D J Taylor: There's just no getting away from real life

Kirsty Lane's consumer frenzy after embezzling £200,000 from her employers ended with a 20-month prison sentence

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Cultural symbol of the week was undoubtedly Kirsty Lane, jailed at Preston Crown Court on Wednesday for embezzling £200,000 from her employers, Pure AV.

Mrs Lane, a part-time accounts clerk from Blackpool, was found to have channelled the money into her own and her future husband's bank accounts. In a denouement drawn from a Victorian novel, the fraud was detected a few days after the couple's wedding in January 2011. Mr Lane was cleared of money laundering. His less fortunate spouse was sentenced to 20 months.

It goes without saying that the great fascination with people who "come into money", legally or illegally, is how they choose to spend it. The result is usually an exercise in raw psychological fundamentalism, with the beneficiaries in the unusual position of being able to make a choice or gratify a whim in a tiny window of opportunity before real life, or in this case the authorities, catch up with them. Mrs Lane, according to press reports, laid out the money on a "lavish wedding", home improvements, a 52-inch television set and personalised car registration plates.

It would be wrong to suggest that this was a horribly unimaginative way to go about spending £200,000, for it conforms to an absolute historical pattern. If the circumstances of Mrs Lane's exposure could have come from a Victorian sensation novel, then so could the consumer frenzy that preceded it: a process in which symbol is quite as powerful a stimulus as material need. In "Squire Napper", for example, one of the stories in Arthur Morrison's classic collection Tales of Mean Streets (1894), a working man unexpectedly inherits £300 – £30,000, say, at today's values – from a long-lost brother and throws up his job on the spot.

Various schemes for the exploitation of this windfall are duly proposed, but in the end Napper opts to buy a detached house, several barrels of beer, a piano ("not bought as a musical instrument", Morrison notes, "but as one of the visible signs") and finery for his wife. When there are no more sovereigns left in the drawer, he simply resumes his former employment. Napper selects a useless piano, Mrs Lane opts for a personalised number-plate, but in each case the result is what might be called existentialism in its purest form. That and a reminder that the consumer-materialist shop window is always there to beguile and bamboozle us, whether in the East End of the 19th century or 21st-century Blackpool.

The poetry lover who shells out £40 on the latest volume of T S Eliot's letters, reviewed on page 68, which broke upon the literary world last week, is liable to feel slightly disappointed. Rather than having very much to do with the inner landscapes that realised "The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock" or The Waste Land, the letters – all 900 pages of them – are mostly about the editorial routines of Criterion, the highbrow quarterly of which Eliot had charge in the period 1922-1939, with only a few reports of his wife's deteriorating medical condition to break the monotony of tea invitations and haggling over contributors' fees.

All this raises the eternal question of what writers are supposed to do with their time. The straight answer, naturally enough, is to write. On the other hand, most creative artists – certainly most poets – would probably argue that eight hours a day spent wrestling with the muse is counterproductive. Neither has it ever been very easy for poets – even those as distinguished as Eliot – to earn a living simply from their pens. Eliot's solution was to edit an intellectual literary magazine, which meant that he spent his mornings writing courteous and at times faintly self-mocking letters. "One sometimes feels that the work of editing a literary review is quite useless," he told a correspondent in 1926, "and makes no difference in the world whatever beyond providing the editor with a salary and distracting him from other work."

To set against this is the thought that there are probably worse things to do with your time. After all, if Eliot were alive today, he would doubtless have been appointed to a chair in creative writing at one of our newer universities, pouring his immortal spirit down the drain in a succession of graduate seminars and professorial lectures. Perhaps, in the end, Criterion was a better bet.

With Euro 2012 now at the quarter-final stage, the hyperbole-meter has been pulsing dramatically away. Conscious that boring old England with their eight men constantly behind the ball are getting by on luck, the newspapers have been comparatively restrained in their coverage of Hodgson's Heroes. It has been left to the TV commentators – in particular ITV's Clive Tyldesley and Andy Townsend – to keep these age-old standards up to the mark.

Roy Hodgson being described as "having the Midas touch", on the strength of the win against Sweden, wasn't the half of it. A game later, Tyldesley solemnly informed us that, should Ukraine beat England, it would spark scenes of national rejoicing not seen since independence. And there was a wonderful moment on Tuesday night, when Townsend remarked that England were "in the ascendancy". I had a sudden vision of Wayne Rooney, clad in periwig and topcoat, greyhounds loping in his wake, racing around 18th-century Enniskillen in his gentleman's carriage as the doughty Hibernian peasantry touched their hats.

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