Deborah Orr: Is it just me, or has everyone been taken in by this bestseller?

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The Independent Online

Since they have written a book that roundly condemns all aspects of contemporary culture, even though they could not possibly have sampled every tiresome piece of vulgarity available to them, Steve Lowe and Alan McArthur are in no position to complain if I say a few judgemental words about their Christmas bestseller Is It Just Me or Is Everything Shit? without having ever even seen a copy, let alone read it.

I have, of course, become an expert on the tome (appropriately enough, since half-arsed criticism is itself one of the shit things that pervades our culture) by reading reviews which argue that the book had a merit more substantial than its novelty-gift status suggested. I have to say I cannot agree.

Happily, everything in my own sainted life is not shit. One of the nice things about it is that no adult I know would dream of seriously giving me a book like this one. However funny it may be - and the extracts I've read have been funny - it's not a collection of words that ought, in a culture that offers communication via many media, to be collected between hard covers.

It's a long series of one-liners - a comedy routine, a news item, or a blog. It is made for sharing, for reading out when in a group. It is material - raw, waiting to be made into something else, maybe a more serious critique or a more substantial satire. As a book, it is a five-minute wonder that will be read out for a few days, then placed in the lavatory. It's a book for the short attention spans that shape this perniciously distractive culture that its authors are meant to despise.

In an interview, someone put it to one of these men that the same damning critique as they made could have been made of the popular forms that have been around for many years. The writer argued that the difference nowadays was the pervasiveness of the tawdry mainstream. In the old days, he argued, there was always a counterculture. Now there is not. To an extent, that is true. The mainstream, in the form of marketeers and advertisers, is on to any new trend in no time.

Yet, oddly, this ghastly state of affairs exists precisely because the counterculture won. The review that first alerted me to the idea that this book might be interesting was one in the New Statesman by Charlotte Raven, who used to work on the Modern Review. Its slogan was "High culture for low-brows" and it essentially argued that Liz Hurley was more important than Mozart. Back then Ms Raven was arguing that the Modern Review was too frivolous and stupid and should be a great deal more critical and political. It's sort of touching that she now believes that a format like this might be powerful enough to register formal complaint rather than simply provide mild catharsis. Meanwhile, if we cast our minds back, the counterculture used to be Andy Warhol - whose services to post-modern vacuity are legion - and the Sex Pistols, whose assessment of the modern world of the Seventies was spookily similar to that I imagine to be in the book under discussion now.

Maybe we should console ourselves with the thought that there is still a counterculture, and that it concentrates on protesting against the branded capitalism that loves to crank out Christmas bestsellers that people erroneously feel that they, like Steve and Alan, are part of the solution, instead of being the very producers and consumers that allow the whole awful process to be so unedifying. One of the worst things about contemporary culture is the way it appropriates everything and everyone. These guys have been sucked up just like all the shit they despise.

* And don't succumb, late shoppers, to Is It Just Me... or any other object that clearly exists simply to be a gift. If you can't think of anything else, revert to cliché. Socks, for example, have become an appalling Christmas no-go area. But there's nothing nicer than a really luxurious pair of socks. Say yes to socks! Hankies, ties, gloves, pyjamas, hosiery, a pack of three disposable fountain pens, a decent bottle of bubble bath/olive oil/perfume/whisky, a picture frame, or a block of decent notepaper. This is the stuff that Christ died for us to stock each other up on. Reject the idea that it isn't enough of a novelty. Novelty hasn't been a novelty since it was invented. By definition.

Because you're worth it

Sometimes it's very the very shittiness of things that makes you feel better. I'm oddly comforted to learn that the workout video from Davina McCall shows "poor technique on some exercises", even though it is plain from her own appearance that her poor technique hasn't done her any harm.

Post-partum women in the entertainment business have a tendency to hire personal trainers who train them on fabulous equipment in a private gym. Then, having decided that their expensively toned bodies are due to their own expertise, they set out to make yet more money by proclaiming that we mortals can be just as great by jumping about in front of the telly.

But we're not as great as they are. No contracts with L'Oréal for us. Just a trip down to casualty with the aforementioned baby.

About 14,000 people are treated in hospital each year after exercising at home. "Most of us do not live in mansions but in small homes," said a spokesman for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. "With some of the exercise there is a risk of hitting someone else, or a wall, with outstretched arms or legs." Another novelty gift option bites the dust.

Prisoners and their Dickensian Christmas

I must admit that some things about modern life really are as shit as could possibly be imagined. Did you know, for example, that the telephone rates for prisoners in Britain are five times the standard payphone rates on the outside? British Telecom currently charges prisoners 11p a minute to make a local call, with a 15-minute call costing £1.65 from prison, compared to 30p from a phone box. Phone calls must be paid for out of wages that can be as low as £4 a week, or even less if the prisoner is not able to work. There are even claims that the profit on this odd arrangement is split between BT, the Home Office and the Prison Service.

Prisoners' charities have released this information now, as they point out that with prisons closed to visitors on Christmas Day, this draconian aspect to British criminal justice could be depriving about 90,000 children of contact with their parents during the festive season.

I know that to law-abiding citizens this stuff often sounds like bleeding-heart liberal soft-touch nonsense. But overcrowding has offset much of the drive to improve conditions in prisons, much of which is something of a fallacy anyway. Prisons have not changed much in the past half-century, while society has. It's genuinely shocking to see men in Wandsworth still working away at making brushes with coir, as if they were taking part in a Dickens adaptation. This kind of work is just not part of the world we live in on the outside any more, and it is neither profitable nor rehabilitative.

Likewise, the prisoners have succumbed to different, more modern, temptations. Some of the drug-mule women I met in HMP Send have been put away for a decade or more, even though they have left children behind. Yet you don't have to be that wicked to be able to convince yourself that smuggling pot is a victimless crime, and just the thing to lift your family out of debt. The idea that these women, guilty mainly of being gullible, cannot realistically afford even to talk to their children during all those years seems like psychological torture.