DJ Taylor: Keep it real, keep it pure

Environmentalism is just asceticism in new clothes; why Tiger's troubles are of more interest than the end of the world; democracy and the Dons; and a newfound respect for Clarkson
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The Independent Online

At any time over the past 12-and-a-half years newspaper columnists have canvassed the need for a "new politics". A new politics was apparently required because the rise of New Labour had blurred what had been, if not an outright ideological separation between the main parties then at least an incontestable strategic divide. The gloss might have been more humane, the tolerance extended to late capitalism's excesses just a shade more equivocal, but essentially a change of government meant not a political counter-strike but a slight shift in emphasis, as in that old Who number "Won't Get Fooled Again", where "a parting on the left becomes a parting on the right" yet the amount of hair remains exactly the same.

Well, with the advent of the Copenhagen summit, we can see what the new politics looks like, and not surprisingly it is rather like the old politics – very old politics, in fact, and seeming to draw at least part of its inspiration from the political agendas of 350 years ago. On one side are the materialists, mostly but not exclusively composed of a libertarian rag-tag from the Conservative Party, and on the other side are the puritans. Leaving aside the disinclination of the Tory bloggers to accept the scientific consensus on climate change, each side's manoeuvrings are undermined by one fatal flaw. The materialists, for all their guff about the universal benefits of economic growth, are engaged on the very difficult task of justifying selfishness. The puritans, on the other hand, are uneasily aware that in many cases their keenness on the environment has a non-environmental cause. Hair shirts, it is quietly assumed, are a good thing in themselves, and the threatened burn-up of the planet makes a splendid excuse to issue them to everyone.

As a preternatural self-denier, who always has the cheapest thing on the menu and could never see quite why Shakespeare had such a down on Malvolio in Twelfth Night ("Dost think that because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?') my natural instinct is to side with the puritans. Few things, after all, are quite so disgusting as the sheer shamelessness of the materialist right, manifested in those smug "you've earned it" taglines which appear above advertisements in glossy magazines for expensive rubbish.

It is worth asking where this kind of rich man's defiance comes from, and the answer, I think, lies in the late 20th-century detachment of wealth from class. Until a relatively recent point in British history, money was the prerogative of a patrician class whose members were, with a few flagrant exceptions, faintly guilty about the cloud of privilege on which they wafted through life. Noblesse obliged, or at any rate was conscious of its social duty, and the need to distribute soup and blankets to the deserving poor at Christmas. These days, for some reason, the possession of wealth is seen not as conferring a moral obligation but as morally good in itself. You've earned it, you see.


As well as advertising the existence of a new politics, the Copenhagen summit has also confirmed – if any confirmation were needed – the complete detachment of the British public from anything beyond its usual domestic round. One could see this in the newspaper coverage that accompanied the summit's opening. The Earth might be disintegrating around us, but still The Sun assumes that the punters are more interested in Tiger Woods's love life. In case this sounds like the worst kind of Oxbridge snobbery, I should say that The Sun is absolutely right to think this. One of the most depressing rites of passage for any bright teenager keen on "current affairs" is the gradual awareness that 90 per cent of the population regards an interest in the world beyond the window as a vaguely eccentric hobby, on a par with Morris dancing or haybox cookery.

I can remember, as an undergraduate, venturing some comment about Mrs Thatcher's first administration, and hearing my tutorial partner – last seen heading off to the City to join a stockbroking firm – remark, in a tone of not wholly disguised scepticism, "You're very interested in all this, aren't you David?" If there is any consolation in what an optimist might call quietism and a cynic might see as rank indifference, it is that it extends into every historical period. I forget which 1930s writer it was who happened to be in a pub somewhere in northern England when the news came through that Hitler had reoccupied the Rhineland. Bursting into the public bar with a shout of "The German army has crossed the Rhine" he was met with a mystified silence, after which, with the air of capping a quotation, someone returned the two words "Parlez-vous?"


There are any number of professions whose raison d'être appears to be providing employment for the people engaged on them rather than offering a service to the public. On the basis of this year's "best of" features, which broke out like a rash in all branches of print media, I began to think that journalism might be among them. The wagon was sent rolling gently enough with the standard compilations of the year's best books, films and albums. Then, without warning, the catchment area was dramatically extended and critics began to amass the best books, films and albums of the decade. Naturally, the urge to praise was soon countered by a hankering to disparage, and The Guardian regaled its readers with a list of the decade's worst books.

So self-reflexive had the process become by this time that two or three columnists intervened with articles about how boring these "best of" lists were. Inevitably, this jamboree was too much for the kind of people who write pedantic letters to newspapers, and there were several pained effusions pointing out that the decade didn't actually end until December 2010. All this was not only deeply tedious, but offered the spectacle of an activity being carried on for no other reason than the fact of its continuance. Then again, the point of Heat magazine is presumably to sell copies of Heat magazine. Katie Price may decide to take the veil, sign up for a fine art course or go to bed with a crocodile, but the principle is – bracingly – the same.


The news that Oxford University is introducing changes to the "centuries old tradition" of voting for its Professorship of Poetry will dismay any lover of poetry, or indeed of elections. Alarmed by this year's row, in which Derek Walcott pulled out after details of a sexual harassment claim were circulated to journalists, and the eventual winner, Ruth Padel, resigned a mere nine days into the job, the authorities are set to revise the voting rules. Hitherto any Oxford graduate in possession of an MA could vote, provided they turned up on the day. Thus only a tiny fraction of the electorate actually showed. Under the new proposals all 300,000 graduates will have the chance to vote "online, or in person, over a longer period".

One doesn't have to be an elector to feel that this is a terrible idea. The point about the Oxford Poetry Professorship, after all, is its faint air of anachronism, its sepia tint, the opportunity it provides for rancour and opposed personalities, the thought of something which in the last resort doesn't take itself wholly seriously. I can remember as a teenager reading an article by Geoffrey Wheatcroft in which he revealed that he hadn't yet decided who to support but there was a keen pleasure in the prospect of voting against Stephen Spen-der. Immediately I divined the reason for the post, and the function it was meant to fulfil. Now, of course, it will be duly anaesthetised by the sedative blanket flung over nearly all homegrown culture. English literature is too much like a branch of the Civil Service as it is.


Stepping on to a station platform the other day, I came face to face with an advert that literally made me stop in my tracks. "Shakespeare" it proclaimed. "I'd sooner jab myself in the eye with a pencil." Investigation revealed a book by Jeremy Clarkson which this was (presumably) intended to promote. Outbreaks of philistinism are by no means a new phenomenon. Even so, Mr Clarkson's determination to limit the range of his cultural experience struck me as rather extreme. Gradually, though, irritation was replaced by a feeling of profound respect. Like the people who write to newspapers demanding the return of capital punishment, or the climate-change deniers of the Spectator blogs, it takes steely inner resolve to be openly such an idiot as this. I see that I was wrong about Jeremy Clarkson, whom I had previously regarded as a kind of peevish half-wit, and that he is really a supremely courageous man.