The rather bizarre cover of the Observer Magazine on 2 March 1969 (‘Self Improvement’) features a knighted Alf Garnett giving an after-dinner speech.
‘It’s hard to imagine Alf Garnett… making friends and influencing people,’ it says. ‘Yet if he joined in Britain’s current mania for self-improvement… it’s likely that even Alf would end up a rather different person.’
‘You can be elegant, unworried, always in demand,’ it promises inside, ‘speak foreign languages, read faster, master the art of appearing on TV; know how to dance, cook, arrange flowers, fish, make speeches, hold your place in the boardroom; have a body like you-know-who, and be able to persuade people to say “yes” when they want to say “no”’. (But nothing on how to be less racist for Alf.)
There is a lot of fake niceness. ‘Make a person feel important: appear to take his views seriously.’ Writer Eric Clark quotes Robert Maxwell who said that ‘while fighting for the News of the World, among his first steps if successful would be to have discussions with management and staff and “I would ask them for guidance”. He might have derived genuine help from it; in any event he would have made everyone he asked feel dignified as a person.’ Possibly the only time Maxwell and dignity have been mentioned in the same breath.
There’s shocking sexism not untypical of its time. ‘A personnel manager asked how he chooses between two equally qualified people for a job said: “If it’s two men, I flip a coin; if it’s two women, I take the prettier.”’
However, some things haven’t changed at all. ‘The self-improvement industry thrives partly on its large dropout rate: the number not completing a course may easily total over 50%.’ I’m looking at you, gym membership. As for the idea of Sir Alf Garnett, that would have seemed as unlikely as a man on the moon.