Andrew Martin: Do I have to be ranked on life's league table?

Longing for a return to self-effacing modesty

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Last week, I saw a photograph of David Cameron actually kissing a baby. I didn't think politicians did that any more. It's like seeing a man slipping on a banana skin, or a belfry with bats in it. So smooth and hairless is Cameron's face that it appeared as though he was looking in a mirror, and the effect was generally unedifying. Later, I read an interview with Gordon Brown in which he was asked the question: "If you lost the election, what sort of work would you like to do?" He replied: "Perhaps some sort of charity or voluntary work."

If he'd given the full answer, "Some sort of charity or voluntary work... on the side, while I rake in thousands from high-level advisory posts," I would have admired him more, but politicians at election time are particularly craven, and we enjoy looking down on them for it.

This time around, however, I feel that such disdain may be misplaced because we are all perennially fighting our own election campaigns. We are constantly being judged by some numerical index, or indeed being subject to the votes of others. A young woman I know who enquired about a media traineeship was told: "If you haven't got a thousand followers on Twitter, forget it." If, when I was at school 30 years ago, I had boasted of the number of friends I had, I would have been rightly condemned as an utter prat. Yet today, the addition of the words "... on Facebook" seems to legitimise the boast.

In our ever more pushy and marketised world, lots of things that used to be considered the hallmarks of an utter prat are no longer so considered: writing screeds of self-praise on one's blog or website, for example. It is understood that politicians have a licence to boast, and that used to make their realm near unique. Now we all do it to the extent that the quality of modesty will soon go the way of gentility or gentlemanliness.

The story is told at the still civilised publishers, Faber & Faber (I should

declare an interest: the firm publishes my own books), of the young trainee who – some 30 years ago – was discussing the paperback publication of a novel with one of the senior partners. The trainee said: "The TLS rated it as 'undoubtedly a masterpiece'. We should definitely put that on the cover." "Oh, I don't think we need to blow our own trumpet in that way," replied the senior partner, while poking the coal fire that burned in his office.

For any novel to succeed today, it must not only be hyped to a high number on Amazon, it must also win a vote – i.e. an award. There are votes, and awards, for anything now, and I follow the prizegivings with morbid interest. At the British Insurance Industry Awards a couple of years ago, guests were addressed by Jeremy Paxman and entertained by the British Philharmonic Orchestra, who played music from the movies throughout the evening, commencing with the theme from the latest Star Wars – Revenge of the Sith. (Of course, there's a lot about insurance in Star Wars, isn't there?) Even the bus industry has its "Oscars" – or at least it did until the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences advised that this designation stop.

I am therefore not remotely surprised, while doing a wee in a public lavatory, to read that the convenience is award-winning, or was at least shortlisted. It's almost as common in that setting as the words Royal Doulton used to be.

Whereas the pathway out of obscurity was once talent and hard work, it is now electability, or likeability, or at least force of personality. Instead of having posters in our windows reading "Vote Labour" (or whatever), we ought logically to display ones reading "Vote Me" – together with the subtext, written or implied, "Babies kissed here".

Andrew Martin's latest novel is 'The Last Train to Scarborough' (Faber)

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