‘put that book down, you may just learn something’ (or ‘academic versus street education’…)

“Mate, this is what I noticed when I was in that Houses of Parliament, it’s decorated exactly the same as Eton; it’s decorated exactly the same as Oxford. So a certain type of people goes in there and thinks: ‘Oh, this is making me nervous!’ And another type of people go in there, they go: ‘This is how it should be!’”

Russell Brand, interviewed by Jeremy Paxman 23rd October 2013

* * * * *

He got me thinking, Russell Brand, as he often does. Possibly because I tend to agree with most of what he says, these days – when I can keep up with him. Funny, to think I couldn’t abide the man originally, although I’m not sure why. Maybe I believed he represented all that was wrong with an ‘Everybody will be famous for fifteen minutes’ society. Maybe I was wrong…

Back to the quote.

There was a time in my life where, if I’d had the good fortune – or misfortune, depending on your viewpoint – to visit the stuffy corridors of The Houses of Parliament – I can’t think of any reason why that might have happened, but still, roll with me – I’d have been particularly on my guard, a bit like one of those Beefeater sorts, except a lot slimmer – slimmer back then, at any rate. My watchfulness, however, would have all been for my own protection. I’d have been diffident. I’d have been deferent, ever so grateful, smiled at whomever. And probably died whenever s/he didn’t smile back; crawled back into my hole, recalled my position in life just in time… only for my old dad to reinforce the case, once I’d gotten home again… In other words, I’d have been one of Russell’s “Oh, this is making me nervous!”–variety. Today, I’d be neither the former nor the latter. I’m not indifferent to the place politically – the place, as Russell suggests, needs tearing down and re-building behind a whole-new ethos; but perhaps that’s for another blog post.

Today, I’d be indifferent to the place because I have the confidence to be so. Mmm. Are they actually the same thing, I wonder?

You know, it’s tough, coming from a very poor working class family. Especially from one of a certain generation and type – royalist to the chore; of good, know-your-place stock; doctor knows best; every nurse wears a heart of gold, and every copper does it because he cares…  Those old, credulous-to-the-bone chestnuts – “It must be true, it says it here in the paper!”

Not their fault, for being taken in by the propaganda. We’d not so long since beaten off Nazi Germany; backs against the wall, everybody knows their place – just look how that one worked out! And besides, we all know best with 20/20 vision, with hindsight – “Jimmy Saville wouldn’t have gotten away with it if I’d worked with him!”

Times were different then.

Phillip, in my up-and-coming novel, Wood Talc and Mr. J, exemplifies that point in chapter 13, during an encounter with the opposite sex; a girl from over the main road.

He’s getting ready upstairs. Or rather admiring himself in the dressing table mirror, accompanied solely by blissful tunes, all set, as he is, for a bit of all-night dancing – Wigan Casino; read my review of The Culture Show.

What he isn’t counting on is said lady making a real-life appearance in his shared bedroom:

* * * * *

   Her ironic eyes trapped me through the long mirror, planted pulses in my face. I babbled, gabbled, all was gobbledygook, until she placed an index to my lips, one arm hidden beneath folded blue denim:‘’Been here about fifteen minutes, nattering to your dad – I know where you get it from now. He talks to me in this strange accent, a kind of cross between John Gielgud and Len Fairclough.’ She looked happy: ‘And your mum keeps fretting about the cleaning, like I’m some sort of health inspector. Sam’s cute – He looks like you. It’s your gran, as well, isn’t it? She was eating something behind her hand, it looked like raw…’

   ‘Foie gras,’ I shot in, like I knew what it was. ‘’Buys it from a specialist.’

   ‘Oh. She said something about… “black dag”?’

   ‘It’s what the French call it.’

   ‘She’s funny,’ she laughed, as if reliving the moment. ‘Every time your dad spoke, she kept looking at me, shaking her head. The humour must run in the family.’ And then she slowed down a notch: ‘All I want to know is whether you’d like to see me again.’

   All I knew was that I wanted to pass out.

* * * * *

And all because the lady loves – I mean lives! – on the posher part of the estate…

As you may have guessed, I’m wearing Phillip’s shoes in that scene, figuratively speaking; he reacts in a way I would, undoubtedly, have reacted at the time – back in ’78. And the girl describes what would’ve been my own family’s reaction to a T.

But since you’ve no idea how things work out for the two characters, I don’t want to say too much about them – you’ll have to read the book. Except that I find their scenes simultaneously humorous and poignant – then again, I find the whole book to be like that.

At least Phillip, if nothing else, like me at his age, questions his angst. He’s unable to arrive at an answer, but yes, at least he has a go…

* * * * *

She then let me do the talking, leaving me feeling like I was auditioning for her school’s Christmas pantomime: I slept in one of the two back bedrooms, a bigger one, with my own stereo, but, you know, lumbered with so many records, I’d needed to split them up… – lies, lies, webs, tangles, I couldn’t stop… till she placed that same digit on these same lips, jet-black eyes drinking me in as before. ‘Can I smell bullshit?’ I thought I heard.

   Maybe ours was just a hammy family.

   No sooner had she removed the edible finger than I tugged my eyes away, laid them anywhere, anywhere but, and suggested we make our way downstairs. Jed and me, we were off to Wigan.

   It didn’t stop me pulling up midpoint, all the same, at a time I’d normally want to embrace the world, to now ask myself what I was so embarrassed about.

   Everything, came the reply. Or everything barring a box of records and I’d even lied about those…

* * * * *

That’s the poignant bit, for me. If it doesn’t work out for this lovely couple – and it’s only if – then Phillip won’t lose her through lack of interest – he is, after all, in total awe of her; it’ll be for a number of other reasons, reasons that eventually come down to one: she has an ‘education’; he doesn’t.

She’s read Oscar Wilde; he’s read Blues & Soul…

The whole irony of the affair is that she is also in awe of him, and of what she perceives as Phillip’s slick street-wiseness. And it’s hardly unbeknown to him, she states clearly how she feels.

It’s just that Phillip may well feel patronised – whatever does he have to offer, really? Especially when, let’s face it, his education is based solely on self-preservation; of how to survive knowing his place: with wit and a prayer… But then that’s surely part of the attraction: each character’s magnetism toward the other is – again part- – based on a kind of symbiosis. These characters perhaps deem that, together, each offering his/her respective education, the world is their oyster.

Yes. Got it. That’s what this blog post’s about – I think…

I might ask, then, do we, as people, require both types of education? That is, might a person never truly be an all-round person without both? Academic and Street…

Education. Education. Education. I recall a former Prime Minister using that one.

And I’m going to use this one: Confidence. Confidence. Confidence.

Let me come back to Russell Brand for a moment: whence cometh – there, that raised an eyebrow, I bet! Where did Russell obtain his confidence? From his academic education? But didn’t he flunk – I can’t believe I’ve used that word – his college studies to go full-time junkie? And yet it can’t be denied that Mr. Brand is a bright, articulate individual. He’s also, admirably, nobly, someone who refuses to cast off his past simply because he’s ‘made it’ in life – that’s rare. Was his short-lived, council-funded college stint, then, enough for him to appreciate the only thing college was ever going teach him, or rather allow him: the confidence to recognise college wasn’t for him?

Did he, in effect, learn more being a junkie?

So many questions…. A last one – like you’re going to believe that. Is any worthy education merely one of permitting ourselves the confidence to go forward with our heads high and eyes wide-open?

I mean, there is a theory that university professors are merely social-dysfunctionals who’d never survive outside ivory confinement, while the non-university educated amongst us are simply ignorant of the idea. And I have to say that I’ve at times been pushed to believe it. I’ll offer but one example: when I studied for a BA hons in French Language and Literature.

This particular lecturer, like most, lived in books – oh, yes, she could talk about them, talk and write about other people’s books! Why is that, do you think? Because she had nothing to say for just that, for having lived in other people’s books? For lacking that street thing? Half a person, then? Anyhow, when it came to the basics in life, like, say, pulling down a window blind to show us a few projector slides, anything at all that wasn’t on a page, she had special needs, and I’d try to help whenever I could.

I once made the mistake of going for a smoke with her in one of the campus car parks. It was a windy day. And when I went to light my cigarette, by using the worldly trick of lighting the match and then pushing the sliding matchbox’s middle piece through, to place the lighted match there; to shield the fire from said wind, she underwent some sort of panic-attack and no less than smacked my box of matches onto the floor – I got a bit of burnt wood in my eye as a consequence, along with a scolding: apparently, I was a lunatic for trying to set myself on fire.

All I could think at the time was that her beloved Surrealist characters couldn’t have been too worldly either – street-wise. But then they wouldn’t have been surreal if they had been, I suppose, now, would they…

I’ll get to the point. It’s due to such an experience, and a hell of a lot more, that University gave me something that all the books in the world could never give me: confidence. Confidence to speak. Confidence to remain quiet.

Add this to my street credentials, and I feel all-rounded.

That said, here’s where we need to be extremely vigilant, too. For even Auntie BBC sold out, didn’t she, by yielding to what was apparently becoming the norm elsewhere: talentless people possessing superfluous amounts of confidence, equalling cockiness, arrogance, which manifests itself in vulgarity and obnoxiousness – you know, the likes of Ross, Clarkson et al, even an Historian, David Starky; I believe he was actually appointed on that basis… That one’s called pandering to the masses. And is wrong. Obnoxiousness is obnoxiousness, regardless of its form.

Russell Brand isn’t, despite his slip-ups, of that ilk, thank God. And I, in spite of all, am in awe of his confidence. I’m not, along with Russell, advocating revolution in this blog post – I don’t like bandwagons, they hurt my bum.

Maybe all I’m saying is that we’ve come a long way since Phillip’s angst with the opposite sex – or with one girl in particular. And I only hope that we’re not now taking backward steps. More people than ever have achieved the same kind of confidence; too many people have at least had a taste of something better.

Russell Brand is a perfect example of that. Let’s then hope the country listens. We’ll see.

Same goes for Phillip and said lady…

We’ll see.

Chris,

Chris Rose

Your literary, soulful friend

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