Friday, December 05, 2008

Shannon Matthews

The Shannon Matthews case - deftly summarised by Andrew Norfolk - was very 'fish and chippy'. This is an expression Fleet Street newsdesks  once used. It meant that a story was sordid and low life. They didn't say this out of snobbery, they said it because such stories should not be given too much prominence - or reported at all - because they were simply grim and added nothing to human wisdom. That's all changed, of course, fish and chippiness is now the media's default mode. TV news bulletins at 6pm blithely detail crimes that were once never discussed and the newspapers report Matthews-like cases in frenetic and slavering detail. The inevitable 'public interest' line has emerged - was this another social services cock-up? - so the fish and chips are now flavoured with the salt and vinegar of social concern. Well, yes, but anybody who thinks that's why the media was reporting this in such detail is, of course, naive. But why do we report it? Because, I suppose, it's exciting in a ghoulish, lurid way and because it makes people feel that, however bad they are, they're not this bad. But there's another aspect to the meaning of 'fish and chippy'. It also means routine, it contains within it the wisdom that, however good our social services, however concerned out society, children will continue to be abducted, abused and exploited, probably at more or less the same rate as they have been throughout history. It may seem a terrible thing to say but child abuse is a banality, an evil banality certainly, but a banality nonetheless. Maybe we can do a more now to limit the damage, and so we should, but I doubt that we can do much. These stories are blank walls on which we scribble our fantasies and our need for moral sustenance. Perhaps they should be put back in the file labelled 'too fish and chippy'.


  1. Some sort of good might come of these fish and chippy stories if the 'lessons' people took from them were meaningful.

    But as usual everyone just hammers the social services, or talks about 'broken Britain' and TV dinners and the fact that schookids don't get caned. This is all nonsense because most of Britain is nice and middle class and unbroken.

    What we ought to be talking about is the fact that in every British town and city there is at least one estate which three generations of welfarism has turned into a lawless, valueless ghetto. Shameless played this for laughs, but these places are, in a very real sense, hopeless.

  2. From what you say, Fleet Street probably did say so out of snobbery, or if not that precisely then a misguided conviction that their readers were dim and Fleet Street knew better. I'm thankful those days are gone. Were stories like this not widely reported and so deftly summarized - together with the equally depressing stories about drugs and the gun culture - then we might have an excuse about not knowing about what life is like in the grim estates on the outskirts of most large towns. These stories just make me cross. One such ghetto is too many and there must be hundreds or thousands. What an unattractive country we've become, obsessed with status and mortgages!

  3. I agree with Brit. In our nice, middle-class, unbroken household last night there was much swearing when the BBC thought it was better to cancel Little Dorrit and show us a hastily compiled Panorama on the Shannon Matthews case instead - because obviously they haven't provided quite enough detail about this thoroughly dismal case already. Not so much widely reported as completely overdone, I think. (And before you all start jeering, I know that Little Dorrit is not the best literary adaptation ever, but I was looking forward to switching off my brain and looking at all those lovely dresses.)

  4. They may have missed the irony, much of Fleet Streets output is only fit to hold fish and chips, many journalists unfit to comment on society.
    The rub is of course how much we, the British taxpayer fund the lifestyle of these people and one of the main reasons for its existence. Try cutting it off, now.

  5. I come from a council estate in Sheffield called Parson Cross, when I grew up in a good catholic family we went to church on Saturday and Sunday and generally stayed for the social event afterwords usually bingo, when my mum had problems with brother skipping school the priest came around for a chat, when there was a problem the solution usually involved someone you knew thru the church. No it was not idilic, it was hard, but most people behaved themselves, mum stayed home and looked after the home and kids and dad went to work all week, we had some sort of order, and yes we did get the cane and slipper at school.

    Now all this is lost, rival gangs usually based on race shoot each other most days, Karen Mathews are ten a penny, children attack other children most of the day, most live on the state largess, drug and crime are everywhere.

    Whats happened is simple we have replaced the family and community, with a surrogate family and community, the state. Modern values do work for most, and most of Britain is not broken, but these values dont work for all, moral relativism is poison if you have no purpose to living, and in effect the middle class which I am now one off apparently, are paying off the underclass so they can live their lives in comfort and only have to read about those terrible people some place else.

    I lived in south Africa for a while, and even years after apartheid you felt the social divide, and sitting hear looking out on the snowy pennine hills only 6 miles from where I grew up I feel the same divide.

    btw, I am an agnostic, I am not calling for the rebuilding of the church, but when you tear something of value down you better replace it with something as good if not better.

  6. My mother's family were working class Rotherham folk. It's interesting comparing my grandmother's life with that of my mother's sister, and my cousins. My grandfather died when my mother was about 3 or 4 (1950ish) and from then on my grandmother had to work (as a cleaner) to keep things going - 3 kids, no dad. Whenever a bill came in she would pay it instantly. She wasn't a nice person but she was decent, if that makes sense - she had a sense of honour, of what was right, which i would largely agree with: pay your way, don't lean on anyone, never beg, never grovel.

    My mother's sister (born about 1945 i think), by contrast, has never worked a day in her life and is proud of this. She is an inveterate sponge without shame or even the vestiges of decency, her entire purpose in life is to take money from other people, whether it be the State or my mother.

    My various cousins are all armed robbers or drug addicts.

  7. A squalid little English story.

  8. Britian today has many faults but is it really so shit? 100 years ago children were sweeping chimneys. Not long before that children were working 14 hour factory shifts and dying before they were 20.
    The only real golden age was twenty years or so after the creation of the welfare state. And if the economic downturn is as savage as they say we may even look back on today as a golden age.