Tom Sutcliffe: When others like things we like ... we don't like it

Social Studies: A colleague reports his disgruntlement on learning that The Decemberists had topped the American album charts
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If you're a long-term and proprietorial fan of the English folk-rock band Mumford & Sons, then I'm the sort of person who spoils your day. At least that would seem to be the case, judging from the comments I found attached to a Mumford & Sons video on YouTube, which I'd looked up after seeing them on the Grammys and reading about their Brit award. To say that people were a bit conflicted about their new celebrity is putting it mildly.

One commentator was simply pretending it hadn't happened: "How is it justifiable that pure talent like Mumford & Sons is so underrated. I am ashamed to witness talent like this go unrecognised to the majority of the population [sic]." Another, though, seemed to feel that greater recognition might prove a mixed blessing. "I am really peed off that they were on the Brit awards," he or she wrote. "Good for them, they are becoming ever more popular but the wrong sort of people are going to begin to like this rare music."

I'm assuming that I count as the wrong sort of person: an archetypal late-arriver, turning up when all the hard work has been done to claim the same benefits as the lifers, and – in all probability – to enjoy them in the "wrong" way. As it happens, I have some sense of how the Mumford fans feel.

I realised that The Killing was going to be unmissable television from about 40 minutes in and, as BBC4's Danish thriller has steadily built word-of-mouth and media cachet, I have simultaneously felt two incompatible things. I'm pleased that it is getting the audience it deserves, faintly grumpy because I cannot be sure that all of the audience deserves it.

This isn't a rare irrationality. A colleague reports his disgruntlement on learning that The Decemberists had topped the American album charts a few weeks ago, despite his longstanding enthusiasm for the band. Topping album charts wasn't what The Decemberists were supposed to be for.

In the case of bands there are legitimate anxieties. A group that plays Wembley Stadium cannot be identical to the group that plays the upper room at a local pub and is – cherishably, sweetly – proof of your true discernment. In the case of films or television programmes there is no real justification at all. The Killing is going to be the same, after all, whether 10 million people watch the next episode or 10,000. But all the same a subtle devaluation occurs. And we protest, I suspect, because we feel ourselves diluted rather than the work. Our likes and dislikes are our identity these days – often literally so on networking sites, where they can be posted as a thumbnail sketch of our character. But if half the world has a Mumford & Sons ringtone on its mobile phone, what exactly does liking them mean any more?

If life was fair you'd be able to sport a long-service medal – to distinguish yourself from the bandwagon-hoppers. But life isn't fair ... so although the music might be as good as it always was, you move on to the next thing. And like that first Mumford commenter you will first despise the world for not properly valuing the pearl it has had thrown before it ... and then despair when it does finally notice and starts yelling as if it was the first to find it.

Religion and the census: what to do

I find it difficult to get very worked up about the forthcoming census – whether it's too expensive or logistically pointless or invades my privacy. But I do get bit testy when I think about one question: "What is your religion?" It has been asked only twice before on the census – in 1851 and in 2001 – and it is voluntary. If you refuse to fill it in, you will not leave yourself liable for a £1,000 fine, as is the case with the questionnaire as a whole. But why is it framed as if having a religion is the default position – an inbuilt assumption which resulted in 42 million people describing themselves as Christians at the last census? And although it is possible to tick a box marked "none", that too contains an unwritten implication – that the respondent is a kind of ethical vacuum.

The National Secular Society, which campaigned for a less prejudicial question, shot itself in the foot by coming up with a version which, although admirably clear, was also 10 times longer than the original. The best solution might have been to have a section marked "Beliefs?", followed by the existing list of religions, with the addition of "atheist" and "other".

Too late now, of course – but not too late to get the word out that you should not tick any religion unless you are a practising believer – and that if you do it will be used to misrepresent the true nature of the society you live in.

Some U-turns are better than others

That the Government has a U-turn problem is now a commonplace. But I wonder whether the quality of its U-turns is the real difficulty. So far, most of them have involved a screeching, 180-degree turn from promising specific action to promising not to do anything after all. This ends up sounding unproductive and time-wasting. But what if the policy itself amounted to a guarantee to do nothing and the U-turn meant a belated concession that genuine government action might actually make sense?

Yesterday's warning from liver disease specialists about the human cost of alcohol addiction made it clearer than ever that the Coalition's regulations on drink pricing are hopelessly inadequate. Another U-turn is required, and nobody should sneer at them if ministers perform it.