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This article was written on 03 Oct 2016, and is filled under Uncategorised.

Alf Tupper and the politics of aspiration

At some point in the past thirty years, we seem to have given up on the idea of being happy with who we were and to have embraced the idea that aspiration is always A Good Thing. Just doing something and doing it well is no longer enough. It must be a stage on some kind of utterly vomit-inducing ‘personal journey’ on the way to doing something else. And then something else. And then something else. The idea is that the something else is in some way ‘better’ or carries with it more responsibility and public approbation because if nobody sees you or pays you lots of money, then you don’t really exist.

I’d like to illustrate this hypothesis with reference to children’s cartoon characters of my youth and just before. None of them were, you see, aspirational. They seemed to be happy doing what they were supposed to do and being quite good at it, which included, of course, having adventures and generally defeating evil. One of the most vividly drawn of these was a character who was popular in the fifties, PC 49, who was nothing more impressive than a police officer. He was, admittedly, a police officer who did more than his share of being shot at by villains and leaping on speeding cars, but the point was that he was at the bottom of the police officer food chain. He supported a local boys’ club, represented a sort of decency that is wildly unfashionable and seemed to be a vital part of his local community. Important concept, that.

The reason it is important is that PC 49’s clear lack of ambition and level of content with his lot were enough to place him squarely in a context that he stayed in. He knew the streets, he knew the people and he could spot when something seemed out of place or hear gossip which suggested dark and criminal doings. This was why he got into so many scrapes, armed with nothing more formidable than his truncheon and iron-plated sense of right and wrong. He was a central part of his community and that, in its great unsaid way, was the lesson of the strip. Being useful and helpful, wanting your community to be better, were enough in and of themselves. No more validation was needed or even possible.

Another in this line was Alf Tupper, the so-called ‘Tough of the Track’ whose unique selling point was that he was a working-class runner powered largely by fish and chips. The people he ran against were often outwardly more respectable than Alf and certainly higher up the social pecking order, but he would triumph over some kind of adversity, generally put there by these opponents, with the memorable catchphrase ‘I run ‘im!’ shouted just as he crossed the line first. Alf worked as a welder from a yard that was just underneath a set of railway arches. Again, he showed no signs of ever wanting to leave and was quite happy running for the Harriers, his local running club.

Just like PC 49, he never left. A prequel series in the seventies showed that Alf was an orphan and described his life before he was a runner and how he came to live with his Aunt Meg in a terraced house and sleep on the kitchen floor on a mattress. The point, though, was solidly made. Here was a hero who lived, quite happily, in what most people would now see as adversity, surrounded by the familiar. These were tough people, although in PC 49’s case it was hidden beneath a layer of civility, who lived in tough times with a spectacular level of kindness to other people. Nobody was trodden on, nobody’s face was ground to powder in the search for success and recognition. They lived kindly and decently.

The final example, still more spectacular, was Black Bob or, more accurately, Andrew Glen, the shepherd who owned him. Note that this man was a shepherd, not some cape-wearing superhero or thrusting adventurer who headed up his own company. He looked after sheep for a living but, like PC 49 and Alf Tupper, this was used as a narrative pretext to get him into all manner of scrapes which drew on the wit and guile of Bob, his plucky border collie. Again, there was no sense that Andrew Glen wanted to head up his own shepherding consultancy or join a boy band while Bob seemed fairly at ease with getting his master out of tough situations. If he ever wanted to win Collie of the Year, he kept it quiet.

You don’t see anything like this anymore. Comics have gone the way of the dinosaurs, but even in popular culture, we’re fed on stories of people who want to change their situation, which is why there are TV programmes like X Factor or, heaven help us all, Britain’s Got Talent, in which a pipe fitter from Cleethorpes will be told each and every week by Simon Cowell that he’s a cunt in exchange for being sprayed orange and given some money. After that, he’ll probably shag one of Girls Aloud and go on I’m A Celebrity before being pictured in Okay or Hello in his tasteful beige home with five inches of shagpile. The idea that you’re happy being a pipe fitter and really quite like fitting pipes doesn’t compute. You can’t be happy, because the culture says you’re not.

Politicians have bought this lie hook, line and sinker. People, we are told want to ‘get on.’ There are ‘hardworking families’ who want to see a reward for their efforts and soon there will be grammar schools so that a large percentage of the population can become middle managers in charge of the people who went to secondary moderns. Count me out. I’m a writer. I have no ambition to be in charge of other writers or set the strategic goals for anything other than when I have lunch. I don’t want to own an agency, lead anything or have much more than I have at the moment. Aspirations look immensely dull and they seem to turn you into an arse who is worried about money and status. Bollocks to getting on. I want not to get on. I want, as far as my job is concerned, to stay pretty much here.

In life, however, it’s different. Much as I love the world of PC 49, Alf Tupper, Andrew Glen and Black Bob, it’s been blown to buggery by idiots. We’re all supposed to work fifty hour weeks to buy and live in a shoebox and drive a slightly better car, watching X Factor or I Climbed Out Of Being A Pauper On My Own Merits. This, surely, is a world that Alf and the others would think had gone mad and I want no part of it either. If it’s still possible to find a country out there that still has some sense that aspiration for the sake of aspiration is wrong and in love with consumption, then that is a country that I want to live in. Perhaps the only place left in the world where these values hold any merit is between my ears. I hope to have chance to find out otherwise.

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