I must admit to snigger-spitting my Sugar Smacks recently as I read an interview with Eddie Izzard in the Times. (Odd, because he’s never made me laugh before.) He spoke thus: ‘I would have been a soldier if I’d knew which war I’d have to fight. I was ready to apply but when you join the armed forces you fight where you’re sent. I parked the idea.’ Later on in the interview he opines – and Izzard is a proper Opiner, whereas most of us just say things – ‘Fears are there to be conquered. I’ve gone from playing the streets of London to the Hollywood Bowl. But the biggest thing I ever did was walk out of the door 31 years ago in heels and make-up.’ I couldn’t help but think that somehow, just somehow, the British armed forces may well struggle on without him.
It’s predictable, despite the lashings of lippie and runnels of rouge regularly sported by this dainty droll, that Izzard would see himself as a bit of a man of action on the quiet – and not just because he is a passionate pro-EUer. (Writing those words always make me think of Joseph Heller’s anti-hero Bruce ‘Good As’ Gold, who is a strong believer in ‘fiery caution’ and ‘crusading inertia’.) It’s always the people with the cushiest jobs, in my experience, who feel the greatest need to concern themselves with those who do work which is, literally, a matter of life and death – from a safe distance, of course.
We all know that entertainers are capable of spouting a quite mind-boggling level of tripe. Take Russell Brand, who once said the following about his performances: ‘The light is so bright that all that remains is you and the darkness. You can feel the audience breathing. It’s like holding a gun or standing on a precipice and knowing you must jump.’ But it is when they compare their plush playpens to the reality of those whose jobs involve real danger that this moves from the amusing to the offensive.
The usual suspects among the first eleven of insufferable show-biz toe-rags all make a good showing here. In 2013, Kanye West said of the possibility that he might stumble during his stage act ‘And if I slipped…I think about my family and I’m like, wow, this is like being a police officer or something, in war or something. I’m putting my life at risk, literally.’ Between eating straw and steaming her vagina, Gwyneth Paltrow found the time in 2014 to compare the hacking of celebrity social media accounts thus: ‘It’s almost like how, in war, you go through this bloody, dehumanising thing.’ Pleasingly, a highly-decorated young soldier saw fit to write her a highly sarcastic open letter: ‘I can only imagine the difficulty of waking up in a 12,000 square foot Hollywood home and having your assistant retrieve your iPhone, only to see that the battery is low and someone on Twitter has written a mean word or two about you…let me be the first to burst your bubble – a long line at Starbucks, your driver being three minutes late, a scuff mark on your $1200 shoes and a mean Tweet do not constitute difficulty in the eyes of a soldier.’ Liz Hurley notoriously described non-pretendys as ‘civilians’, saying that she could never date one because they wouldn’t be able to deal with the ‘pressure’. She also once said of Marilyn Monroe ‘I’d kill myself if I was that fat’.
It’s interesting, though, to look back to the shining beacon of Saint Marilyn to see how actors can, and should, conduct themselves with reference to real people. When it came to war, living legends were once content to be a tonic for the troops. Marilyn herself was somewhat sympathetic to Communism – ‘They’re for the people, aren’t they?’ she once said, when asked about the Red Threat supposedly stalking Hollywood in her heyday. Yet she happily entertained US troops in South Korea, while her fellow legend Marlene Dietrich went so far as to refer to her extensive war work as ‘The only worthwhile thing I have ever done.’
What have we lost since this time, that entertainers are more likely to compare themselves to the people who lay down their lives for our civilisation rather than seek to simply entertain them? Last month, Bono actually suggested to a Senate subcommittee – stressing he was serious several times – that comedians should be deployed to counter the genocidal progress of Isis, opining (he’s another Opiner) that wise-cracks could defeat them in a way Western fire-power could not.
This shameful showing is a soft-centred version of those awful incidents wherein soldiers with obvious war-wounds have been asked not to use public swimming pools for fear of frightening some vile middle-class brat. The willingness of the armed forces to sacrifice their lives on a daily basis – not for their country these days, but for the far greater goal of freedom – quite rightly brings home to the rest of us how lazy, shallow and just plain dull most of the ways we make a living are. People with a healthy level of self-esteem can accept that they are cowards compared to these men and women, and get on with their lives. But those who are both fragile and narcissistic cannot accept the fact that they should naturally have to look up to some people, and it makes them feel frightened and angry. Thus, in the Age Of Entitlement, the words of John Stuart Mill ring true: ‘War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.’