DJ Taylor: Superior Scots
The English are to blame for Alex Salmond's smugness; the TV book club presenters who know nothing about books; an ode to the old Olivetti; and posterity in pop
Sunday 06 December 2009
The wonderfully sniffy reaction that greeted Alex Salmond's St Andrew's Day unveiling of the 176-page document Your Scotland, Your Voice came as no surprise. Rather like Europe, Anglo-Scottish relations is one of those great inflammatory topics, always liable to hasten the political pulse and find hitherto quite easy-going people boiling up into rancour. On this occasion, critics were quick to point out that the White Paper, which advertised the idea of a referendum leading to full independence from Westminster, though full of "vaunting rhetoric", lacked vital detail and showed how weak the SNP really was on the issue. Media forums on the enticing question of whether Scotland was ready for formal separation were answered, at any rate outside Scotland, with a resounding negative.
English resentment of the Scots should never be underestimated as an emotional or indeed a political force. No home-grown Conservative descanting on the iniquities of the modern political system can last more than a minute without noting that Labour's stranglehold over the Commons rests on its 50 or so Scottish MPs. The West Lothian question, whereby Scottish Labour MPs can intervene in English domestic affairs but not vice-versa, burns unappeasably on. Beyond this lies half a millennium and more of English distrust of Caledonian motive, taking its cue, naturally, from the medieval alliances between France and Scotland, but like many another English institution, assuming its characteristic focus in the mid-19th century. The Victorian cult of Scottishness, pioneered by Queen Victoria with her boreal castles and her Jacobite moods, had its origins in guilt about Culloden and the sacking of the Highlands, and it attempted to dispel this deep unease about our treatment of the Scots by investing them with a kind of effortless moral superiority.
In his essay "Such, Such Were the Joys", George Orwell discusses the "curious cult of Scotland" that prevailed in his Sussex prep school: a dreary compound of burns, braes, kilts, sporrans, claymores, "all somehow mixed up with the invigorating effects of Protestantism and a cold climate", in which the key adjectives were "grim", "dour" and above all "stern". Orwell is writing about the second decade of the 20th century, but many of these elemental rules still apply. How many times, for example, does Gordon Brown find himself described (unflatteringly) as "dour". However irritating Mr Salmond may be, and however unrealistic his schemes for Scottish independence, we should always remember that the moral superiority he parades is essentially an English creation.
The publicity for Amanda Ross's new Channel 4 book club plunged me into a state of unrelieved gloom. The show, which will debut in January 2010, will not, alas, feature Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan ("Everybody felt it was time to move on," Ms Ross briskly deposed). In their place five "recognisable stars" – Jo Brand, Dave Spikey, Gok Wan, Inspector Lynley's Nathaniel Parker and Strictly Come Dancing contestant (and Hollyoaks star, apparently) Laila Rouass – will present the half-hour episodes. The format is described as "like a dinner party", with the five hosts chatting to a "celebrity author" each week.
Why should the thought of TV Book Club, with its five recognisable stars, three of whom I confess not to having heard of, make anyone with the least feeling for literature feel slightly sick? It is not, heaven help us, that books programmes ought to be undeviatingly highbrow – in some ways the idea of, let us say, a couple of Oxford dons turning up for a chat about Postmodernism seems more depressing still – merely that, if you are going to have people on television talking about books, it would be nice if they knew something about books in the first place. Here, for some reason, the standard rules about appropriateness to milieu don't apply. After all, Match of the Day has Alan Hansen and Mark Lawrenson. Food programmes are staffed by well-known chefs. Here to ginger up the nation's reading habits, on the other hand, we have two comedians, a fashion stylist, an actor and a dancer. It is all very mysterious. Or rather, not.
Still with literature, or rather moving thereunto, I was fascinated to hear that Cormac McCarthy, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American author of No Country For Old Men and The Road (recently filmed starring Viggo Mortensen) has finally discarded his antique manual typewriter. The machine, an Olivetti Lettera 32, bought for $30 in a pawn shop in 1963, has sold at auction for $254,500 (£153,000), having produced, Mr McCarthy calculates, the small matter of five million words. "It has never been serviced or cleaned other than blowing out the dust with a service station hose" the author fondly notes.
All this offers an oblique glance at the question of how literary form changes in response to technological upgrade. As Evelyn Waugh once pointed out, "style" is very often dictated by the machinery available to transmit words on to the page. The elaborate Gibbonian sentences of the Augustan age, with their stately periods and endless sub-clauses, are, at bedrock level, the result of a quill pen having to be dipped into an ink-well every dozen words or so. Quite half of the Hemingway-esque terseness of early 20th-century modernism is a consequence of its being banged out on a typewriter, an implement which, according to Waugh, made you write "like a Gatling gun". Here in modern bookville, editors frequently complain about the stultifying effects of computer screens which are thought to encourage mental laziness. Mr McCarthy's work has always inclined to concision ("He rode down the long street into America" etc). But the hint that he was about to turn into a computer-junkie, oppressing his publisher with 200,000 word first drafts and forests of loopy syntax was quickly dispelled. Apparently a friend has just bought him another Olivetti for $11.
Reviewing The Movie Box, a DVD collection of old Genesis concerts, in this month's Mojo, the rock journalist David Buckley makes a shrewd point about the contrasting rewards of cult status and mass acceptance. Genesis, as non-cognoscenti may need reminding, were an early 1970s art-rock outfit who, after losing their idiosyncratic frontman Peter Gabriel, became an international pop sensation, junking the quirkiness but selling millions of records.
The first concerts featured here, from the early 1980s, find the band "in transit", the prog-rock whimsy of their "glory years" still present, but "moving towards a pop future". Come 1987, on the other hand, they are up there in rock's imperial vanguard, adored by "millions of fans ... the silent majority of the ordinary".' As Mr Buckley is, I think, quietly reminding us here, the "silent majority of the ordinary" tends to get overlooked when cultural history is being written. Curiously enough, the best-selling British album of the 1960s was not Sergeant Pepper but The Sound of Music, and the best-selling male British solo artist of all time is, ahem, Sir Cliff Richard. How will the rock historian of 2020 rate Genesis? You imagine the epitomising harbingers of weird English pastoral will crowd out the mega-selling pop sensations. One of the great consolations of the avant-garde, of course, is that one's supporters get to write the text books. And so the American late 1960s are now marked down as the paradisal playground of Captain Beefheart and the Velvet Underground, however loud the protesting shouts of people who were there at the time.
A bad week – yet again – for educational statistics, with the latest Sats results suggesting that nearly a third of 11-year-olds are not meeting the Government's targets, and a survey claiming that the number of UK graduates is failing to match that of many European competitors. It is difficult not to feel that these two stories are related. Whether we like it or not – and however many 18-year-olds Mr Balls goads into higher education – there will always be a substantial tranche of the population who aren't up to, or simply won't take an interest in, the challenging employment conditions of the 21st century that the business sections unfailingly promote, people with humble but not for that reason contemptible ambitions, who in the past would have been happy with the low-level routine and now find even that modest avenue denied them.
My father, a four-decade veteran of the Norwich Union Insurance Society, used to have a colleague called Marjorie who, when asked what function she performed, would reply "I do addresses" – that is, altered, by hand, policy holders' changes of address on a series of filing-cards. So much did Marjorie enjoy doing addresses that, when forced to retire, she was heard to say that she would willingly come back and do them gratis. What happened to Marjorie's descendants? Why can't the modern age accommodate them? As Bryan Ferry once remarked, education is an important key, but the good life's never won by degrees.
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