Don't try to be populist, Tony. It's mortifying

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The Independent Online

With his naff call to a radio station - Heart FM! - on Thursday, Tony Blair has confirmed that he has completed his transformation from thrusting young family man in Downing-Street to embarrassing old dad who won't accept that his time has passed.

With his naff call to a radio station - Heart FM! - on Thursday, Tony Blair has confirmed that he has completed his transformation from thrusting young family man in Downing-Street to embarrassing old dad who won't accept that his time has passed.

What did he imagine he was doing, when he decided to call up DJ Jono Coleman and have a little live chat? His claim was that he was "so sorry" that Coleman was presenting his last show for the station and "just wanted to call in and wish you good luck". But the reaction of Coleman - total disbelief - is confirmation, if such were needed, of the absurdity of a prime minister making such a cringeingly populist gesture.

Maybe Blair thought he was showing how he was in touch with the ordinary people with their ordinary culture. Or maybe - though admittedly unbelievably - his action was genuinely spontaneous and uncalculated. Either way, he has sent a quite different message: that with all he has on his plate - illegal wars, nasty election campaigning - he's not too busy to immerse himself in the sort of trivia that most of the nation is too busy even to notice.

It seemed absurd enough when, a few years back, Victoria Beckham called in to Essex FM in order to berate a DJ for being rude about her husband. It was pretty easy, though, to comprehend that Victoria, a bit insecure with the collapse of her pop career, might crave the sort of shallow affirmation that a stunt like that could confer.

But for the PM to reveal a similar psychological need is rather more worrying. The radio phone-in is viewed as a place where desperate people congregate, where the ranting impotent let off their fungal steam. Sure, plenty of other people take part simply for a bit of a laugh as well. But the fact remains that nobody, if they're honest, wants either type to be running the country.

It was the bleak and derelict quality of radio phone-ins that attracted the satirist Peter Cook (below) to them. In his last years he used to call up a London talk show late at night, posing as various characters, including Sven, a depressed Norwegian fisherman. Cook's actions were a satirical comment on himself, an acting out of his own failure to play the games that the fame factory demanded of him. Blair's failure, it seems, will in part be linked to his own desperate desire to play those very games.

Cook, since he performed an irreverent impersonation of Harold Macmillan in the 1960s, has been credited as the chief progenitor of modern political satire. But even he might be shocked if he was around to see just how prophetic his tortured vision has turned out to be.

¿ Michael Howard, meanwhile, slaps up posters all over the place that simply sound like a demented loony calling a late-night shock jock show. Interestingly, all the questions in this ghastly campaign are rhetorical, possibly because the only sensible answer is: "But wasn't that your idea?" One posits the query: "How hard can it be to keep a hospital clean?" The only reply is: "Much harder, apparently, once the hospital has contracted out the cleaning in the name of market wisdom."

The prognosis for feminism is not good

In the dark days before feminism's blessing transformed our world, there was a lateral thinking puzzle that used to baffle pretty much everyone. A man and his son are in a car accident. The father dies on the scene and the child is rushed to hospital. When he arrives, the surgeon says: "I can't operate on this boy - he is my son." Mostly people gave up, only to slap their foreheads when it was revealed that the surgeon was, ta-da, a woman.

Only a hopeless bigot would make that mistake these days, because it just isn't politically correct any more to make gender assumptions about the jobs people do (though in reality fewer than 5 per cent of surgeons are female).

Doctors are another matter. There are so many female doctors now, with their need for flexible working, career breaks and general lack of willingness to hide from family life in the consulting room, that the president of the Royal College of Physicians, Professor Carol Black, warned recently that medicine was perilously close to suffering the "inevitable" loss of prestige and power that "feminisation" brings.

How lovely, then, to see that one little corner of the debate remains relatively uncomplicated. Reams of wordage have been dedicated to considering the issue of whether Billie Piper will make a properly emancipated assistant to Doctor Who, or whether she will descend, as so many have before her, into damsel-on-the-train-track cliché. Less intellectual energy has been spent on considering how it is that while the good Doctor can travel through time and space with ease, the body that is so marvellously mutable never manages, even briefly, to adopt a new gender.

Superstition dressed up as cynicism

Excitingly, there was a burst water pipe under our road this week, and a man in a chunky water board van was sent round to locate it. The vehicle was crammed with state-of-the art electronic equipment, and bristling with its own importance.

Its driver, on the other hand, was busying himself with two bits of broken coat-hanger, inserted into two tubes of plastic liberated from cheap pens, and held out in his fists. The hi-tech equipment was all very well, he said, but it was more convenient and much more accurate just to dowse.

Officially, he wasn't meant to use such unorthodox methods, but the other guys had shown him how to do it, with a nod and a wink, pretty early on in his training. There were one or two people authorised by the water board to employ dowsing in their work, but the company preferred to be discreet about it, for fear of being considered cranky.

It isn't just the water companies that have this attitude. Another friend confirms that when he was training in field archaeology, he was taught about thermal imaging and magnetometry, but merely tipped off, in a casual aside from his tutor, that many archaeologists quietly swore by dowsing instead.

I'm all for science. But surely any intellectual discipline that prefers to deny what it can't explain is guilty of exactly the kind of closed-minded superstition that it claims to abhor?