The pop star philanthropist Bono is rarely out of the news for long. A couple of weeks ago he was confiding to the press how, whenever he met another president or pope, he would give him a book of poetry by his close friend Seamus Heaney – as perfect an example of the multiple name-drop as you could ever hope to read.
This weekend he was interviewed about his work in Africa, about global poverty and the pressure he puts on the world leaders to do more for the developing world. Explaining the connection between his singing and good works, he put it down the empathetic nature of the artist. “Music keeps the heart porous,” he said.
The heart was slightly less porous when it came to the matter of his personal finance. Asked in the interview why a man who put pressure on the Irish government to give more, preferred to pay his own taxes abroad, Bono came up with a masterly piece of reasoning. “At the heart of the Irish economy has been tax competitiveness,” he explained.
“Tax competitiveness has taken this country out of poverty.” As for his own charitable giving, he was a strong believer in the scriptural idea, “Let not the left hand know what the right hand does.”
What a perfect summation of modern morality that is. You take the credit for any good you may have done but, when it comes to the less than good, you look the world in the eye and give the verbal equivalent of a shrug. The message is clear: my behaviour may not be perfect – sorry and all that – but the problem is not with me, but with the messy world in which we live.
It is a convenient default position for an age when apology is part of public life, allowing a person to express regret, while dodging any real personal responsibility. Over in the political world, the former spin-doctor Damian McBride has been exemplifying the art of the non-apology this week while doing everything in his power to derail the party which used to pay his wages.
In his memoir of his time working for Gordon Brown, which is gleefully being serialised in a right-wing newspaper during the Labour Party conference, McBride has said that he regrets the majority of what he did. The “dark” world of politics had encouraged his behaviour; he had been “sucked in like a concubine at a Roman orgy.”
Rarely can regret have seemed more bogus. Not only is the tone of McBride’s book cheerfully truculent, indeed almost boastful, but the manner and timing of its publication amount, in effect, to yet another dirty trick. As Alastair Campbell has pointed out, the fact that the book’s royalties are to be given to good causes does not cover the small question of newspaper serialisation rights, said to be £130,000.
All around us, it seems, there are people whose left hand does not know what their right hand is doing. In the literary world, yet another poet has just had to withdraw his poem from a competition after it had been revealed that he had borrowed extensively from the work of another writer. “I accept I did plagiarise certain poems – although it was genuinely not my intention to deceive,” CJ Allen has said. In an email to the poet from whom he had stolen, Matthew Welton, Allen expressed admiration for his work. He had borrowed a few lines “as a framework”.
Stealing, in other words, is no longer a black-or-white moral issue. As with the pop star and his tax competitiveness, or the spin doctor sucked into the darkness of politics, there are many shades of grey, each one lightening the darkness of personal responsibility.
Banality is in the eye of the beholder
One of last year’s more enduring running gags was about the alleged dullness of Pippa Middleton who had written a party-planning book of, it was said, plonking banality.
Scoffing of this kind always tends to be directed at easy and obvious targets. Some might think, for example, that a celebrity-written book of etiquette which advises against talking on a mobile phone while being served in a shop, or texting during meal-times, and contains the solemn warning, “If you wouldn’t say what you’ve tweeted to someone’s face, don’t say it on Twitter,” would quickly be parodied for its dreary obviousness in the pages of Private Eye.
That is unlikely to happen. The book of etiquette, shortly to be published, has been written by Sandi Toksvig who, unlike Middleton, is utterly acceptable as a witty and wise voice of our times.
Her book, soon to be serialised, will no doubt be a huge success in the Christmas market.