Are you all over-bred customers of sushi bars? Or is it just bull?

Click to follow
The Independent Online
LAST Saturday I found myself watching Peter York drifting in in his usual tight suit through clouds of dry ice in one of the silliest television programmes I have ever seen. It was the first in a series, Peter York's Eighties, in which the marketeer, social commentator and cultural critic attempts to describe - and celebrate - what happened to Britain in the Thatcher years, and it was properly and universally savaged by the television critics. "No amount of visual packaging could hide the depressing intellectual vacuum," wrote Ian Hislop in the Spectator. "York himself would make a better theme as a symbol of the Eighties. His curious celebrity epitomises the success of marketing, of consultancy, of advertising, of public relations. He is a living legacy of the triumph of style over content. He is Eighties bullshit personified ... "

Most people, if that had been written of them, would probably want to (a) cry, and (b) shove Hislop's head into a bath of cold water. But I knew that York would not be giving way, certainly not publicly, to either of these feelings. Long ago I discovered that there was no use being cross with York, because he was not going to be cross with you. Sure enough, when I telephoned him, I found him as insouciant and uncreased as ever. He said that it was interesting that the critics who had reacted most fiercely to him were "middle-class gentlemen with television careers of their own to pursue". He had had no letters from miners. He stood by his basic contention: that "a great wall" of money and consumption had hit Britain during the Eighties and that the effect, especially in the South-east, was neither negligible nor contemptible unless you were a snob and had always enjoyed the goodies that were suddenly being shared further down the social scale. As for himself: "I do seem to have one talent at least, which is to make people allergic to me."

In fact I have never been allergic to him. I don't know why. There is quite a lot to be allergic about: he usually looks mighty pleased with himself (though the smugness might be some form of self-irony), and for all his fluency he remains stubbornly opaque as a person. Judgements, words like "good" or "bad", never seem to cross his lips, but then moralising is anathema to market research, which is how York has always made the bulk of his living. Indeed he once did some "qualitative" market research for this newspaper, concluding that the kind of people who tended to read it could be loosely summarised as "over-bred" customers of sushi bars. It may have been bullshit. On the other hand, it's the only piece of market research in great tides of the stuff that I can still remember. The memorable phrase, the ludicrous metaphor, is a great asset in a trade which masquerades as a science. Sometimes, his notions and conceits can make you think.

The trade has certainly been good to him. He looks 32 but is 48. He went to night-school rather than university. He was born and bred in Hampstead. He has never married. How will he vote in the next election? He seemed shocked that the question needed to be asked. "Of course, I'll vote the centrist Blair line like everybody else." He would never vote Tory, and he had never voted for his great beneficiary - "her".

THE York programme sent my memory back past the Eighties to an autumn day in 1974, soon after I'd begun to edit a small department of the Sunday Times called the Look! pages. These were not well thought of, in fact scarcely considered at all by the rest of the paper. They were about what later became known as "lifestyle". Colleagues would sometimes send memos that pitied me for the pages' "epicene" content - food, fashion, columnists, interviews - and hoped that I would escape soon from "all that knicker-elastic". This, you remember, was 1974.

Nonetheless, Look! had some talented writers, including Michael Roberts who had (and has) several extraordinary attributes. One, he was black - rare then in newspapers and not much more common today. Two, he could draw beautifully as well as write. Three, he had a completely irreverent approach to his great enthusiasm, which was fashion. He would describe designer dresses as looking like "a pair of old Essoldo curtains" and then wonder, innocently, why the designer was raging down the phone.

One day he came in with some pictures of male models dressed in flat- caps, collarless shirts and baggy trousers belted with rope. "And here," he said, jabbing his menthol cigarette towards the ceiling, "we have the working-class look, yes, oui, no, non?" Some unfortunate ideas then occurred to me. Michael was persuaded to take to the streets with a photographer and ask real working men their opinion of these clothes, while a researcher found a copy of that famous picture from the Thirties in which a man in a flat cap stands in seeming head-down depression at a street corner as two small children, equally poor, look up at him. We ran the whole caboodle across two pages, with an introduction which pondered the strangeness of fashion and history.

The response from our readers was enormous. People hated it and especially hated our role as the chief agents in what they considered a conspiracy to abuse and trivialise the lives and the memory of people who had suffered the slump. They were quite right to hate it: we had used the picture from the Thirties in an amoral way, so that it said not "dearie me" or "tut, tut", or even "get on yer bike", but "hey, look at the clothes".

THIS would not be remarkable now. Large sections of the media are conducted on the principle of disinterested interestingness, of things shorn of sentiment and ideas of right or wrong. You can use Lenin or Stalin in advertisements that have nothing to do with them as tyrants or ideologues; last year there was even a Paris couture collection "inspired" by the striped uniform of Nazi death camps. As for that old Look! formula - celebrity interviews, columnists, food, fashion, domestic aspiration - every newspaper now has acres of it.

I have no very clear idea of what post-modernism means, but I think that it includes meaninglessness and irony and that "the working-class fool" was an early example. When I talked to Peter York last week I was flattered, but not altogether surprised, that he remembered our piece so clearly. His first foray into journalism - the famous cod-sociological "Sloane Rangers" - article came out the next year. We began to acquire a new way of looking at the world, in which older questions about worth - is it good, is it true? - were replaced by a simpler one: will it sell?