Editor-At-Large: Our bitching and bullying is a form of class warfare

Janet Street-Porter
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:20

As a nation we pride ourselves on our individuality – so why do we bully anyone who dares to be different? Tom Daley is a young hero – at 14, the youngest person representing his country during the Beijing Olympics last year. Competing against divers twice his age, the bubbly, enthusiastic young man came a creditable seventh, returning home to a rapturous reception. All Tom had to do (you might think) is be disciplined enough to maintain a rigorous training regime and he's more or less a shoo-in for a medal in the 2012 Olympics. Oh, if only life in modern Britain was that simple – not that getting up before dawn and spending 30 hours a week, on top of schoolwork, diving into a pool is a piece of cake. It's a tough choice for a teenager with plenty of other, more fun ways of spending his time.

Sadly, Tom, has found out the hard way, the horrible truth about us fickle Brits. A large section of our sick society feels threatened by someone who isn't like them, sitting on a sofa stuffing their mouths with crap or hanging out in town centres looking morose and vaguely threatening. Tom has a huge problem to overcome that's nothing to do with his chosen sport. His parents have revealed that the bullying he endures from fellow pupils at school in Plymouth is so severe they are keeping him at home. He's had name-calling, piss-taking (as his dad put it), pens and pencils thrown at him, and the final straw came recently when some boys threatened to break his legs.

Tom has been forced to go through days warily avoiding people or sitting with four close friends around him for protection. Tragically, Tom's dad says his son "can take no more" and "has lost his bubble". Tom has been diving since he was seven, so he's already put in years of work – you'd think he represented an excellent role model for other young men. Instead, he's being pilloried for being different, for not conforming to the threadbare standards of the pack.

I'm not surprised that our young people ranked so low (24 out of 27) in a recent survey into well-being and happiness in EU countries. We claim to be a tolerant society, and our crowded island has spawned all sorts of tribes, gangs, youth movements and cults over the past half century, starting with rock'n'roll and the birth of teenagers as a defined social group back in the mid-1950s. Tony Blair enthused about Cool Britannia and the hothouse culture that threw up so many world-class artists, musicians, writers and performers. It's true, there's nowhere else I want to live that's so stimulating. But there's a reverse side to this tribal hotpot – the class system is just as rigid as when Labour came to power, according to a clutch of recent surveys. Harriet Harman wants public bodies to fight class, the way we've legislated against sexual and age discrimination. Sadly, it's a hopeless aspiration.

Our natural tendency is to belittle anyone who doesn't conform to our particular little group's idea of what's acceptable. Damian McBride practised that tactic – when you don't like someone, tell a lot of half-truths and cut them down to size. Look at the patronising way Simon Cowell and co described Britain's Got Talent contestant Susan Boyle. A female writer on the Independent thought it acceptable to call her ugly, which I found shocking. Amanda Holden, hardly the Einstein of social engineering, patronisingly whinged that she didn't want Susan to change the way she looked, because "she was so normal, just like someone down the street". Now Susan has spent £35 and had her hair de-frizzed, and another £5 taming her eyebrows, and The Sun fears it may be the beginning of the end. Will Susan still be our pin-up if she has the temerity to spend a bit of time on her appearance? She's hardly demonstrated that she's a slave to the fashion pages, even if she has now been signed up by Primark.

The reason why the class system is alive and thriving in Britain, is that we secretly want it to stay. We love our petty divisions, our little uniforms and our divisive culture. The treatment of Susan Boyle and Tom Daley shows the darker side of our nature. Put simply, if there was an Olympics in sneering we'd take gold, silver and bronze.

Lookism: Gwynnie only loves you if you're skinny

I've met Gwyneth Paltrow a couple of times at parties and she always seemed very pleasant. I was impressed when she ditched the mumsy look, and pitched up in a tiny lace dress and killer heels. But then things in Gwynnie world seem to have gone a bit pear-shaped. She shares a trainer with Madonna, and is a yoga nut – nothing too unusual about that. But when she decided to issue embarrassing twaddle on her website, offering useless "advice" and tips about health, warning bells rang. Too many workouts can rot your brain! Now, she seems to have picked up Madge's streak of ruthlessness – offering a chubby friend a free pass to a gym.

I'm sure she meant well, but how rude. Can these paragons of physical perfection not cope with pals who may be wider than a stick of celery? Are they cleansing their surroundings by eliminating fatties from their lives along with their toxins? I've a horrible feeling it may be true. Just as people end up looking like their dogs, so Gwyneth and Madonna seem happiest surrounded by clones and yes-people who've signed up to the regime. Pass me a doughnut, please.

Sarah lives it up while we wither

Sarah Brown used to come across as sensible, concerned and camera- shy. I admired her for that, but who is in charge of her PR now? What a disaster to be photographed grinning inanely in Los Angeles last Thursday in a line-up that makes Britain's Got Talent seem like the Academy Awards. Outside the swanky Ivy restaurant, she was with four people who would crawl over glass for a favourable press mention: June Sarpong (why?) Katherine Jenkins (strange kabuki white makeup), Sharon Osbourne (surely not seeking a seat in the Lords?) and the Ego himself, preening Piers Morgan. Back home, we're resigned to more tax, little chance of work, and a shrinking economy. Meanwhile, Sarah is lunching with the stars. Weird priorities, considering your husband said he doesn't "do" celebrity culture, Sarah.

Charles cashes in, we cough up

The Budget was bad news for pensioners (no abolition of compulsory retirement), hoarders with savings, anyone who drives, smokes or drinks, and those lucky enough to earn £150,000 a year (there are plenty of hard-working businessmen and women in that category, never mind much-reviled bankers). In fact, it's hard to think of very many who will benefit substantially, thanks to Mr Brown's wildly inaccurate assessment of our financial robustness. But hang on – inexplicably, one very special person was granted a massive tax break last week. Prince Charles. Now, the taxpayers will have to pay for the six-strong team who run an office for his sons. Previously, Prince Charles footed the bill, but now you and I will be coughing up for a secretary to get Harry VIP invites to raves and tickets to sporting events and rock gigs. And what does Gordon get in return?

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