John Prescott on the class system? Psychologists please take note…
17 October 2008
Even now he is no longer in a position of power, John Prescott continues to serve his country well. He is a weather-vane of contemporary insecurities. Few figures in public life highlight so clearly the flaws and hang-ups of modern life. Most politicians strive to maintain a balance between their professional personae (tough, effective, grown-up) and their private side (attractively vulnerable). With Prescott, whether in matters of class, sex, food or self-image, the private man will soon be stomping across the stage.
Later this month, another tour of the former deputy Prime Minister’s psychological landscape will grace our screens and already, in the early publicity puffs from the BBC, there is material to interest psychologists and to help the vulnerable. Prescott is still niggled, apparently, by the fact that he was never invited by the Blairs to a state dinner at Chequers. Asked whether he had liked the Prime Minister, Prescott replied pointedly that he had worked with him. Had he liked Mrs Blair? No.
It is normal to ascribe this chippiness to an intense sensitivity to snobbery, nurtured lovingly down the years. The ludicrous idea that he was the only true representative of the working class in a government of snobs has served him well and is now an established part of his image – he must have been delighted by the title of the BBC programme, Prescott: The Class System and Me – but it is a blind. Something more intriguing is to be found within his edgy, aggressive personality.
It is not his dislike of the Blairs and establishment toffs which is relevant here, but their perceived dislike of him. Almost every syllable he utters reveals a basic insecurity: he simply cannot understand why a straightforward, intelligent bloke like him would not be invited to Chequers, or would be asked rude questions by journalists, or have objects thrown at him by voters. He needs to be liked. When he is not liked, he becomes angry.
No wonder he is on such a short fuse. No one – not Mother Theresa, not J K Rowling, not even Sir Trevor McDonald – can be universally popular. We all have enemies, however sweet we happen to be. Some enmities are deserved, others arrive by accident, while quite a few are caused by an antipathy which occurs at an instinctive, pheremonal level. Coming to terms with the fact that there are people who hate you, trying not to be actively dislikeable but knowing that you will be disliked anyway, is a small but significant step towards sanity.
In Griff Rhys Jones’s recent TV investigation into anger, the psychologist Adam Phillips identified the connection between temper and insecurity. Anger derives from a sense that you are not being taken seriously, that you are disliked, and can be traced back to fears of abandonment as a child. The tantrum is an appropriately childish response. It is a cruel fact that those who most desperately yearn to be included, whether at state dinners or at their more modest equivalents in everyday life, are those most likely to be rejected and bullied.
In the happiness classes which will soon be part of national curriculum, it would be a good idea for teenagers to hear about John Prescott and his anguished need to be liked. Many of them will identify with his self-description as “a bag of no confidence… unless I’m in battle”. Like him, they will deal with feelings of rejection through rage. With luck, they might learn that being hated is simply part of the human condition. It should not be taken personally.
When it comes to hygiene, let’s put Damon in the hot seat
In her bold and pioneering new book, The Big Necessity, Rose George argues that the way the human race deals with its own waste is too important to be a matter of embarrassment. The future health of the world is at stake. Asked by the internet magazine Salon.com whether there was case for a celebrity to become involved in a worldwide campaign for hygiene – “an Angelina Jolie of toilets” as the interviewer put it – George replied that Matt Damon had started doing some good work in the area of latrines.
If Damon is to take his role as lavatorial ambassador seriously, he should probably start in northern England. This week, to mark that important annual event, Global Handwashing Day, scientists from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine have been studying the handwashing habits of Britons. For reasons beyond decent speculation, a survey of commuters suggested a serious north-south divide: 34 per cent of Liverpudlian men tested positive for faecal matter on their hands, compared to 21 per cent in Birmingham and 6 per cent in London. There was a marginally less obvious divide among women, but the figures, north and south, were equally alarming.
This news will do little for our reputation internationally or as a tourist venue. The sooner Damon gets to work here, the better.
Don’t bank on it, chum
Some of us have been having problems in summoning up sympathy for that new sub-section of the victim culture, bankers. They are apparently having a terrible time at the moment, and hardly have the energy to work out what their bonus is going to be.
Those who want to understand these people better might wish to invest in a copy of the year’s most ill-timed book, Damn It Feels Good To Be a Banker, by the American writer Amit Chatwani. “A lot of my dud friends, when they meet a girl in a bar, they’ve stopped talking about what they do,” Chatwani says. “If you tell a girl you work at an investment bank, that gets you a sympathetic pat on the back.” Heartbreaking.