One of the most regular horrors of British public life is the spectacle of a politician informing the disadvantaged that he empathises with their plight and would, if called upon, be ready to experience some of their privations himself. The sympathy may be genuine and the principle sound, but somehow these displays of fellow-feeling are nearly always cancelled out by the fact that they come courtesy of well-lunched middle-aged men whose last major domestic inconvenience was the au pair calling in sick.
If there is any consolation in the sight of the Conservative Party chairman, Grant Shapps, proudly declaring that two of his children share a room, or the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, maintaining that he could exist on £53 a week "if I had to", it lies in the awareness that ghoulish assessments of how little it takes to live on have been doing the rounds for decades. Back in the 1930s, for example, a forensic debate took place in the newspapers over the question of whether an unemployed family of three could survive on the 16 shillings (80p) left to them once their rent and heating costs had been deducted.
The last word in this journey was uttered by the writer of a letter to the New Statesman who claimed that he could live on 3s 11½d a week (just under 20p) by way of a menu consisting of wholemeal bread, vegetables, oranges and broken biscuits, with the food eaten raw to save on fuel bills. But when it comes to it, the exact sums quoted in these discussions – from the New Statesman correspondent's 20p to Iain Duncan Smith's £53 – are immaterial: anyone who is absolutely compelled to, and has a reasonable idea of nutrition, can live on practically anything. What such surveys always lose sight of are the psychological currents that run beneath the average bread-line existence.
As George Orwell pointed out three-quarters of a century ago, a millionaire may enjoy breakfasting on orange juice and Ryvita biscuits. A benefits claimant does not. "When you are... underfed, harassed, bored and miserable, you don't want to eat dull wholesome food." This attitude applies to every compartment of life. It used to puzzle me, while supervising the church youth football team, to note that the boys from the poorest homes invariably had the flashiest trainers. But then, as Richard Hoggart once observed, the working classes have been cheerful existentialists for centuries.
To watch a preview of The Look of Love, Michael Winterbottom's forthcoming biopic of the Soho porn baron-cum-property magnate Paul Raymond, as I did last week, was to be reminded of the extraordinary complexity of the stereotyping process. Curiously, everyone in the film seemed to fill an almost figurative role. Raymond – played with tremendous attack by Steve Coogan – is the oldest swinger in town, hoovering up the sherbert and eyeing up the ladeez in a desperate attempt to retain his playboy edge. Fiona Richmond (played by Tamsin Egerton) is the bit of posh who enjoys talking dirty: not to be outdone, the editor of Raymond's magazines peers at the smut from behind a hedge of corkscrew curls and aviator sunglasses.
And yet, a glance at Members Only, Paul Willetts's entertaining biography of Raymond, on which the film is based, reveals that the key participants are almost exactly as portrayed on celluloid. Were they in at the birth of the stereotypes by which they are now represented, or, noting the way in which their lives were shaping, did they grit their teeth and play along? The stereotype's complicity in acting up to and abetting the role assigned to him should never be underestimated. Thus at Oxford University in the early 1980s there was a category of undergraduate known as the "Northern chemist". What was remarkable was the enthusiasm with which potential recruits embraced its caste-marks, grew their hair, listened to Meatloaf on the jukebox and gamely inebriated themselves in the college bar.
The imminent publication of John Crace's Harry's Games: Inside the Mind of Harry Redknapp reinforces this point. My father was doing impersonations of 'Arry 20 years ago ("I mean, well... the lads done great... can't fault their commitment... The boy did good" etc.). Half-manufactured, half-innate, the Redknapp persona – like Paul Raymond's – is an altogether tantalising piece of cultural assemblage.
Still with football, amid the continuing fuss about the political affiliations of the incoming Sunderland manager Paolo di Canio, I was hearted to read the article contributed by the West Ham co-proprietor David Sullivan to Thursday's Independent. Mr Sullivan did not mince his words: "Until he provides a clear refutation of his previous position, we'll have to assume he thinks fascism and football can get along together. Not in my book they don't, and Sunderland should not have appointed him manager."
All this is stirring stuff and, naturally, to be applauded. On the other hand, as Mr Sullivan luxuriates in the warmth of the moral high ground, it should not be forgotten that here is a man who made the fortune that enabled him to buy West Ham by exploiting women for commercial gain. You could argue – I wouldn't dream of arguing it, myself – that Mr Sullivan is at least as unfit to be involved in the running of a Premier League football team as Paolo di Canio.
- More about:
- Conservative Party
- Department For Work And Pensions
- Grant Shapps
- Iain Duncan Smith