Almost prepared. Disastrously, the Liverpool 8, as they were called, failed by three seconds to qualify for the regatta. The TV suits decided that, without a final heart-warming sequence in which their "scallys made good" competed with the toffs at Henley, the programme would lack the required feel-good factor. The Liverpool 8 were given a DVD each and the programme was quietly dumped.
Only the most innocent will be surprised by this fate. The rags-to-riches form of documentary is as cynically shaped to provide audience satisfaction (sentimental uplift, a satisfyingly neat moral outcome) as any Hollywood movie. At the slightest hint of complexity of real reality as opposed to the TV version the plug is pulled.
That is the way of the television world: dishonesty is hard-wired into the process. More interesting has been the reaction of those involved in the programme. There has been a mini-cyclone of whingeing from Liverpool. "The lads feel cheated and demoralised after all the effort they put in," the chairman of a local rowing club was qouted as saying. "Quite a few of them were from the wrong side of the tracks but have now come back into line as a result of team-building and effort. It's a shame they will never get the positive recognition they deserve."
This little story from TV-land offers a useful, if old-fashioned, truth. Television is not life. Real satisfaction is not to be gained from recognition but from accomplishment. To be taken from an everyday life full of problems through a process of mental and physical commitment and to emerge successfully as part of a team was an achievement and a privilege. Appearing in a documentary would have been the least important part of that experience.
Britain now leads the world in miserabilism. Part of the drift into the negative is the result of a press hooked on aspects of national life which depress or enrage but much of it reflects the culture. Nothing, for many in contemporary Britain, is worth being pleased about. Everything is, or soon will be, a disappointment. The latest YouGov poll has provided a predictable snapshot of these attitudes. Is Britain worse than it was five years ago? Yes, said the majority. Will it decline still further in the next five years? Of course. Almost half of the 1,500 people interviewed said they would prefer to live abroad.
This culture of pessimism feeds on itself, and the best resolution for 2008 would be to break free from the dull-eyed defeatism it represents. In the story of the Liverpool 8, the right, forward-looking approach is not to be found among those grumbling about a TV programme that never happened but with one of the young rowers, Abraham Altairy. "Without the Liverpool 8 team, I would not be where I am today in work and with a future," he says. "We proved ourselves."
How to put Ms Jolie in her place
Suddenly our home-grown politicians are beginning to look distinctly wimpish beside their European counterparts. First Nicolas Sarkozy skipped out of his marriage and has been posing contentedly with a former model. Now Romano Prodi has broken a golden rule of political life. When Angelina Jolie, left, voted last year's Celebrity Humanitarian of the Year, asked to meet him to talk about the whole world poverty thing, the Italian Prime Minister turned her down flat. "I've never heard of a politician getting into trouble for not meeting an actress," he said. The idea that being a Hollywood star does not automatically make someone, however pretty, an expert on starvation in the Third World, is far too daring to catch on over here.
* If there were to be a symbol of the confusion and hypocrisy which surround attitudes to animals, it would be that luckless bird, the chicken. Hundreds of hours can be spent discussing the hunting of foxes. The use of animals in laboratories can provoke violence. Acts of cruelty to pets are the subject of tear-jerking news reports. Yet the most sustained, organised campaign of inhumanity is directed against the poor old chicken. In Hugh's Chicken Run, a Channel 4 documentary starting next week, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall points out that 95 per cent of the 16 million chickens slaughtered every week have been intensively reared 19 birds per square metre in appalling conditions. The reason is simple. The poultry industry wants to maximise profits, and so do the supermarkets. The public like cheap food and, for most, it is a question of choice rather than necessity. The price is paid, out of sight and usually unreported, in packed, hellish henhouses across the country.Reuse content