DJ Taylor: Are we really free?

The demise of 'legs 11' and the desire to deal with the Chinese indicate that we may be less liberal than we were back in the heyday of Grace Brothers

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Someone for whom I felt great sympathy this week was the Sudbury town councillor John Sayers. Mr Sayers, 75, who comperes weekly bingo sessions in the town hall, has been forced to trim his traditional references to "two fat ladies, 88" and "legs 11" because council officials fear that players may take offence and sue.

Students of totalitarian regimes frequently observe that the most effective censorship is exercised in a climate where those who fear it instinctively censor themselves in advance – an action taken to pre-empt the possible rather than to redress the actual.

The Sudbury council clerk's advice to Mr Sayers to revert to a numbers-only style joins last year's banning of a Morris Dancing troupe who appeared in black-face as a decision taken out of sheer timidity rather than to rescue some humiliated minority group from hurt. To extend the scope of this bureaucratic neurosis a bit, it can't be very long before it seeps into literature. I never pick up a new edition of Trollope's The Way We Live Now or Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall without wondering whether the scene in the former where Ezekiel Breghert, in seeking to marry Mr Longstaffe's daughter, is described as "a low, disgusting Jew", or the scene in the latter where Philbrick, noting Sebastian Cholmondeley's arrival at the Llanabba school sports, remarks "What price the coon?" are still there. For the moment these outrages survive. Perhaps the local-authority thought police don't read books.

***

Imagine the following scenario. It is late December 1969. A London taxi-driver of limited intellectual capacities is hoodwinked into running guns for a group of mercenaries bent on overthrowing an obscure African dictatorship, and is sentenced to death by firing squad. A corking diplomatic row breaks out. The Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, prone to gestures of this sort, resolves to send a gunboat down the Limpopo. Before he can bring off this feat the taxi-driver is shot, diplomatic relations are broken off and trade sanctions applied. Now, fast-forward 40 years to the real-life case of Akmal Shaikh, a British citizen suffering from mental health problems, who was tricked into smuggling heroin into China by some Tajik brigands who promised him a career in pop music. Despite countless Foreign Office interventions and pleas for clemency, he was executed by lethal injection last Tuesday morning, in clear defiance of international standards on human rights.

What happens? China's ambassador is given an earful at a "tense" meeting at the Foreign Office. Gordon Brown is "appalled and disgusted". And what happens next? Already a deep cloud of unease hangs over the FO mandarins bidden to treat with Beijing, conscious that premier Wen Jiabao and his sidekicks are one of the ghastliest bands of tyrants on the planet, but also aware that, as a major world power on whose trading muscle the West has increasingly to rely, China must be kow-towed to at almost any cost. After the execution of Mr Shaikh – it appears he was not even allowed a medical assessment – "British sources" explained that China was "a hugely significant country with whom we have to continue to engage", while acknowledging that human rights issues "affected the environment within which we are operating with the Chinese". The latter admission, however euphemistically phrased, is at least good to know.

Now, given that this is only the latest in a series of human rights violations, how about a UN motion criticising China's behaviour? How about some trade sanctions? What about a campaign to exclude them from – say – the 2012 Olympics? Of course, the necessity for realpolitik – shorthand for "sucking up to gangsters" – means none of these things will happen. All the same, it would be nice if the British companies flocking to do business with a regime whose moral compass seems on a par with the Burmese generals could spare Mr Shaikh and his relatives just the tiniest thought.

***

It was my wife, grimly surviving the festive DVD harvest, who pointed out that the concept of mainstream family entertainment has practically ceased to exist. As one sifted through the pile – Spongebob Squarepants, Twilight, Slumdog Millionaire, The Dark Knight, etc – it was difficult to find anything that the five of us (ranging in age from nine to 49) would all find watchable, let alone suitable. This feeling was enhanced by a trawl through the Christmas TV ratings, over which the BBC and ITV get so excited, and the news that a particular episode of EastEnders, with 10.8 million viewers, was the most-watched programme.

Thirty years ago, Christmas comedy specials piled up audiences of more than 20 million, with an all-time high reached by a late-1970s Morecambe and Wise Show that was watched by more than half the UK population. It is possible to have mixed feelings over this prodigious falling-off. A homogenous culture has advantages: if the company director and his chauffeur both whistle the same popular song then, in however marginal a way, the effect is to draw them together. But there is that sneaking suspicion that much old-style mass entertainment was hardly worth the tape it was filmed on. This week, for example, the BBC made great play of discovering a "lost" episode of Are You Being Served?, originally broadcast as a black-and-white pilot in 1972. Cultural fragmentation has its pluses.

***

Still with television, one of the pleasures of the Christmas-to-New Year stretch is BBC4's habit of hauling ancient music footage out of the vault. Last year, we had the epic Prog Britannia season. This year, though deprived of the sight of Hatfield and the North, Soft Machine and King Crimson barrelling away in 17/8, we were offered two marvellous "Guitar Hero" compilations. There always seems to be some doubt – at any rate among the programme's compilers – as to what the role of "guitar hero" actually consists: Keith Richards and Mick Taylor, no question, but how many votes would such innocuous folkie strummers as John Martyn and Leo Kottke get in any poll conducted by a competent jury?

It could almost be argued, from the point of view of pop taxonomy, that after the punk explosion of the late 1970s, the classic conception of the guitar hero – a gurning long-hair, drooling over his fretboard as a clutch of sidesmen gamely hold down the beat – underwent a fundamental reversal. The 1980s brought some great guitarists – the Smiths' Johnny Marr, say, or the late John McGeoch (Magazine, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Public Image Limited) – but these weren't "heroes" in the accepted sense, simply very good players who integrated themselves into the bands they ornamented without insisting on 10-minute stake-outs over the foot pedal. Do such people exist today? Is Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood a "guitar hero"? It would be nice to know.

***

Reading the accounts – common to all newspapers – of Colin Nugent Saves the World, a collection of spoof letters addressed by the TV writer and producer Geoff Atkinson to various fallen celebrities (Sir Fred Goodwin, Alan Greenspan, Anthony Steen, etc) I found myself unexpectedly taking sides with the people to whom the letters were sent. Almost anyone who goes on television or gets his or her name in the press will be the recipient of unsolicited mail, a fair amount of it from the not quite certifiable, and, in most cases, some kind of reply has to be vouchsafed: the difference between a well-meaning celeb-fancier and an ingenious hoaxer can be a little too fine for comfort. In these circumstances you can forgive Sir Fred the assertion that "your friendship and support mean a great deal to me", just as you could forgive Esther Rantzen the polite letter she returned to Henry Root (aka William Donaldson) 30 years ago in response to the one-line claim that "You're an old bag and your show's a disgrace."

Much of Atkinson's coverage has mentioned The Henry Root Letters, but the finest example of the genre is the late Humphrey Berkeley's The Life and Death of Rochester Sneath, a series of earnest communications sent in the name of a fictitious public-school headmaster to fellow workers in the vineyard. Berkeley, who later served as both a Labour and a Conservative MP, was sent down from Cambridge when his identity was revealed by an investigating newspaper. Geoff Atkinson, on the other hand, is made much of by The Sunday Telegraph. But then ours is a more decadent age.

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