Saturday 22 December 2007
Deborah Orr: Politicians should beware embracing popular culture
It's difficult to resist feeling a tiny bit of compassion for our politicians. Not only are they forced to submit to our squeamish expectations, and do their human and imperfect best to avoid lying, committing fraud, indulging in corruption, losing things they never even knew existed data files, illegal immigrants and so on. It is also demanded that they display just exactly the correct measure of enthusiasm for popular culture.
Lembit Opik, for example, in romancing a Cheeky Girl, is widely considered to be taking the edict a little too seriously, while Tony Blair, in celebrating his elevation by having Oasis round for a drink, showed himself just a little too keen finally to get to hang out with the cool guys, and was never allowed to forget it.
David Cameron, however, in marrying a woman who used to be great friends with the out-there trip-hopper Tricky, is burnished by association rather than being flambd by familiarity. Anyway, he never puts a foot wrong. Having declared an admiration for Morrissey, he was asked what his favourite Smiths album was, by one of the mischievous army of pop pickers who stalk the media like culture vultures, living only to eviscerate any putative statesman who is bigging himself up with the middle-aged kids more than he should be.
"The Queen Is Dead," Cameron answered, unflappably safe in the certain knowledge that this was indeed the very finest of the Smiths' albums. He even added, with a darling little blush, that of course he did not associate himself with the lyrical sentiments behind the music, no, no, not at all. No one has even bothered to try to catch him out since that winner of a day. No wonder he is doing so well in the polls.
Nick Clegg, the youthful new Lib Dem leader, is already enmeshed in terminal naffdom. A day into his new job, he had publicly admitted he had never heard of the nation's favourite Christmas song, The Pogues' "Fairytale of New York". He only just managed to restrain himself, rumour has it, from blurting out that he thought a faggot was something like a beef olive, but not as nice, as well.
Worse, in an echo of Gordon Brown's failure to make clear that he doesn't wake up in the morning and treat himself to a singalong chorus of "Riot Van" by Arctic Monkeys, or even of his touchingly desperate attempt, years back, at guessing wildly on Newsnight what the Treasury's email address might be, he has declared his favourite album, on live radio, to be Changes by David Bowie.
Poor chap. "Changes", as that NME for the new millennium, The Daily Telegraph, leapt to report, was a single, although the word also appeared in the title of a Bowie compilation album. Declaring a compilation album to be your favourite is like saying that your best loved book is Enid Blyton's retelling of the Greek and Roman myths, Tales of Long Ago (sadly no longer in print), because you find Robert Graves, never mind those insufferable ancients, to be overly demanding.
Clegg's hazy knowledge of Bowie's oeuvre could be considered all the more revealing because one of his first moves has been to appoint 59-year-old Brian Eno to be his youth adviser. Since Eno collaborated with Bowie on what is widely considered to be some of his "best stuff", the implication as that the move really is every bit as tokenistic as the cynics among us might imagine.
Then, oh, calamity, rather than running through Eno's impeccable record as a man at the forefront of intelligent and influential musical composition for four decades, the Lib Dems announced that Eno was hip to the groove because he'd produced Coldplay and U2, which are two of the saddest examples of witless geriatric stadium rock. U2, at least, have been at it for years, thanks only to Eno's leavening contributions to their otherwise mediocre rock. But Chris Martin's lot have seemed perfectly happy to flog records to their grandads, and play to audiences screaming only with dementia, and have only just applied remedial measures by calling in Brian for their next release.
Coldplay, like the Lib Dems, seek credibility from Eno, and the idea that the father of ambient music should gain anything at all from his charitable and plucky attempts to breathe some life into their plonky old chords is somewhat arse over tip. In liberal politics, Clegg is already finished. Eno, a long-standing and thoughtful contributor to "the public debate" as well as decent 20th century music, is definitely the man to watch.
Prostitutes need real support, not zero-tolerance policies
A year on from the murders in Ipswich and the streets of the town are almost completely clear of street prostitutes. It is terrible that five women had to lose their lives to usher in a more positive approach than the mere harrying of the women until they worked in the most dangerous of places. But still the achievement has been notable.
Offering support to women with problems including the prescription of legal drugs to remove their need to feed their habits, and the provision of vouchers to provide some of their more basic human needs has done more to clean up the streets than "zero tolerance" ever can.
Yet even though the events in Ipswich made it clear that women working as prostitutes on the street do so out of desperation, and people who take up their services are therefore guilty of the basest exploitation, there is still resistance to the idea that men should be criminalised for purchasing sex.
Unfortunately, those who warn against this theoretically sensible move have every right to be worried. The trouble with criminalising the men who buy sex, they argue, is that it pushes the business even further underground. This, they say, is what has happened in Sweden, where buying sex was made illegal eight years ago. They prefer the model in New Zealand, where buying and selling sex has been decriminalised.
The truth is that neither solution is anything other than partial. The provision of safe places for the exchange of sex for money sounds like a way of minimising danger, even if one feels moral disgust at the type of transaction being undertaken. Yet the nature of abused and addicted people's lives is chaotic. Brothels no more than banks wish to employ people whose drug use or mental illness is such that it makes them unmanageable. This is why women end up on the streets where they meet men who are breaking the law already, as kerb-crawlers, often precisely because their kink is for having sex with the most degraded women they can access.
In Ipswich, where the police say they believe only three women solicit on the street at present, the community is small, and positive interventions are possible. Likewise in New Zealand, communities are fairly tight and a semblance of control is not just a pipe dream. But in a world where the global sex trade is expanding at such an alarming rate, such intimate policing is by no means attainable. While men should indeed be criminalised for buying sex first in the name of equality with the bar on woman advertising that they are willing to sell it, and second in order that there should be no confusion over the acceptability of using prostitutes there does have to be acceptance that exploitation will continue, and that male behaviour can be as distressing and compulsive as female.
Helping women out of situations they have to face older women end up on the streets too, when they are no longer attractive enough for escort agencies and keeping them safe until they do, must always remain the first priority. A little pity for some of the apologies for men who go to prostitutes, hard as that might be to summon, is worth considering too.
* Is there anything more naff though than journalists who point out that they were right all along? "As I predicted 10 years ago, Gordon Brown is the new leader of the Labour Party." "As I warned Mervyn King when I last had dinner with him, the cost of living is higher this year than it has ever been in human history." But what is this, from as long ago as September, on this very page? "If that little guy from Glasgow doesn't win. I won't be responsible for my actions." And that was the first time I'd ever even watched The X Factor. Move over, Simon Cowell. I am great.
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