Terence Blacker: The virtues of disgusting England

It provides the perfect, teeming backdrop for a writer of Zadie Smith's talents
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The Independent Online

So replies to the questions of journalists are delivered with the wit, irony or irreverence of normal conversation, only be served up in print, stripped of context and tone. Interviewers, who seem chummy and supportive in person, are actually trusted, and later reveal themselves in print to be smiling assassins.

Most new celebrities discover that the only way to avoid falling into these traps is to cease behaving like a normal person altogether and to join the publicity game, in which everyone is playing a part. A few, though, doggedly continue to be themselves and, time and again, pay the price.

The novelist Zadie Smith has been particularly resolute in her determination to treat journalists as if they were fellow-writers who, like her, are sensitive to nuance and wit, and dedicated to fairness and truth. Every time she has had a new book published, she has said something in an unguarded moment, has stirred up a storm and, almost always, has had to apologise.

When the critics were praising her work, she said that she was derivative. As a successful young author, she complained that young authors were generally hyped up and over-praised. A new member of the establishment, she discussed her starry career at Cambridge in a skittishly confessional way: "I was something of an exotic interest in the same way I found public schoolboys incredibly exotic," she said. "So, you know, you get laid a lot." As soon as she had made her name as a writer, she complained annoyingly about how boring being famous had turned out to be, ran away to American and muttered about not writing any more fiction.

As far as one can see, none of this has happened through guileful publicity-seeking. Smith simply speaks as she finds and treats every interview as if it's a chat over the garden fence. As a result, she gets into trouble, usually because she has spoken the truth.

The latest Smith mini-storm was brewed up by an interview with New York magazine. England has become a disgusting place, she confided. There was something about the way people looked at each other on trains. Slipping into generalisation overdrive, she pointed to "general stupidity, madness, vulgarity, stupid TV shows, aspirational arseholes, money everywhere". Forced later to account for these remarks, she confessed to being terribly embarrassed. Then problem apparently was that she loved her country so much that it pained her to see it in decline.

These are dangerous views for a writer to take. One day, the wind could change, they would stick to you like a silly face and soon you will find yourself invited to stand in for Simon Heffer on the Daily Mail's angry page.

But of course, Zadie Smith is essentially right. While some of her comments might be the result of celebrity-fatigue - somebody should break it to her that "being stared at in coffee shops" is not a problem with English society but a function of being beautiful and well-known - her central premise is undeniable.

We are unusually disgusting at the moment. If asked for instances of the stupidity and vulgarity of the society around us, it would be difficult to know where to start. There can be few countries in the world where fame, particularly when it is not accompanied by any discernable talent, is the subject of such quasi-religious fascination. Even when commentators try to pin down the vacuousness of this culture, as Piers Morgan did in a recent Channel 4 documentary, they get sucked into the very process they deplore, taking seriously people who are stupid, vain, pointless, but well-known.

As for the English having turned into aspirational arseholes, an interesting illustration was evident at a certain cricket match at the Oval this weekend. In what other country would spectators be so desperate to win that they would chant for the match they had paid to watch to be suspended through bad weather, and cheer when it is?

It was a shame that, having been pulled up short for these remarks, Zadie Smith went through the process of clarification, apology and retraction with which she must now be rather familiar. Instead, she should have pointed out that calling England a disgusting place was not necessarily a criticism.

Knocking copy of this type, when delivered by novelists, almost invariably backfires. When Martin Amis said he had become demoralised by writing about a country that led the world in nothing but decline and was considering whether, as a serious writer, he should be engaging with American culture, he was merely expressing writerly panic. His material, what in London Fields he once called "the iodised shithouse that used to be England", was slipping away from him.

Zadie Smith does not have this problem and will not, I would guess, be looking abroad for a setting for her novels or her life. There are certainly less disgusting, stupid and vulgar places in the world but, with its unsporting crowds, its crass popular idols, its traitorous journalists, England provides the perfect, teeming backdrop for a writer of her curiosity and talents.