For some years a certain section of British society has expressed concern that we are, as a culture, dumbing down. That it has taken Jeremy Clarkson, tight-trousered, 80s-haired guru of all things Top Gear, to express these concerns in a manner which goes beyond mere repetition of just another stock phrase, might surprise some people. But Jezza is smarter than most people think: he simply conceals his intellect as much as possible while he’s appearing on television in order to maintain a wide enough appeal to convince TV executives to allow him to keep appearing on television.
As a child I understood the dilemma of being reasonably intelligent and yet having to conceal the fact because I attended a grammar school but lived in and hung out with kids from a council estate. Ours was not the worst estate in the town, there were two others vying for that particular distinction, but the pressure from council estate kids to act like, well council estate kids, is tremendous. So no matter how much I might have been inspired by reading ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner‘ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge at school, I would have run the risk of having my head kicked in if I’d dared to quote a line or two in front of anyone on the scrubby patch of land behind our houses which we called a park despite the fact that it was really just a strip of grass for dogs to shit on and kids to slip over.
Grammar school taught me mental arithmetic, naturally. Yet I was careful to conceal the fact whenever staring at jars of sweets in the local shop, for fear that the ability to add up in my head would get me burned as a witch. The best way to avoid anyone finding out about my capacity for working out sums without the use of a calculator and, at the same time, getting in with the kids on the estate, was to shoplift. And the one time I actually got caught – for stealing some stationary from W. H. Smiths – I was wise enough not to let on that I was quite clever really, as the one thing store detectives can’t stand is a smart kid stealing for kicks.
Eventually I realised that pretending not to be receiving a marginally better education than my mates was a tiring existence, one which kept me in a state of permanent paranoia over the possibility of discovery. So I started keeping my uniform on when I got home from school, slipped a few references to George Orwell and even ‘that bald-headed old pouff’ William Shakespeare into my conversations. No-one kicked my head in and the witch-burning fires remained unlit. I was simply shunned. One by one my former friends dropped me.
The urge to follow the herd is great, especially when you are young. I do not regret the fact that I ended my charade way back when, but I do feel sad that being able to recite some poetry and remember some of the kings and queens of England marked me out as abnormal. After all, as William Wordsworth once said “The child is father to the man, so shut up and tell some fart jokes you twat.”