DJ Taylor: A Word to the wise

Celebrities please note: just because you're famous for being good at one thing, it doesn't mean you have anything new or wonderful to say about anything else
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The Independent Online

Sir Paul McCartney is practically ubiquitous these days. Two weeks ago he could be found urging the release of the "lost" Beatles track "Carnival of Light" and on the receiving end of a papal imprimatur.

Last week he popped up to offer his thoughts on reality TV, a phenomenon of which he apparently disapproves ("like watching a car crash") but is nonetheless absorbed by. Whether commenting on Arab-Israeli relations or appraising I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here!, Sir Paul, right, is a pattern example of what might be called "transferred expertise" – the idea that because someone is particularly distinguished in one area of business, politics or the arts his or her views will be worth hearing on another.

Like many another by-product of celebrity culture, transferred expertise probably has its roots in the rise of mass-market newspapers: P G Wodehouse's Psmith in the City (1910), for instance, has some rip-roaring scenes in which Psmith, anxious to appease his soccer-fixated boss, bones up on tabloid sports gossip – who, in the opinion of Manchester United's goalkeeper, is England's finest politician, and so on.

Again, like many another by-product of celebrity culture, its influence can now be felt at nearly every social and professional level. Drudging in the marketing department of messrs Coopers & Lybrand back in the mid-1980s, I was faintly astonished when the marketing supremo – Sir John Stuttard, he now is, ex-Lord Mayor of London – pronounced the immortal self-justification, "the partner is always right". Always right, you wondered? About, say, the Petrarchan sonnet, or runic inscriptions, as well as the latest VAT legislation?

All that can be said in transferred expertise's defence is that it has produced some legendary put-downs. Having read a manuscript poem to a select Oxford audience, the author of In Memoriam is said to have been counselled by the Master of Balliol, Benjamin Jowett: "I shouldn't publish that if I were you, Tennyson." "If it comes to that, Master," Tennyson is supposed to have replied, "the sherry you gave us at dinner was appalling."

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It was the late Sir Kingsley Amis who coined the phrase "sodding the public", by which he meant an action performed by a company, institution or utility which purports to benefit its customers but ends up making them crosser than they were to begin with. This week's sodding the public award must go to the marketing strategists at Aviva, formerly the Norwich Union Insurance Company, who, not content with jettisoning a name known to every insurance purchaser in the UK, is now embarking on a £9m advertising campaign featuring celebrities who have also changed their identities without obvious ill-effect. Those mentioned include Ringo Starr (Richard Starkey), Dame Edna Everage (Barry Humphries) and Alice Cooper, the former Vince Furnier.

As a long-term Norwich Union policyholder, members of whose family have been near-continuously employed by the firm since my grandfather first signed on as a clerk in 1920, I couldn't help thinking that its director, John Kennedy, rather shot himself in the foot when he used the campaign launch to reveal the results of some market research. Asked to name an insurance company, over 50 per cent of those questioned said "Norwich Union" whereas precisely no one said "Aviva". Prompted and cajoled, 20 per cent recognised the name "Aviva", while 90 per cent went for Norwich Union. No doubt like Sir John Stuttard, who knew he was always right, Mr Kennedy is a very clever man and knows exactly what he is doing.

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Last week's most dispiriting piece of arts news was the Government's promise to conduct a wide-ranging consultation exercise in advance of the appointment of a new Poet Laureate when Andrew Motion retires next spring. Academics, readers and fellow poets will be asked what they think, and the phrase "people's poet", though not I think actually used, hangs in the air like woodsmoke.

As a cultural exercise this seems almost as misguided as Aviva's £9m ad campaign. Politicians whose knowledge of poetry could be assembled on the back of a postage stamp will make the usual populist noises (it was the late Mo Mowlam, back in 1999, who canvassed the eligibility of – there he is again – Sir Paul McCartney). Ginger groups will hop reliably up and down – feminists for Carol Ann Duffy, younger fashionables for Simon Armitage, and so on – and whoever scoops the pot will be sneered at by half the poetry-reading public simply as a reaction to the process by which he (or she) emerged.

How one longs for a return to the discreet (and no doubt horribly corrupt) days when the Arts minister simply consulted a few of his friends and the President of the Royal Society of Literature and advised the Prime Minister accordingly. Rather than wasting quite a lot of taxpayers' money, why not take the really sensational step of appointing the best living British poet – Geoffrey Hill, say, Alan Jenkins or Don Paterson – and see what he or she comes up with, the possibility, of course, being that he (or she) may not produce anything at all.

But the Government, alas, doesn't want a good poet. Or not only (no disrespect to Mr Motion) a good poet. It wants someone who looks the part, will go round the schools and the literary festivals, make the appropriate noises on the Today programme and write doggerel for The Times. You can see why Motion, who has done his best and whose knighthood surely can't be much longer delayed – is desperate to be relieved of his appointment.

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Watching Peter Flannery's Civil War epic 'The Devil's Whore' on Channel 4 and trying to work out why I liked it so much, I realised that it was because the series bears no relation to standard ideas of historical drama. For a start, most of the characters look as if they had stepped out of portraits by Sir Peter Lely, rather than resembling modern actors coaxed into fancy dress and buckle shoes.

Then again, the dialogue's period savour carries it light years beyond those approximations of the Tudor court in which the dramatis personae sound as if they walked in straight from the set of EastEnders. Finally, there is the suspicion that Flannery, though naturally compelled by his directors to stuff in the odd ripped bodice, is much more interested in the intricacies of mid-17th-century history than the pouting doxy's ravening breath: as at least one TV critic observed, he has pretty clearly been reading Keith Thomas's monumental Religion and the Decline of Magic.

Given all these conspicuous merits, I wasn't a bit surprised to discover that the project had shuttled back and forth between the BBC and Channel 4 for years, and was originally conceived as a 12-parter, before being reduced to a third of its length and put out on a Wednesday night in advance of Desperate Housewives.

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Never mind the "F" word, on which so many modern media controversies seem to depend. Last week's coverage of the Chancellor's pre-Budget report brought the first sustained public usage for many years of the "S" word – socialism – which several pundits from the business community detected in proposals to up the top rate of tax to 45p in the pound. It is not quite certain when the word "socialist" became a term of abuse. Even by the 1970s, Labour politicians had grown slightly embarrassed by it, and the sight of our middle-class leaders trying to remember the words to "The Red Flag" at the end of party conferences was a regular teenage treat. At the same time, no one should underestimate the fear of the left that underlay most pre-Thatcher political discourse. It took until at least the 1984/5 miners' strike for my father to abandon his favourite dystopian nightmare of Russian tanks cruising the streets of Norwich.

Neither should anyone underestimate the ability of former comrades to reinvent themselves. Taken by my father to a rally at the February 1974 General Election, I had pointed out to me a gesticulating Trotskyist carrying a banner that read "Vote Labour and prepare to fight". We were both much amused a quarter of a century later when the self-same Dr Ian Gibson, whose younger incarnation we had observed, got in as Labour MP for Norwich North. To go back to socialism, even 1970s party ideologues such as Tony Crosland used to maintain that if the taxable part of GDP exceeded 40 per cent, one was no longer living in a free society. Curiously, in the light of Mr Darling's spending plans, society suddenly looks a lot less free than it was back in the days of Wilson, Callaghan and "vote Labour and prepare to fight".

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