Christina Patterson: Please stop telling me you're sorry

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The Independent Online

Sorry. I was baffled when the word screamed out at me from a giant billboard on the tube a couple of weeks ago. Who was apologising to who? Transport for London, for its incessant announcements – and weird emphasis on prepositions – in the tone of a kindergarten teacher whose patience is just about to snap? Bankers, in a fit of sudden remorse for the implosion of the global economy? God?

Actually, it doesn't really matter who was saying it (the Evening Standard, apparently, for not being as can-do, upbeat or Pollyannaish as it should have) because if sorry was ever the hardest word, it certainly isn't now. Everywhere you look, someone's vomiting it out. Haringey Council is sorry about Baby P. Prince Charles is sorry for starting "some kind of style war between classicists and modernists". The Pope is sorry about the Holocaust. (But not sorry enough, according to Israelis. He should be sorry for being German. He should be sorry for the insufficiency of his adjectives and his plain choice of verbs.)

And everywhere, everywhere you look, politicians are saying sorry. Sorry about the tampons. Sorry about the napkins. Sorry about the light-bulbs. The Pope knows a thing of two about Damascene conversions, but even he might be surprised by the sudden waves of remorse afflicting the British political classes. One minute, they're happily nipping out to B & Q for a bath plug, or Heal's for a rocking chair, or Sainsbury's for some dusters, and the next they're prostrate with contrition, offering to have plugless baths, chairless studies, cobweb-ridden homes, maybe even slightly less messy moats.

Like Catholics who have suddenly found the minutiae of their private misdemeanours relayed live from the confessional box to a mass audience in St Peter's Square, and like those figures at Pompeii, frozen in eternal terror, they have stood, appalled, thunder-struck, waiting for the Holy Father to speak. And speak he did. Ten Hail Maries and a whacking great repayment for you. A hundred novenas and a fat cheque from you. Sackcloth and ashes. Flagellation. Well, perhaps not that. Some of them might get excited.

Mortification all round then, and MPs are mortified all right. They're humiliated, agonised, crucified, almost, with shame. But are they sorry? Of course not. They're sorry they might lose their jobs, they're sorry about the humiliation, they're sorry they got caught, and they're sorry that they've got to pay the wretched stuff back. And they didn't even want most of it in the first place! But are they sorry for sticking to the rules? For operating entirely within the law? For doing, in fact, what they were told to do? I don't think they are, and I'm not sure they should be.

It's certainly unseemly, this ghastly itemising of the petty stuff of life, and this Hello!-ish preoccupation with home furnishings. If we have to know about the private lives of our politicians, please may it not be Ming Campbell's Marie Antoinettish penchant for interior design, or Michael Gove's Manchu cabinet. It sticks in the craw to see those vast Tory country houses, maintained at the tax payer's expense, and to see the acrobatic feats (the flips, the somersaults, the sleights of hand) performed between first and second homes. And it doesn't just stick in the craw to hear of the capital gains acquired through those feats. To build property portfolios at the expense of the taxpayer is just plain wrong.

But MPs outside London do need a second home, and they do need some kind of allowance to run that second home, and maybe even to furnish it. And the system that existed to enable them to do this allowed them to claim for rocking chairs and bath plugs. And the people who ran the system encouraged them to claim the maximum, because if they didn't, they were letting the side down. MPs were caught between the shop-steward-claim-your-rights Michael Martins of this world and the let's-be-whiter-than-white-and-luckily-I've-got-private-wealth David Camerons. Who only pronounced, of course, once the cat was out of the bag.

The system stinks and it should go. But this mass hysteria, and mass shaming, and mass punishment, and mass wailing, and mass gnashing of teeth, and mass confusion of embarrassment with remorse, is as unseemly as the spectacle that triggered it.

Let's judge Walcott by his poetry

Many years ago, when I worked in the publicity department at Faber, a colleague told me that Derek Walcott was "a bit of a one". And so, indeed, it proved. His eye for the laydeez was manifest not just in his gentle teasing of publicity girls with names like Camilla (and Christina) but also in various allegations of sexual harassment at the universities where he taught. Nearly 30 years after the first one, these allegations have been photocopied and distributed to more than 100 Oxford professors, in an attempt to thwart his candidature for professor of poetry. Anonymously, of course.

Wide-ranging, and often entirely inappropriate, expressions of enthusiasm for the female form are, you could argue, a traditional part of the male poet's armoury. While no one could condone the alleged downgrading of a student's work for sexual favours not received, it's rather hard to see its relevance to a post which consists entirely of giving lectures and to a man who is nearly 80. Walcott, a Nobel laureate, is a truly wonderful poet. Whoever did this petty act has deprived Oxford of the possibility of a great poetic voice, and the only other serious contender, Ruth Padel (also a hugely talented poet) of a proper, and satisfying, battle.

It ain't what it used to be

The Milky Bar Kid is back on his horse. The Hovis boy is trudging up the cobbled hill. Persil mum is once again flaunting the snowy whiteness of her whites. It can only be a matter of time before David Cameron's favourite – Ernie, the fastest milkman in the West – is ousting The Kings of Leon from the iPod, along with Rolf Harris's "Two Little Boys".

Yes, nostalgia is back. Again. It "always becomes more important," says Steve Sharp, the marketing director of Marks & Spencer, "when times are tough". M&S is shooting a new Twiggy ad in a Victorian street. Sainsbury's, Guinness and Coca-Cola are all rootling through their archives to find retro-hip ways to revive their brands. In the hope, presumably, that we'll all hark back to simpler, happier, purer times.

Which the Seventies, for a start, were not. Just think of the winter of discontent. Just think of the three-day week. Just think Callaghan. Just think Thatcher. Just think Smash. And just think – or perhaps you'd better not think – of butterscotch Angel Delight.

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