The other morning, washing up my breakfast dishes, the sun warming the kitchen for the first time in months, my mobile rang, something of rarity these days. It was my friend Dion, who now runs Speakers from the Edge, wanting to talk about going on tour later in the year, ideas and strategies, how to get bums on seats, what trips I’d be talking about. He’s also booked me into some comedy festivals, so wanted to check that I had some material in mind, as it would be a good ‘direction’ to go in in the future. The conversation almost at an end, I asked Dion who else was touring in theatres this year, who else he had on the road. “Erm, well…” he began, which signalled straight away that he was worried about telling me who it was, then began a long story about how many years ago he’d worked on a TV show with the TV celeb Ben Fogle.
Now if you’ve not heard of Ben Fogle, then he’s the son of an actress and veterinarian, privately educated, worked for Tatler magazine (a magazine aimed at the British upper-middle class and aristocratic upper class), before slowly becoming part of the TV establishment. Ben is a safe pair of hands, uncontroversial, posh but ’nice’, a perfect host of dog shows such as Crufts , farming programs and all kinds of soft TV. Ben is a man who cries easily, but he has also rowed the Atlantic and done the South Pole race amongst other things.
“Is it Ben Fogle?” I asked before Dion had got to the end of the story.
“….erm, yes it’s Ben” said Dion, before beginning to explain himself again, sounding a bit scared, like I’d freak out and start smashing up the dishes.
“I think Ben’s amazing!” I butted in once more, “he’s hardcore!”
“…Really?” replied Dion “but I thought you’d not like him, you know, he’s posh and I’ve read what you say about Bear Grylls…”
“No - I think Ben’s amazing”.
Let me begin at the beginning.
I have no problem with class. I have no problem with wealth or privilege, or poverty or despair, where the big worry is either getting this seasons ski boots fitted perfectly at Snow + Rock on a Friday night or deciding if to have electricity or twenty quid off your payday loan. All these things are for other people to worry about - not me. I have no problem with people paying as little tax as possible, that’s the game, and anyone who works for themselves tends to lower their head when the topic comes up, from the plumber to the writer of books, tends not to pass judgement as quickly as those who have the certainty of pay packet each week. It’s the state that fails us, not the rich, and that all the money doesn’t lie with Hurrah Henry’s playing polo, but in the pension funds of teachers, nurses and those who run the state on our behalf.
People cannot choose if they are born rich, or poor, and although - at my worst - I am the great example of a working class hero - .i.e hating my class, a class who at times can wallow in the disaster of their lives, and fail to push each other, and more importantly their kids out of the sucking swamp of poverty. I can also feel anger to those who have more, the privilege and opportunity of the upper middle classes who have no idea how many miles of sucking shit it takes to leave that swamp, to even reach the fucking start line of life, that family, drugs, drink, sex, TV, is all some people have, that just ‘getting through’ life takes all you’ve got, where there’s nothing left for ‘getting out’.
But I try not to think like this all the time.
Someone once said that “Being poor takes up all your time” while being rich “takes up everyone else’s”, and this can be true when you choose to focus on the inequality. Better to neither choose to save or crucify, but to save yourself, and in a way set an example, even in a small way. When I stand in a school in Hull and describe being made aware I was shit in everything as kid, being on the dole, petty crime, no real education of any worth, that’s a story they know, that’s like someone talking at Eton about working for a bank on leaving school, doing a season in the alps or crewing a yatch. But when I show me me and Alex Jones standing on the top of Moonlight Buttress on the TV, or picking up the Premio-Mazzotti prize in Venice for the Italian translation of Psychovertical, or standing on top of Ulvertanna - well that breaks the boundaries of their imagining. What I am involved in is the best kind of class struggle; I struggle against my own class.
And I know it’s all relative, that to someone clinging to life in a Turkish refugee camp I am in paradise. But all it’s best not to weight your misery against another mans and call yourself happy, best to lift the scales with action.
I’ve hung out with and climbed with millionaires, taken the coin of the poshest schools in Britain, eaten thick steak in the Ahwahnee hotel, flown business class, swan in the Med in the morning and skied in the Maritime alps in the afternoon. I have experience privileged, felt it on my skin and in my pocket, and also seen how much work it takes to have - that it is not stolen, that few are given it for nothing, and that it can be lost in a heart beat, and that by and large those who have it sacrifice a large chunk of their life and happiness to keep it, having less drugs, less drink, less TV, less sex and less family. At the other extreme I’ve known real poverty, were a sack of potatoes is all you have to eat until your next giro, where a 99p ice cream was as indulgent as that Ahwahnee steak, to be homeless, and lost and see no way on. It’s funny but what the rich want most of all, what they work for, is time and space, while the poor have an infinite amount of the stuff (I guess that’s what they used to call ‘work’?)
I once talked the the legendary writer and kayaker Jon Turk about money and he told me he was a millionaire, which came as a surprise, everything about him, from his body to his clothes to his truck sort of well used, kind of broken in. “I’ve got a house, a van, two kayaks, three mountain bikes, seven sets of skis, all winter to ski, all summer to paddle, enough money not to work too much as long as I’m careful. I live like a millionaire”.
So do I just have a chip on my shoulder? The great putdown.
I used to have a girlfriend who had more A levels and O levels than she could remember, all A’s, as well a top degree, a PDH (as well as two honorary PHD’s), and an MA. Her mum was teacher, her a dad a lecturer, their huge house as solid as that family she had been born and brought up in, where an A star life was not something extraordinary, it was just expected. You work hard - you do well - you do well in life. Both her and her dad would often pass comment on my apparent hatred for Bear Grylls, in that I was just jealous and had a ‘chip on my shoulder’, because he was a multi millionaire who went to Eton, Dad was a Tory and had the cash and connections to climb Everest at twenty two, and sold a few hundred thousand books more than me (if not a few million). I used to try and take this on the chin, that they were right, I had nothing to complain about, I’d made it out of the swamp, I’d shown that a shit education and poor start in life was no reason not to do well, where you were brought up in a hopeless system where people told you if you had A levels you’d be “overqualified”. And yet it irked me more that they could not understand my life enough to have some compassion, that you never really leave the swamp, or if you do, your carry the stink of that shit on your clothes forever, and worse still, you always feel one backwards step and you’ll plunge straight back in. I guess it’s like telling someone who’s black to get over themselves, or someone who’s gay or disabled, imagining that you all grew up with the same instruction manual, or have a life so well put together - that all the piece where there and fitted.
It is if to complain, especially in a time of grubby class inequality in politics and the media, that you’re just jealous. I retreated this tweet the other day, but almost didn’t, knowing it would spring a trap in people’s minds, that it was the same old self indulgent ‘poor working class me’ kind of comment.
“-Follow your dreams! You can be whatever you want to be! Just believe in yourself!
-My parents are poor.
-OK forget what I said then.”
But is it? Last week I started writing a piece about growing up in Hull for a book project, and tried to find out where my school friends where. My best mate still cleans out bins for a living (after dealing with a drug problem), another died while being chased by a police car, while third’s girlfriend, who was a prostitute, had been murdered with a hammer while 28 weeks pregnant, rolled up in a carpet and left for 21 days until found. I’m guising neither Ben nor Bear have such stories to tell of school friends, no ‘climbing into the bell tower” and seeing Ran Fiennes signature there.
I don’t hate Bear Grylls, in fact as a human being I am a little jealous of his apparent success, of the image he projects, his family and moral certainty - even though I suspect if he was honest to us all - as I try to be, as anyone who has a life that is shared should I feel - I would have more respect, that his life is tough and hard and a little nasty at times, that he has doubts about the cost of what he has, that he lies awake at night and thinks about his soul. Bear is an example of the difference between a working and upper class mindset. If a working class man had been to the moon, and was congratulated on his return, he would modestly say “Oh it was all done by computer, I didn’t really do anything” , while a upper class person, who’s job was keeping the condom machine’s supplied at NASA, would say, years later “Oh yes - I was heavily involved in the moon landing”. Some people have no shame, while other know their place.
As for Ben Fogle, you know what, yes I did take a dislike to him, hate the fact he was posh, that he was privately educated, privileged, worked for Tatler, part of that system of opportunity and connection that led him to TV, connections the people I grew up with didn’t have, their only connections people with drugs, people who could sell you stuff “off the back of a lorry”. He’s tall, good looking, got great tuffy posh blond hair, cries on queue and has a lovely wife (who also looks posh). But you know what, Ben is like the best music, the music that sustains, you just can’t help but like it - it just grows on you - it charms you, makes you tap your toes. Ben is a guilty pleasure; he’s David Soul, ELO, The Bee Gees. Yes he’s posh, but he’s honest, and he’s not shameless, there is a moral charm to him, a bit of the everyman, weak and vulnerable, but also with the capacity for self sacrifice and heroism. He is human. And slowly, his magic worked on me. I grew - like most people in the UK who took the time, and did not simply dismiss - to love Ben Fogle.
I spent some time with a guy from the Norwegian special forces last year, and I asked him how you picked the people you had to spent weeks holed up in some hide with in Afghanistan with. “It is simple” he said, “when you meet someone you do not look at what they have done, instead you talk to them and ask the question ‘Could I go for a drink with this guy?’” And although I suspect if I went for a drink with Bear it would it would be brief and awkward, that he would have ‘commitments’ and people waiting, with Ben it would easy, that when it comes down to it, toe to toe, nose to nose, beyond the bonds of class, and engrained judgement, Ben should be judged for who is, just the man, trying to get through life with what he has in the most fun way possible (but with much better blond hair).