DJ Taylor: A bunch of Charlies

Charles Clarke's mangled missive to voters is a linguistic outrage, Michael Caine mutinies over tax, and a professor just can't understand the wit of Norvicensians

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As a member of the Norwich South constituency Labour Party, I have the good fortune to receive regular letters from our MP, Charles Clarke. The most recent, marking the 30th anniversary of Margaret Thatcher's rise to power, winged in a few days ago. It is worth quoting in full:

Dear Member,

Thank you for your continued support and membership. I will be producing a regular members email newsletter to keep you informed and involve you better in my work both here in Norwich and in Parliament.

Earlier in the week I published an article in the Eastern Daily Press on the 30th anniversary year of Thatcher's 1979 win.

Despite the 12 years of a Labour government which has seen real investment, change and reform in our city, we are still left in parts with the negative scars of "Thatcherism". I hope you find the article interesting, and I'd welcome your views and comments.

I have also included information on the changes our Labour government are making this month affecting families, pensioners, the NHS and workers rights. While these are tough times we should be proud of these real changes and the differences that a Labour government can do.

None of these have happened by "accident". It has been hard work, the support of members like you and strength of our convictions to change society for the better which has made this possible.

Once again, thank you for your continued support.

Best wishes, Charles Clarke MP



The really depressing thing about this letter is not its routine incivilities ("Thatcher" for "Mrs Thatcher") but its terrible uncertainty in the realm of language. Whoever wrote it – surely not Mr Clarke, for all that it has his name on the bottom – is clearly deeply uneasy about the apostrophe, not to mention the idea that verbs ought to agree with their nouns. Was there ever such a thing as a "positive" scar? Doesn't one "make" rather than "do" a difference? And all this in not much more than 200 words.

People often base serious decisions on what, at least outwardly, seem arbitrary criteria. A girl on the point of engagement to the young Mr Gladstone is said to have looked out of an upstairs window of her country house, seen her prospective husband trudging up the drive, and told her mother: "Mama, I cannot marry a man who carries his bag like that." Well, I cannot vote for a man whose grasp of the Queen's English is so monumentally defective.



***



All this week the newspapers have been buzzing with furious responses to the Chancellor's decision to raise the top personal tax rate to 50 per cent. Sir Michael Caine has spoken of his "anger" at the news, threatened to move back to America and complained about the "three and a half million layabouts laying about on benefits". A prominent Scottish brassiere manufacturer has left Labour for the Conservatives in a pique. There has been talk of "brain drains" and "disincentives".

As a theoretical supporter of the Government – see the qualification above – I always feel horribly ambivalent in the presence of these arguments. On the one hand, modern economic arrangements are so purposefully skewed in favour of vested interests that the only obvious way of letting that vast fraction of the populace which lives in sub-standard housing and doesn't go abroad for its holidays get a look-in is to redistribute some of the vested interests' income. On the other, as someone who makes his living entirely from freelance writing, I am, effectively, a piece-worker. The more words I put on paper and the harder I work, the more I get paid. Why penalise my industry? Then again, as any accountant questioned by the finance editors always points out, wealthy people can always find ways of getting round tax legislation by setting up trusts and shifting more of their money into pension schemes.

The most obvious solution, which governments nearly always shy away from, is to focus this redistributive gaze on indirect taxation. If you want to tax the rich, find out what they like to buy and make it more expensive. After all, a car that costs £30,000 is beyond utility. Its purchase is simply an exercise in vainglory. The same goes for a £100 bottle of whisky. And if anyone complains that this is essentially a moral exercise, rather than a fiscal one, well, a little more morality – especially from a Labour government – would make a nice change.



***



With the 50th anniversary of the foundation of Island Records looming over the horizon, the house has been echoing to the strains of great swathes of late Sixties' folk music, courtesy of a CD supplied by one of the music magazines. Not all of this, it has to be said, has worn particularly well. The Amazing Blondel, for example, (beards, lutes, and, ahem, "medieval" influences) are dead ringers for the Mighty Boosh episode in which Howard and Vince, convinced that "retro" is where it's at, take to the stage as a pair of 14th-century troubadors.

One question unaccountably ignored by the music journalists who have decamped to Jamaica to interview the label's founder, Chris Blackwell, is: what is the link between Island and Brideshead Revisited? The answer is that Blackwell took the name of his company from the Harry Belafonte song "This is my island in the sun". This accompanied the film Island in the Sun, which was itself based on the best-selling novel written by Waugh's lesser-known elder brother Alec. In his family chronicle Fathers and Sons, Evelyn's grandson Alexander reveals that his father Auberon used to play the record on the family's ancient gramophone while chanting "the influence of the Waughs is spreading". We have all kinds of things to be grateful to the Waughs for. One of them, oddly enough, is Bob Marley.



***



It always used to be said that an infallible sign of creeping middle age was that doctors and policemen seem to be getting younger. The members of boy bands, alternatively, seem to be getting older by the minute.

Last week I was astonished to discover that Keith Duffy, the Boyzone singer, is now a rugged 34. Mr Duffy has been in the wars of late – he needed a double hernia operation after completing the London marathon – but is expected to recover in time for the group's forthcoming reunion tour.

I have always taken an interest in Boyzone if only because, albeit indirectly, they were responsible for one of the most bizarre train journeys I ever made. Ten years ago this month, having spent some time at an Irish literary festival, I turned up at Athlone station to catch a Sunday morning train back to Dublin. "There'll be no one there," the Irish friend who had accompanied me declared. "You'll have the place to yourself."

Curiously, both platform and train were heaving with punters. Odder even than this, was the fact that, with the exception of the conductor, I was the only man. Stranger still, all the women present were either under 20 or over 60. What was going on, I asked the girl sitting next to me. It turned out that Dublin was simultaneously hosting a Boyzone concert in Phoenix Park and the centenary meeting of the All-Ireland Temperance League. Later, as the girl and I moved on to a discussion of the difficulties faced by the modern Catholic Church, a faint rumbling noise could be heard from across the table. Eventually, the elderly woman who was making it put down her knitting and fixed me with a gimlet eye. "I'll have you know," she bellowed, "that a nun professed in Galway Cathedral yesterday afternoon." All the best to Mr Duffy in his convalescence.



***



Having lived half my life in Norwich, I was outraged by the results of a survey claiming that the city is the most humourless place in Britain. Professor Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire says the average Norvicensian laughs only 27 times a week, but the specimen native of chart-topping Aberystwyth does so 56 times.

The problem facing Professor Wiseman, alas, is that Norwich people are more likely to express their deep-rooted comic side in irony, which of all forms of communication is the most difficult to compute. If you miscount the coins while paying for something in a Norwich shop, the assistant may well demand "Whatever are you like?", a statement with so many layers of meaning it would take a semiotician to deconstruct it. Or there was my brother's riposte, when asked to do something he didn't want to: "Reckon I will." This is much funnier than any of the asinine giggling over dropped banana skins that no doubt plays so well in benighted West Wales.

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