Too many people are paid to have opinions

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The Independent Culture
'WHAT WAS going on between me and the record company,' observed Mark King of the pop group Level 42 in a recent interview, 'was exactly the same as what goes on in Bosnia or Northern Ireland.' Which means that what goes on in Bosnia - and those who have spent months struggling with news reports will be eternally grateful to Mr King for the clarification - is that someone (the Croats?) made a record that someone else (the Serbs? the Muslims?) didn't like, and they wouldn't release it, and then it all got right out of hand, and. . . well, you know the rest.

It is a question, the bass player feels, of 'people refusing to stand back, get things in perspective and work it out'. One can only hope that Lord Owen is a Level 42 fan; if he is, and he has read the interview, then surely a real, lasting peace in Bosnia is only days away. 'Lads,' he will say. 'Let's stand back, get things in perspective and work it out.' Why didn't anybody think of this approach - let's call it the King initiative - before?

King's heroically stupid analogy at least has the virtue of being fresh; no one else, as far as I am aware, has compared the former Yugoslavia to the music business. It is, in fact, its freshness that makes the idea worthless; the only opinions worth anything are the old, stale ones, and they are not worth articulating. We might find ourselves thinking, in idle moments, that the warring factions in Bosnia should just, well, pack it in - it is the sort of reaction that keeps us human - but few of us would go so far as to express these views out loud. I find it hard enough to disguise my ignorance about more or less everything as it is; why make it easier for people?

If I examine the opinions I have formed recently (opinions which have never seen the light of day, and never will - unless a national newspaper counts as the light of day), they are a pretty sorry bunch. That business in Gloucester: terrible. All those people outside the house: ghouls. The Piano: overrated. Gazza: not fit. The new Elvis Costello album: pretty good. Cliff Richard as Heathcliff: pretty bad. My small son: very cute. Etc, etc. . . My bet is that if you have any interest in any of these subjects, then you have already heard what I have to offer a squillion times already.

I have not yet overheard a conversation about Frederick West and his cellar, although I am sure I will soon. I did, however, overhear a conversation about the 13-year-old who has been charged with the murder of an old lady. I was in the barbers' when the news came on the radio, and I could sense something senseless coming, and there was nothing I could do to stop it. 'I blame. . .' the lady with the clippers and the number 2 razor began.

Please say 'the Russians' or 'nuclear reactors', I thought to myself, but please, please don't say 'the parents'. But it was no use; she did, indeed most firmly, hold the parents responsible. What is the point? To say that you blame the parents of deviant children is like saying to anyone who will listen that you take aspirin when you have a headache, or that you are about to inhale. But still it comes: Torvill and Dean (I'll take it from a current or former ice-dance judge, but I won't take it from my mother), the age of consent for gays, Tori Amos, the arms-to-Iraq Scott inquiry, Delia Smith, the Pergau dam, the Arsenal midfield, the IRA, Schindler's List, the future of this newspaper, Whitewater, Chris Evans, Middlemarch. . . everywhere you go, you can read or hear people talking utter tosh about these and many other subjects.

'Have you ever been a professional footballer?' a famous Premier League manager once asked a journalist who had dared to criticise his team selection. 'No? Well, shut up, then.' When I first read about this, I thought it was outrageous, but I am beginning to understand how he felt. Do you have a master's degree or equivalent in Slavonic studies? Have you ever been a young gay man? Are you familiar with the local political scene in Arkansas? Have you actually read anything by George Eliot? No? Well, shut up, then. Maybe we need to re-examine the law that says everyone has the right to an opinion, because it seems to have a few loopholes (how about a new law: 'Everyone has the right to an opinion, but unless it is any good, they should keep it to themselves'?). Certainly it has done untold damage to the cause of adult education. If everyone has the right to their own opinion, what incentive is there to make that opinion an informed one?

I used to be extremely and probably unpleasantly argumentative. But ever since the shattering discovery that I knew nothing about anything apart from the excellent pop group the Bible (they only recorded two albums, and I also have some demos of theirs, so I am something of a world authority, even though I say it myself), Arsenal's home performances this season (I have seen them all), and my book (I wrote it), a strange thing has happened to me: I have started to agree with everybody I meet.

This new conciliation has started to worry me. Recently I found myself agreeing with someone who disliked a piece of writing that I admired, and with someone else who loved a film that I loathed. This is shameful, cowardly and unhealthy behaviour, I know, but I saw the look in their eyes when they got going, and I knew that any attempt at contradiction would be futile. Why waste time telling somebody something they won't even hear?

I don't know what happens to newspaper columnists who confess that they have no opinions; maybe next week there will be a black hole, or an advertisement, or the work of a different writer in this space, and I will have spontaneously combusted.

If I am still here, then this particular column is best forgotten, because I will be banging on about something I have already said I don't really understand properly. One thing I can guarantee, though: whatever disasters beset me, however pompous I become, I will not compare the relationship between me and my publishers with the situation in Mogadishu, or South Africa, or Pol Pot's Cambodia. I know that much, at least. -