It is oddly reassuring to have a chirpy, bounderish character at the heart of the Tory administration. Rather as the 1980s and 1990s were funnier, in a grim sort of way, when Jeffrey Archer was skipping across the political stage, so the presence of Grant Shapps adds colour and comedy to today’s rather bland public life.
To judge by recent interviews, Shapps is surprised that his past behaviour has raised eyebrows. The modern bounder’s great strength is that, while others may worry about, say, a politician being involved in questionable websites, or manipulating Wikipedia, or having an alternative career under a different name, he is simply unable to see the problem. Prissy concerns about ethics or appropriateness are lost in the dazzle of his personal holy trinity: wealth, success and self.
Because they live by their own rules, these people tend to be rather interesting and funny. The Conservative co-chairman, in a Sky interview, explained there was nothing unusual in inventing an alter persona, Michael Green, an online marketer so wealthy that he flew his own jet and lived in a “fabulous mansion”, nor in decorating this biography with a photograph of a male model. It was the sort of thing which happened all the time.
In a way, he is right. We have now entered the great age of multiple identity, and no one thinks twice before inventing names, and even personalities, when they go online. One alternative version of oneself can be nastier than the original, and slash and burn its way through the messageboards and blogs. Another might be more shamelessly self-promoting and will praise its creator’s work and thoughts online, perhaps even sprucing up or sanitising a Wikipedia entry. A third might explore areas of sexuality which its creator would prefer not to acknowledge.
It is dangerous, not only because it loosens any sense of moral responsibility, but because it is emotionally unhealthy. Those who invent abusive avatars have found themselves shocked when asked by a forum administrator to tone down their comments, almost as if the nastiness had come from a stranger. One internet troll of my acquaintance ended up conducting online discussions, even rows, between his various identities.
While no one has suggested that Grant Shapps is playing internet games, he has undeniably divided his public self into two distinct people: a conscientious MP and shadow minister and, quite separately, a wealthy and ambitious online marketing guru.
It is a seductive business, hiving off an aspect of your own personality and then developing a fictional character around him. Some of the great comic personae of recent decades, from Henry Root to Ali G, have been created in this way. For writers, this can be hugely liberating. All the ghastly things which he is unable to say and do as, say, Barry Humphries or Steve Coogan can be the driving force behind Edna Everage or Alan Partridge.
There is a problem, though, when the man (it is invariably a man) is not messing around in entertainment, but is meant to be one of the grown-ups running the country. As Housing Minister, Shapps had responsibility for billions of taxpayers’ money, for the housing needs of hundreds of thousands, for the way much of Britain would look in the future. Today, thank goodness, he has the less weighty task of running his party, but he is still an influential figure.
What happens if Michael Green, not Grant Shapps, turns up at the office one day? Where is Michael these days? Are there other versions of Grant we should know about? If there are, one of them might perhaps ask his creator whether it is entirely sensible for someone who divides his public personality in this way to be working in politics.
Let's not ruin the sights we love
Those planning to see Michelangelo’s astonishing frescoes in the Sistine Chapel should probably know that such is the public demand to see them these days that the experience itself can be seriously compromised.
According to an article in the Corriere della Sera, written by Pietro Citati, an Italian critic and biographer, the effect of five million tourists passing through the chapel is disastrous. Not only does the accumulative effect caused by human breath, sweat and shed skin leave a residue of dirt on the frescoes, but the crowds themselves – “drunken herds” – ruin any kind of appreciation. “In the universal confusion, no one saw anything,” Citati writes. “Any form of contemplation was impossible.”
As with great natural conservation projects like the Galapagos Islands, too much access to mass tourism risks destroying the very thing which is being visited. Perhaps it is time for those in charge of these great treasures to be less concerned about democracy and fairness, and for the rest of us to be more patient, book our place and wait.
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