The politician for whom I felt the most sympathy last week was, somewhat unexpectedly, Ed Miliband. It is not just that whenever he opens his mouth Mr Miliband is darkly conscious of the fact that much of the electorate regards the party he leads as responsible for the mess we are in. It is not even that when encouraged by his minders to harangue meetings of demonstrators Mr Miliband finds himself in the same position as, say, James Callaghan put up to address the Durham miners in the 1970s: tolerated, but seen as part of the problem rather than its solution. No, it is that in trying to deal with "the cuts" and one kind of public reaction to them, he is being given horribly little room for manoeuvre.
Evidence of this procedural cul-de-sac came on Wednesday, while I was walking through the breeze-blocked campus of the University of East Anglia. The student union elections were in progress, and draped over a wall, featuring the insignia of the college lecturers' unions, Unite and Unison, hung a banner proclaiming: NO IFS OR BUTS. NO FEES, NO CUTS. The absolutism was rather startling. No higher education fees at all? No cuts whatsoever? If these are Mr Miliband's natural allies – and here is a politician who, were he in office, would certainly be making cuts himself – then heaven help him when his enemies show up.
The question of university funding is one in which the "they shall not pass" principle seems particularly absurd. The novelist and former English professor David Lodge recently made the point that in an era where governments expected much larger fractions of the population to proceed to high education, the old fiscal arrangements could no longer hold. Not long back I was talking to the head of a university English department who remarked, of successive education secretaries in the early 2000s, "they showered money on us". As Mr Miliband tries to develop a line of his own, one of his first tasks ought to be to detach himself from the grasp of his trade union sponsors. For the moment, the presence of anyone from Unite or Unison next to him on a political platform is another few thousand votes lost.
Quite the feeblest symposium I have come across in ages turned up in this month's Prospect magazine, where various public figures offered their opinions on the relevance and future of the monarchy. It was not that discussions of this kind aren't necessarily a good idea, merely that the views are so terribly predictable. Thumbing down the list of contributors, I decided to see if I could guess what line the pundits involved would take.
Alex Salmond, I told myself, is not a natural monarchist, but then his position as First Minister of Scotland behoves a certain statesmanlike prudence. Sure enough, Mr Salmond weighed in with some remarks to the effect that: "Her Majesty's relationship with Scotland is valued by the Scottish people, and her service as Head of the Commonwealth is unparalleled." I have read enough of Will Self's journalism to have a fair idea of what he thinks of most things, and, well I never, Mr Self maintained that the Royal Family "infantilises" us. Yann Martel, the Canadian author of Life of Pi (above), on the other hand, has a reputation for quirkiness and not toeing the left-liberal line. And yes, he was suggesting that: "People need a national narrative, a story that gives them a sense of who they are. Monarchy sustains that kind of narrative." As for asking Martin McGuinness, you might as well enquire of the ghost of David Lloyd George if he didn't think that politics was rather corrupt. It would have been much more interesting to ask the questions of, say, Wayne Rooney, Liam Gallagher and Bruce Forsyth, if only because their replies would be less like a heap of iron filings obeying the magnet's call.
Another person I felt sorry for last week was Anne Marie Davis, daughter of the serial killer Fred West. Interviewed on the Channel 4 chat-show Fern, Ms Davis declared that she was "absolutely appalled" that an ITV drama is being made about her father's life. Of West's victims, she remarked: "I feel it needs to be said that these young women and girls, they shouldn't be turned into public property." She was particularly incensed that the production team wrote her a letter which referred to Rosemary West as her mother, whereas her real mother, Rena Costello, was one of her father's victims.
You can see Ms West's point entirely, the survivor of an unbelievably traumatic childhood whose past is being picked over by what, on this evidence, is an insensitive bunch of TV adaptors. History, alas, demonstrates the futility of this kind of protest. Whether engineered by television companies, novelists, or balladeers, what might be called the mythologising of crime has been a national pastime for centuries. To read the historian Judith Flanders' recent work, The Invention of Murder, is to be struck by the Victorian habit of ceaselessly re-imagining the exploits of notorious 19th-century killers to suit changing tastes to the point where they lose all tethering to historical reality.
After one or two uninspiring detours into reggae, country and western and Hibernian folk, BBC4's Friday night schedules have returned to the more enticing panoramas of bygone mainstream pop. Last week offered a particularly good overview of the peculiar year of 1976, glam-rock gently receding across one horizon and the punk cataclysm boiling up across the other.
The effect was to remind you of the absolutely shocking's habit of mutating into the fundamentally anodyne almost from one year to the next. When the Sex Pistols made their legendary appearance on the Bill Grundy show in 1976, there were reports of angry householders kicking in their television screens. My late father-in-law, one of the most mild-mannered men on the planet, threatened to break "God Save The Queen" across his knee should a copy come through the door. Three-and-a-half decades later, John Lydon makes butter commercials and looks set for a knighthood. As for the others, scanning the cast-list of my youngest son's vampire-ridden school play on Thursday night, I discovered that his friend Alfie was playing a leather-jacketed member of the undead named Sid Vicious. Naturally this sanitising process applies at every level. It was Philip Larkin who remarked that in the future his famous line "They fuck you up your mum and dad" would probably be sung by massed choirs of schoolgirls.Reuse content