Formal education is a privilege and gift to be cherished. The freedom to read, argue, debate, summon evidence and make connections between disparate ideas creates both satisfaction and a desire to transcend the banality of our daily lives. To love learning is to become more than we are.
But this belief in education, reading, writing and thinking requires not only commitment but a context that values transgression, risk and difference. My family’s history is filled with people too busy making a living to be distracted by books. My grandfather had a bushman’s education: he learnt numbers, how to sign his name and count money. My father – who possesses a truly brilliant mind – was able to attend school more regularly but was given the (only) chance granted to a bright, physically able and dependable young man of his age: an apprenticeship. Kevin became a carpenter. He learnt to measure twice and cut once. He learnt how to saw without removing a finger. To this day, he can build a set of shelves faster than Nigella Lawson can lick a chocolate cake bowl. This was skill development before the Blairite third way ‘invented’ generic competences and work-based education.
It was my mother who lived the oddest life. She moved from tiny rural school to tiny rural school throughout her childhood. Often she was the only child in a particular grade, scavenging knowledge from the curriculum a year below and above her. In those days, no one cared about her career goals, lifelong learning, generic competencies or work-based education. Born in 1930, education was not something that girls ‘did,’ so she served in a shop as soon as she could escape the school gates. She weighed potatoes, cut pumpkins, sliced cheese and made ice cream. After a stint in a grocery shop, she moved into jewellery retailing where she sold pieces worth more than her yearly wage to people who cared little for the life, passion or interests of the short blonde behind the counter or the millions of people like her who make a living by serving the affluent and often ungrateful.
From this background of shuffling between schools, serving customers who cared more about groceries and gold than books and brainpower, she had time to think, and think differently. She watched the world as a disconnected observer rather than a participant. The sayings and rules based on this experience – about life, death, work and money – have punctuated the daily rhythms of our family. Whenever confronted by a difficult situation in my private or professional life, one of these maxims juts into my mind to provide both comfort and guidance. An early favourite from her years in retail was, “beauty may be only skin deep, but ugly goes right to the bone.” Such a statement is a way to understand the behaviour of those who connect the size of a pay packet with the value of a person.
I realized the impact of this non-standard education and life experience when reading the transcripts of Ricky Gervais’s podcasts. The book, called The World of Karl Pilkington and released by Fourth Estate, displays the world view of the odd man featured in the title. Like my mother, he lacked formal education. Book reading was not a priority. Instead, he kept his eyes open and tried to reconcile the strangeness, inconsistencies, injustice and inequality he found around him with what he knew to be right. These interpretations of the world were not based on logic, but his experience of making a life operate when times were tough.
Pilkington grew up on a Manchester council estate and was often pulled away from school for caravanning holidays with his parents. He never collected his exam results. He now weaves this odd life with ‘facts’ he finds on the internet. The resulting dialogue creates funny, disturbing and thought provoking listening in the podcasts and a twisting and shunting of ideas via the printed page.
Ricky Gervais and Steve Merchant met Pilkington when he was the Head of Production at XFM, a radio station where they presented a show. Yet Gervais is clear on his ‘intelligence’: ‘received wisdom says there’s a fine line between a genius and an idiot. Not true. Karl’s an idiot, plan and simple. Very simple. Some people have proclaimed him a genius, but they’re idiots.’ Gervais was correct, but in ways he did not mean. The idiot and the fool have occupied a pivotal place in not only comedic history, but tragedy. Shakespeare’s fool in King Lear and Dostoevsky’s Idiot show how dark truths can unsettle the views of the powerful. But it is Eccles in The Goon Show that is the great precedent for Pilkington. Working in the spaces between logic, missing malapropisms and metaphors, his reinsciptions of the literal truth – like those comedic interventions by Eccles – hold a heuristic function. These non standard thinkers may be wrong, but they agitate the assumptions of our lives in their journey through errors, inconsistencies and paradox. Because they have lived differently, they think defiantly. Pilkington invented phrases like the ‘mental homeless.’ He critiques consumer culture: ‘choice is good, but not too much.’
Ignoring metaphors creates this clarity. Perhaps the funniest podcast was when Pilkington probed the proverb ‘People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.’ He missed the metaphor and read it as ‘Just don’t be chucking stuff about, really.’ While Gervais tried to correct him, demonstrating the rationale behind not attacking others because this assault will be returned, Pilkington preferred his interpretation. Throughout the podcasts, whenever Gervais or Merchant ridiculed him or unraveled his argument, Pilkington calmly responded that he was satisfied with his own interpretation. It suited his life and context. There was no need to change because others termed him crazy, stupid or illogical. The calm confidence is pedagogic for us all.
It is these odd observations of life that are most caustic to daily routines and reality. Because they are untethered from rationality does not reduce their influence. My mother, on watching a Barry Manilow music video, shook her head and warned, ‘never trust a man wearing white shoes.’ Not only is that an important elucidation on the life and music of Manilow, but I have found it a useful marking criteria for masculinity more generally. It is arbitrary, but accurate. White shoes signify bigger problems: a desire to be either a skateboarding hoodie or John Travolta.
While Doris had more domestic concerns, it was Karl Pilkington’s view of technology – while recording a podcast – that is stunning, critiquing with incisor sharpness both hyperconsumption and the branding of goods.
KP: No, but my thing with iPods is – do we need ’em? We’re living in that era now where we’ve invented most of the stuff that we need, and now we’re just messing about …
RG: Well think about what happened in the twentieth century.
KP: Go on.
RG: Cars, planes.
KP: Yeah, but is that a good thing, planes and that? Do you need a plane really? Wouldn’t it have been better if we were all stuck where we should be, instead of travelling about?
KP: War. War’s happening because everyone’s saying, ‘Well now we can fly, we’ll go over there and invade that lot.’
Certainly, the flaw in logic is that wars existed before the arrival of commercial flights. But if chronology is excused, then his intervention is timely in critiquing the fetishization of new technology that may improve lifestyle but may corrupt a life.
War encourages such insights. My mother, when asked about her thoughts on the second Iraq War, paused for a moment, took a breath and stated, ‘everyone should stay in their own territories.’ She then went back to making lunch. The simplicity of the answer belays the effectiveness of the outcome. It is the respect for space and the need for difference that marks these aberrant thinkers as valuable during a time of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders and hand-wringing over social exclusion.
Besides technology and war, Pilkington also captured a grittily realist portrayal of fame and success. When Gervais and Merchant asked him who he would become if he could choose any person in the world, he refused to answer. When continually pushed, he said Bruce Willis because Pilkington did not want ‘a lot of responsibility.’ But he also realized that ‘with people who have a lot of money come other worries.’ Money was neither his goal nor objective.
RG: Sorry, you just went from a job where you were the Head of Production at a radio station to …
KP: Well, it was an alright wage but I wasn’t happy, so it’s pointless innit?
RG: I know that, but to go from the head of a department on a lot of money to walking dogs and doing a paper round …
KP: I know but it’s about being happy innit?
RG: I know, that’s commendable if it’s true.
As the podcasts continued, Gervais’s and Merchant’s attacks on Pilkington become more negative and aggressive. They want Pilkington to think like them and share their values about work, science, women and reality. He refuses. The power of his negation is important. He wants a simple life of few choices, being happy in his present and with no desire to be anywhere else or hold regrets.
My mother holds similar views. From a young age, she blocked the development of ruthlessness and competitiveness in her children. She told us to ‘always leave a little bit for the other fella.’ This has been one of her most useful mantras. Never attack, destroy or demean another person. Never complain about cash or the importance of being right. Always leave a little bit for the other fella. Money was obviously important to her, but she had rules for its acquisition.
We never earn big money by working. If you’ve made real money, you’ve taken it off someone else.
Every dollar that you’re not meant to have will turn dirty on you.
All her rules are safeguards against callousness, meanness, self absorption and greed. Yet she also has a fixation with death, and the inevitability of change and decline. We have only been on a flight together twice in our lives. On the second occasion, she was so riveted by the view that she stared out of the window for most of the trans-continental flight. Nearing the end of the journey, she turned to me and – in a quiet but clear voice – stated, ‘people have to die or else the change would kill them.’
Pilkington was similarly fixated on death, time and history: ‘I don’t think I would go back. It’s all happened now hasn’t it’ and ‘everything I’ve been through I’ve been through, so why see it again?’ With talk shows transforming into a Freud for Beginners therapy session, perhaps the greatest political statement we can make is to live – fully and completely – in the present, without envy, avarice or anger towards the past or the future.
Pilkington has intervened in a world where science is truth, marketing and consumerism are celebrated with religious zeal, and making money is the overarching ambition of life. He may be a fool, but there are truths from his knight’s move cognition. Such rare and precious people, like Pilkington, give us perspective and unsettle us to think with consciousness and agency. Whenever I feel a complaint or whinge building in my throat, I stop the moaning with a memory of my mother’s most important mantra: ‘things could be worse – you could be dead.’
The task for those of us who have experienced the gift of education, the pleasures of reading and the space for critical thinking is to use our expertise for intervention and agitation, rather than consumerism and satiation. Particularly at Christmas, we need to always leave a little bit for the other fella, as long as he is not wearing white shoes.