DJ Taylor: Artfully, those pesky motorists dodge the bullet once more

Its been a good week for car-owners, Romeo Beckham, and Charles Dickens. But Mark Twain has taken a politically correct battering (if that's possible ...)

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Asked to select the coalition government's least prepossessing ornament, you have a feeling that the average punter would probably waver between the transport supremo Philip Hammond, and Eric Pickles, the jovial and ebullient Communities Secretary.

My own slight preference would be for Mr Pickles, on the no doubt unreasonable grounds that the demands of our new age of communal austerity are better advertised by one of those tight-lipped, Crippsian enforcers than by a man who, not to put too fine a point on it, looks as if lunch is the highlight of his day.

Messrs Pickles and Hammond could be found side by side in the newspapers last Tuesday, declaring an end to the previous government's "war on motorists". One's initial response to this cessation of hostilities was to wonder: what war would that have been, exactly? A few modest environmental gestures notwithstanding, no constituency in the country is quite so cosseted as the car-owner, whose expenses, in real-terms, fall from one year to the next, and whose occasional drubbings at the hands of speed-cameras and pedestrian-conscious local councils are so relentlessly championed by the red-top press that you might almost think the issue at stake was personal liberty rather than public safety.

Mr Pickles' spirited intervention involved the repeal of the decade-old parking rules, introduced by the then deputy prime minister John Prescott, as a means of promoting greener forms of transport. According to Mr Pickles, these had led to over-zealous parking enforcement, an "addiction to micro-management" that has supposedly created a "parking nightmare, with stressed-out drivers running a gauntlet of unfair fines, soaring charges and a total lack of residential parking". Mr Hammond then chipped in to proclaim that the idea of trying to cut carbon emissions by forcing people out of their cars was "outdated".

Setting off (on foot) to travel the three miles to Carrow Road to watch Norwich City play QPR the other day, I decided to investigate how the war on the motorist was going. Nearing the ground, I came upon a quarter of a mile stretch of road with a pavement so jammed with kerb-strewn vehicles that pedestrian access was almost impossible. Then came a stretch of verge, marked NO PARKING AT ANY TIME, which several motorists were having great fun in despoiling, with not a warden in sight. The problem, pace Mr Pickles, is not that motorists are penalised, but that cars and their owners continue to be treated with an absurd deference. Significantly, a corking row has broken out over the city council's sensible decision to close Carrow Road to traffic on match-day afternoons, on grounds of public safety, with letters to the local newspaper from drivers furious at having to wait 10 minutes in the car park while the pedestrians disperse. As so often, nothing seems to be able to bring home to the man behind the wheel the fact that the non car-borne population even exists.

***

The person I felt sorriest for last week was eight-year-old Romeo Beckham, on the occasion of his unveiling by GQ magazine as the country's 26th "most fashion-forward male", ahead of Prince William and Jude Law. According to David Walker-Smith from Selfridges' menswear department, 4ft 2in (1.27m) Romeo is "experimental, quirky and fun, and his style has nothing mini-me about it. It's me-me." An advocate of tailored suits, bow ties and camel coats, his interest has been raptly commended by his mother. "The other boys are all about going to the beach" she explained to Harper's Bazaar; "he's not interested. He's like, 'I want to go to work with mummy,' and he sits there going through the collection, feeling the fabrics, giving his opinion. He loves it."

Master Beckham has apparently been badgering his parents for months about designing his own sunglasses. More pre-teen horror lay at hand, alas, in a newspaper survey of the names that celebrities have given their children in 2010. Here, one could appraise the valuable intelligence that Boris Becker and his wife have called their son "Amadeus Benedict Edley Luis", while Jools and Jamie Oliver welcomed a further addition to their effervescing brood – Buddy Bear Maurice, a brother for Daisy Boo, Poppy Honey and Petal Blossom Rainbow.

Naturally, people are entitled to bestow any names on their children that the registrar will let them get away with. All the same, it's possible to feel a pang of sympathy for Oliver, BBM and Oliver, PBR when the time comes for them to answer the class registrar. It is the same with Romeo Beckham, who has just completed his childhood, if indeed he ever had one, at the tender age of eight. You sometimes wonder whether all the little Prices and Katonas who appear so regularly and so wistfully on the cover of OK! couldn't somehow be taken into care now before any more damage can be done.

***

The most intriguing aspect of the full-page press adverts taken out by 38 Degrees, the ginger group bent on exposing tax-avoiders, was the cultural assumption that lay at the advertisements' core. Claiming that tax-dodging costs the UK economy up to £120bn a year, and that the Chancellor of the Exchequer was personally responsible for £1.6m of this figure, the ad featured a picture of George Osborne, mocked up in Victorian street-urchin hat and greatcoat, beneath the caption "The Artful Dodger". There was no explanation of who the original might be: it was simply assumed that any educated reader would spot the reference to a novel whose first instalment appeared as long ago as 1837.

There's no doubt about it, when one thinks of all the cultural traffic rolling across the consumer's line of vision, Dickens's continued grip on the public imagination is quite extraordinary. The adjective "Pickwickian" is still rolled out to describe good-natured fat men; no financial commentator worth his salt can get through a year's commentary without quoting Mr Micawber on the joys of solvency. Significantly, this awareness runs deep into the mass culture. The cover of one of last week's celebrity magazines, for example, carries a quote from some small-screen titan or other maintaining that his wedding in snowbound late-December London was "like Dickens". Perhaps it was also attended by a flock of starving children, whipped back into the gutter by a vigilant Beadle. Alas, we shall never know.

***

The week brought two splendid examples of that increasingly common corporate phenomenon: the defence that is really only an evasion. First up was the University of East Anglia, accused of presiding over a sustained exercise in grade inflation, whereby the number of students achieving a first-class degree had trebled in 40 years and the number obtaining an upper-second doubled over the same period. A spokesman opined that the introduction of the Quality Assurance Agency and subject benchmarks had "made today's grades more transparent than previously". This sounded like another way of saying "If the regulators haven't complained, it's OK by us," but there you are.

Then came BT, charged with undermining one of the fundamental principles of the internet by creating a two-tier system that would allow content providers to bill for a faster video delivery service. "We are enablers," BT declared. "It will be up to broadcasters, ISPs and customers to work together to decide on the charging model for a service." This sounded suspiciously like the old courtroom lament of "When I gave him the axe, Your Honour, I had no idea he was going to cut off anyone's head with it." Perhaps we need a new Shorter Oxford Dictionary definition of "defence" to join the three already there: "to remonstrate unconvincingly".

***

The new edition of Mark Twain's classic Huckleberry Finn, sans 200 or so "hurtful epithets", stirred a predictable hornet's nest. Described as a "bold" and "compassionate" venture by its publishers, NewSouth Books, the edition expunges both the word "nigger" and "injun" in the hope of countering what its editor, Dr Alan Gribben, terms "pre-emptive censorship". Twain, as several commentators have pointed out, was a committed anti-racist; the bowdlerisation of his text has been criticised by Toni Morrison, the black American Nobel Laureate.

Leaving aside the absurdity of tampering with an historical document, merely because it contains words of which you don't approve, it should also be pointed out that NewSouth Books' enlightened editorial venture is designed to make money; an expurgated version of Huckleberry Finn is far more likely to be bought by school boards. Meanwhile, the prospects for certain English classics look horribly bleak. It can't be very long, surely, before some craven examiner decides that the scene in Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall where Mr Sebastian Cholmondley arrives at the Llanabba school sports to be greeted by the butler Philbrick's murmur of "What price the coon?" is much too shocking for the nation's 16-year-olds to contemplate.

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