By Kenneth Roy
I once got myself into the usual spot of bother at the BBC when, in a clumsy attempt to spice up one of those pointless Radio Scotland discussions, I mocked the pretensions of a well-known public figure over her use of the prefix ‘Dr’ ever since some university gave her an hon PhD. As soon as we came off-air, the producer – a lovely man called Jack Regan – announced agitatedly that the philosopher had already been on the phone. It seemed that she wasn’t taking it as philosophically as one might have expected.
Poor Jack. How could I have been so needlessly offensive? How indeed. I had casually argued that philosophy was being degraded by the dishing out of so many honorary degrees in its name to such incidental figures as entertainers, journalists and football managers, and that the prefix ‘Dr’ should only be used by the sort of doc who is qualified to administer pills. I should have guessed this would be an unpopular proposal. Any assault on human vanity usually is.
I might have succeeded in causing further offence if I had remembered to add that all those pretend doctorates, so easily come by, were an affront to the bright young people who work hard for years to earn one through the reading of books and the writing of incomprehensible theses. But it seems these delicate issues of status are sorting themselves out naturally – or, rather, violently unnaturally. In the light of recent events, it is unlikely that any PhD, earned or merely conferred, will be sticking its learned head above the parapet for some time.
Two of the nastiest murderers of recent years both have PhD associations. Stephen Griffiths, who killed three prostitutes in Bradford, was studying for one when he was arrested last year, while Vincent Tabak, convicted last week of the murder of Joanna Yeates, ‘boasted’ (according to the press) of possessing such a degree. This was too much for one Sunday newspaper columnist of nervous disposition who wrote that, if a PhD was capable of committing this terrible crime and looked as pleasant as Tabak did, she might never open the door to a stranger again.
There is a second, until now overlooked, perhaps more disturbing link between these two individuals. Both were regular readers of the Guardian, the spiritual home of the PhD.
Although I am reassured that the Guardian is widely read by kindred spirits, to say nothing of soulmates, I have decided to stick with the Morning Star and the FT.
As it happens, I know several people who swear by this newspaper. My old friend Rose Galt, if deprived of her daily fix by an unthinking snowdrift, feels mentally under-nourished and physically out of sorts for the rest of the day. I even know several people who write for it. It gives me no pleasure to contemplate the possibility that Stephen Griffiths and Vincent Tabak were regular readers of Kevin McCarra and Ian Jack. The finest mind in England (and Wales), Sir Simon Jenkins, also writes for the Guardian. It was he who once confided in me that he thought the Guardian was quite popular with students.
Ghastly as it is to do so, we must face the question: why do murderers – in particular the murderers of women – take the Guardian? I have no definitive answer at present, but an intriguing clue may have presented itself. Both Griffiths and Tabak were users of the paper’s dating service, Guardian Soulmates. A rival paper has hinted that, for Tabak to have availed himself of this service, he must have been socially dysfunctional, the suggestion being that only losers and misfits are interested in Guardian Soulmates.
It took no time at all yesterday to disprove this unworthy idea. I went straight to the home page of the internet version and looked up the dates of the day. Reassuringly, none of the half dozen or so featured clients was owning up to being a PhD or studying for a PhD. In every other respect, they were perfectly ordinary Guardian readers: what Tony Blair would call regular guys.
‘Berlinhammer’, a 31-year-old London male, beer glass in hand, is content to ‘see what happens’ before he commits to a long-term relationship, while HelloGirls (Bring.It.On.) is looking for marriage to a woman between 18 and 100; girls of 101 need not apply. There are women on the home page, too, including Anita Vestoff (‘Russian striptease artist’), aged 54, whose body type is ‘average’ and who is in the market for a man in the vulnerable 55-65 range. It is possible, of course, that Ms Vestoff is actually Dr Vestoff and a keen student of Sir Simon’s weekly column, but chooses to disguise her credentials.
Although I am reassured that the Guardian is widely read by kindred spirits, to say nothing of soulmates, I have decided to stick with the Morning Star and the FT. The former was once the paper of choice for people who believed in indiscriminate murder – hundreds of thousands at a time if the need arose – and the latter is read mainly by people whose homicidal instincts are confined to national economies.
Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review