It's a mark of the peculiar times we inhabit that what, 10 years ago, would have passed for unequivocally "bad" economic news can now be regarded in a much more ambivalent light.
Take, for example, last week's three major economic stories. The first was the revelation that, with the nation's network of power stations continuing to diminish, we face an "energy dark age" of gas imports and rising prices. The second is that European car manufacturing is in sharp decline, with an 8.7 per cent drop in volume sales in the past year.
To this, in the wake of the food- labelling scandal, can be added widespread warnings that the diner who wants to eat proper food, without peril to his health or his sensitivities, would be better obtaining it from a more transparent supply chain and, inevitably, paying more money for it. To the kind of uber-consumer who believes that the freedom to drive a car, switch on the central heating whenever you feel like it and snack off cut-price beef-burgers at eight to the £1 packet is a fundamental human right, all this is a well-nigh apocalyptic reversal of the assumptions on which most post-war Western life has been based.
Leaving aside the economic consequences for a moment, in favour of some of the environmental and even moral implications, surely this is a good thing? There are already too many cars in the world and not enough petrol: what could be better than a world in which fewer vehicles emerge on to the highways each year? Gas is a finite resource and eventually we are going to have to use less of it and pay more for the privilege. Why not start now? As for "cheap food", if everyone paid a decent price for it – a price that would also adequately remunerate some of the people who produce it, many of them in the developing world – then perhaps they wouldn't throw so much of it away?
The difficulty with this puritanical line, of course, is that it would make the lives of the poor and elderly, for whom beef- or horseburgers at £1 a packet are a necessity, even less sustainable. But Mr and Mrs Bourgeois having to think twice before turning on the radiators on a mild spring afternoon would be progress of a sort.
It is always amusing to watch the tidal wave of advance publicity that precedes the release of a film by Lars von Trier, and Nymphomaniac has been no exception. The darling work has yet to preview at the forthcoming Cannes film festival, yet already we have been treated to a blizzard of press coverage. The female lead, Stacy Martin, has spoken cheerfully of her "porn double" and the various hard- and softcore formats in which the film is to appear, while the Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgard has expressed the opinion that, although sexually explicit, it will be "a very bad wanking movie".
All this is very funny, but the question remains: why does Von Trier persist with this kind of thing? One of the answers, you suspect, is that, like many an avant-garde cineaste before him, he is still exercised by the need to épater les bourgeois. And yet one of the great aesthetic developments of the past decade or so, all the evidence insists, is the resolute unshockability of the middle-class audience. One notices this even in the world of light literature. I was once present at a literary festival when the novelist Paul Bailey, no doubt bent on mischief, read an incendiary passage in which plunging male members rorted all over the bedclothes. Two elderly ladies fell asleep, while a third remarked, in tones that she would have used to upbraid an ingrate grandchild, "Why does he always have to go on about willies?"
It was G H Lewes, a century and a half ago, who pointed out that anything which strains for effect can never be truly effective. To suggest that innovative art nearly always works by taking a conventional setting and twisting it slightly out of kilter would perhaps be overstating the case. On the other hand, if Von Trier decided to make a drawing-room comedy, it would probably be rather interesting.
If one good thing emerged out of the row involving Hilary Mantel's comments on the Duchess of Cambridge, it was the reminder of quite how low standards of public debate have sunk, particularly standards of debate about the Royal Family. Given that he was abroad and had probably had only a garbled account of Mantel's lecture, the Prime Minister's response was understandable, but Ed Miliband's simulated outrage will have made anyone who read the text printed in the London Review of Books cringe.
Depressing as these reactions undoubtedly are, there is also a hint that we have moved on just slightly from the atmosphere of the late 1950s, in which the mildest expression of anti-monarchical sentiment inspired a punitive frenzy. After all, Malcolm Muggeridge was banned from the BBC in 1957 on the strength of a two-year-old New Statesman article, while Lord Altrincham, who had ventured some critical remarks about the monarchy being hidebound and complacent, was slapped in the face by an enraged League of Empire Loyalist. As far as we know, Hilary Mantel still stalks the promenades of Budleigh Salterton unmolested.
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