Of all the countless thousands of people who influence public life from behind the scenes, there are two whom I should like to meet, the first to berate, the second to congratulate.
The first is the person, male or female I know not which, who insulted John Prescott all those years ago when the future Deputy Prime Minister was a steward on a Cunard liner; the second is Tessa Jowell’s dustman.
In the days when he obediently answered the calling for which Providence had ordained him, viz a white-waistcoated waiter, rather than defiantly and ridiculously assuming the role of stand-in premier and First Lord of the Treasury, Prescott was, I feel sure, the butt of an unfeeling condescension. For there are, alas, people whose manners are so execrable that they will treat with disdain others who are obligated to them. We of the middle classes are today paying a heavy price for the hurt and resentment nurtured by Prescott.
This gnarled class warrior’s revenge is awful to behold. From his crude hatred of rural folk to his spiteful determination to concrete over Middle England and, where possible, people it with travellers, the wounded pride of an underling become overlord is exacting a terrible toll.
Now for an entirely happier circumstance. A recent issue of The Sunday Telegraph included a guest columnist, none other than the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (and, no doubt, sealing wax and string) Ms Tessa Jowell. Above her mugshot – her countenance, as usual, bearing the startled look of one caught in the glare of some baffling supernatural experience, such as a lucid thought – was the headline, “Do I look like a knobhead?”
Well, I ask you, does the Earth look round? Does the night look dark? Other questions along similar lines come to mind. “Do I look like Worzel Gummidge?” from Bob Geldof for instance, or, “What, me weird?” from Michael Jackson.
Ms Jowell’s question was prompted, so she tells us, by a visit from her dustman. According to her account, the conversation went like this:
Jowell: “Could you please take away this waste cardboard?”
Dustmen: “Cardboard, madam? No problem. Hang on a minute, aren’t you that Tessa Jowell, works for Tony Blair? Your government is just for knobheads you know, not for real people, not for us.”
Everything about that account strikes me as false, with the exception of the word knobhead, which I suspect Ms Jowell misunderstood, confusing it perhaps with nob, meaning a person of social distinction.
In truth, of course, as those of us know who are more in touch with culture, media and sport than the secretary of state, knobhead is a contemptuous term implying that the person thus described has a penis where others have cerebral tissue. Like most inventive insults, it derives its strength from a combination of the ridiculous and the vivid. It is an alternative to “dickhead”, coined, I believe, in the early 1980s by the Australian humorist and consummate vulgarian Barry Humphries.
Knowing, as we do, the meaning of knobhead, does the dustman’s speech ring true? “Your government is just for low, contemptible idiots with genitals for brains, you know, not for real people, not for us.”
In my experience people who describe others as knobheads or dickheads do not feel the need to add a qualifier, other than the obligatory emphasiser beginning with F, or to suggest a contrast. Everyone has his own idea as to what constitutes a dickhead, and everyone is certain that it does not apply to him personally.
Is it not far more likely that this estimable dustman was describing not the recipients of government action but its deliverers, and that he actually said, “You politicians, you’re all a bunch of knobheads,” whereat, this terse observation delivered, he departed, bearing waste cardboard.
But, like a vicar seeking to construct a lofty sermon on the foundations of a commonplace, Ms Jowell uses the dustman’s observation, or at any rate her account of it, to produce a homiletic which is remarkable for its unconscious inner-contradiction. There is, she says, a lesson here for all politicians. “It isn’t enough to be competent managers, we have to inspire as well. And that means taking risks, declaring what we believe in, getting beyond the spin and having an adult conversation… it’s spin that makes people fed up with politicians and politics. They want honesty, integrity and passion from us. They want to feel part of something bigger.”
Was ever a condemnation of spin more guilelessly spun? Ms Jowell is plainly unaware that her encounter with the dustmen was the best she can expect from an adult conversation. There is, after all, little point in wasting words on a knobhead.v