The road to liberty, via Linford Christie's lunchbox

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The Independent Culture
FOR A whole week now I have been unable to think of anything except Linford Christie's lunchbox.

Don't mistake me: I have been consumed neither by envy nor nostalgia. However tragic it is to see the lunchbox of youth declining into the afternoon- tea trolley of middle age, a man must accept what nature intends for him. Soon it will be the cold supper tray of senility, and after that, the worm's breakfast. To which fate all lunchboxes, not excluding Linford Christie's, must come.

So no, it is not the ploughman's itself I have been thinking about all week, but the exemplary blankness of His Honour Mr Justice Popplewell - presiding judge in Christie's libel suit against John McVicar - as to the precise meaning of the term lunchbox when applied with approbation to an athlete, or to anyone else for that matter.

In the good old days, when all our lunchboxes were as full and unreliable as a Virgin train, we expected High Court judges to show ignorance of popular people and their appurtenances. They set an example to the rest of us. Call it negative vicariousness.

We needed someone not to know anything about all those personalities of whom we knew too much, to be free of the world's tittle-tattle on our behalf, in much the same way as we want there to be celibacy in the world without our having to be the ones who practise it.

A priest has higher things on his mind than carnality and a judge's brain is too stocked with the refined minutiae of the law for there to be room in it for the trivialities of popular culture - wasn't that the way we understood it?

Such an understanding rested on an assumption of value: some things mattered more than others, whether we could be bothered to aspire to them ourselves or not. We knew our place in the scheme of things. We were given over to junk. It was up to the toffs to address the important stuff.

Now, of course, there is no such thing as junk, unless it's self-consciously parodic junk, in which case it isn't junk at all. I tried to get the notion of junk across to Chris Smith once, in the days when his crimes against culture were limited to shadowing it.

We were sharing a platform during a public debate on the present state of painting. He accused me of being an elitist - which is the word people who don't have discrimination invariably use of people who do - and promised us, once his party came to power, a brave new egalitarian world of paintings in trains. Painting in trains! - we couldn't wait.

Still, better a painting in a train, I say, than a poster of a Spice Girl on a platform. "A Spice Girl, Your Honour? Damned if I know! Ask Blair. He's the junkhead."

Interesting that in a country which has elevated junk and junked the elevated, the falsity of our government's populism should nonetheless be so evident to everyone. This is a good sign. It means that we know there is a difference between Schubert and Oasis - whoever Oasis is - after all.

And we don't trust the toffs when they pretend to be as indiscriminately over-informed as we are. Mr Justice Popplewell sets a grander example. And shows the way to a better life.

Am I saying one lives better if one knows nothing of the likes of Linford Christie or his lunchbox? I am, actually, yes.

May I cite an example? I have squandered too many precious brain cells familiarising myself with the names of yodellers and spoon-benders to have lived what can truly be called a happy life; but on an assignment for a Sunday newspaper a few years ago, I came as close as any trash-debilitated person has a right to expect he ever will come to euphoria.

I had been sent to Milan for Fashion Week, fashion being one of the new emptily spinning spheres of unmeaning in which I wasn't expert. Of fashion I knew zilch. Coco Chanel - that was the only fashion name I thought I'd heard of; that's if he (or was it she?) wasn't in fact a clown.

And now here I was, as culturally uncluttered as an alien, standing in a famous fashion house changing room (so they told me), and no more impressed, no more stirred, no more awed, than if I'd been back in the school playground adding my penny to the pot which Reeny Samuels insisted on before she'd show us her drawers.

Claudia Schiffer? Pish! Kate Moss? Tush! Tiny tits are tiny tits. Deserving of remark only if you recognise their owners. But I recognised no one and so was unenthralled, detached, a free man.

The way to liberty - that is what Mr Justice Popplewell's obliviousness teaches us. I trust the lesson has been learnt by his son, the cricketer Nigel Popplewell - not that I expect His Honour to know who he is.

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