Keep calm and carry on tolerating

Christians know how to turn the other cheek. Plus, why modern literary biographies have little to say, and Lady Gaga's roots


As an enraged mob surrounded the American embassy in Islamabad, while French consular offices around the world closed in anticipation of reprisals against a satirical magazine which had impugned the honour of the Prophet, and fresh criticism was levelled at Sir Salman Rushdie on the publication of his memoir, Joseph Anton, it was a good week to be an Anglican Christian. What models of sobriety, tolerance and sweet good humour we all are, I thought to myself, as another brick sailed into the embassy compound, and yet how invidious – at any rate here in the UK – is the position in which we find ourselves.

Consider the great paradox of faith – and some of faith's detractors – here in our glorious liberal democracy. Tell a Muslim – a certain kind of Muslim, anyway – that his God is a subject for satire and he will quite possibly firebomb your publisher's office. Venture on to the Today programme, on the other hand, to inform the Bishop of Barchester that he is a credulous half-wit, and you will probably be hailed for your intellectual probity. Christianity, after all, is the softest of soft targets here in the enlightened west, and its vulnerability tends to be exploited by atheist critics merely because of the cheery good nature with which most Christians respond to mockery of their beliefs.

Imagine what would happen if the CofE adopted some of the tactics espoused by Muslims against the Great Satan Obama, if Professor A C Grayling, say, had refuse thrown at him as he strolled out of Broadcasting House or Professor Richard Dawkins were barracked by the literary festival crowds. The only time in recent history that we have come anywhere close to these undesirable scenarios was when the BBC made the mistake of screening Jerry Springer: The Opera; 35,000 complaints were received, and Roly Keating, the executive responsible, had to spend the weekend at an undisclosed location far away from his eyrie in Portland Place.

The anti-Christian attitudes that underlie much of UK public life would be easier to bear if they extended to other religions. Yet most professional atheists are reluctant to criticise Muslims and Hindus on the understandable grounds that a) they tend to have brown skins, and b) some might turn nasty if crossed. I was at a literary festival in Sri Lanka earlier this year when Professor Dawkins was accosted by a black-clad woman who informed him that "Islam is very scientific". To this Dawkins returned the single word "Bollocks". Bracing stuff, but you doubt we shall we shall ever hear it from him on Al Jazeera.


If, as is sometimes suggested in newspaper books pages, literary biography is a genre in sharp decline, then the reviews of DT Max's life of the American novelist David Foster Wallace offer an explanation of this falling-off. It is not that Max's book lacks merit, merely that he has so little material to deal with. Foster Wallace, who committed suicide at the age of 46, turns out – mental illness notwithstanding – to have lived an absolutely typical modern American writer's life: college, followed by grants, teaching jobs and long hours of desk-bound brooding. All he did, in other words, was write (or not write) and any book about him is, necessarily, the chronicle of a great interior.

The recent institutionalisation of the modern literary life represents a dramatic change from the pre-1945 period. Until at least the second half of the 20th century, a substantial portion of writers fought in wars or played at least some vestigial part in the public life of their age. Then came the flight to the study and the university teaching job. The result is that most biographies of contemporary writers tend to be deeply dull.

No disrespect to all the Creative Writing MAs currently peddling their work, but when the time comes for authorised lives to be compiled, what – a little dutiful literary criticism aside – is there to be said?

The institutional factor may also explain the extremely limited coign of vantage occupied by most contemporary fiction. The modern novelist, by and large, can't write about the world of work which most of his readers inhabit as he – or she – has probably never had a proper job. Without his vocation, he would be unemployable. Paul Weller's father is supposed to have glanced disparagingly at his then teenage son as the two of them laboured on a building site and remarked to a friend: "Look at him. If he couldn't play the guitar, what fucking use would he be?" The same point – mutatis mutandis – applies to the modern novelist.


This column has several times had occasion to lament Lady Gaga's lack of originality. Her very name first appeared in Punch sometime in the 1920s. Her celebrated "meat dress" was borrowed from a 30- year-old performance by the artist Linder Sterling. Now a more august commentator has taken note of her derivativeness.

"I'm going to dedicate this song to Lady Gaga," Madonna recently informed a live audience. "Because you want to know something? I love her... I do love her. Imitation is the highest form of flattery." Coming from someone who has built an entire career on the appropriation of other performers' styles – one might remark the influence of Alison Goldfrapp on some of her mid-2000s shows – this strikes me as a colossal piece of cheek.

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: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Mosul falls: Talk of Iraq retaking the town, held by IS since June, is unconvincing  

Isis on the run? The US portrayal is very far from the truth

Patrick Cockburn

General Election 2015: You’re welcome to join us on the campaign's final straight

Lisa Markwell
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk