DJ Taylor: A tight-lipped ogre, a stammering prince

Bob Diamond of Barclays seemed cross at being questioned by MPs, but Colin Firth might get us all talking to each other
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The Independent Online

The conflict between the banking establishment and the other 99.7 per cent of us has turned into a battleground for old-style English Puritanism.

Like many a skirmish involving old-style English Puritanism, it is prey to serious misinterpretation. One could see this in the occasional startled glance directed by Bob Diamond, of Barclays bank, at his parliamentary select committee interrogators. Half of Mr Diamond seemed to be peevishly bewildered and quite why he had to waste hours of his highly paid time conciliating (or not, as the case may be) some of the nation's elected representatives in a House of Commons committee room. The other half, of course, was merely cross.

Mr Diamond's apologists allege that what lies at the heart of public outrage at the sight of a multi-millionaire clearly not giving a damn about the interests of any part of the community other than the one he represents, is simple envy. His detractors, so the argument runs, are additionally hypocrites, whose complaint is not so much that the head of Barclays earns umpteen-million a year but that they don't earn it themselves.

But this is to misunderstand the nature of Puritanism. What one really felt, watching Mr D stonewalling his inquisitors, was straightforward exasperation over the fact that he, and so many people like him, insist that the high-grade Monopoly they specialise in is worthy of such lavish reward, while the real business of life, as it were, exists elsewhere. To put it another way, £10m a year is wealth beyond utility, not worth having to squander. And all this ignores the quaint, but surprisingly serviceable, argument about the thousands of people of possibly greater value to society than Mr Diamond who receive a minute fraction of what the ogre of the committee room takes home.

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Two modern clichés that spread across the media last week were "just get over it" and "move on". Sometimes they rose in isolation, as when Gordon Taylor of the Professional Footballers' Association urged the FA to "get over" a Liverpool player's imputation of bias to the referee Howard Webb. At other times, they came impenitently combined, as in the article by a financial expert who assured us that the issue of bankers' bonuses was now beyond meaningful debate ("Let's just get over it and move on.")

The interest of these phrases lies in their assumption that the relationship between the two parties involved is unequal: one of them makes a decision; the other accepts it. Essentially, the "get over it" counsellor is giving notice of a fait accompli, but doing so under a smokescreen of prudence. Lurking beneath is a sense of probity and steely resolve, the idea that the person who hasn 't already "got over it" is somehow lacking in inner purpose. How many times, for example, do you hear one half of a divorced couple complain that the injured party hasn't "moved on", and come to terms with the fact of their life being ripped apart? But why should one be expected to "get over"something whose implications continue to resonate? One of the great lessons of history, after all, is how resolutely the past refuses to lie down. On the other hand, I can think of at least one contemporary historian keen to urge the Jews to "get over" the Holocaust.

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The onward march of cultural fragmentation is such an idée fixe these days that one tends to disbelieve any evidence of its retreat. Despite the colossal fuss made in the newspapers, it is difficult to believe that the nation was seriously exercised by last week's events at Ambridge, or that the EastEnders' baby-swap story inflamed the sensibilities of more than a few thousand habitués of the BBC complaints department. Then again, a phenomenal number of people seemed to have watched and been energised by The King's Speech. Suddenly one scents the existence of that very rare thing, a universal cultural signifier.

It is difficult to know what line to take on cultural fragmentation. A certain kind of theorist will always applaud the crack-up of a previously impregnable mainstream, on the grounds that hegemony is making way for one or two expressions of genuine consumer choice. But one can regret the absence of popular songs that people were able to whistle in the street for the simple reason that there are too many tendencies in modern life with the potential to drive us apart, and we could do with some that foster social cohesion. If, for a day or two this week, we became marginally more socially homogeneous, and started talking to each other in shop queues about George VI's speech impediment, then the fault is Colin Firth's.

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The business success story of the week turned out to be the pawnbroking industry, a mark of whose new-found respectability could be seen in Tesco's Gold Exchange service. This offers cash for customers' cast-off jewellery, and if not actually pawnbroking, must be said to share a certain amount of common ground. The genteel response to a renaissances of this kind is naturally one of stark horror – pawnbroking existing somewhere in folk memory between baby-farming and the Scutari sanitation arrangements.

Yet it takes only a glance at Victorian fiction to show how central a role the pawn shop's cheap credit played in the 19th-century economy, sustaining as many middle-class households as the denizens of Cholera Court. In a book like George R Sims's genre-defining Three Brass Balls, the pawnbroker is a terrific figure, a street-corner potentate with the power to change individual destinies with the wave of a ticket. The possibilities for art, let alone the economy, are limitless.

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Like many another labourer in the valley of the shadow of books, I was immeasurably saddened to hear of John Gross's death last week. In a career that lasted over five decades, Gross – don, publisher, editor, anthologist and critic – was the consummate all-round literary professional, but his reputation will rest on his study of English literary life, The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters (1969), inset left. His great theme, in an age of academic specialisation and the McLuhanesque valuing of the medium over the message it conveyed, was the enduring worth of the old-style reviewer. If anything supported his argument that "the idea of the man of letters has a place in any healthy literary tradition", it was his own efforts to keep that tradition alive. He was one of my great book-world heroes, a bright Olympian torch flaring out over the Grub Street wastelands, impossible to replace.

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