DJ Taylor: All in good faith

Strange, uncertain days like these tend to encourage a degree of nostalgia for an era when everything was a lot simpler. But those years were not so golden
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The Independent Online

It was a surprisingly good week for the Church of England. Advance ticket sales have already prompted the organisers of the annual Canterbury Christmas Eve service to add an extra date, 37,000 new congregants attended this year's Back to Church Sunday, traffic amid the pews of Chelmsford Cathedral has increased by 7 per cent.

As for the origins of this tsunami of sanctity, Canon Paul Bayes, the Archbishop of Canterbury's adviser on church growth, was on hand to posit a link between spiritual renewal and material deprivation. "The fact that people are more open to going back to church and taking stock may well be down to the economy," he told this paper last weekend.

As correlations go, this strikes me as being faintly on the glib side. For a start, Back to Church Sunday took place at the end of September, when the grinding gears of the recession had scarcely begun to forge their upward path. Then again, like the urge to vote for a particular political party, the motivation that lies behind a church visit defies easy analysis. It is the same with the seeds of intellectual awakenings that pundits occasionally detect beneath the socio-economic topsoil. The period 1939-45, for example, is nearly always characterised by historians as the "highbrow war", in which a new spirit of seriousness was abroad along the home front, and people read more books, went to more classical concerts and listened to The Brains Trust on the radio. They did read more books, and of a markedly superior sort – the circulation of Penguin New Writing shaded into six figures – but there is another explanation: with theatres closed and footballers and variety hall stars conscripted, reading was about the only form of entertainment left. A lot of the seriousness, consequently, came by default.

To go back to our mini-religious revival, you suspect that the impulse that drives certain people back to church is much the same as, say, a vote for the Liberal Democrats – well intentioned, but in the end unfathomable.

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The Golden Age of Children's Television debate comes round every 18 months or so, usually when the former presenter Floella Benjamin writes one of her gloomy articles in the Daily Mail lamenting the dearth of home-grown programming and the malign influence of American imports. It was shunted into view once again by the death of Oliver Postgate, creator of Pogles' Wood, Bagpuss and The Clangers, and certainly one of the most inventive talents in the short and not particularly glorious history of the form.

Reading the obituaries, you were conscious not so much of the subject's flair and application as of the almost criminally relaxed atmosphere in which he operated. Postgate (left) recalled that he and his colleague Peter Firmin would "go to the BBC once a year, show them the films we'd made, and they would say, 'Yes, lovely, now what are you going to do next?' We would tell them, and they would say, 'That sounds fine. We'll mark it in for 18 months for now,' and we'd be

given praise and some encouragement, and some money in advance, and we'd just go away and do it."

As for the "Golden Age" argument, my recollection is that some BBC children's programming from the early 1970s was very good, some of it less good and nearly all of it better than ITV. What distinguished the best bits was their resolute spirit of uplift. A parent once complained to the Radio Times that her "highly intelligent" 15-year-old had been left baffled by an Olympian episode of The Magic Roundabout in which Dougal the dog was described as being "hoist by his own petard".

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Looking at the pre-Christmas covers of the various celebrity and women's interest magazines the other day, I was struck by their near-complete lack of differentiation. One always imagined that until fairly recently, women's magazines were precisely targeted at particular interest groups and social constituencies. My mother, for instance, was an avid 1970s subscriber to Good Housekeeping, whose reader profile, it seemed to me, reflected – up to a point – the social category to which she belonged: the intelligent, God-fearing, lower-bourgeois professional classes.

Thirty years later magazine editors merely assume that every potential reader is interested in the same people, with the result that such luminaries of the age as Katie Price and Kerry Katona have marched out from their base-camps in OK! and Closer to occupy cover space in She, Woman's Own, InStyle and half a dozen other organs besides.

But some juxtapositions of cover star and medium are more puzzling even than this. I was particularly bemused to find Cilla Black on the cover of last week's edition of The Lady, not because – how do I decently put this? - Cilla Black isn't a "lady", but because there is no obvious connection between this flower of bygone Merseyside and the magazine's demographic. Do the kind of readers anxious to pore over ads for butlers and bright au pairs for their ski chalets really want to hear about Cilla's festive trip to Knotty Ash, or is it just that proprietors merely think they do? But, like churchgoers and Lib Dem voters, newspaper and magazine readers sometimes act in peculiar ways. The newsagent I delivered papers for in the late 1970s once revealed that the most popular item on the teeming council estate over the way was not The Sun but The Daily Telegraph. Not, as it happened, because anyone who lived there wanted to read Bill Deedes's musings on the future of the Tory party: The Daily Telegraph had the best racing tipster.

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This month sees the end of the government-sponsored National Year of Reading, marked by a nationwide series of library events and literacy schemes. Turning up at one of these celebrations last week, I noticed three things. The first is that marketing jargon has begun to colonise even the hitherto sedate redoubt of library services: librarians routinely refer to readers as "customers", without being able to explain exactly what they are selling them. The second is that, from the state's point of view, "reading" seems to have been reinvented as a cadet branch of the NHS: one speaker went so far as to quote figures suggesting that books made you live longer. The third is the way in which readers continue to be hoodwinked by propaganda to the effect that paperbacks piled high and sold cheap in supermarkets and chain bookstores are automatically a good thing.

Discounted books are usually commended to the public on the grounds that they are a way of extending choice and are, additionally, "democratic". In fact, they are neither. Selling books at 50 per cent off the cover price simply means that more people will buy more copies of fewer titles, that fewer authors will get published and genuine choice becomes further restricted. The symbolic low-point of this process was the arrival of the last Harry Potter, which despite its millions of hardback sales made no money at all for most of the booksellers hired to sell and provided the fearful spectacle of independent booksellers buying their copies direct from supermarkets.

Any publisher who really did have the best interests of the UK book trade at heart, as opposed to pretending to, could start by refusing to supply Tesco and Asda and agitating for the return of the Net Book Agreement. But I don't suppose anyone has the guts.

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Just as commentators queued up in the wake of the US presidential election to point out that the Americans do political spectacle a great deal better than we do, so they were present once again, in the wake of the Blagojevich affair, to insist that the Americans do political corruption so much better than us as well.

In fact, Governor Blagojevich's attempt to sell the Illinois senate seat vacated by president-elect Obama looks a relatively modest lapse when set against the exploits of some of his predecessors – Governor Kerner, say (burglary, conspiracy, perjury) or Governor Walker (bank fraud, perjury). Once US predominance in the field is acknowledged, there are interesting transatlantic comparisons to be made. Certainly the absolute blue riband of political graft goes to the Democrats, but the old-style Tammany Hall Labour Party runs them a fairly close second.

Sid Chaplin's Tyneside novels of the early 1960s are set in a kind of sink of scratched backs and quiet words. My father, living on a Norwich council estate in the 1950s, recalled the startling ease with which each of his neighbours' children passed the 11-plus, to the delight of their local education authority-chairing uncle. Of course, like the mechanics flocking in to buy The Daily Telegraph for the racing form, and the BBC's relationship with Oliver Postgate, it couldn't happen now.

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