The Oxford 'Posh Girls' Guide and the Death of Satire

30/08/2012 22:08 BST | Updated 30/10/2012 09:12 GMT

Like most students who rarely summon the energy to go out at the weekend, I am a big fan of Al Murray, best known as the jocular pub landlord (and less famous as an Oxford history graduate). Every week the stereotypical jingoist used to grace our screens, slandering just about everything that wasn't British. Lampooning Germans was a particular favourite. However the audience, tickled pink by his rabidly patriotic routine, understood that the show was a farce. No one left the studio fired up with nationalistic rage. No, they had a chuckle and went home. Because the obvious truth is that Al Murray isn't a xenophobe; nor does he incite xenophobia.

Writing 'A Guide to Dating Posh Girls' for Cherwell, the 96-year-old Oxford University newspaper, I placed tremendous belief in 'Murray's Law' - namely that in a sufficiently ridiculous context otherwise objectionable remarks could elicit harmless humour. Fearlessly therefore, I asserted that posh girls are terrified of venturing to the North, that they are all secretly Conservatives and, most controversially, that they will have had frequent sex from a young age. Following the national uproar this provoked, characterised by screaming headlines and Twitter's self-righteous convulsions, my faith is waning.

I was greatly touched that amidst the week's hard-hitting stories - the revelation that Harry has genitalia being the most significant - the national newspapers found space to report my 'Posh Girls' piece, and the subsequent controversy it raised. Thus I briefly entered the national spotlight in a rather ignominious fashion. I've long harboured ambitions to get into the newspaper business, though I'd hoped to write the articles rather than feature in them.

You have to be quite a tough nut to be catapulted from obscurity to national infamy whilst holding your nerve. The calls, texts and emails are relentless. Total strangers start tearing you apart. In the eye of the storm, your public popularity lies somewhere between that of Al Qaeda and E. Coli. Indeed one cannot maintain any sort of ego. A particularly cruel chap called Chen, commenting on the Daily Mail article, had this to say: "No wonder he can't get any good/posh girls. He looks dreadful". Well Chen, notwithstanding the Mail's heroic efforts at impartiality, that's also how I felt.

Read literally, 'Posh Girls' is odious. That's why my apology to the offended readers remains; they were my words, so the responsibility rests with me. But it's precisely because the remarks were objectionable that they were placed in a deeply insincere and self-deprecating context. It was written to be phenomenally, obviously and rigorously ridiculous. And whilst my satirical skills were perhaps inadequate, the intent was clear.

The aim was to gently mock ridiculous generalisations and make people chuckle along the way. Endowed with a dollop of common sense, anyone would have understood the remarks as being employed satirically and sarcastically. The suggestion that all 'posh girls' are covert Tories may contain a nugget of truth. All humour does. But only a witless cretin would interpret that as an explicit allegation pertaining to each and every upper-class female.

Well not just a witless cretin, rival student journalists too. Everyone knows that Oxford politics is a viciously competitive affair whose practitioners are every bit as duplicitous and conniving as the ones in Westminster. The same is true of student journalism. Cherwell exists in competition with the Oxford Student, the student union paper, and there is no love lost between them. The latter regards itself as Oxford's moral compass. Indeed they were so outraged by my piece that they... reprinted it in full (strictly in the public interest of course). On the same day the Sun defended its publication of Prince Harry's nude Vegas pictures as similarly in 'the public interest'. Which claim, I would ask sardonically, is the more credible?

I understand that not everyone is an Al Murray enthusiast. Some people do consider him to be a xenophobe. They're probably the same people who think I've started a misogynistic class-war. Though countless well-wishers have encouraged me to, I'm not just going to tell them to 'get a sense of humour', for that would diminish the seriousness of a far more saddening phenomenon. I feel sorry for those people. It must be unpleasant to go through life expecting hatred and horror at every turn. The world must seem scary, hostile and morally bankrupt - when really it isn't. On second thoughts though, save your pity. It is far more unpleasant for the people against whom this PC mob turns.

It would be a great shame were satire to die in the public sphere, as cases like mine indicate it has. Occasionally there will be misinterpretations of intent. Writers should therefore do their best to disambiguate their language and style. But that's only half the problem. The only full solution would be a disclaimer: 'I don't really mean x and y and z'. I immediately feel empty at the thought. It would patronise readers, most of whom are wholly aware of the jest. To immunise satire from causing offence, one would have to kill it. Let's not.