Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more


According to press reports, the general paper of the All Souls College Oxford prize fellowship exam has become less abstruse than in the period 20 years ago when candidates were expected to write for three hours on a single abstract noun. If this is so, then a good question for this October's band of aspiring academics might be the following: "Discuss, without recourse to patronage, the connection between the death of Lord Attenborough and the recent series of concerts performed in London by Kate Bush with particular reference to audience, shared knowledge and the diffusion of 21st-century cultural taste.'

The death of Lord Attenborough at the ripe age of 90, beloved by every thespian who had ever trod the boards with him, produced a kind of media coverage not often seen these days, the sense that here, given the scope and longevity of the deceased's career, was someone with a well-nigh universal appeal and relevance. At the same time, these lavish memorials to the edginess of his performance in Brighton Rock (1947) or the extraordinary persistence that realised the Gandhi project, coincided with a suspicion that to younger readers and viewers his status rested almost entirely on late-period hokum such as the Jurassic Park franchise and Miracle on 34th Street.

It was the same, up to a point, with Ms Bush's return, after a 35-year absence, to the stage of the Hammersmith Apollo: an event trailed through the arts sections of broadsheet newspapers for weeks in advance, the subject of reverential TV profiles and adoring reminiscences courtesy of every 1970s pop idol from Elton John to the Sex Pistols' Glen Matlock. And yet, as the smoke rose, the dancers dispersed and the critics tumbled prostrate to the floor of the venue's press box, it became clear that the constituency taking an interest in the phenomenon, though large and vocal, was pretty much confined to the over-45s. Ms Bush may have her younger fans, but universal entertainment this patently is not.

Kate Bush performing in her new sell-out tour Kate Bush performing in her new sell-out tour All of which raises the question of whether universal entertainment of the kind which 30 years ago found half the UK population tuning in to particular television shows and sporting events exists any more, and whether – to extend the scope of the enquiry a little further – there is such a thing as shared cultural knowledge, here in a landscape where the sheer volume of artefacts available defies any reasonable attempt to assimilate them. Forty years ago, after all, you arrived in the school playground ready to discuss the television programmes you had watched the night before secure in the knowledge that there were only three channels. In a world where everyone has access to everything, the old communality of songs whistled in the street and collective tears shed at the news of Grace Archer's death has disappeared, save in very exceptional circumstances.

The same rule, alas, applies to that shared understanding of the environment you are born into which used to be such a feature of British life. It is difficult to make any judgement on this complex subject without sounding like the worst kind of cultural snob, but the evidence of such reliable yardsticks as the TV quiz show suggests that, whatever one may feel about these gaps, there are a whole lot of people out there who know a whole lot less about the place they wander about in than did their predecessors, and that information which was regarded as basic and inviolable half a century ago (geography, for instance, or bedrock-level history) is now seen as a kind of optional garnish, certainly not as important as the ability to navigate your way around cyberspace.

No doubt, much of this divide is, as it always was, generational. Watching the ITV quiz show Tipping Point with my 14-year-old son the other day, I professed the usual fiftysomething's pious horror at what seemed to me the ominous levels of ignorance on display: the participants who thought Harold Macmillan was a Labour politician or that Beatrix Potter's books were set in Hyde Park. This, Leo patiently explained, was because they were under 35: the middle-aged contestants on Pointless over on BBC 1 were much more likely to know that Mary Tudor was the daughter of Catherine of Aragon. On the other hand, you have an idea that the 35-year-old of 30 years ago would probably have heard of, say, Clement Attlee and Aneurin Bevan.

What might be called the atomisation of contemporary culture has several explanations. One of them is that past time is rarely presented to children as a continuous entity, but seen in terms of one or two fashionable periods, with the result that there are thousands of 19-year-olds with A-levels in history who have never heard of Cavaliers and Roundheads or know what F D means on a penny. Another is the almost exponential profuseness of the material, in which, for example, each category of popular music sub-divides into dozens of constantly mutating sub-genres, all of which would take a row of text-books to comprehend. The third is the widespread diffusion of that tantalising abstract "taste", which has been going strong since at least the middle of the 19th century.

Some idea of what happened to "taste" – here defined not as "the expression of a shared opinion", but "the expression of a shared opinion which those sharing it believe to be correct" – can be gauged from its development in the narrower field of literature. In the early Victorian age the reading public was not more than a few thousand strong, with the result that the concept of literary appreciation rested – up to a point – on mutually agreed standards. But with the educational reforms and the publishing revolution of the later 19th century there came into being a mass reading public, whose interests and instincts were very different. Highbrow fought middlebrow, and the "taste" of the Eliot and Joyce-fancying modernist was – at any rate to the reader who preferred J B Priestley – seen as a kind of conspiracy designed to make the man in the street feel small.

A century on, the idea of a shared body of knowledge – Eliot's "objective correlative", by which readers form disinterested views of books based on the information acquired over a lifetime's study – is dead and gone, for there are reviewers out there on Amazon whose idea of a "classic" is Stephen King, and are sometimes unable to determine whether the work before them is a biography or a novel (I am not making this up – it happened with Amanda Foreman's Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire).

Does any of this fragmentation, whether in the world of literature, cinema or music, actually matter? And who cares if a child has ever heard of Oliver Cromwell? On the one hand, one need only to look at some of the prescriptive critics of a bygone age – F R Leavis, say – to think that a world where people make their own choices about the kinds of culture they want to participate in is a good thing. On the other, if nearly 70 million people are having to live in harmony on the same increasingly overcrowded island, then the more things they have to bring them together rather than draw them apart and the greater the feeling of shared cultural context the better.

And so, while a small part of me thinks that the failure of all but one of the England World Cup squad to recognise Morrissey when they came across each other at an American airport in the summer is entirely foreseeable, another part wishes fervently that Wayne, Lamps and Stevie G had queued up to shake his hand.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
With an eye for strategy: Stephen Fry’s General Melchett and Rowan Atkinson’s Edmund Blackadder  

What Cameron really needs is to turn this into a khaki election

Matthew Norman
An Italian policeman stands guard as migrants eat while waiting at the port of Lampedusa to board a ferry bound for Porto Empedocle in Sicily. Authorities on the Italian island of Lampedusa struggled to cope with a huge influx of newly-arrived migrants as aid organisations warned the Libya crisis means thousands more could be on their way  

Migrant boat disaster: EU must commit funds to stop many more dying

Alistair Dawber
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own