Chris Evans's decision to treat himself to a very expensive vintage car raised a number of questions in the media – but none of them seemed to me the right ones. The BBC website report on this acquisition, for example, read as follows: "Radio 2 DJ Chris Evans has splashed out £12m on a rare 1960s Ferrari. Why are classic cars like this so valuable?" No interrogation of the deed itself – or the way in which it had become public, after Evans tweeted about his new toy. Just a curiosity about the price-tag.
Granted, a BBC news outlet might have felt inhibited about questioning a man who'd just added millions to his audience figures. But elsewhere the treatment seemed equally uncritical. A left-leaning Sunday paper, not famously associated with the celebration of conspicuous extravagance, even wondered whether this purchase marked a turning point in Evan's public reputation: "With his latest radio and TV successes", the writer asked, "and the purchase of a £12m Ferrari, is the one-time hellraiser now a role model for middle-aged Britain?"
The question I wanted to ask was why Evans didn't feel ashamed of himself? And this was less a question about his character (his relationship with shame has always been an on-off affair) than the character of the society we live in.
At a time of looming national austerity (and as Vince Cable and George Osborne prepare to trim bankers' bonuses, confident of almost universal public support) why didn't he think "I wonder if this will make me look like a bit of a self-indulgent twat?" He seemed assured that there would be no splash-back from the splashing out. That no one would point out that locking up £12m in a road-legal trinket when (to pick just one of an endless list of examples) the same amount of money would pay for 1,723,000 anti-malarial bed nets, might be faintly contemptible behaviour, rather than admirable.
None of us are immune to such comparisons of course. We all spend money on ourselves that might be better applied elsewhere. But then we might be inclined occasionally to feel uneasy about our priorities. And the fact that Evans felt able to boast about this purchase, to flaunt it as a credential of his social worth, surely tells us something about the society we live in – in which a billionaire is more likely to measure his status in terms of super-yacht footage than in charitable giving.
And while there are conspicuous exceptions to this rule – the Bill Gates and George Soros's of the world – it doesn't really seem to have taken off as a fashion. "I want to earn enough money to get a 250 GTO", Evans told an interviewer a while ago, before his dream was fulfilled. But is it really inconceivable that he might have said: "I want to earn enough money to open a school in Nepal"? It wouldn't really require him to be a better person – just a change in our expectations about how rich men should behave.
It made me wonder whether we need some sumptuary laws – to curb the status of frivolous and wasteful luxuries. The only problem being that in historical terms sumptuary laws have far more often reinforced class differences and status than eroded them – or introduced an ethical restraint to public life.
There is one historical example that might be useful though – one mentioned by Montaigne in his brief essay on sumptuary laws. He wisely makes the point that regal example can achieve things that red tape cannot: "Let kings but lead the dance and begin to leave off this expense", he writes, "and in a month the business will be done throughout the kingdom, without edict or ordinance". Since Chris Evans has failed to lead by example, though, and begin a virtuous contest of giving to replace the ignoble contest of having we're so familiar with, Montaigne's next suggestion might have to be applied. He borrowed it from the Greek lawmaker Zeleucus, who included in his legal code the ordinance that no woman was to wear "jewels of gold about her, or go in an embroidered robe, unless she was a professed and public prostitute". You can do it, in other words, but this is what the world will think of you.
I think this might usefully be adapted for super-rich car enthusiasts. Chris Evans – and others like him – can have their million pound cars. But they have to attach state-issued licence plates reading "1D10T" or "S3LF1SH" or "1NAD3QUATE".
A serial pirate enters choppy waters
The comedian Peter Serafinowicz offers an unusual perspective on the issue of internet piracy in an article on the technology blog Gizmodo. Performers' attitudes to this matter are usually starkly polarised. It's either livelihood-threatening-theft or creativity-nurturing-dissemination. But Serafinowicz – who outs himself as a serial pirate – recognises that it's both. Sometimes he even pirates himself – the critical issue for him being ease of access, and the arbitrary constraints that the owners of copyright material sometimes impose on its use.
Wanting to show his son The Jungle Book recently, he attempted to buy it through iTunes but discovered that Disney have it locked away in the Disney Vault, the term the company use for their policy of controlled release of their premium back catalogue. So instead Serafinowicz downloaded a copy. "My moral justification for this?", he writes, "I once bought the VHS. It's your own vault, Disney".
I'm not entirely sure that this argument would withstand a legal challenge by Disney. Or that Jonathan Cape will necessarily feel that his unsolicited puff for Ian McEwan's Solar ("Solar is a sun-tastic read") is reasonable compensation for the fact that he downloaded a pirate copy free (again after being frustrated by regional restrictions and technology). If they seek compensation for their losses though there will be a queue at the courtroom. "In the meantime", Serafinowicz concludes, "I'll be suing myself for pirating my own show. And I'm pretty scared because I have an amazing lawyer".
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