The Diary: Welcome to your new leader, Whatsisname
Sunday 07 February 1999
For the benefit of anyone who missed these two seminal announcements, let me recap. According to a "brand agency", whatever that is, the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish have a much clearer idea of who they are than do the English. The national symbols associated with England, from Big Ben to fish and chips, "do not add up to a national identity that connects with people, inspires them and makes them proud".
The agency contrasts this inability to find Tourist Board pastiche loin- stirring with the example of the Scots, whose blood races at the very mention of the words Donald Dewar, White Heather Club and deep-fried Mars bars.
For a terrible few hours this profound piece of research, based on a whole 40 interviews with members of the public, threatened to plunge the English into their well known melancholy. But, mercifully, relief was soon at hand. Like the Scots and Welsh, the English may be about to have their own First Minister.
Sources say he is a chap called Richard Caborn, the MP for Sheffield Central. I've not had the pleasure of meeting our New Leader, but everyone says he's straight as a die, with a record of left-wing commitment second to none. All the causes he has espoused - support for British miners, Namibian freedom-fighters, El Salvadorean guerrillas, testify to his probity. The man has even, it's said, shared a bed with Arthur Scargill when a hotel was overbooked.
Tony Blair has been too busy attending to important matters, such as the religious beliefs of the former England football coach, to make a formal announcement of Mr Caborn's elevation to this important role. Perhaps that naughty old Alastair Campbell is just testing the water to see what we all think of Mr Caborn representing England in the British-Irish Council, one of the devices cooked up as part of the Good Friday peace deal.
But I worry for the poor chap. For a start, it is indicative of the place that England occupies in the minds of our government that the legislation setting up the British-Irish Council, while specifically including Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Irish Republic, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, has no place for England, which has a mere 83 per cent of the United Kingdom population. Perhaps the valiant Mr Caborn will put this right, but the real problem is an obvious one. Whoever is nominated to this body from Scotland or Wales will carry the authority of a properly elected local parliament. Whoever is put up to speak for England has the authority only of a British government in which Scotland and Wales are already over-represented.
Far be it from me to suggest that the way to solve problems is to have more elections and more politicians, but you do wonder. It's a lot easier than reinventing fish and chips.
MY FRIEND Tom has just telephoned in despair. "Can no one do anything about the Bill Bryson menace?"
I was shocked: on the one occasion I met Bill Bryson I rather liked him, and his latest collection contains one exceptionally funny story. But as my friend is currently hard at work on a fascinating history of the Englishman's obsession with lawns, I assumed he had succumbed to the urge that seizes many writers who envy Mr Bryson's phenomenal success, and wished to see him disappear from the bestseller lists in a gust of his own whimsy.
But there was another reason for Tom's fury. His teenage son, who is studying for his English A-level, arrived home the other day with Bryson's Notes From a Small Island under his arm. As the boy is something of a stranger to reading for pleasure, my friend was delighted that he seemed to have decided of his own accord to spend a few hours inside a book. He was wrong.
Bill Bryson was one of his set books for his A-level. Of all the works produced in the richest language and richest literary tradition in the world, the education authorities have chosen to make students apply themselves to a book which week after week sits there in the bestseller lists.
There is nothing wrong with Notes From a Small Island. But even Bill Bryson wouldn't claim it was up there with Shakespeare, Dickens or even Trollope. Doubtless, examination boards will have some excuse. Probably something to do with encouraging people to read.
The reasoning might have something to be said for it if books like this were being used to encourage science specialists to broaden their interests. But there is no shortage of applications to study English at university, and no shortage of unemployed English graduates.
I have always found the phrase "dumbing down" a lazy term of abuse used by people who can't face change. In this case, it seems entirely appropriate.
I HAVE had a charming letter from a regular Newsnight viewer. Under a letterhead describing himself as Portrait Painter To The Stars, the writer opened by saying that "if people like you don't give politicians a good grilling, who would? I AM ALL FOR IT. They get away with MURDER".
"People call you `smug'. Well so what? You DESERVE to be smug! Hell's bells, if YOU can't be smug, who can? Good luck to you Jeremy! Incidentally, do you call yourself Jeremy or Paxo or is that merely a press term?"
Then he came to the point of his letter: "I am an artist (Sundays only, ha ha!) who specialises in painting celebrities and people in public life I admire ... I try to make my paintings as flattering as possible, and offer all sitters `blemish enhancement' ... Forgive me for being personal, but you have a fairly `prominent' nose. I would be happy to reduce its size if you wanted to."
Having just visited the display of Oliver Cromwell's death masks (most fake, but all complete with warts) at the London Museum, you can guess my response.
Jeremy Paxman's `The English' is published by Michael Joseph (pounds 20).
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