Deborah Orr: First doctors, then BBC celebrities - not a good week for the public sector

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The Independent Online

Public sector workers, for years pitied and despised as the architects of their own Thatcherite demise, appear to be having a bit of a moment. There's all the furore, for a start, over the pseudo-revelation that the most highly visible of public sector employees - those working at the point of delivery in the BBC - are also some of the nation's wealthiest celebrities.

Who could possibly be leaking the confidential details of the contracts of broadcasters to the press? My modest suggestion is that it may be doctors. Many people agree with Tony Blair that doctors deserve to be paid well. Many people, however, can also see that there must have been quite a degree of miscalculation in a bonus system that rewards GPs so richly for simply achieving so much that they'd have been doing anyway.

Doctors and politicians have explained firmly and repeatedly that very few GPs have had the huge payouts that have been making headlines of late. But until it was revealed that DJs were being paid a million a minute to talk over perfectly nice songs, the entire nation was putting on its most penetrating dosh-goggles whenever a medical practitioner appeared.

I can't help worrying that this brave new world of cash-happy GPs is going to have some unintended consequences. I've always considered it to be a crime to waste the time of these hard-pressed healing angels. Suddenly, however, I'm having to rethink this cringingly respectful attitude. Perhaps I'll now start bothering my GP with all the little ailments that I've been so far ignoring - my varicose vein, the funny pain in my instep, my low blood pressure, my suspicious facial marks, and on and on.

There are anecdotal signs already that doctors are alive to the idea that what they are gaining in cash, they are losing in saintly status. One who recently returned from abroad winced when I chirped "And jam!" after she'd explained in a long-suffering fashion that she was now getting her "bread and butter" in general practice.

Another, irritated that people might be suspecting her of pulling in a quarter of a million every year, went into an impassioned rant about how she wouldn't be likely to top £100,000 unless she took on some extra duties. Call me old-fashioned, but £100,000 seems like a reasonable stipend, and while I have no doubt it's well earned, it's not going to get too many violin strings quivering.

Not that doctors' status will necessarily be damaged by the recasting of their material as opposed to spiritual worth. Teaching has been somewhat rehabilitated under the Blair government, and slowly the profession has come to be respected again.

But this too has its downside. Apparently, new legislation decreeing that children could be disciplined by teachers for bad behaviour outside school has confused some parents. They have been telephoning teachers out of hours and asking for counselling - mainly on how to get their little ones off to bed.

Absurd, perhaps. But still a measure of how eager some sections of the community are to hive off their responsibilities on to the state if they can. Maybe, like me with the doctor, these guys are operating under the assumption that they may as well get their money's worth.

The literary and social benefits of leaving Scotland behind

The death of the novelist Muriel Spark has flushed out legions of avid fans, many of them suggesting that she did not - as one of the great writers Britain has produced - get enough credit for her abilities. I wonder of that's really true. My own suspicion is that the formidable Ms Spark achieved exactly the degree of recognition that she wanted, no more and no less.

In much of her work - from the start of her career - Spark exhibited a remarkable grasp of what happens to a person who believes their own publicity - in, among other works, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. She also wrote, in The Public Image, about the workings and influence of the media, and the influence it can have on those in its sights.

In her Tuscan village, she was able to maintain a prolific writing career, a stellar social life and a constant low-key presence in the British media that sold her books while maintaining her privacy. Her books remained in print, each new one considered as a notable publishing event, and were sometimes made into very good films. She was made a dame in 1993, and granted interviews to many of the finest profile writers of the day. Already there is talk of a permanent memorial being erected in Edinburgh, the city of her birth and childhood. I doubt if she would want it any other way.

At the time I was growing up in Scotland, a lover of reading, there were few people around who could be considered what we would now call "role models". I don't quite know what went on in the Scottish psyche in the mid-20th century. But at that time, in Scotland, there were very few writers of books to admire, and no female ones at all, except Spark. So particularly in Scotland, she was singularly important.

I've often wondered if that stifling of creativity in Scotland (thankfully over now) was a culmination of centuries of Presbyterianism, exhorting people to be modest, not to thrust themselves forward and not to "show off". Spark had left Scotland long before she began writing novels at the age of 39. Sometimes I wonder if it was for those cultural reasons that she took so long to turn her hand to something as frivolous as a novel (she wrote poetry before), why she converted to Catholicism before she was able to let go in her writing, and also part of the reason why she preferred to do her writing - and her living - in exile. It's what I like to think, anyway.

Joan's role of a lifetime

The return of Joan Collins to Dynasty at the age of 70 has made one thing abundantly clear. All those years ago, when Collins was being half-admired and half-reviled for keeping up glamorous appearances, she can't actually have been very elderly at all.

Yet in the 1980s, when she was in her late 40s, this former starlet's insistence on looking nice was treated as a grotesque novelty. I remember particularly an interview in Rolling Stone which had the headline: "Joan Collins needs 17 inches (and the further back you get, the better she looks)."

At the time I thought this was marvellously audacious journalism. Now, I note with some dismay, it was simply ageist, sexist, rude and cruel. What a lot the woman has had to put up with over the years, just for declaring her right to pencil in her eyebrows.

It's easy these days to dismiss Collins as something of a caricature of herself. But when that role of absurd ageing ingénue has been thrust upon you for so many decades, there's probably not much of an alternative to it.

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