Mail has done it again. If you thought their parodies of middle England
couldn’t get any more sublimely perfect, they’ve outdone themselves.
The latest satirist of genius to join
their esteemed ranks is Charlotte Metcalf. In an article called ‘Merry
Christmas? Along with millions of other middle class families, I can't
afford one’, the writer, purporting to be a journalist, laments the
state of her finances. The genius of the conception is that the
journalist was, until recently, earning a lot of money (£1200 per week)
but now was having to scrape a pitiful living on a little over double
the minimum wage.
It doesn’t sound funny but it really is.
She begins by lamenting that she can’t shop at Harrods any more and
extols its virtues in a way that make it seem completely ridiculous and
her extraordinarily trivial (you can send your purchases downstairs so
you don’t have to be ‘hulking heavy bags’ around the shop). She fondly
remembers doing up their country house (added to the two they had in
London - oh, and the second cottage that she mentions in an aside they
bought as an investment) and fussing over the ‘kitchen, oohing and
aahing over Farrow & Ball paint and butler sinks’. In a moment of
Onion-like magnificence the supposed narrator, wide-eyed in horror,
observes that even Boden is getting too expensive. Imagine!
Like a contemporary Dickens she
populates her story with an assortment of contemporary grotesques. She
talks about her friends being in ‘quiet despair’ because they can’t
afford to do things like buy their fifteen-year-old daughter an iPad.
She even creates a hilarious vision of her own pampered child,
reminiscent of Violet Beauregard from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, who simply will not accept not receiving exactly what she wants. Of course, we’re supposed to infer between the lines exactly where the child got these appalling values.
In a bravura passage, Metcalf looks
shudderingly at the Christmas she has ahead of her. In a complex piece
of layered irony, she recalls spending £50 on Christmas ribbon, now she
claims to have discovered that this is ‘truly shocking. Obscene even’.
The most extraordinary touch of satirical magic - though one that risks
being too absurd, too revolting to be quite plausible - is the
narrator’s description of people in her position as the ‘nouveaux
pauvres’. It’s so perfect; turning poverty into fashion (poor is the new
rich); the use of French; the phrasemaking self-regard.
There’s no explanation of why she has
fallen so far. What did she do as a ‘TV and film producer’? What was
this ‘business’ that she set up with her husband? What happened to her
investments? She doesn’t say, but that’s of course the crowning joke.
She doesn’t have to say because the character’s sense of sheer
entitlement overwhelms any sense of realism in her situation at all and
that is, of course, the brilliant point.
Much modernist-era fiction - especially in the comic mode - uses the device of the fallible narrator. I think of Diary of a Nobody, of course, but Augustus Carp, Esq. is equally good, and then, in a more complex way, there is The Conscience of Zeno
by Italo Svevo. This is in that tradition. Charlotte Metcalf is an
extraordinary creation and of course pungently satirical because she
stands for everything in our society that, while pretending to deep
sympathy, cruelly turns its back on the real suffering of other people
and refuses to understand that the real source of their misery is the
behaviour, attitudes and privileges of people like Charlotte Metcalf.
You can read the article here. It won’t take you to the Daily Mail; much though I love their comedy, I don’t want to send them any more traffic. I want to keep them to myself.