Short Cuts

Jenny Diski

I was six the last time I experienced such a naked and indefensible aversion to someone. I was given a new girl to look after at school. She was fat and happy, or so my memory goes. There’s nothing else I can remember about her at all apart from the round contentedness of her sticky, continuous presence. My hatred was immediate and visceral. I can summon it now: something acidic sloshing around in the solar plexus. I dropped rubbers and pencils under the desk, and while I was down there I pinched her calves. I gave her Chinese burns, whispered cruel things in her ear. I refused to talk to her or wait for her. Still she followed me about, because she had to, and I had to let her. Eventually, she told her mother and I was presented to the whole school at assembly, publicly disgraced for my awful behaviour. Quite rightly. No one was allowed to talk to me for a fortnight. I’m still ashamed. The obvious explanation is the exhortation to ‘look after’ her. Nurturing was never my strong point. But on recent Monday nights, when Corpus Christi College, Oxford was competing in University Challenge on television, those same stomach-eroding, unreasonable juices started flowing at the sight of its team captain, Gail Trimble, to whom I have no duty of care at all. Even so, I took to closing my eyes and lala-ing whenever she buzzed her way to the right answer. I am 61 years old.

I’m not alone in my vileness, it turns out. The internet is fizzing with denunciations of the 26-year-old Latin postgraduate. The venom about Gail Trimble has been universally interpreted as misogynistic: the old loathing for an unapologetic intelligent woman that gave us the phrase ‘bluestocking’ or ‘stuck-up cunt’. The Daily Mail sneered that she may have known who Thersites was, but she didn’t have a clue who won the most recent series of Celebrity Big Brother or know the name of the new manager of Chelsea FC. I really do not want to feel negative about anyone the Daily Mail criticises, nor in the whole of my life have I disliked cleverness and learning in anyone. But Gail Trimble was so eager to answer every question. She smiled when she got the answers right, a smile that, probably through no fault of her own, looked like a smirk, and she made a little gesture with her head and mouth that came across (doubtless, not intentionally) as dismissive of the quality of the question, when (rarely) she got an answer wrong. Even knowing I was misjudging her, that she was young, nervous and probably not the most socially ept of people, I simply couldn’t bear to watch her.

I was in school again, mumbling dark incantations at the back of the class, loathing the smartarse, teacher’s pet who always sat at the front and was perfectly comfortable in his or her superiority. It’s not the cleverness, I think, but the compliance that gets to me. The truth is I can’t stand people who are perceptibly ‘good’. Worth and virtue bring out the murderous Hyde in me as surely as Dr Jekyll’s potion did. It was my early victim’s amiable, oblivious contentment, and – oh dear – the fact that she didn’t defend herself against me. I think the wholly innocent Gail Trimble had a similar quality and some terrible bully in me wants to rough them both up.

Jade Goody, on the other hand, has publicly rejoiced in being gross, knows almost nothing about anything, and has shown herself to be as much of a bully in her twenties as I was at six. In Big Brother she was bellicose, believed Cambridge was in London, East Anglia was abroad, and Rio de Janeiro was a person. She asked if the large spots in peacock feathers were real eyes. She claimed to find remembering the name of an Indian woman called Shilpa Shetty too difficult and called her Shilpa Poppadom. In fact, if she only knew it as Gail Trimble does, a veritable Thersites. As a result she’s very rich, gets her picture in the paper all the time, and stars in TV programmes without having to be good at anything other than repeating the character she first appeared as. She is popular, not because she is an actor playing this character, but because, we suppose, this is what she is. She was until recently the shadow princess, Di’s dark side, of flaunted ignorance and small-mindedness, and when I saw her perform on Big Brother I was dismayed not so much by her, as by the world that wanted her on their front pages and TV screens. Dismayed both by those who cheered her on as some kind of underclass hero of cultural resistance, and by those who enjoyed feeling they were better than her.

And then, near the start of another reality show in India doing penance for her racism, she was diagnosed with cancer. It was announced. Now, she is dying. It was announced. She married her beau last month in a tearful and expensive ceremony, dress provided by Diana’s wannabe father-in-law, Mohammed Al-Fayed, and photographed by OK magazine for a fee of £700,000 which will keep her two boys at private school. She will, we are assured by her publicist, die as nearly in public as she is able. ‘It’s how she loved to live, and how she wants to die.’ And along with an entire nation, I am almost won over by the focus and consistency of this ignorant, fame-hounding harridan.

She discovered in her early twenties that fame made her happy, and she now doesn’t have to find out if it’s enough to last what they call a lifetime. She hasn’t minded being the subject of laughter or contempt. She must certainly mind dying so young, but she doesn’t mind dying in public. Why should she huddle in a dark, private place?