Something's rotten in the state of Britain

John Bird Oct 4, 2012
John Bird

"The grim world of the 1970s is seen as cuddly compared with today"

I have been reading my kids Mr Stink by David Walliams, the tall guy in the Little Britain programme. Mr Stink is a homeless man, more like the old-fashioned ‘tramps’ than one of the newer versions, created by misguided economic policy, family failure and all the other tragic ingredients.

When I was a boy, ‘tramps’ (from ‘to tramp’, to move around the country) were the norm, and occasionally you do see the old type in our cities. But Walliams’ story does not alight on the newer, but the more traditional homeless, and you can understand why.

Many of them were ‘posh’, fallen from better times. Now most of our homeless people come from poor housing, poor social circumstances, out of local authority care, prison and also from the army.

But Walliams is not writing a social document; rather he is writing a morality tale. And despite some of the references going over the heads of my five-year-old and seven-year-old – the book is for ages nine and over – it is vastly enjoyable.

Which is what a story should be. I have not got to the end, so I don’t know the denouement and who gets what in the end. But I found myself reading more than the two bedtime chapters I was planning on reading.

One reason is the character of the mum. Mother is a snob, obviously some prospective Tory MP on the make, a kind of insincere version of Margaret Thatcher who uses the homeless Mr Stink to gain political prominence.

The author continues the now orthodox posture of being ‘anti grown-up’ that Roald Dahl used so effectively, pointing out on so many occasions that indulged and badly behaved children are the
result of badly behaving parents. You can, of course, see children in a different light if you see the parents who produce them.

But what Walliams does is take this orthodoxy and narrow it down to a kind of political angle. The enemy in this book is the Tory. It is the ‘on the make’ Thatcherite mother who produces, surprisingly, lovely Chloe – defender and supporter of Mr Stink – and sister Annabelle, another mother in the making.

Chloe, of course, takes after her father, an affable, loveable man and a former guitarist in the group The Serpents of Doom. Until mum burns his guitar and gets him to work in a car factory.

Snide, snitching Annabelle is even worse than the mother because at least you can laugh at the elder’s crass and obvious social climbing. Annabelle needs a conversion. So does the mother. As I have not got to the end, I cannot say whether or not they get the conversion.

At the moment, in the story Annabelle is the arse, a product of the worst kind of social
nurturing, while Chloe is the product of the best kind, or is simply an individual who has survived indoctrination. In the same way that Roald Dahl’s Matilda, in the book of the same name, survives her oikish parents.

Introducing children to the real world beyond the kindergarten and the nursery, and the protection of mum and dad, is a delicate balancing act. I know that with my two, smells are very important and the smellier Mr Stink is the funnier he becomes. The smells are presumably an olfactory way for Walliams to introduce the real world of social collapse.

But there’s also gentility, because Mr Stink is definitely upper class, with none of the boorish values of the aspirant Tory mother. He has real class and does not have to scramble up some edifice to get it.

Mr Stink is not a contemporary story. It looks back, probably to the 1970s. But Mr Stink tells us a lot about Britain at the moment.

The fact that we still look backwards to a lost world where things were simpler. That we are now in a sticky place that can be relieved by stories and some fun. Even James Bond is now part of our deep culture. For that grim world of the 1970s is seen as cuddly compared with today.

Walliams has caught that nostalgia seen everywhere – even Margaret Thatcher seems more ‘real’ than many politicians of today. And what a perilous world of leadership we seem to be in.

John Bird is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Big Issue. If you have any comments please email John at: or tweet him: @johnbirdswords

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