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I blame the scapegoats, p.8

I blame the scapegoats, page 8


I blame the scapegoats

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  Working-class students

  19 January 2002

  There is still too much elitism in British universities. For example, how come it is always Oxford and Cambridge who get through to the final of the Boat Race? Apparently only 9 per cent of the students currently admitted to Oxbridge are from working-class backgrounds. The Vice Chancellors were said to be shocked at this figure - it's far too many. Critics have suggested that the Oxbridge entrance examinations are still biased towards the upper middle classes and a look at the paper would seem to back this up. NAME: (please put all surnames; you may use a separate sheet if there is not enough room here). Question 1: What team's rugger jersey are you wearing today? Question 2: How many girls do you know whose nicknames are characters from Winnie the Pooh.) Question 3: When a waiter invites you to taste the wine, can you confirm that you do not feel the slightest bit embarrassed?

  This week the National Audit Office has revealed that many youngsters from poorer backgrounds are not going to university because of money worries. The government will miss its target of getting 50 per cent of under-30s into university by 2010 without more help for lower-income students, they warn.

  Perhaps this problem is being approached the wrong way round. If not enough young people are going on to further education, then the solution is to reclassify as universities the places where school leavers can currently be found. A few years back the government patted itself on the back for creating lots of universities at minimal expense by taking down all the signs that said 'Polytechnic' and renaming the buildings 'University of Olde Towne Nearby'. This process should now be extended so that young people find themselves at college wherever they are. So the bus shelter by the chip shop where teenagers gather to smoke and give each other love bites will become the University of Bus Shelter.

  'There's nothing to do in this crappy town,' says the first teenager, unaware that she is now in a philosophy tutorial. The man with the beard and leather patches on his elbows, who they thought was just waiting for a 137, will suddenly reply, 'But what is "nothing" - indeed is "nothingness" possible? If we can be conscious of such a concept we must therefore exist and in doing so thereby negate the existence of the very concept we have just imagined.' And then the kids stare at each other nervously and slink off to try to nick some cider bottles from the crates behind the University of the Red Lion Car Park.

  Another way of getting more working-class graduates is a project which has been going for some time now. Under this scheme students arrive on campus as angelic middle-class eighteen-year-olds, and then rapidly metamorphose into snarling working-class street urchins. The first Christmas holidays back from college can be very distressing for their parents.

  'Jocasta, darling, I thought we might go to the gymkhana in the village after church. I thought you'd love to see Drusilla's new pony . . .'

  'Shove it, bitch! I is gettin' my eyelids pierced and my tongue tattooed innit?'

  'Oh. That's nice, dear . . .'

  Some of the most privileged kids entering this scheme struggle to disguise how posh they really are. They have stickers in the back of their Porsche saying 'My other car's a white van'. Their accents veer wildly between upper-class toff and cockney wide boy, leaving them useless for anything other than a career as a stand-up comic.

  Many working-class parents worry that their children will go off to university and will be led astray by bad influences, especially if they end up at the same college as Prince Harry* But, of course, the biggest worry is debt. Since the abolition of student grants, students from poorer backgrounds have been put off from going on to further education because they are anxious about the sum of money they will owe after three years. This is really about confidence. To a middle-class graduate, £3000 a year may not seem such a worrying sum to owe, especially when they have seen their parents regularly spend that much on a few tins of organic cat food from Waitrose. But many working-class kids would be terrified by the prospect of leaving university owing thousands. That's nearly as much as their dad spends on chunky gold jewellery.

  Our students have to be adequately funded; those Lord of the Rings posters are not cheap, you know. The review of student funding should bring back student grants so that all social classes can enjoy the three-year cushy holiday at the taxpayers' expense that we had. It's great that more people are going to university, but it must go further. People moan about dumbing down, but more British people are well educated today than ever before. We're not dumbing down, we're um . . . doing the opposite thing, up. Damn, I might know what the phrase was if I was better educated.

  * There had recently been some negative press coverage about Prince Harry's getting drunk at school one afternoon. Journalists were appalled that anyone should start drinking so late in the day.

  Tyson bites yer legs

  26 January 2002

  Mike Tyson said in his defence this week that he is not Mr Politically Correct. Self-knowledge is a wonderful thing. I'd say the convicted rapist, who once assaulted elderly car drivers in a road-rage incident, attacked journalists and photographers, spends much of his time in hostess bars making obscene crotch-grabbing gestures and is wanted on further sexual charges, is indeed probably a bit of a longshot for the post of Head of Gender Awareness at the Hackney Women's Unit.

  Yet Mike Tyson remains a role model for thousands. Where I live in South London far more young working-class men have named their pet Rottweilers 'Tyson' than, say, 'Melvyn Bragg', for example. You never see these blokes standing on the common shouting, 'Yoko, come here!' or 'Germaine! Get down!'

  But this week their hero sank to another new low. In a staged press conference with Lennox Lewis, he proved unable to wait until the fight proper and attacked Lewis after just ten seconds, even biting his intended opponent in the foot. The event was intended to generate publicity but it was far too successful. It was the ugliest melee since that drinks party at Downing Street when Noel Gallagher bumped into John Prescott.

  Mike Tyson is supposed to be on medication to control his temper.

  They said to him, 'Mike, you know you're a professional boxer - well, we're giving you these drugs to stop you being so aggressive.' No wonder he's so cross. The visits to the doctor were always a tense affair; last time his physician gave him a gentle tap on the knee with a little rubber hammer. That doctor gets out of hospital next month some time.

  Tyson became world heavyweight champion at the age of twenty-back in 1986. But things started to go wrong fairly quickly. Soon after, he was knocked unconscious when he crashed his car into a tree, with the result that for a brief period the WBO heavyweight title was held by a large horse chestnut. The tree then had lots of gold teeth fitted and was photographed dating Miss Wyoming and pretty soon, well, he just went to seed. Tyson regained the world title, but has since been to prison, been fined for punching a referee and been banned for biting off an opponent's ear. Still, it's better than bottling it all up. Onlookers were particularly shocked when they saw him spit out Evander Holyfield's ear. He could at least have popped it discreetly into a little napkin.

  Maybe Tyson should redirect his energies towards a sport less likely to bring out his violent side. Figure skating, for example, or synchronized swimming. Because this week's ugly scenes probably won't be the last, and every time the moral commentators become even more outraged: why, these boxers - they are behaving in a violent and aggressive manner! In fact, Tyson's notoriety only helps generate more interest and put up his price. I don't know, maybe I'm being a bit cynical here, but it's almost as if somebody somewhere is more interested in the money than the sport. No, that's probably unfair, I take that back. If the boxing authorities had the long-term interests of boxing at heart, they would have nothing more to do with Mike Tyson. It would mean resisting the immediate prize of a huge multi-million-dollar fight, of course, so that's obviously going to happen.

  But his continued presence only gives ammunition to those who would have the sport of boxing banned altogether. I can understan
d why some consider the sport to be barbaric, but these are often people who have had more career choices than those upon whom they would sit in judgement. When I was a young boy growing up in Maidenhead, boxing was the only way out of the Home Counties ghetto. It was either boxing or accountancy. Boxing, accountancy, law, medicine, the City, journalism, business consultancy or becoming a database developer for one of the emerging software companies springing up all along the M4 corridor. So for us, sportsmen like Frank Bruno were real heroes. We saved up to get a ticket to see him and those who were lucky enough to be there that night still talk about that incredible performance he gave as Widow Twankey at the Theatre Royal, Windsor.

  Perhaps a career in pantomime could be the way forward for Mike Tyson; though it might be hard sticking to the original script with the former world champion on stage.

  'Oh Buttons, my ugly sisters won't let me go to the ball.' Buttons spots the ugly sisters downstage, grabs Christopher Biggins and bites his ear off before punching Timmy Mallet into the orchestra pit.

  'Okay, now you can go to the ball.'

  'Oh, um, but you're not supposed to knock them unconscious . . .' 'Oh yes I am!' 'Oh no you're not!' 'Oh yes I fucking am!'

  And the audience would shout back as one: 'All right, yes, you are! Whatever you say, Mike!'

  It would be no more of a pantomime than what we have at the moment.

  God Save the Queeeeen!

  2 February 2002

  On Wednesday the Queen will have been on the throne for exactly fifty years, but tragically this joyous anniversary seems to be regarded with widespread cynicism and apathy. Unemployed single parents lie around the house saying, 'Why should I care about some old woman who happens to be Queen?' 'Because I'm your mother!' she says to them. 'Now get off the couch and go and tour Canada or something.'

  Social commentators are left wondering what has happened to this unpatriotic society when so little respect is shown to our head of state. How different from the happy innocence of Her Majesty's Silver Jubilee back in 1977, they say. Back then, in village greens across Merrie England, rosy-cheeked teenagers wearing black binliners and safety pins through their noses spat and pogo-ed to the sound of the Sex Pistols and the Clash. Yes, the whole nation came together in the unifying spirit of hate and anarchy, the poet laureate Sir John Rotten penned his jubilee poem 'God Save the Queen, the fascist regime that made you a moron', and thousands of young citizens with mohicans had 'No Future' tattooed across their foreheads. Ah, happy days.

  In fact, the idea that Britain was always a nation of monarch-loving loyalists who spontaneously celebrated every anniversary is about as believable as today's royal wedding vows. Henry III, for example, ruled for fifty-six years but his Golden Jubilee was a complete flop.

  'Henry the Third?' they said. 'Erm, now which one's that then? 'Cos Henry the Fifth is Agincourt, isn't he, and Henry the Eighth is six wives and all that, so Henry the Third - is he the one with the hump who killed the princes in the tower? No, that can't be right. . .' Charles I was just approaching his Silver Jubilee when the committee arranging the festivities decided it might be more fun to chop his head off. And then all the jubilee mugs had to be repainted with just the stump of his neck showing. Other royal celebrations were an even bigger washout: 'King Ethelred, have you made all the preparations for the street party?' 'Oh my god, is that today? I haven't even thought about it yet. . .'

  And now, in the twenty-first century, we are all supposed to dash out into the street, introduce ourselves to the neighbours we've never met before and organize a spontaneous community knees-up. Street parties are a strange concept. You spend years telling your kids not to step out onto the road, nearly yanking their arms off if they so much as put one foot off the pavement. And then you plonk the kitchen table in the middle of the street and tell them to eat their lunch there.

  'What are you crying for, darling?'

  'I'm scared! It feels wrong!' stammers the terrified child.

  'Don't be silly. Now come on, eat up before the table gets clamped!' (And then the following week her big brother wanders out of Burger King chomping on a Whopper and the parents say, 'How revolting! Eating your lunch in the middle of the street! Honestly, dear, can't you eat that indoors)

  Street parties, like the royal family, are just a bit out of fashion. Of course it is not so long since 'Palace' was the soap opera of the moment. In the 1980s we had royal weddings, even more royal babies and Diana and Fergie perfectly reflected the good taste and intellectual rigour of the age. But suddenly the fairy tale went into reverse and the princes turned into toads. Windsor Castle burned down after granny left her vests drying on the paraffin heater and Princess Anne got divorced, prompting a bitter court battle over custody of the horses.

  So this year does present us with a wonderful anniversary. It is ten years since the annus horribilis, which is not some weird condition you develop from sitting on the throne for too long, but was the Queen's own phrase to describe the year when it all fell apart for the royal family. Nineteen ninety-two was the year the mask slipped and we saw the truth. So wave that flag and open that champagne. Because for a whole decade now nobody has cared about the monarchy. Hooray, we won't have to hold a street party and watch our neighbours waiting to race for that parking space right outside their house as soon as the cars are allowed back in the road. In one last-ditch attempt to appear relevant and with it, the monarchists are organizing a more modern type of party. Sir Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger and Sir Elton John are teaming up for a special Jubilee pop concert. 'Ah! Aren't they marvellous?' the old ladies will say. 'The way they just keep on going. They do so much for tourism and they work so hard and you shouldn't criticize them because they can't answer back.' Suddenly I agree with all the royalists saying things were better in 1977. It makes you nostalgic for punk. I don't blame the Queen personally, of course, she's just badly advised. No one's advised her to declare a republic.

  As English as baseball itself

  9 February 2002

  Many years ago Norman Tebbit caused a political storm with his so-called 'cricket test'. An adapted version of this was later used by several Commonwealth countries - no one wras allowed in unless they wanted to hit Norman Tebbit round the head with a cricket bat. Yesterday's White Paper on immigration and citizenship proposed that immigrants to this country swear an oath of allegiance to the Queen and demonstrate an ability to speak English that would have ruled out most of her ancestors. The full text of the pledge requires new arrivals to uphold British values and democratic traditions - so from now on they'll stop bothering to vote at elections and will just moan about everything instead.

  Some immigrants to these shores do seem to have slightly naive ideas about what life in Britain is like. Anyone who tries to get into the UK by clinging to the underneath of a train should have it politely explained to them that in this country the trains don't actually go anywhere. But if there is going to be a test for British citizenship, it should at least reflect the reality of the British character. For a start, in the queue for applications, anyone seen twitching nervously, in case that man hovering near the front was thinking of pushing in, would get extra 'British-ness' points straight away. However, when someone does barge to the front of the queue, the ideal applicant should whisper to

  her husband, 'I'm going to say something,' to which he should reply, 'Shh, dear, best not make a fuss' and that couple will have then passed stage one with flying colours. Then comes the tough written test (and anyone who completes this without a single grammatical error or spelling mistake will be told to go straight back to Holland).

  Question 1: Please list the following events in order of historical importance - (a) the French Revolution (b) the end of the Cold War (c) Brotherhood of Man's 1976 Eurovision triumph with 'Save Your Kisses For Me'. Question 2: What is the traditional accompaniment to spaghetti bolognese - (a) a light sprinkling of grated parmesan cheese, or (b) a large portion of chips and two slices of white bread? Question 3: A ma
n trips on the pavement and bumps into you. Do you (a) cast him a slightly annoyed look and continue on your way, or (b) say 'Oh I'm terribly sorry, really - my fault entirely . . .'? Question 4: Which of the following would make you sufficiently angry to write to your MP - (a) Britain's involvement in a war with no foundation in international law (b) the sale of British armaments to repressive dictatorships, or (c) the shipping forecast on Radio 4 seems to have changed the name 'Finisterre' to 'Fitzroy'?

  Immigration to Britain is nothing new, although in the old days the speed at which applications were processed often depended on how big your army was. Back in 1066, for example, the small immigration office at Hastings was completely overwhelmed.

  'Right, sir, while your army is filling out form 7R(B) - Application for Admission to Wessex by non-Saxon residents - can I just ask you the purpose of your visit to the UK?'

  'Well, to overthrow the incumbent Saxon monarchy, install a brutal regime based on fear and murder, and seize all wealth and property for myself and my fellow Normans.'

  'Fine, just as long as you weren't planning to do any paid work while you were here . . .'

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