D J Taylor: Homage to Caledonia

Given what the riots have shown us about England, perhaps the best place for a liberal is in Alex Salmond's Scotland

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Back in 1967 the novelist Simon Raven, waspishly at large in one of those symposia on class and culture of which the 1960s were so fond, pronounced the following, devastating, judgement.

Since 1945, he declared, "the general increase in education and literacy has led to the wider expression, by and for the population at large, of its moral, intellectual and artistic preferences. The vox populi has been heard, at last, crying out for what it wants, and ... what it wants has been found truly appalling by every serious novelist, whether right or left, who currently puts pen to paper."

This was bracing stuff even for 1967, and I found myself recalling it at the moment when the post-riot debate, having disposed of criminality and the role of the police, came finally to examine the cultural compost in which criminal behaviour takes root and flourishes. It was a curious exchange, if only because you knew instinctively that practically everyone who took part in it, other than the Richard Littlejohns of this world, was terrified of revealing what they really thought about some of the cultural evidence on display.

Anyone who has ever filed a contribution to a newspaper discussion site will be painfully aware of these dangers. Offer the opinion that black street culture, or at any rate that part of it visible to white liberal onlookers, is a half-hilarious, half-sinister confidence trick practised on the people caught up in it, and you are likely to be taxed with racism. Should you, in the interests of fairness, make the same complaint about white street culture, you are certain to be written off as an "elitist". Lurking behind these assumptions is the deeply disingenuous form of modern relativism which insists that all expressions of cultural preference are equally valid, symbolised by the recent case of the studded and multi-tattooed bank worker who couldn't understand why this "lifestyle choice" went down so badly with her employers.

When was it last possible to make a cultural judgement, at any rate in a liberal newspaper, without being made to feel ashamed of yourself? Thirty years ago? Forty? And who could deny, looking at the world around us, that cultural judgements need to be made? The depressing thing about the shocked gazes turned on anyone who suggests that most people would be better off going for a walk than indulging themselves in what passes for light entertainment is the idea that this represents an attack on something called "popular culture". In fact, the target is mass culture, that long-term exercise in corporate hoodwinking in which nearly every "choice" arrived at by the punter has already been decided in advance by some US entertainment mogul. On the other hand, if there was a genuinely popular culture surfacing on the streets of Tottenham, rather than a bastardised version of the American TV channels, it might be more alarming still.

***

According to a report in the Evening Standard, the average cost of dining out at a London restaurant has shot up by more than 11 per cent to break the £90-for-two-barrier for the first time. If the 2012 edition of Harden's London Restaurants is to be believed, the bill for three courses plus wine, coffee and service is likely to wing in at £90.02. On current form, the £100 barrier should be breached sometime early in 2014.

As one who last dined in a London restaurant some time in the 1990s – or at any rate last picked up the bill in one – all this is rather academic. But it did remind me that the real test of a modern puritan lies in his or her attitude to restaurant prices. When I first came to London in my early twenties, and had the pleasure of being entertained in its carvery restaurants by printers' representatives – a genial and idiosyncratic breed – it took me nearly three years to summon up sufficient courage to order anything more glamorous than chicken. Even today this impulse to settle immediately for the cheapest thing on the menu hasn't wholly disappeared. When I was treated to half a lobster the other week by a friend, guilt seemed to hover in the air above each tender forkful. It was like eating a baby.

***

The book I most enjoyed reading this week was the inspired reissue, by the Greville Press, of Anthony Powell's Caledonia: A Fragment, first published in 1934. This ingenious verse satire, in which Powell gamely disparages all forms of Scottish cultural and political endeavour ("In Musick's Realm this Race (the bitter fact is)/Presume to teach an Art they cannot practise", etc), was, I learn from the Earl of Gowrie's introduction, provoked by the memory of a night in 1930 when Powell was kept awake in his London flat by the sound of somebody playing the bagpipes.

The roots of anti-Scottish feeling in England run extremely deep. At heart they stem from folk memories of a hostile kingdom beyond the border that had a habit of allying itself with a second enemy in France. But the particular surge in Pictophobia that observers detect in the early 20th century looks as if it has something to do with a reaction to the peculiar cult of Scottishness that infected upper-class English life around the Edwardian era, when simply living north of the border was thought to imply moral salubrity and the popular view of Scotland was a kind of romantic compound of Sir Walter Scott's novels, purple heather and lofted claymores. Nowadays, given some of the achievements of Alex Salmond's administration, this resentment shows every sign of turning into straightforward envy.

***

The solitary drawback to this month's commemorations of the 35th anniversary of "the summer of punk" is how vividly one can remember the 10th, 15th, 20th and 25th anniversaries (the event itself was something I missed, alas, by virtue of living 100 miles away from the seat of the action and being preoccupied with O-levels.) This time round, the particular point of focus seems to be the Clash, the subject of a lavish and admiring spread in the latest New Musical Express.

Stout lads, all of them, and a copy of London Calling still sits on the CD rack. Glorious as all this reminiscence is, there are some other things worth remembering about the Clash, such as their habit, at any rate early in their career, of wearing swastika armbands (to the dismay of their Jewish manager) and their advocacy of something known as "constructive violence"', defined as "if you hit someone who's doing something you don't like and he stops, that's constructive violence". Of course, like the Jam's announcement that they intended to vote Conservative and thought the Queen was doing a terrific job, this may have been a joke. But it didn't seem so at the time.

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