Essays: Bloke, bloker, blokest |
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Bloke, bloker, blokest

by Jonathan Meades

I hate blokiness. Do you hate blokiness? Do you know what it is? The word, I admit, is not current — it belongs to that generation to which a piss artist is a braggart, not a toper — but the quality it denotes is ubiquitous. What I am talking about is the effortful striving to be one of the lads or a person of the people or the ordinary working man (whose father was that curious fellow the man in the street). This striving manifests itself in over-familiarity, in hail-fellow-well-met matiness, in a creeping eagerness to please. It is to be found in politicians (mostly Labour but by no means exclusively), in the Archbishop of Canterbury, in many publicans and their regulars, in nearly all the berks who do the regional bits of 'Nationwide’, in Benny Green and Stuart Hall and Fred Housego, in the execrable 'entertainers’ who have their own telly shows, in those grinning fools (strangers to pride) on celebrity quiz shows, in beery folk singers, in disc jockeys. Oh I could go on — there are some news-readers who, given the chance, will sing or dance or inflate condoms to show how big-hearted and ordinary they are. The BBC has, you may have noticed, now unearthed an archaeologist who is clearly fit to join these ranks.

Unearthed — I’m not sure actually if that is so apt: maybe he is someone’s invention. He was evidently expected to do for the ancient world what David Bellamy has done for plants. And I suspect that he has succeeded, for although he suffers the massive disadvantage of having no major speech impediment he has done a very nice job of rendering his subject subservient to his mannerisms. He is called John Romer and his programmes, recently shown on BBC2, are called 'Romer’s Egypt’. Of course there is no particular reason why an Egyptologist should not be or appear to be a fugitive from a lager advertisement — cor I could shift a few, line 'em up Trev — and I can imagine the producer’s delight when he discovered an archaeologist with the common touch, the really common touch. An archaeologist for the 80s, and so on. Mr Romer, for all I know, is a respected and 'important’ figure in his field. But I doubt that this is what attracted the BBC. What attracted the BBC, I am sure, is the fact that Mr Romer hailed, as they say, from somewhere east of Liverpool Street and west of Gant’s Hill. So all he had to do preparatory to his BBC-funded holiday in Egypt was to revisit for a few nights some pubs in Leyton and Canning Town and drink in a spot of that old local vernacular. Then: off up the Nile where some o’ them ol’ Gyppo ice creams hung out. (Ice cream = ice cream freezer = geezer, if you must know.)

The conception is balefully wrongheaded. It is based on the most arrant inverse snobbery. The very title 'Romer’s Egypt’ is a gross cheek — but then, on the way up, why not grab credit even where it is manifestly not due. There is nothing less obfuscating about Mr Romer’s wilfully slangy, horribly slovenly approach than there is about the preciousness and logomaniac jargon of more orthodox academics. Slang is fine, like any other mode of speech, if it is fresh and witty and appropriate. But Mr Romer’s is hackneyed; it’s as if he had written a script in despised standard English and had then crudely translated it into cabbie-speak. ('’E ’ad no personality cult goin’ for ’im.’ This was practically the first thing he said about a poor king.) The result is excruciatingly self-conscious. And Mr Romer’s appearance did not compensate for his bathetic speech; his mouth bore quite a few disagreeable sores that suggested he had been putting it in places where it is not sage to put one’s mouth when in Port Said..

As for the information that the programmes imparted, the way they looked, the notions that Mr Romer was keen to foist... Well, it is a commonplace that every society founds its conception of former societies upon itself, but you would never have thought so from the way that Mr Romer let us in on what was evidently his very own aperçu. Surely he knows that the Shakespeare of the 18th century was a paragon of reason and that the Shakespeare of the mid 19th century was a champion of mercantile expansionism; surely he knows that historical novels, like sci-fi novels, are as much about the age when they were written as about that whereof they speak. And the man’s arrogance in assuming that today’s knowledge of the past is somehow definitive, unimprovable, is quite staggering. He also gave us this one: 'All ’uman societies fashion their images of death from the landscapes they inhabit.’ To which there is no answer save a numbed 'Oh really.’

The BBC knows very well that its popularizers need not resort to this lowest common denominator stuff. Attenborough, Nairn, Hoskins — none of these men has ever treated his audience to so profligate a display of oikishness and gaucherie as did Mr Romer. At the moment Alec Clifton Taylor is trotting round 'Six More English Towns’ (Tuesday BBC2). One can think of no more signal contrast to the ghastly Romer. Sir Alec is civil, prodigiously knowledgeable, an excellent social as well as architectural historian; and he talks well and clearly — if anyone doesn’t know what vermicular rustication is they will find out. He has the good manners to explain himself as he goes along. His programmes have no resort to gimmickry — no artily self-conscious photography, no awful electronic music. I am sure too that they cost an awful lot less than Romer’s Nile jag.