I’ve never been keen on the idea of popularity. Courting disapproval has been a large part of my career and I find it bracing, like an early dip in a cold sea. I remember back in 2003 feeling put out because the Most Hated People In Britain list featured me at a mere 85, sandwiched between Damien Hirst and Richard Branson.
So imagine my excitement this week on reading that the alleged comedian Stewart Lee had dispatched me into his New Year Pedal Bin, a list of his least-favourite people, alongside such chucklesome types as Ricky Gervais, John Cleese, Graham Linehan, Maureen Lipman and Dave Chappelle. I’ve always fancied myself as a comic — being laughed with or at, I’m not fussy — and here I was, tucked up snug in this metaphorical bin with all these drolls.
Also, I’m a big fan of the Jews and the first time I became aware of Lee was when in 2020 he was caught mocking people with Funny Foreign Names. Though I’m rarely shocked, I was taken aback by Lee’s tauntingof the MP Tom Tugendhat over his surname: ‘Many names — Fisher, Cook, Smith — derive from ancient trades. But “Tugendhat” is just different words put together, like Waspcupfinger, or Appendixhospitalwool.’
Anyway, back to the list of binned people. Apart from the aforementioned comics, I was rubbing up against the likes of Toby Young (him again!), Priti Patel (yes please!), Tom Tugendhat (presumably for not yet having changed his name to something more pleasing) and, somewhat oddly, fishermen. The latter was the giveaway, of course: working people daring to stand up for themselves rather than behave like good little Euro–portions corralled by their betters.
Having a quick shufti at the ‘Pedestal’ list opposing ours I saw that it included Owen Jones, Ken Loach, Greta Thunberg and the fox-killing kimono lawyer. I must say that, Christian as I am, I was immediately put in mind of the old Billy Joel line: ‘I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints/ The sinners are much more fun…’
We bin-heads have been wondering whether The List was sinister or silly — though these days things have a creepy ability to mutate from one to the other. Most thought it silly: ‘I remember that I once wrote a list of people I liked, and people I didn’t like. When I was seven,’ offered Miki Fandango to Kenan Malik, who was wondering what he’d done to join us in the bin of sin ‘alongside Donald Trump, Eric Clapton and the Taliban. I don’t know what I’ve done to upset that nice Mr Lee, but at least he could have spelt my name right — not that difficult given we’ve got columns in the same newspaper’. Those Funny Foreign Names again!
I know it’s the usual pop-psychology, but the answer is probably our old mate ‘projection’. Most performers by their nature are desperate for popularity, with the likes of Gervais the glowing exception who just goes his own sweet way. The tragic clown isn’t just a cliché; many are mentally fragile and dependent on the validation of others to keep their level of self-esteem at a reasonable baseline. So when they come across people who genuinely don’t care about being approved of, and who don’t give a damn about saying the ‘right’ things, it’s profoundly disconcerting for them. It makes them realise how tame they are.
One of the names in Lee’s bin struck me as particularly sinister; that of Nimco Ali, OBE, the tireless campaigner against female genital mutilation. As it happens, Lee’s comedian wife Bridget Christie has a whole ‘routine’ about the evils of FGM. So it’s okay to tell jokes about FGM — but actually to campaign against it is bad?
When I was at school we got taught about the evils of drugs (the man who took LSD, thought he was an orange and tried to peel himself was my favourite) and about looking both ways when we crossed the road. But they never warned us about one of the quickest ways to put the kibosh on living a good life: the pathetic need to be popular. Our glorious leader himself suffers from this delusion and it’s been his undoing. In attempting to keep everyone happy — Green Carrie vs Red Wall, low-taxers vs chancellors who wish it could be Christmas every day — Johnson has ended up in the doghouse with only Dilyn the mutt for company.
Other people’s derision isn’t something to be scared of. If you are robust and delight in the venom of all the haters, you’ll be a happier and better person. And I do believe that in the future it will be seen as a badge of honour to have been cancelled, and a mark of shame to have kept your head below the parapet. Imagine future generations: ‘What did you do in the culture wars grandad?’ ‘Oh, I sucked up to Stewart Lee.’ Who could be proud about that?
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