Fifty shades of grey might not be enough

Maturity brings an appreciation of nuance, not often found on Amazon. Plus, why I prefer Labour candidates who choose private schools

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By Friday morning the number of book-buyers who had ventured on to Amazon to post a review of J K Rowling's new novel had risen to 165. The curious thing about this exercise in mass literary criticism was the polarisation of opinion. Fifty-five of the online pundits had rated The Casual Vacancy at five stars. Seventy-one had awarded it one. The people who had liked it were raving over it, and the people who had disliked it were bitterly distressed ("Sooner watch paint dry" etc) by the waste of time and money involved.

All this offered further evidence of one of the great Regrettable Tendencies – to invoke the spirit of Matthew Arnold – of modern cultural life, which is its distrust of nuance, and its unwillingness to accept that a piece of music or a 300-page novel may arouse feelings in the purchaser that defy easy summary.

Professional acquaintances who inspected Ms Rowling's blockbuster generally agreed that it was neither very good nor very bad, and that promising themes and treatments were sometimes crowded out by prolixity and cliché. The Amazon detractors, on the other hand, simply queued up to inform their fellow critics that they had tossed the book aside in disdain.

In some ways, "Booklover of SW1", who regularly foams at the mouth if some darling work isn't thoroughly to his taste, can hardly be blamed for his fury, as the whole tenor of contemporary cultural debate is geared to abetting his prejudices.

Nearly all cinema reviews these days are graded 1-5. The Bookseller, even more reductive in these matters, files critical judgements from the books pages under three catch-all categories: good, bad, and interesting but flawed. One either loves it, to borrow the title of a selection of Julie Burchill's occasional journalism, or shoves it.

And if nuance is disappearing from critical judgment, equally sinister is its retreat from the language in which those judgements are made.

I have lost count of the number of newspaper articles in which someone disparages the "not un-" formula on grounds of superfluity and obfuscation. And yet to describe a book as "not unentertaining" or a face as "not unattractive" opens up a whole range of evaluative questions that a paragraph of explication may not answer.

As a student I used to shake my head over the Times Literary Supplement fiction reviews, in which each tentative assertion was qualified into torpor by the one that followed, and one could reach the final line without ever quite determining if the reviewer had liked the book. Thirty years later you sometimes feel that even 50 shades of grey may not be enough.


Of all the statements attributed to the historian Eric Hobsbawm, who died on Monday at the age of 95, the one that caught my eye was his defence of pre-war Communist Party dogma: "We were not liberals. Liberalism was what had failed. In the total war we were engaged in, one did not ask oneself whether there should be a limit to the sacrifices imposed on others any more than on ourselves."

One always feels that this kind of bracing remark is rather hard on liberals – let alone the people on whom sacrifices are to be "imposed" whether they like it or not. The only reason why liberal principle fails, after all, is because a certain kind of person exposed to it doesn't share its moral salubrity. On the other hand, it is possible to applaud – if not from the die-hard Marxist angle – Hobsbawm's impatience with a world view which, if baulked, usually retreats to the moral high ground while washing its hands of obligations contracted en route.

E M Forster once declared that the solution to practically any human difficulty was kindness, followed by more kindness, and then, if that didn't work, even more kindness. To which the cynic always wants to retort: what if the entity to whom kindness is offered doesn't play by your rules? It was George Orwell who bleakly remarked that an India governed on strict Forsterian principles would collapse within a fortnight.


In the wake of Ed Miliband's advocacy of the merits of a state education, several newspapers provided handy guides to the educational backgrounds of the Shadow Cabinet, the implication being that those educated privately were hypocrites for being in favour of comprehensive schools. I never quite see the point of these exercises. Children surely can't be held responsible for how their parents chose to educate them. Equally, a private-school education might be thought valuable ammunition in the armoury of a politician now keener on the state.

As for the Labour Party's unwritten law that all its tribunes should be seen to educate their offspring in state schools, this always seems rather hard on the children involved, whose individual needs may not be best served by this blanket prescription. Back in the 1970s the Labour Councillor father of a friend of mine was quietly advised by the party apparatchiks to send his children to comprehensives if he aspired to higher office.

In the end ideological honour was upheld, but I always sympathised with its victims, now separated from their friends and sacrificed on the altar of a somewhat doubtful principle. I should be much more likely to vote for Labour candidates who sent their sons to private schools, if only as a mark of respect for their defiance of orthodoxy.

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