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September 06, 2007

T-Shirt Heads: Lincoln Allison picks six of the worst - John Lennon, George Best, Ernesto "Che" Guevara, Salman Rushdie, John Osborne, Princess Diana

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Lincoln Allison - Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick - picks the six people whose celebrity he most resents.

On a warm hillside in Languedoc I decided to try to list the six people in my lifetime whose celebrity I most resent. On reflection this is a complicated criterion - ultimately subjective, but susceptible to a degree of rational argument. For instance, it overlaps with the idea of unwarranted celebrity, with the size of the gap between fame and talent. Some people resent untalented celebrity per se, but I don't have a problem with this. The kind of "national treasures" who have no particular abilities but are always on our television screens are fine by me: familiarity may breed contempt, but not resentment. Here, though, in no particular order are six I do resent:

1. John Lennon
I never liked the Beatles and never bought any of their records, but I readily concede that they were original, musically sophisticated and produced some fine melodies. Most of this seems to have been down to Sir Paul McCartney and Lennon was the one who added the fatuousity and pretentiousness. If you think it was daft to lie publicly in bed with Yoko Ono and claim to be doing something for "world peace" then try reading his book, In His Own Write (1964). Not so much sub-James Joyce as sub-Spike Milligan. And his best know solo, Imagine, is the drippiest thing in the history of popular music. Lennon confused a kind of mystical silliness with either wisdom or cleverness - I'm not sure which - and encouraged others to do the same. Liverpool Airport is called after him.

2. George Best
Who also has an airport called after him. I wouldn't want my resentment of Best's fame to be confused with a puritanical disapproval of his womanising and alcoholism. Those are private matters and I've always liked the jokes he made about them such as his comment about "squandering" the money he didn't spend on booze, girls and cars. My problem was that he was everything a sportsman should not be: he was unreliable, squandered his talents and didn't even seem to like the game very much.

My resentment is constantly fed by my fellow wrinklies, usually led by Michael Parkinson, who are so willing to put him near or at the top of the football greats. I would argue that his fellow Ulstermen, Danny Blanchflower and Jimmy McIlroy, had far more impressive careers: both won championships with smaller clubs and they were instrumental in taking Northern Ireland to a World Cup quarter-final whereas Best never featured in this competition. In my view he just wasn't as good a player as they say he was. They usually argue that he did not have the protection from referees that ball-holding players have now. I would turn this round and say that he was made to look good by lunging English defenders, but did not look so good against the more sophisticated Italian "shepherding" defenders which are now the only kind in top class football. Fellow Burnley fans of my age will tell you that our team used to give him a "man-to-man" shadow in the form of a "utility" player called Les Latcham: he would then disappear from the game. He clinched his place in this list by making disparaging comments about David Beckham, a player of much greater vision and virtue than himself in ways that I guess George would never have understood.

A lady friend of mine reported that she went to a party at his house, found him very charming and made it to the bedroom. At which point George went wandering off in search of a bottle and the moment was lost. Story of his life, really.

3. Ernesto "Che" Guevara
I toyed with the idea of trying to construct this list in a kind of apolitical way, but that wouldn't really be honest. I am a conservative who thinks that socialism is both ridiculous and abhorrent and that revolutions almost always do more harm than good, usually by a very large margin. So I am not going to say much that is good about a revolutionary socialist, am I?

But I can think of revolutionary socialists for whom I would have a great deal more historical or intellectual time than for this Argentinian poseur-rebel, a triumph of image over substance thanks to Alberto Korda's famous photograph. In his five months in charge of La Cabana gaol in Havana, Ernie organised at least 156 "extra-legal executions". That's a murder a day, when you think about it. And yet there were flattering articles about him in Time and Spiegel and he has regularly appeared in lists of twentieth century "icons" as well as having movies made about him. I freely concede that Joseph Stalin was a very bad man, but he did play an important part in the defeat of the Nazis. Whereas if Guevara had any real effect it was merely to contribute to the continued economic retardation of parts of Latin America.

4. Salman Rushdie
Sorry, Sir Salman Rushdie. I am rather proud of the fact that in the 1980s Rushdie attacked me and called me a racist (in the pages of New Society - I had said he was wrong). Whereupon lots of people who knew him at Rugby or Cambridge told me that his standard response to anyone who disagreed with him or appeared not to like him had always been to call them a racist.

If I might extend Voltaire, I have been happy to pay my taxes to defend Rushdie from the bearded loonies who want to do away with him. But I do regard him as the negative apotheosis of the modern intellectual, a man who has never shown any loyalty to anything or anybody, who has nothing interesting or original to say and whose books are literally unreadable. Jolly famous, though.

5. John Osborne
A very unpleasant fellow who wrote very unpleasant plays, their modest virtues in terms of drama and intelligence being insufficient to justify their unpleasantness. But he wouldn't get on this list just for that. He was also the inadvertent, but enthusiastic, spearhead of a general smart-arse trendy movement which vilified much that was reasonably worthy. He appears to have been a very unhappy man. Good!

6. Princess Diana
I apologise; enough has been said. But this list without her would be Hamlet without the prince. When I was unfree enough to have a secretary this otherwise splendid lady was a full-on Dianaphile, seeing the Princess as representing everything good ("compassion" . . . "being in touch with one's feelings" etc). I just saw a silly girl, too immature to stick to the traditional deal, who was doing potentially irreparable damage to one of my country's most important institutions and who, from the first moment of her celebrity to the last, sported varieties of the victim look. It makes no difference that she probably came to resent her celebrity a good deal more than I do.

Having constructed my list it seems very clear that my resentment is in no way directed towards the people themselves. There are lots of pretentious scouse gits, feckless Irish charmers, nasty middle-class revolutionaries etc. It is the admiration of my fellow citizens for these worthless people which makes me realise the size of the gap between the world I live in and the one I would like to live in. To what degree this is the fault of the citizenry or that of those who manipulate their emotions and opinions is always a difficult question.

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career in 2004 to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton.

To read Lincoln Allison's list of the six people from his lifetime whom he would like to see celebrated more, see: Semi-Secret Heroes: Lincoln Allison picks six of the best - Barbara Jefford, Tommy James, Mick Channon, Michael Hardman, Francisco Franco, Alistair Horne.


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Five out of six I agree with this blog. Let me deal with them one by one.

John Lennon

I bought several Beatles albums, and agree with (I think) Jools Holland that almost single-handed (since there were four of them, does that make them an octopus?) they brought harmony back into pop music. But individually Lennon and Macartney had a baleful influence on public life. According to a sympathetic TV documentary, in the early sixties, Lennon was into reading books. Now by “books” I guess that means the pseudo-intellectual “philosophy” that was influencing people of his age. Garbage in – naturally, Garbage out, unless one has a mind like a compost heap so that after some time something useful emerges. This reading appears to have led him so some ill-considered comments about Jesus and his disciples, which prompted widespread record-burning in America on the occasion of their tour. Alas, the Ku Klux Klan got in on the act, which was blasphemy one thousand times worse than “Jerry Springer the Opera”.

Nevertheless, this and similar incidents appeared to have driven Lennon into a mire of self-pity, which emerged in songs such the The Immigrant — “There was a time when strangers were welcome here”, and The Ballad of John and Yoko — “they're gonna crucify me”. Not really a good role model, methinks.

George Best

My chief memory of him is making a spectacle of himself during a match when West Ham beat Man U 2—1.

“Che” Guevara

It saddens me that, simply because of an iconic picture, he still has such a grip on the imagination. The Hairy Bikers were doing a most interesting programme in Argentina – beef, football, and tango – and I was almost getting to like the place. Then one of them went into a tattooist's and emerged with a picture of “Che” on one of his limbs. If that's characteristic of the Argies, then perhaps I won't dream of going there.

Salman Rushdie

The fact that figures such as he are a late product of the British Empire began to suggest to me that perhaps the Empire was not such a good thing after all. But the fatwa was counter-productive – a faswa (Arabic for “fart”) would have served the purpose much better.

John Osborne

Don't know so much about him, but he was one of those writers whom the intelligentsia approved of, so that makes him automatically suspect. Angry young men generally deserve the wet mackerel treatment.

Princess Diana

Here I will reserve judgement – I do not have enough knowledge to decide between her and Prince Charles. But when I read:

I just saw a silly girl, too immature to stick to the traditional deal

I have two points to make. One is about that dreadful word “just”. “Just” do this, says the boss – a few words for him, a time-consuming disruption of work pattern for the employee. When one uses it in judgement on one's fellow human beings, remember – they “just” see you as A or B or whatever category peeves them most.

The second is about the “traditional deal”. I doubt if Buckingham Palace is nearly as fearsome as the Japanese Imperial Household Agency, but nevertheless, was it not the “traditional deal” that led to the dying King George V being euthanased with morphia so that his death would be reported in the Times before the vulgar dailies got the news?

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at September 10, 2007 08:16 PM
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I'd have thought the Dalai Lama belonged on any list like this. He briefly governs, poorly, a state with a slave and serfdom based economy. He leaves, becomes a commie (as a religious leader, he claims to consider himself half-Buddhist, half-Marxist.) He writes insidious works about happiness that become one of the central providers of rhetoric for people who want to claim that prosperity, and hence capitalism, are bad. He wins a peace prize for having failed to get his armed rebellion off the ground (although he did try to do so). He continues to promote forced labour, to support the oppression of non-Buddhists (both most keenly in Bhutan), and he makes no secret of his desire to return to rule as a tyrannical god-king.

Like Diana, he smiles a lot and talks winningly about how tough it is to be a God-king/ princess and totally fail to maintain even minimal standards of effectiveness because other people are mean. Unlike Diana, his affection for the celebrity set hasn't led to an enthusiasm for sexual liberation and drugs. He still condemns homosexuality for Buddhists and he still has sober chauffeurs.

Posted by: James of England at October 21, 2007 04:23 PM
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