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Tesco’s sell very cheap books. That doesn’t mean they’re worth the… - Sally's Journal
September 12th, 2007
07:50 pm

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Tesco’s sell very cheap books. That doesn’t mean they’re worth the money, but it does mean they’re cheap. And so I found myself possessing a copy of Queen Camilla, the sort-of sequel to Sue Townsend’s 1990’s book The Queen and I, which I found very amusing 10 years ago. Either Sue Townsend’s writing style or my sense of humour has changed over the intervening decade though (fortunately in the latter case and unfortunately in the former) and I wouldn’t really recommend the book to anyone. But I found myself stuck on the train on the way back from Leeds, and so wrote a long ramble on the part of it I found most objectionable – an unpleasant and geeky character called Graham. There are some spoilers, but as I’m begging you not to waste your life reading the book they hopefully won’t be a problem.



I must confess, my uncomfortableness with Sue Townsend’s portrayal of Graham is in part a very personal thing. I have a close friend who is a single board games obsessive, if not from Ruislip then from only a stones throw away. It is interesting yet upsetting to watch the author twist things that I associate favourably with people I cherish (and perhaps even with myself!) to make a figure of fun.

Perhaps it also exposes insecurities. If I was confident that there was nothing wrong with being a fast-typing, cuckoo-clock hording, ugly person in a pebble-dashed bungalow then the teasing would not worry me in the same way. It is the thought that the world might well find things that I identify with despicable, and worse, that there is such a thing as objective awfulness and they are right, that disturbs me. Would Sue Townsend mock these things if they were not deserving of mocking? Well, yes, she is a comedienne and would twist many things in order to amuse her audience. But would it be amusing if it were not for a buried spark in everyone’s heart wanting to bully the socially inept, the ugly, and the irritating?

It is the confusion of that which is truly awful in Graham, and that which is traditionally mocked, that I find most distressing. He is self obsessed, cruel and thoughtless to his dogs, jobsworth, boring, insensitive, negative, in favour of health and safety over any enjoyment of life at all, boastful, responsible for the death of his parents chickens, and socially stupid. However, he is also ugly with poor teeth, writes with many exclamation marks, single, pedantic, subscribes to Board Game Enthusiast, has an inhaler, plays tiddlywinks, is a bad dresser, collects stamps, lives in a bungalow in Ruislip, and likes James Blunt. I think there is a difference between the two lists, although the more I try to articulate it the harder it is to express. Perhaps the most honest answer is that in my opinion they are different - the first list are traits that I find actively obnoxious, but the second is of things that I don’t think should be negative. In fact, some of them are things that I do myself, or like in others, or that aren’t even his fault. Let me call the traits in the first list the Bad, and those in the second list the Geek. The confusion of both the Bad and the Geek in Graham by Sue Townsend suggests to the reader that they are the same. We can hate and laugh at Graham because he kicks his dog, and we can hate and laugh at Graham because he likes to play Risk. The character of Graham is built up so that we despise him and all his funny traits. By mingling the Bad and the Geek indiscriminately, Sue Townsend perpetuates the suggestion that not only are Bad and Geek inseparably intertwined, but that the Geek is actually Bad in itself.

One uncomfortable question that the creation of the character of Graham leaves me with, is that of whether the Geek and the Bad are indeed inseparable. Stereotypes exist because people think they have observed people who behave like this often enough to be funny. And there is much anecdotal evidence to suggest that those who like the Geek in life are often socially Bad (although the leap from socially Bad flaws such as boastful, boring and insensitive to Bad behaviours such as animal cruelty is one that I don’t feel is supported in traditional stereotypes). It seems highly unlikely that Geek is causal of Bad (or vice versa) – although I suppose an argument could be made in some cases (being Bad is one cause of being single, but so is being shy and mainly socialising with the unattractive sex, both of which are also traits associated with Geek). Why then are Geek and Bad intertwined in the public image? Is it rare to find Geek without associated Bad, and if so, why? Personally, I have many friends who are Geek who I do not find Bad at all – but is that just that I too am inside the bubble and cannot see the flaws in myself and those I love?

My attempt to divide Graham’s traits into two categories has also left me wondering. The distinction between Geek and Bad is not as black and white as I would like. Many of Graham’s “Bad” traits are bad because they are “things that I (and I assume most people) would find irritating or annoying, or just not enjoy being around” – being boring, bring boastful, being insensitive etc. But I find it quite easy to imagine someone who would not enjoy being around a lot of board game playing (I married one for starters!), or would find over punctuated letters annoying, or who finds it more pleasant to be around beautiful people (and although natural looks are a factor in this it is true that everyone looks more attractive if they manage to dress attractively). So why do I not put these traits on the Bad list? Just because they do not irritate me? Because I want to have my cake and eat it – to play board games, use exclamation marks and not waste time and money on clothes, but still be liked by people? And more than that, to argue it is unfair of people to dislike me for these traits, which are not Bad, honest?

Still, putting aside my insecurities and over-analysis of the position, Sue Townsend lumps together in Graham that which is geeky (such as stamp collecting), that which is socially bad (such as being boastful) and that which is actively cruel (such as kicking the dog) and encourages us to view this as a consistent package. This encourages the reader to think the three strands sit naturally together – which I hope is something disproved by both me and my friends.

It’s just depressingly unfunny. Take Graham’s dating agency description: “I am looking for a petite non-smoking heterosexual woman with a GSOH, bubbly personality and an interest in boardgames. […] She will need to be computer literate and financially secure” and his adopted father’s response: “Your dream woman can’t be financially secure and like board games. The two are incompatible.” It’s not true and it’s not funny. It’s a cheap kick for a cheap laugh, but it doesn’t even make any sense when scrutinised (to risk being too like Graham to be interesting, the type of people who are interested in boardgames tend to be careful and strategic analytical types, who do not exactly tend to financial ruin).

Graham’s final suffering does need to be put into the wider context of the book as a whole. It may be being incarcerated in Rampton mental hospital is a disproportionate response to his annoying behaviour, but the end of Sue Townsend’s tale is not designed to tell of people getting their just deserts. The royal family themselves, who for the majority of time have been portrayed as hard done by and valiantly accommodating to a hard situation, do not get a “good” outcome – they are trapped in a public zoo. The ending of Sue Townsend’s book is designed to both amuse the reader and comment on social trends. It could be argued that Graham’s incarceration is not what Sue Townsend felt he deserved for his behaviour, merely what she thought would be the most amusing and convenient outcome. However, I feel that by this stage in the book, the reader has been lead to hate Graham without pity, and to feel he has the outcome he deserves – a lifetime of incarceration for the crime of telling the truth.

I suppose the one thing I can conclude from all this is that I still can’t take a joke when it’s pointing at me. Especially, Sue Townsend, an unfunny and far fetched one.


Of course, that aside it is nice to get a book that’s anti-ID cards and anti-social exclusion, and is trying to make the electorate actually sit up and listen to what politicians say and promise instead of just be manipulated by the media to think fair is foul and foul is fair. And it was very very readable.

(28 comments | Leave a comment)

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From:simont
Date:September 12th, 2007 07:29 pm (UTC)
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I wish you hadn't put "ugly" in the Geek list. Slightly because it doesn't quite seem to fit there – a lot of the rest of the list is matters of choice, whereas ugliness is inherent – but mostly, as you might already have guessed, because that way you'd have had three lists: the Geek, the Bad and the Ugly. ;-)
From:cjp39
Date:September 13th, 2007 09:28 am (UTC)
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Nice one! Heheheh...
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From:gerald_duck
Date:September 12th, 2007 10:21 pm (UTC)
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A friend of the family is a city banker, and he designs board games in his spare time.
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From:atreic
Date:September 13th, 2007 09:49 am (UTC)
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Any games we might have heard of?
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From:gerald_duck
Date:September 13th, 2007 09:54 am (UTC)
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Almost certainly not, though two or three were published. When visiting them, we almost always ended up playing Mine a Million or Careers rather than any of the ones he designed. (-8

He's one of those annoying people who managed to make money whatever he did. He made a profit out of all of his hobbies: he sold board games; when he started tracing his ancestry he wrote a book about the family and sold it to each new relative he tracked down; when he couldn't find a campsite he liked in Devon he bought one and turned it into what he wanted, in the process making it profitable.
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From:ewx
Date:September 12th, 2007 07:47 pm (UTC)
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I read The Queen And I ages ago and remember nothing but the lame ending. She did an excellent job with Adrian Mole, but really I can't say I rate what she's written since.
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From:atreic
Date:September 12th, 2007 07:57 pm (UTC)
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Yes - the lame ending to the Queen and I was half the reason why I said sort-of-sequel. Well, that, and she's allowed herself real world changes (eg the replacement of Diana with Camilla) to have happened so she can continue to satirise the current situation, without any real consistancy in her world as to why they happened. But I mind that less.
From:writinghawk
Date:September 12th, 2007 07:57 pm (UTC)
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Yes there's a difference between your two lists ... the only thing you've put on the wrong side is over-using exclamation marks (-:

Stereotypes exist because people think they have observed people who behave like this often enough to be funny

Even if so that isn't evidence they're true, which is why I don't think Irish people stupid, Jews stingy, black people backward, etc.

Actually this is what I've thought of Sue Townsend ever since 1983 when Adrian Mole came out. It was the least funny book I'd ever read and bore no resemblance to the inner lives of real 13 3/4 year olds like me. It seemed to me then to be based on cheap and stupid stereotypes -- and you wouldn't believe the number of obnoxiously patronising comments people directed at you if you happened to be around that age back then, imagining they were being funny.
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From:robert_jones
Date:September 12th, 2007 07:58 pm (UTC)
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I'm very busy writing a third-six application, so naturally I will have to respond to this.

Without wishing to go all Baron-Cohen on you, is the common trait not the autistic-spectrum behaviour? The pedantry, the lack of empathy, the enjoyment of systems of interaction with clearly defined sets of rules?

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From:feanelwa
Date:September 12th, 2007 10:08 pm (UTC)
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Popular media in stigmatising the mentally abnormal shocker.
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From:pm215
Date:September 12th, 2007 08:38 pm (UTC)
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Given the definition of geek as 'carnival performer who bites the heads off chickens' perhaps 'animal cruelty' is in the wrong list? :-)
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From:purplepiano
Date:September 12th, 2007 08:57 pm (UTC)
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I loved Adrian Mole at about the age of 11, but at that time I didn't get all the grown-up jokes and satire, which a few years later I realised weren't actually that funny.
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From:atreic
Date:September 12th, 2007 09:29 pm (UTC)
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Yes - I think I was like that with The Queen and I. It's kind of sad to realise.
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From:zebbiejohnson
Date:September 12th, 2007 09:47 pm (UTC)
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All groups get this though, not just geeks. I have previously bought books in tesco giving the same treatment to fashionable women, mums, women who are not mums but are in a relationship, women without a relationship, students, car obsessives, middle class people, working class people, posh people, teenagers and cabin crew.
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From:liseuse
Date:September 12th, 2007 10:01 pm (UTC)
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I may claim this as one of the (many) reasons I refuse to buy books from Tesco. The main reason is that I want bookshopping to feel like bookshopping as opposed to commodity buying - because my bibliophilic worldview allows me to separate books from commodities. I can pick and choose my politics if I want to! *stomps feet*
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From:zebbiejohnson
Date:September 13th, 2007 10:38 am (UTC)
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Heh, I buy books in tesco *because* of my bibliophilic worldview - I want to read and own a wide range of books, and this allows me to afford to buy more for 'everyday' reading -> leaving more money for buying specific books that I want full price.
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From:hmmm_tea
Date:September 13th, 2007 09:58 am (UTC)
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I picked up the Queen and I in a charity shop a few months back. Didn't seem that funny, but it was an ok read. Wouldn't have rushed out to buy a sequel though.

I think the ending would have been so much better if she'd just stopped 2 pages earlier when the Japanese flag went up rather then doing the whole "and then she woke up" thing.
From:neonchameleon
Date:September 13th, 2007 10:51 am (UTC)
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I suppose the one thing I can conclude from all this is that I still can’t take a joke when it’s pointing at me.

There's a difference between a funny and "nice" joke and a cruel and mean-spirited one. This seems to both be in the latter camp and based on ignorance - and I don't know anyone who is at all happy with being the target of those, although my response tends to come closer to being contemptuous of the joker and hence dismissing it than to being hurt. (Offtopic, it's not liking fundamentally mean-spirited and cruel jokes that means that I detest Little Britain).

Especially, Sue Townsend, an unfunny and far fetched one.

Unfortunately, unfunny, ignorant, and cruel sums up all of Sue Townsend's work that I've read from Secret Diary of Adrian Mole onwards.
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From:pavanne
Date:September 13th, 2007 11:06 am (UTC)

Devil's advocate

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There are examples where being at our end of the autism-spectrum scale does go with seriously bad behaviour. Anecdotally, a lot of perpetrators of US high-school shootings are socially behind and into games. The cause - effect relationship isn't clear here though, because the stigmatisation of geek social traits may be the problem rather than the geek traits themselves.

Your f'list is not typical. Almost by definition, if you were at Cambridge and are on lj you have geek traits, but are a *smart* geek for whom a taste for intellectual problems is a money-making trait. Also we got to meet other geeks and develop our social skills in an atmosphere where other people are interested in board games, so we have friends. I suspect there are a lot of geeks who aren't smart and so it is much more of a problem than a blessing, and there may be grounds for the stereotype.

That's not to say that mocking people for playing board games is OK (and conflating board games with financial insecurity, wtf?. But are you being more sensitive than you would be if Graham was, say, a football fan? There are lots of non-hooligan football fans, too. If an author chooses to depict an unlikeable character as having hobbies, they are always going to offend someone.
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From:aureo1e
Date:September 13th, 2007 11:06 am (UTC)
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I've got a soft spot for most nerd/geek characters in fiction and never can really dislike them. When I was young, I couldn't work out what Rimmer in Red Dwarf did that was quite so objectionable, so I loved the bits towards the end when he recieved a redemption of sorts (in the books, he's more tragic than comic).

I always felt sorry for Adrian Mole and the continuing indignity heaped on him. I'm not sure that merely being a bad writer and a bit whiny is sufficient, or that Sue Townsend can necessarily throw stones on account of the former.

And yes, in most novels, we're led to believe that the nerd/geek/loser characters inevitably deserve their fate, otherwise the books become uncomfortable reading.
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From:zebbiejohnson
Date:September 13th, 2007 12:28 pm (UTC)
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The stuff about Dr Who as a character being geeky are very true, but the show seems to have an inverse relationship between being 'cool' and plausibly science-based content. :-p Also, I suspect advertising/marketing targetting has a lot to do with the popularity - the new Dr Who seems much more a pure children's show than the older series were.
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From:pavanne
Date:September 13th, 2007 06:17 pm (UTC)

Definition of geekery

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I think geekery is about intellectual curiosity rather than knowledge. Geeks are often fascinated by stuff that nobody else cares about, which is why a) they often have knowledge and b) they are sometimes quite boring.

This definition also allows for stupid geeks who are intellectually curious but never get very knowledgeable.



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From:beckyc
Date:September 13th, 2007 01:45 pm (UTC)
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Can I just say a big "Huh?" as to the inclusion, whether negative or neutral, of having an inhaler in a list to do with geekiness.

Of course there will be geeks who have inhalers. But there are many high achieving athletes in the olympics etc who have inhalers, and everyone in between.
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From:atreic
Date:September 13th, 2007 01:51 pm (UTC)
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Sorry if I wasn't clear - I was trying to divide "charactoristics of Graham" that Sue Townsend appeared to think were mentionable into "a list of things I thought were actually bad behaviours" and "a list of things that I don't think are bad". I suppose my key problem with Graham was Sue Townsend linking things that are not bad, but that traditionally people are mocked for (such as having an inhalor) with things that are actually bad. So maybe I would have been better to lable my second list "huh?" points, rather than "geek" points - they are things that (I think) Sue Townsend adds to make her character more objectionable and more of a figure of fun that upset me because they are not objectionable at all! (modulo later wibbles about this)
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From:beckyc
Date:September 13th, 2007 02:43 pm (UTC)
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I agree that the second list they are all not-bad (except perhaps the punctuation one ;-) ), and I do think that most of them are geeky, in a good way. I suppose I just find it hard to group inhalers with the rest (as it happens, I do identify with quite a few of the other items, so it's not for that reason). I am horribly biased here and only speaking for myself, but it is not my experience that inhalers are something that you get mocked for. It wouldn't have occured to me that people might think they are.

[I'm sure it goes without saying that I agree with you that inhalers aren't objectionable :-).]
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From:atreic
Date:September 13th, 2007 03:08 pm (UTC)
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Well, a inhalor is a thing that Sue Townsend comments on Graham having. So (one assumes) that she thought this was funny, or the sort of thing that fitted in with being an obnoxious geeky person. Sue Townsend gives Graham quite a few traits in the book, but none of them (inhalors aside!) are flattering, so I assume she was thinking of him having an inhalor as another thing that would make him geeky / mockable / repulsive / amusing. Otherwise why is she mentioning that he has it? It would be hard to defend the position "ah, she just said it because she was just writing, she had to say something about him" when the rest of the time she is consistantly making him out to be repulsive.

So while it might not be natural to group inhalors with the rest (although there is a stereotype of the fat wheezy geeky kid who gets picked on, so I'm not sure it's a complete fabrication of Sue Townsends, and maybe there is a more subtle point that more socially aware people are more discrete and don't emphasize / go on about their medical needs boringly in unsuitable situations*, so that bad-geeks appear to have more inhalors) it was grouped with the rest because the group was "all traits Sue Townsend gave Graham". It might be unnatural for Sue Townsend to make that grouping, but you'll have to take it up with her, not me.

(On your last point, I could easilly imagine having an inhalor / being ashmatic being something that kids mocked other kids for, but I never had an inhalor, and have never noticed anyone being mocked for having one, so I don't have any data)

*I feel bad writing this in case you take it as a dig at you! It really really isn't - you always put things behind TMI cuts and I've never noticed you going on about your health unwantedly in a pub etc.
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