Simon Mark Smith (




Ben Elton, a founding father of the
‘alternative scene’, stands as one of the
most successful and pioneering writer and
performers. In ‘Gridlock@’ disability is one of
his main themes. Ignoring the fact that Ben
Elton doesn’t appear to be a member of the
disabled communIty, I’ve tried to judge the
book by its depth of understanding of disabIlity.

Disability is one theme of ‘Gridlock’ the other is the
motorised vehicle and its effect both socially and
environmentally. Misuse of the car has resulted in
incapacitation rather than liberation. He connects the two
themes and this automatically puts disability in a negative light.
A light in which disability spends most of its time in this book.
The trouble with this novel is that it’s not as simple as it being
a straightforward success or failure. One moment Elton will be
relating classic moments of social discrimination, with sensitivity
and insight, and tthe next he will be making gross generalisatlons
that are not accurate and show him up to be a fraud, if not an
intentional one. The book is at times embarrassingly flawed,
which is sad as it occasionally almost wins awareness gold stars with
portrayals of common situations experienced by many
disabled people. For example, not being allowed to use
public transport. being patronised at a job interview and
having a wheelchair used as a coat hanger.

He chooses to use the actions of someone (Geoffrey)
with cerebral palsy as something to laugh at. It’s true you
can laugh at anything if you want to but for disabled
people being laughed at is not a main aim in life –
although other people maybe think that is what we are
designed for. Elton uses the actions resulting from
having cerebral palsy to ‘endear’ the main character to
the reader, he writes, ‘And pausing only to knock the
glass of water off Deborah’s beside table, Geoffrey
explained the events of the day’ ‘bollocks’ he said,
or rather ‘bugles’, an exclamation which he
accompanied with an impulsive looking gesture of

When Elton writes ‘He (Geoffrey) hated being
patronised”, the writer should also have seen that
,however unwittingly, he then goes on to consistently
patronise his disabled characters throughout. Firstly, he
uses disability as a comic device. Secondly, he nearly
always relates to them in terms of their disabilities. As in
‘Yes’ jerked Geoffrey wearily’ or ‘Deborah parked her
converted car. Thirdly he regularly refers to his main
character as ‘Geoffrey Spasmo’, arguing that this is his
character’s way of rebelling against the misuse of the
word ‘spastic’. This in itself is like justifying anti-semitic
humour because Jews joke about Jews themselves.
But self aimed black humour is not ok if it’s used to
laugh at rather than with the originator.
Perhaps Elton is trying to make the reader feel part of
the outcast group in order to identify with them.

Though Elton tries to avoid stereotyped images of disabled
people he counteracts this by regularly lecturing the
reader with ‘facts’ about disability which on the whole are
wrong or misguided. They range from ‘Like many people
with disabilities (he) was dependent on public transport’
or ‘you will never hear a disabled person say ‘money
doesn’t mean much to me’. Are these statistically
recorded or just assumptions Elton has reached from
observing disabled friends – that is if he still has any after
writing ‘Gridlock’?

So finally one must ask, should Ben Elton have
published a book on disability while so ill informed? In an
ideal sense he should not, because though he will be
getting people to question their ideas on disability’ he
may not be pointing them in the right direction. However
in a politically pragmatic sense the answer is probably
yes. In one publication Mr Elton will reach more people
and start the cogs turning in minds where the wheel still
needs to be invented, and from this he will have more effect than a
hundred “disability” demonstrations. Having Ben Elton write a book
on this subject will lend weight to the movement, as his
signature is a seal of approval in many people minds
This may result in other people becoming genuinely
interested in the issues of disability rights and culture.
The thing is with such shaky foundations can we build
something worth sheltering under?