D J Taylor: Less is more, except where BB is concerned

Puritanism is a force to be reckoned with... but it didn't seem to inhibit the late actor George Baker when he had an affair with Bardot back in the Fifties

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The odd thing about last week's news was how many outwardly random events proved, on closer inspection, to be intimately related.

Scanning Wednesday's newspaper, for example, my eye fell in quick succession on the "anti-capitalist" protests on Wall Street, the 100,000-signature petition opposing the London-Birmingham high-speed rail link and the criticism of BP's new drilling programme in the Shetland Isles. All these protests have a unifying theme, which is to say that they are anti-growth, anti-government and, above all, anti-materialist.

The anodyne state of British politics, with its non-issues, its broad assumptions and its lack of clear ideological separations, is a commentator's staple. Less obvious, perhaps, is the rise of a new political divide that transcends party lines. The great ideological battles of the mid-21st century will not be fought between right and left, or between contending social classes, but between materialists and puritans: those who continue to believe that growth is indefinitely sustainable and those who believe that security lies in husbanding the planet's resources and getting by with less.

Puritanism as a social and economic force is much underestimated in this country. The great wave of consumer materialism that began in the late 1950s all but swept it away. It has spent the last half-century catching up. Yet the implications for domestic politics of the very large number of voters who want fewer roads and shops and a bit less technology for technology's sake is only just starting to be appreciated. My local paper regularly carries stories reporting disquiet (that is, Conservative-voting disquiet) over new housing developments waved through by a Conservative county council at the behest of a (mostly) Conservative central government.

Some of its frets and fractures of the wider landscape could be glimpsed in the continuing reaction to the death of Steve Jobs: acclaimed on one side as a modern Leonardo da Vinci, and mildly disparaged on the other for cluttering up the world with a lot of techno-junk it didn't really need. Anyone who can channel some of this resentment into an effective political movement will be unstoppable.

***

The funniest aspect of the pursuit of the Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, by vengeful media has been the amusement everyone derives from his name. Private Eye, taking its cue from events in Perugia, hailed him as "Foxy Foxy". Naturally, the "hounds" have been on his "scent". "Fox on the Run" ran one headline, which some may recognise as a reference to The Sweet's No 2 hit single from 1975. There was even talk, in a nod to Roald Dahl's celebrated children's book Fantastic Mr Fox. You get the feeling that all this hilarity will have been quite as irritating to Mr Fox as the revelations about his fast friend Adam Werritty and their numberless trips abroad. As a teenager it took me some time to appreciate that one of the great unwritten laws of life is that, by and large, people dislike jokes being made about their names, and that all the Smellies, Dickovs and Bottomleys one came across tended to treat punning remarks with the wryest of smiles. A printer's representative with whom I used to deal sometimes managed a grin when I observed that we couldn't have much more of this, Mr Muchmore, but there was no conviction in it.

The rule was even harder to stick to when I worked in the City, where half the partners seemed to have pop-star names such as "Brian Wilson" and "David Essex". No one can help their patronym, but I used to feel sorry for children whose parents seemed to have gone out of their way to burden them with unsuitable combinations of Christian name and surname. I was at school with a boy named Charles Chaplin, whose mother and father, when they came to register his birth, really should have been taken aside and reminded of their parental duty.

***

The Football Association was apparently so anxious to nudge the Uefa panel considering Wayne Rooney's sending-off, while playing for England against Montenegro, towards leniency that the player himself was advised to send a personal letter of apology. All this was deeply intriguing. What, you wonder, did Wayne put in it? Did he write it himself or get his lawyer to help? Did he compose it in longhand or type it up on screen? Did he sign off with that characteristic Roy of the Rovers flourish "Yours in sport, Wayne"? Did he throw himself on the disciplinary panel's mercy, or did he assume that lofty one-of-those-things/spur-of-the-moment tone that so often passes for contrition in the world of professional football?

No finer art exists than that of the apology. My father, a natural over-stepper of the mark, used to maintain that much could be done by mixing ingratiation and cheek. Thus, shanghaied into his superior's office at the Norwich Union insurance company, he would cheerfully remark: "Sir, I am literally and metaphorically on the carpet." Sometimes this did the trick. At other times it was thought unhelpfully insouciant.

What might be called the psychology of the apology can be highly complex. Kingsley Amis's army story, Court of Inquiry,features a lieutenant who avoids punishment by almost prostrating himself before the senior officer and babbling about how miserable he has been made by letting everybody down. Later he confides to a friend that this was simply play-acting, only for the friend to wonder whether the level of self-abasement plumbed didn't go rather deeper than this. As for Wayne, I'm sure some highly paid legal mind told him the best thing to say. What a shame it seems to have failed entirely.

***

Obituaries of Inspector Wexford actor George Baker could not avoid mentioning the brief affair he conducted with Brigitte Bardot in 1955 while they were making separate films at Pinewood Studios. According to The Independent's obituarist, this liaison "put a strain on his marriage". This struck me as one of the most flagrant understatements ever to be placed on paper, so much so that I immediately set out to find more examples. My mother-in-law must be a strong contender, for her sapient remark a couple of years ago, that "these Harry Potter books are really very popular".

But pride of place has to go to the old boys' section of the Summer Fields prep school magazine in the early 1940s. The compiler, wanting to make some reference to the achievements of the then Commander-in-Chief of British Forces in the Middle East, noted that "Wavell Minor has done well in North Africa".

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