THE curse of celebrity is that whatever you do is endlessly fascinating to the fan. If you put out the rubbish, how charmingly ordinary; if the rubbish is put out by a flunky in gold-sequined tails, how charmingly eccentric. In I Was . . . (Radio 4, Thursday of last week), in which flunkies to the stars recount their prize anecdotes, we get to indulge a fascination which is universal.
Last week, we heard about Stanley Kubrick — but it was the main character who held our interest: Anthony Frewin, an excellent, albeit under-stated, raconteur who has latterly found success as a scriptwriter.
Indeed, the best story of the half-hour has nothing to do with Kubrick at all, and everything to do with the English working mentality of the 1970s. Instructed by Kubrick to source Post-it notes for the production team, Frewin rings up the one company that supplies them, and asks whether Post-it notes could be made in different colours and sizes.
His enquiry is met with a sigh: “If there were other colours and other sizes, there would be no end to it!”
Of making many Post-it notes, as the author of Ecclesiastes tells us of books, there is no end. We cannot help commenting, whether by sticking bits of paper on documents or sticking our thoughts into a message on Twitter. In The Purity Spiral (Radio 4, Sunday) the journalist Gavin Hayes provided two case-studies in which the need to post comments online had driven a spiral of moral censorship that was no less ugly because the triggers for these “spirals” were debates about young adult fiction and knitting.
Nathan Taylor is famous in knitting circles. A YouTube and Instagram star, his patterns and methods are followed by thousands. When, in July 2018, he started a conversation about diversity in the knitting community and about minority representation, using the hashtag Diversknitty, he no doubt thought that he was doing something worthy.
Only when a torrent of lexical excreta descended on him from social media did he understand that he might, unwittingly, be a white supremacist, a Nazi, and all sorts besides. What this, and similar cases, demonstrate, according to Hayes, is the vulnerability of small, introverted communities to “a culture of moral outbidding”: a rush to the moral high ground.
Appalling as these instances are, one wonders whether Hayes overplays his own hand. One cannot ignore the nature of the stage on which all this abuse is played out. The immediacy with which social media enables us to connect our most intimate aggressions with a global audience creates a storm which seems so much greater than the teapot.
Nevertheless, there are professional academics — notably Professor Kehinde Andrews, a proponent of Critical Race Theory — who regard the “white supremacist” slur as entirely understandable within the context of contemporary race politics. Needless to say, he is big on Twitter.