God, think of the most off-putting thing. I dunno, the two girls, one cup video (I won’t describe it). Scraping your nails across a blackboard after the chalk breaks. Writing with a biro that doesn’t have a nib in it (brrrrrr).
None of them really compare with the story of Jade Goody, Big Brother zero-degree celebrity, racist pariah etc etc, with the announcement story currently moving into its final act in the UK, with her wedding weeks before her death from terminal cancer.
Goody is the former BB contestant who found fame, first nationally in 2001 as a contestant in the show proper, in which she became quickly renowned for an almost unbelievable thickness (asking whether “East Anglia” was a separate country or not), and then across the world for her appearance in Celebrity BB, in which she and a couple of other Z-listers were mean and mildly chauvinistic towards Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty.
In between times, Goody had been taken up as a chav anti-hero by the tabloid media, who paid for extensive plastic surgery and a fitness regime and “personal trainer” (i.e. liposuction), to reshape her from being a working double of one of the “Fat Slags” in Viz magazine into someone more marketable.
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She fronted her own life makeover show and appeared on every one of the plethora of Brit celeb shows, including Celebrity Mastermind (special subject: EastEnders), culminating in a go at the London marathon, in which she collapsed halfway through (still a creditable effort), after a previous night curry, Chinese and booze binge — she later commented that she hadn’t been too clear on how long an actual mile was.
By that point, she’d become a British mascot, a symbol of rebellion. While the Labour government nagged everyone about education, improvement, citizenship and pointed CCTV cameras at everyone just to make sure, and the all-Etonian Tories talked about “broken Britain”, while taking money from offshore millionaires, Goody cheerfully sailed through life scarfing up the freebies and the good luck, playing the damage card when required (junkie dad, chaotic mother) but showing no desire to be a singer/serious actress/UN ambassador whatever.
She was an image of the great hope for the poor in a Britain where elitism has been entrenched by a decade of new Labour — that you’ll win the lottery and the tractor beam will sweep you up from the detritus of London and deposit you in … Essex.
But then came Celebrity BB 2007. By this time Goody had had so many collagen injections — in some attempt to balance out a strong boxer’s jaw, not unattractive in itself, but contrary to the Barbie aesthetic — that she had gone way over the mark, a human axolotl.
Goody’s wealth and fame may have made her happy, but you wouldn’t have known it from her performance, where she seemed to be perpetually grumpy, bitter, narky, despite (or because) of being accompanied by her crazy mother and her “toyboy” boyfriend Jack Tweed. The other celebs — from film director Ken Russell to Leo Sayer to Miss Great Britain Danielle Lloyd — all had something, however vestigial, to their fame. Goody alone was famous for being famous.
But it was Shetty, a delicately beautiful, talented and incomparably poised actress, who really got to her. Goody’s mother had goaded Shetty by being “unable” to pronounce her name; Shetty did a brief imitation of her. Then it was on, with Goody, Lloyd and S Club 7 member Jo O’Meara saying the sort of thing dumb 13 year olds say (“them Indians — their food gives you diarrhea no wonder they’re all so ill”) culminating in Goody’s spray of Shetty as being “Shilpa Fuckawallah” and “Sheila Poppadam”. As Germaine Greer noted at the time, Shetty had wound the other girls up expertly, with a blithe more-in-sorrow-than-anger act, quietly pushing them over the top.
But official multicultural Britain didn’t see it that way, a gobby Eastender being mildly chauvinistic apparently too much reality for reality TV. Goody was voted off with alacrity; there were questions in parliament; this being Britain, Channel Four announced that all future contestants would get diversity counselling; and a complaint of racial vilification was made to the police, who were then obliged to investigate it.
From then on, Goody served as Britain’s pariah, reviled by the same changeable “Glenda Slagg” columnists who had held her up a standard of proud demotic Britain, liberals for her racism, conservatives for making it necessary for everyone to pay obeisance to multicultural UK and how much better it was than blah blah Enoch Powell blah blah… The “Fuckawallah” comment was a clue, a barely remembered trace of the remnant pain that loss of empire proved to the Alf Garnett Tory section of the working class — “punkawallahs” being the servants who used to fan their British lords and masters in the great days of the Raj.
For the vengeful — i.e. 40% of the British press — it was all up, i.e. down from there. Goody’s weight started to come back, but, as with all lipo jobs, in the areas where no suction had been done, creating enormous breasts and a fat neck which gave her the appearance of wearing a padded womansuit, such as favoured by the Little Britain comedians. Her boyfriend was jailed for 18 months for a nasty golfclub attack on a 16 year-old. All her money was gone. It was a nice little morality tale humming along.
And then — God being a tabloid editor to make Peter Blunden look like a wuss — came the news of cancer. Not just any cancer either, a nasty outbreak of cervical C, the ultimate moralist’s disease, its occurrence increased by early s-xual activity and smoking. Neither was it just any announcement — she got the news while in the house of Big Boss, the Indian equivalent of Big Brother. The footage was never shown in India, but it’s barely been off the air in the UK. As Rod Liddle said in The Spectator, you would need to be in a room for a month with a crate of alcohol to come up with something half that depraved.
By last week it became clear that everyone was strapped in for a grand guignol horror show. Goody’s cancer was quickly diagnosed as having spread to groin, bowel and liver meaning she’s up for a hideous death in weeks or months. Her announcement via PR supremo Max Clifford that she would persevere and die on camera (she is currently appearing on the cruelly ironically named Living TV) gave rise to the horrifying possibility that her actual demise would be broadcast, leading to fierce debate between the British social issues commentariat (exclusively composed of editors’ spouses with primary child-care duties) as to whether or not this was a good thing. The NHS announced that applications for smears (Pap not tabloid) had gone up by 20%, no-one daring to say that this wasn’t that much of a jump and whether the cause would not be better served by a more popular celeb getting the disease.
But wait, it gets better/worse. Goody’s imminent extinction led to a marriage proposal from her fiancé, Tweed, out on release with a “Hackney rolex” — an electronic ankle bracelet, curfewing him to a 7pm return to his mum’s house. Would the newlyweds have a wedding night, following on from yesterday’s marriage? Yes, home secretary Jack Straw stepped into overrule a prison governor’s refusal of a 24 hour dispensation, and Gordon Brown, a fast-developing expert on unavoidable imminent extinction, spoke on the issue from notes his minders provided (“dnt mntn arctic mnkys”).
By now, Goody looked like an emissary of death, walking among us. Bald from chemo, her bee-stung face the first draft of a skull, in a white tracksuit (“how do you tell a Peckham bride? She’s the one wearing…”) trailing an entourage, filmed as she shops for a ring for fingers that will soon be cold, still, no-one really remarks on the stark, staring horror of it all. She’s the woman in white, the French lieutenant’s woman, the dead bride who speaks from the unquiet grave in the old border ballads, the one who mocks life and desire. Stuff about medical screening and media propriety is a way of not talking about the fact that we now have no choice but to witness all this, whether we watch it or not.
Goody’s terribly premature death (she’s 27) and her chaotic life, London anonymity, a failed education system, the crim boyfriend, the vacuous celebrity — they are in capsule form, British life, its current sense of frustration and futility, at the fag end of a Labour government that failed utterly in its historic mission of lessening inequality, and with nothing to look forward to but the plasma getting repossessed and rule by Old Etonians.
Snufftainment is nothing new in the UK — this is the place after all which at one time had three columnists writing about the cancers that were killing them. But of course the writing of your own demise gives an illusory sense of mastery over it (that’s most of all writing anytime, anyway), and if the late John Diamond or Ruth Picardie ever typed FOR GODSSAKE STOP THIS HAPPENING some subeditor crossed it out, and got them back to the wistful “packing shoeboxes for the kids” stuff.
In any case there was the corrective of “Richard Geefe” a column that began in 1999 as “second class male”, the tales of a more than unusually obnoxious Oscar-Humphries type cipher, and morphed a few weeks later — following the editor’s announcement that Geefe had suffered a breakdown — into a record of his remaining time leading up to the suicide he had planned for six months hence. Week after week he wrote for The Observer about how he could get away with grabbing the last strawberry from a child at a picnic, etc etc, as we all gaped in bewilderment, until it was revealed to be a creation of Chris Morris, the TV satirist of The Day Today/Brasseye fame.
But there’s something more erm true-to-death about the last days of Jade Goody, televised, as close to a modern-day voyage across the Styx as you’re likely to get. No matter how much people talk about “control”, TV never gives you that, unless you’re in the editing suite, and even then, not even. The camera catches you as an object, inadvertent, unguarded, as someone to whom things are happening, and of what else is that more true than death? Death, as Wittgenstein (Celebrity BB, ’38) remarked, is not an event in your life. When she finally goes, she will become the anti-Diana, a life and death that does not redeem us, offers us no succour. It’s an update of Larkin’s Dockery and Son, and its direct ending, of Britain as much as any one person:
Life is first boredom, then fear.
Whether or not we use it, it goes,
And leaves what something hidden from us chose,
And age, and then the only end of age.
But not in poor Jade Goody’s case. The poem, Larkin’s record of revisiting his old Oxford college to find to his horror that his friend’s son was now there, recorded life’s failure and wastage in middle class (more accurately upper-middle-middle* class) terms and symbols. Goody’s tele-threnody is a reply of sorts, the view from Essex — bling-flings and a last teeth-whitening, habits for a while that harden into all we’ve got, all we are.
The Observer got a photo of her kissing Tweed, which managed to make her look less like a mad Bhutto death-clown, and more like a demure and suddenly vulnerable young woman, a better picture. I’m not sure UK culture will not be entirely and finally shaken apart by this. When it happens, I hope to be in Belarus, a place which still jams foreign broadcasts. The moving finger having writ, etc, with a biro with no nib. Brrrrrrrr.
*possibly lower-upper-middle, one grade higher.