D J Taylor: Lost and found

The Bottom Line: Paul McCartney's recently unearthed Beatles song – missing, presumed too dull to release – isn't the only oddity lurking in the country's attics
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The Independent Online

This week's hot music story was the news that Sir Paul McCartney is keen on releasing the "lost" or even "mythical" Beatles track "Carnival of Light" – provided, that is, he can get the imprimatur of Ringo Starr, Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison.

Like most Beatles scoops this one was faintly disingenuous. There is nothing especially "mythical" about "Carnival of Light", a 14-minute improvisatory wig-out from 1967 which has been sitting in the vault these past 41 years. (A plausible account of its inception can be found in the late Ian MacDonald's Revolution in the Head.) In the wake of this non-discovery, several columnists grew very excited over "lost" tracks and albums – culprits included The Who and the Beach Boys – but an equally shiny list could be compiled out of all those mislaid fragments of "lost" literature, eternally suspended beyond the authenticating margin of the printed page. Top of my "must-have-when-found" roster is the pile of notebooks stolen from George Orwell by Soviet agents during his time in the Spanish Civil War, which still lurk unlocated in a Moscow archive. Closer to home, I was always intrigued by a novel called The Real World that the former Daily Telegraph editor Charles Moore certainly wrote in the early 1990s. This perished at the hands of the libel lawyers when it was discovered that one of the characters bore an uncomfortably strong resemblance to the Conservative ideologue Sir Alfred Sherman. Sir Alfred died in 2006. Couldn't Mr Moore trip up to the attic and see if the typescript survives?

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Reg Varney's death, at the ripe age of 92, attracted some odd notices. Normally the passing of an ancient comedy star, whose ratings put most of today's small-screen titans to shame, stirs lavish encomia to a departed trouper. On this occasion, while no one had a harsh word for Reg himself, I read at least one pitiless debunking of the deceased's chief comedy vehicle, On the Buses (seven series 1969-1973, 16 million viewers), here arraigned for its chauvinism, crudity, gender stereotyping and so on. The implication was that we had we all moved on from lame-brain sitcoms into a new world of tolerance and freedom from insult (something that the Ross/Brand debacle might call into question, but there you are). Another counterweight to this invocation of what might be called the Whig theory of comedy was provided by the discovery of a fan-club website, whose obituary ended with the pious hope that "maybe we can get On the Buses back on the main channels so that a whole new generation can enjoy the antics of those lovely folk from Loxton and District".

The fanatic survival is, of course, a time-honoured part of our national life. As a politics-fixated teenager, I used to enjoy tracking the career of Mrs Annie Powell, whose innocent hobby it was each general election to stand for the Rhondda in the Communist interest. Decade succeeded decade, governments rose and fell, but still Mrs Powell went on standing, racking up 1,500 votes here, 2,000 votes there, and in a very good year occasionally displacing the Conservative from second spot behind a five-figure Labour majority. Why did Mrs Powell do it? For the same reason, presumably, that Reg Varney fans continue to bombard commissioning editors with hopeful letters: a point that has been made so many times, and so fruitlessly, that the making of it becomes more important than the point itself.

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It was a good week for single-sex education. Addressing the Girls' Schools Association, which she chairs, Vicky Tuck, headmistress of Cheltenham Ladies' College, was in bullish mood. The number of these establishments might have declined to a bare 400 but single-sex schools, she argued, "are the future". Ballast for this claim was furnished by recent neurological studies from America which purport to demonstrate that boys' and girls' brains work in different ways. As a diehard supporter of the single-sex principle, all of whose sons are now in the process of having girls foisted on them, I always thought that the best demonstration of why boys and girls should be educated separately was provided not by an American neuroscientist but by Nigel Molesworth. Older readers will perhaps recall the tremendous Molesworth fantasia in which St Custard's goes "Ko-Edducashional" and lessons are henceforth dominated by Mavis Entwistle, who in addition to being a grade-A brain-box is also a determined sneak. In burlesquing the co-educational ideal, Molesworth's creators, Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle, were making the perfectly serious point that boys mature intellectually at different times, and that a bright 16-year-old girl generally runs rings round her male equivalent. My sons' school, having opened its gates to this legion of Hermione Grangers, is now in direct competition with the local Girls' Day School Trust establishment. And guess who has the better exam results?

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With Maradona parading through Glasgow, together with the Argentinian side he now coaches, the topic of "forgiveness" was much discussed in the sports pages. In particular, Terry Butcher, Scotland's assistant coach and a member of the 1986 England World Cup side stymied by Maradona's "Hand of God" goal, declared that while it was all "in the past" he could not forgive his old adversary and would have trouble shaking his hand when their two teams met. By chance, only the other week Radio 4 ran a feature on exactly this subject, differing only in that its contributors had suffered serious hurt, rather than losing a football match. The Rev Julie Nicholson, who conducted the interviews, had lost a daughter in the 2005 London bombings and resigned her ministry on the grounds that it was hypocritical of her to absolve her parishioners from their sins while being unable to forgive the bomber. The Rev Nicholson's view was that forgiveness was not a unilateral act, that it requires some kind of relationship to be established – here between parent, victim and murderer – which in her own case simply could not happen.

A quick survey of recent family history bore this out. My sweet-natured grandmother could never be got to "forgive" the German nation for the death of her brother in the Great War. My father, too, had trouble with the five years of his life surrendered to the RAF and the friends killed along the way. There was a terrific moment in the late 1970s when my sister's German penfriend came to stay and her parents turned up unexpectedly for tea. As the meal progressed, Herr Ehlers gave us his views on England, which he found "dirty" and backward-looking. The town of Flossenbürg was mentioned. "Oh yes," my father volunteered, "I've been there." "Indeed," Herr Ehlers remarked, not seeing the trap that had been dug for him. "When was that?" "6 May, 1945," my father shot back. Still, I think he did at least shake Herr Ehlers' hand.

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The John Sergeant affair has awakened all the populist resentment that habitually seethes beneath the surface of our national life. The BBC's former political correspondent, now voluntarily retired from Strictly Come Dancing, had caused a furore by continuing to win the show's popular vote while being routinely disparaged by the judges. All this raises the elemental question – especially troubling when applied to the arts – of: how far can democracy go? Strictly Come Dancing is a dancing contest. Mr Sergeant, practically anyone who knows anything about dancing agrees, is not a very good dancer. So what do you do if the public likes him? To extend this dilemma a bit, what would happen if the Man Booker Prize were put out to popular vote instead of being decided by "experts"? Would we get a genuine expression of reader opinion, or simply a fan-club stitch-up of the kind that recently propelled a shame-faced Rick Astley to the podium at the MTV awards?

The vox populi advocates naturally insist that the public is always right. The evidence of On the Buses's 16 million viewers might seem to suggest that the public is often calamitously wrong. While highbrow snootiness over popular taste can often be intolerable, quite a lot of "expert-bashing" tends to have a rather suspect psychological origin. I once took part in a literature festival chat-session where the aim was to compile a list of the 100 best post-war novels. The great names of the era came and went, but one panellist, an elderly novelist of quite some reputation, persisted in voting for an obscure 1970s thriller. It was no use everyone complaining, X was your man, and so, in an atmosphere of collective embarrassment, X made it on to the list. We were back with Mrs Annie Powell and the Reg Varney fan club or the descendants of Bonnie Prince Charlie – the chance of success long since gone, but a certain amount of obscure gratification to be gained from its increasingly futile pursuit.

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