Last Friday morning was not one of my best. I crawled from bed and submitted myself to the merciless gaze of live television as a judge for the forthcoming series of Faking It. My task: to spot the amateur entertainment reporter interviewing the Appleton sisters on GMTV. It's at moments like these that I realise that
novelist Antonia Byatt and I have been separated at birth. Truculent, snooty, waspish and snobby - I adore AS Byatt and applaud her full-frontal attack on JK Rowling in The New York Times. Her point - why do so many adults read children's books, and not very good ones at that? What is it about our society that makes fully grown men and women shun adult literature and retreat into a world of goblins and magicians which revolves around the musings of a nerdy myopic teenager at a Billy Bunter-style boarding school?
The fact is, Antonia, that you only have to turn on the television or radio, pick up any magazine or newspaper, to realise that in the 21st century most of us feel comfortable in a fantasy world where nothing is too lumpy, pimply, edgy, demanding, or intellectual. Take breakfast television - there you have blandvision at its most undemanding and bubbly, whether you opt for BBC Breakfast, Channel 4's RI:SE or GMTV. There is no chance you might have to use more than the minimum quota of brain cells. It's what I call bite-sized culture, easily digestible, unthreaten-ing and totally forgettable. Never mind weapons of mass destruction. GMTV's idea of bad news is when a soap star is diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma. That's called a "tragedy". I can only thank God the reporter didn't add; "we'll be seeing how that story develops".
The Appleton sisters, identically blonde and perfect, represent pop at its most pap- like. They are both mums, nice, normal, drearily banal. They are virtually interchangeable with the interviewers I'm judging, so trying to spot the fake one is virtually impossible. The difference between being any good and downright inept has vanished. All television has been ground down to one level of matey sameiness, and the pop charts are no different. Popular culture lacks mystery, intrigue and content.
When museum charges were abolished attendances soared - here was a chance to fill our galleries with challenging work, stretch our imaginations and take us on a journey. Forget it, in Blair's Britain, accessibility is the mantra of the day, and so you can see Bridget Riley at Tate Britain, or get worked up about the retrospective for Giorgio Armani (yes, really) at the Royal Academy this au-tumn. Universities abandon courses in Islamic culture or Celtic history and opt for media studies instead.
What happened to high culture, challenging concepts, elitism? I think that is what Antonia Byatt is talking about. Why should something be considered worthwhile simply because it is popular? Should we be pathetically grateful that JK Rowling sells books to adults who wouldn't nor-mally read them? Should we propose Alan Yentob for a knighthood because he fronts an arts programme on BBC1 in which he is as important as his subjects?
The cult of the "celebrity" means that old ways of measuring content and worth have vanished. Merit these days is measured in column inches of coverage and chart positions of sales. The real gap in the market is at the upper end - if I was Kevin Lygo arriving at Channel 4 as director of television, I would ditch RI:SE and substitute a version of Radio 4's Today, complete with probing interviewers and real questions. Blob-life brain-lite Britons are over-catered for. There's quite enough Harry Potter and Hello!, and opportunities to marvel at the Appleton sisters' new kitchen units or prams. Plenty of people would welcome serious debate about real issues that affect our lives - and I don't mean whether Simon Cowell gets paid too much for appearing on Pop Idol.
More road rage
Driving from Whitstable, Kent, to Chiswick in west London via the M20, M25 and M3 in 90 minutes last week I realised that soon no car journey will be left in Britain that won't be easily accomplished in under a day. The Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, made much of his desire to get us out of cars and on to trains, claiming "you can't build your way out of congestion". Now the Transport Secretary, Alistair Darling, has completed a spectacular reversal by caving in to haulage groups and the motoring lobby with his depressing plan to spend £7bn on new roads. Can I just ask the unthinkable? Why should travelling by the gas-guzzling, environmentally hostile, socially divisive form of transport known as the car be made easier? Why should Britain be treated as a zone in which it is possible to go anywhere anytime in shorter and shorter times?
We are addicted to cars and, like crack or booze, the only way to start recovery is to reach rock bottom. We need to be rehabilitated, to refocus our lives away from the steering wheel and the heady drug of endless parallel lanes of tarmac. Astonishingly, it is perfectly possible to live an efficient, stress-free life without a car. Half the journeys we make are redundant, from dropping our obese, lazy children at school to popping along daily to out-of-town superstores for everything from a packet of butter to a screwdriver. Sometimes a government has to take a lead, and set an example. But by advocating a huge road-building plan, Mr Darling has shown he is a man made of balsawood, not iron. Why go into politics if it is not to inspire and lead?
This weekend the Church of England's general synod is meeting in York, and no prizes for guessing which hot subject is up for discussion. I dined with the Bishop of Liverpool, James Jones, the other day, and he mounted a robust defence of his church. I agree that Anglican schools are popular and do a thoroughly good job, having attended one myself. I also applaud the work the bishop's parish priests do in some of the poorest areas in Britain. And if it wasn't for youth clubs and drop-in centres, many young people would have nowhere to go apart from street corners in the evenings.
But I return to the problem of inclusion rather than exclusion. The church is very good at reaching out to those in need. Unfortunately it is really bad at achieving an acceptable representation of modern Britain within its own leadership. I don't care if the biggest number of recruits to the church are conservative evangelicals, or if Anglicans in Africa out- number those here in Britain. The Anglican church can't create a one-size-fits-all interpretation of the gospel to use as a framework to appoint its senior executives. Sexual proclivities should not be top of an agenda.
There are other more important criteria, such as passion, commit-ment, sensitivity and leadership skills. I want a church which is diverse, inclusive and challenging, which is broad-shouldered enough to accommodate gay people without forcing them to declare themselves "celibate". I am ashamed of my own spiritual leaders. They are small-minded, and pitifully petty. I deserve better, and so do a lot of other Anglicans.Reuse content