Amy Jenkins: When did the life of the mind become ripe for ridicule?

Sunday 23 October 2011 08:23

The new film Tamara Drewe is bound to be a big hit. It mercilessly takes the piss out of the middle classes, and the middle classes will flock to see it. The original comic strip by Posy Simmonds is loosely based on Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy.

In Hardy's novel a vain but feisty young woman comes into some money and independence in Dorset, makes some bad love choices, and has the joie de vivre resoundingly beaten out of her until – a shadow of her former self – she eventually sees sense and marries the right person. In Tamara Drewe, the story is much the same, although this time Tamara herself emerges relatively unscathed (thank you, feminism) and the focus is more on the class war than Hardy's battle of the sexes.

Simmonds is famous for her acute observation of a certain kind of middle-classness. I should pause here to point out that the term "middle class" has two distinct meanings these days. In some contexts it means "posh" – which is what some kids used to shout at me and my friends at my comprehensive school. In other contexts it means the majority of people in dual-income households (average about £40,000 a year) who have furniture from Habitat and a decent car.

In this case we're talking the former – in fact, Simmonds's characters were originally written for and after the readers of a well-known centre-left newspaper. They are muddled, self-obsessed, misguided – (dear reader – you are reading this paper, so you are blameless) – but they are affectionately portrayed.

In Tamara Drewe the film, however, Tamara is – gasp – an Independent columnist and so smug and sexually cavalier that you're hard-pressed not to loathe her, even though she's played by Gemma Arterton. As for the other literary incomers, they are also jaw-droppingly ghastly – and you are being invited to despise them.

They comprise a celebrity writer of mediocre detective fiction whose vanity and sexual incontinence outshine even Tamara's, a vapid pop star, an American writer who might be doing good work but really has his eye on the fabulous cooking and geisha attendance of the celebrity writer's wife. Add various deluded middle-aged women who come to a writers' retreat and who will never be published.

Tamara Drewe isn't just an exercise in gentle lampooning. As in the Hardy novel, the self-regarding incomers leave death and destruction in their wake. One character is killed as a result of a very London disregard for country ways, and in the original, a village teenager dies from snorting an aerosol – in celebration of having met the entirely unworthy pop star. This doesn't happen in the film, but the point is still unmistakably anti the creatives.

At this point, I should say the film is well made and it really works. It's enjoyable if you don't mind the way we British affect to despise the life of the mind. I write for The Independent and – dare I say it – have a cottage in Dorset. I know a few writers down there. Of course, it would be beside the point to say they simply aren't like that.

Tamara Drewe is satire and set in a heightened world and that's as it should be. The book is subtle, the film less so – at the other end of the scale, casually hating intellectuals is destructive nonsense. Think of Paris where – to this day – people go to cafés for philosophical debate. Think of how the French love Sartre and de Beauvoir. In England, it's as if being well-intentioned and lefty is somehow worse than being a gas-guzzling stockbroker.

We let the educated middle classes be doctors, lawyers, vets – that's OK – but writers don't get our respect (unless they're Booker Prize winners). We should be glad they use their privilege for something other than hoarding wealth. People like to tell us this country would be nothing without its bankers – well, it needs its creatives too.

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