Sorry, Richard Branson – We Didn't Care About Your Blaze
The British, at long last, are showing a healthy indifference to the ways of the super-rich.
Did anyone feel for Richard Branson and his Necker Island inferno – sympathy, empathy, anything? If not, why not? The story had all the compelling ingredients. Lightning striking the £60m private island, fire raging through the Agatha Christie-sounding Great House. Guest Kate Winslet carrying Branson's 90-year-old mother to safety. Branson racing towards the burning house, stark naked. Perhaps too much information with that last one. I hope his hot-air balloons weren't damaged.
Here was a story with everything. By "everything", I mean, billionaires and Oscar winners in peril! We'd have lapped this up in decades gone by. Fabulous, brave Kate, and her soot-smudged cheeks, carrying Granny Branson through the flames to safety – wow, it's like Titanic, only hotter.
And yet no one I've come across seems that fussed about the Necker fire. Which seems surprising, even cold. Don't the rich burn like the rest of us? Moreover, this story was akin to a 1970s disaster movie. One almost expected the late Liz Taylor to waft on to "set" in mink and pearls, until becoming engulfed in flames and falling off a balcony, still clutching a martini glass. Indeed, maybe this (the feeling of fictional characters playing movie scenes) was part of the problem. Times are hard and getting harder. These people who are richer, bigger, "better" than us – it's as if we don't have the energy for them anymore.
It seems to me that we're sick of them – "them" being the super-rich and/or mega-famous. After all this time, the penny has finally dropped that most of them wouldn't, well, piss on us if we were on fire. All that escapism was a con, a sedation of the masses. This is interesting on several levels.
Where celebrity is concerned, I've long thought that the public had been played for suckers. We are constantly and loftily informed that we are obsessed with celebrities, when it stands to reason that those most obsessed with celebrity are celebrities themselves. After all, they're the ones who fought, schemed and scrabbled to become celebrities. However, in this instance, celebrity may be the ultimate pan-cultural, socioeconomic red herring. Recently, it's the rich who've been flushed out, exposed as "different", in various unflattering ways F Scott Fitzgerald, that big suck-up, probably wouldn't have considered.
In Britain, the general attitude towards the rich and powerful seems to be shifting fast, from a default position of respect, to grudging respect, then simple resentment, right through to anger and disgust. This is for a variety of reasons: the cuts are really beginning to bite; weasel tax breaks are being offered to the top rung; and the seeming absence of homegrown Warren Buffett types insisting that their taxes be raised, because they've had it too easy.
Buffett and others have been speaking out, frequently and eloquently, on such matters, but there's not been much from British millionaires/billionaires.
Hang on, I'll just hang my head out of the window, cock my ears, see if I can hear anything from them. Nope, nothing. Of course, I don't know Branson's personal view. Arguably, he is Britain's most popular billionaire ever, someone who's managed to retain at least a semblance of blokeishness and accessibility. If even Dickie B can't get the British public interested in his near-fatal house fire, then there's no hope for the rest of them.
Yet this is the same nation that was fascinated by the woman who leapt from the burning building during the riots. For days afterwards, we wanted to know who she was, and how she was (Monika Konczyk, and fine, if you're still interested). Where was the famous Brit compassion for those on Necker – what exactly do the super-rich have to do to engage our attention and sympathy these days?
Oh I don't know. Perhaps start realizing it's a two-way street?
© 2011 Guardian/UK