What should we adultescents do? Take up playing bowls? Start reading Paul Johnson articles? Throw in the towel and devote oneself to the perusal of Catullus in a humidor-scented library? The dignity of age, the consolations of philosophy, are fine things but not yet, not yet. Not while important questions nag at one's mind. Of which the most immediate is: what is the chap in The Verve singing about in "Bitter Sweet Symphony"? The most irresistible song since "Strangers in the Night", it goes round your head, but one word resists elucidation. "I'm a million different people from one day to the next" it goes, followed by, "And I'm here in my moke, oh no no no". What the hell is a moke? Oh dear. Perhaps I'm turning into Kingsley Amis after all.
Trying to make sense of the great debate about the Millennium Dome - that contemporary Black Hole into which all discussions of current affairs now seem to disappear - I've been looking at its illustrious predecessor, the Festival of Britain in 1951. It was, of course, masterminded by Peter Mandelson's grandfather Herbert Morrison, later to become Foreign Secretary but whose official title then was Lord President of the Council; because of an ineptly expressed question from a fellow-MP, he was immortalised in the papers as "Lord Festival". It was a mid-century celebration of post-war, post-rationing optimism, so there was no bleating about Christianity; but otherwise, the correspondences between then and now are striking. First came the discussions about wholly inappropriate sites (for a while they favoured 300 acres of Osterley Park, out by Heathrow airport, rather than a wasteland several miles to the east). Then they fought over an appropriately shaped monument and came up with a dome - Ralph Tubb's Dome of Discovery - along with the more familiar Skylon phallus. Then the Press (especially the Evening Standard) decided it was all a waste of public money ("This gigantic waxworks-cum-circus-cum-carnival") and campaigned against it. Then public figures pitched in with instant why-oh-why opinions on the folly of it all ("a monumental piece of imbecility and iniquity" - Sir Thomas Beecham). Then came the rows about who should be on the steering committee and the very New Labour claim that it was "the people's show". (Michael Frayn, writing about the Festival in 1963, presciently remarked "Not even the most Herbivorous of men [today] could stand up in public and announce that a committee consisting of a former newspaper editor, two senior civil servants, an architect, a theatre-manager, a cineaste, a palaeontologist, a public relations officer and Huw Weldon, was the People".) The New Dome impresarios may like to take from the past just four useful points: one, there was no limit to the imbecility of the things that were suggested as exhibits (the Ministry of Pensions wondered about "a modest display of artificial limbs"); two, the whole thing came in nicely under budget; three, the public loved it and danced in the rain under the sodden lights of the South Bank; and four, it all got pulled down afterwards, the only surviving signs being the Festival Hall and the Guinness clock in Battersea Park. A lesson for us all there, I think.
Oprah Winfrey has fallen foul of a most peculiar law in the state of Texas. Local cattle barons, incensed by her alarmist broadcast a couple of years ago about the European BSE epidemic ("It's just stopped me cold from eating another burger," she said on air) have hauled her into an Amarillo court and sued her under their "Food Disparagement" law, a new statute designed to stop people making rude remarks about the stuff on whose global dissemination their farming lives depend. Edwina Currie, in full egg-abuse mode, would not have lasted five minutes in the hands of the Amarillo cowboys.
"Food disparagement" is an alarming precedent, about which right-minded gourmands should taken immediate action, were there any prospect of it ever crossing the Atlantic. I for one could not bear to see the fine English tradition of complaining in swanky restaurants compromised by fear of litigation. There must be a place for steak-and-kidney pudding invective in a fair society, for toad-in-the-hole vituperation, for boiled-beef- and-carrots rodomontade. Stuff the ethics, and the sensitivities of the farming (and dairy and retail) community. I want to be able to say what the hell I like about the shortcomings of spotted dick with custard, without fear of legal redress. I claim the right to condemn my neighbour's atrocious Sunday lunch without worrying that secret policemen are prowling the backstreets of Dulwich on the lookout for venison-casserole libel and salmon-koulibiac slander. It's not fair and it's not British to allow rebarbative foodstuffs to have rights, enforceable by law. Not for nothing were pointless and misleading Bills in Parliament once known as suet pudding legislation ...