I remember going to the cinema a few years back to see a movie called ‘Borat’, starring Sasha Baron-Cohen as an inept journalist from Kazakhstan who embarks on a sort of cultural mission to inform the American people about the joys of his homeland.
The film includes lots of coarse behaviour and lewd remarks, along with some casual racism and vulgar misogyny. But one particular scene caught my eye; in the early part of the film, the journalist has managed to book into a flash hotel. He is escorted into the lift, and, impressed by the mirrors and the carpet, starts to unpack his luggage in the mistaken belief that this is actually his room.
This episode stopped me in my tracks, and I wondered how many times this had really happened.
We think of privilege as being a set of assets or entitlements which are available only to a select group of individuals; and to this Eastern European misfit, a carpeted lift was something completely alien.
Many years ago I lived with a landlord called George, who invited one of his friends to visit for a few weeks from Ghana. It was winter time in Oxford; and one morning I came downstairs to make some breakfast, when Inoni (the landlord’s friend) rushed into the kitchen. ‘Tim!’ he exclaimed, pointing out of the window, ‘Is that SNOW?’
It was a remarkable experience to see someone encounter snow for the first time (I’m sure dog-owners enjoy relating the same anecdotes) but I felt at once complacent and privileged (‘Yes, of course it’s snow. Doesn’t everybody know that?’) while at the same time deeply grateful that a near-stranger had woken me up to the beauty of a British winter.
And I recall one time when I was wandering through Birmingham Art Gallery, and came into the room where a family group was standing in front of a huge painting of St Mark’s Cathedral in Venice. The gentleman (late fifties, at a guess) was addressing the lad – aged about twelve – who I took to be his grandson, saying ‘What about this? You remember visiting this place, don’t you?’
I felt a brief twinge of envy at this, since my first ever trip abroad had taken place in 1993, at the age of 29. But does that mean that the young lad was privileged, having been taken across Europe at an early age; or was I the privileged one, since I had still that particular city to look forward to, and that our encounter would be charged with a whole catalogue of emotional and cultural responses?
It’s the day after the day after Christmas; I am working in a supermarket as a shelf-stacker and instead of having two weeks off work for the holiday season, I now find myself with only one day’s rest. Although, if I were a farmer or a nurse, I would not even be able to have Christmas day to myself.
This year began with a bang: there was a sensational firework display in London, more impressive than usual. Then in January we were stunned by the news that David Bowie had died, just after releasing his Album ‘Blackstar’. This was just the first of many celebrity departures in the worlds of music and theatre; Alan Rickman, Gene Wilder, Glenn Frey, and even Prince. Prince! And then, on Xmas day we learned that George Michael had passed away following a heart attack. Does this reflect the modern world, where it is easier for talented people to record and broadcast their work, thus entering the nation’s memory more readily? And now we hear that Liz Smith, veteran UK actress has died, just a few days after a TV repeat of the Royle Family episode where her character passed away.