The Word Rabbit

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This article was written on 30 Jul 2015, and is filled under Uncategorized.

Formby

I like George Formby.

There. I’ve said it.

You can say this when you’re in your forties as you’re essentially irrelevant, but he’s been the soundtrack to my life, way before it was acceptable to admit to liking toothy thirties entertainers with a talent for slapstick, a cheeky innuendo and a banjolele in his hand. When I first heard ‘Chinese Laundry Blues’ when I was a nipper, I was addicted and, much as I’ve tried to kick the habit, when I’m feeling bleak, I love him all the more.

Other people have come out as Formby fanciers which puts a sheen of respectability over it and even the Beatles wove influences through some of their music, but what makes enjoyable is that you feel as though you’re doing something nice people don’t approve of. Which was always the essence of Formby’s appeal, navigating the border between cheeky smut and open lewdness with a cheery disregard.

This all came back to me when I saw Stewart Lee talking about ‘Skins,’ the programme for teenagers, in which everyone is achingly cool, sexually aggressive and avaricious. He despised the show, as I do, seeing it as about as having nothing do with the lived reality of being a teenager, which it doesn’t, and having none of the sense of desperate alienation and dislocation, which it doesn’t have any truck with, either.

And here is the heart of it. At some mythic point in the past thirty years, we seem to have stopped wanting to show ordinary people having actual fun and resolved ourselves into a two-speed system. On the one hand, desperate reality and misery of the kind popularised by EastEnders and on the other, a kind of surreal, Californian fantasy life that nobody lives.

George, given to all manner of establishment-thwarting antics, wouldn’t fit into this, as he’s neither cowed by the very fact of existence, nor a perma-tanned halfwit with a six-pack. Equally, a whole host of people I admire, from William Blake to Grayson Perry by way of Quentin Crisp, wouldn’t fit into it either, and that’s a shame as they’re the fun ones, the ones who make life worth the living.

When I see him on the screen, punching Hitler in the mouth, mocking posh people and being banned by the BBC, something in my heart that I’m rather fond of rejoices. And I think it’s the anti-establishment part. He was insistent that soldiers, not officers, should sit in the front row of his shows and in one incident, his wife told Henrik Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid to ‘piss off, you nasty little man’ because George would only play to mixed audiences.

But then George’s generation built the NHS, the Welfare State and believed in care for all, from the cradle to the grave. The Skins generation can barely be arsed with any of it but, roused from its self-regarding stupor, would maybe vote for New Labour and has only a shaky understanding of what ATOS, the invasions of Iraq or Afghanistan and the PFI scandal actually are. They like things, and stuff and bad irony because that’s all the world that they live in seems to offer them.

There are laws, and for the most part, they’re wise and just. Paedophiles should be pursued to the ends of the earth and prosecuted so fully that they never see daylight. Laws against hate crimes are the start of something good. We seem, tenuously, to be trembling on the brink of being a more tolerant society. But that’s not what I’m talking about.

The real social transgression is when you do something society doesn’t approve of and do it with such blatant disregard for what people think that they are shown up as small-minded sheep. The people who were overtly gay while it was still illegal. Rosa Parks who refused to sit at the back of the bus. Mandela who was denounced by the Tories as a terrorist and died as one of the world’s most loved statesman. The examples go on.

George may not have the same significance, but to me, he’s a transgressive icon of all that’s good in the world – the ordinary man with a heart who doesn’t know when he’s beaten. Across the ages and from someone who was born decades after you died, I love you, George, and you mean more to me than anyone will ever know.

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