DJ Taylor: Britain has shot up the corruption league – call for Wallace and Gromit!

The President of Afghanistan has been surprisingly candid about trousering Iranian cash – but it's no good us pointing the finger at dodgy foreigners

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It was a notably good week – or bad week, depending on your vantage point – for corruption.

The row over the two Fifa delegates bidden to select the venue for the 2018 World Cup who may or may not have offered to sell their votes burned on. Then Hamid Karzai, the President of Afghanistan, cheerfully disclosed that he routinely trousers suitcases full of euros from his opposite number in Iran for the upkeep of his, ahem, "private office". Finally, there came Transparency International's annual "corruption index", which revealed that, of the 178 countries surveyed, Somalia is the most corrupt, closely followed by Afghanistan, Burma and Iraq. The US, it should be said, was down to 22nd, the UK at 20 and Ireland a rather worrying 14th.

All this reminded me of a satirical feature which a friend and I once designed for an Oxford student magazine, entitled "The Bigot's Guide to Europe". This consisted of a map of the principal European countries with their presumed national characteristics printed beneath. You can imagine how it went. Swedes: dull, suicidal, watch pornography. French: alcoholics, smell of garlic, excitable. Italians: unreliable, pasta-loving, queue-jumping. It was remarkable, though, how often the adjective "corrupt" appeared, and how little of the impulse behind this particular categorisation was truly satirical, for it is a fact that anyone who monitored the foreign news in the late 1970s would automatically suppose that – say – most Italian politicians were crooks. Regrettably, quite a lot of post-war Italian history would seem to bear this assumption out.

There is no point in denying that these prejudices endure. No offence to Mr Karzai and his fellow Afghans, but whenever I see footage of him presiding over state occasions I assume as a matter of course that he takes backhanders and employs half a dozen relatives in soft government jobs. The same goes for Signor Berlusconi, whose manoeuvrings were so pitilessly exposed by Peter Popham in last week's New Statesman. Equally, there is no point anyone in Great Britain taking a high moral line about this. After all, a history of the Labour Party's involvement in municipal graft would fill several fat volumes. Most of my own personal experience of corruption, oddly enough, is rooted in education: the Latin master with his uncanny ability to predict the O-level unseen; the tutor of an Oxford college I had better not name, who, year upon year, admitted two undergraduates from the same leading public school I had also better not name to read English. Pretty small beer, perhaps, compared to Mr Karzai's bulging suitcase, but when it comes down to it, we are all prostitutes.

***

There was a terrible inevitability about the reaction of certain commentators to one of the more enlightened aspects of last week's spending review. I refer, of course, to the foreign aid budget which, almost miraculously in today's economic climate, will actually be rising to £11.5bn over the next four years. In fact, such is the Government's commitment to the interests of developing nations that the figure will shortly reach the UN's recommended level of 0.7 per cent of public spending – a remarkable achievement that brackets us with such nations as Norway, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands.

Naturally, all this had the staff of the Daily Express quaking in their galoshes. "Foreign aid fury" ran one of last week's headlines, above a claim that "every family in the UK" would have to pay £2,000. Last Tuesday's front page mentioned "Britain's foreign aid bill scandal" and alleged that "we pay more than any country in Europe". By chance, this saucepan full of fake moral indignation boiled up at exactly the same time as the first televised pictures of the cholera sufferers in Haiti. This particular taxpayer can't help feeling that the foreign aid statistics demonstrate that we live in a country that still espouses civilised values. But then civilised values have never cut much ice at the Daily Express. House prices, immigrants and sponging benefit claimants are a much safer bet.

***

It was a mark of the vital importance that Peter Jackson's projected two-part film adaptation of J R R Tolkien's The Hobbit has for the New Zealand economy that the country's President, John Key, was brought in to chair what the newspapers called a "crisis meeting" with studio bosses. With the local actors' union threatening to disrupt the production and a scheme afoot to film elsewhere, Mr Key had remarked that he would not be drawn into a bidding war in which tax breaks were used to keep Mr Jackson and his associates onside. Happily, a truce was brokered and by Thursday morning the £316m endeavour was back on track.

Now that New Zealand's balance of payments has been put in the clear for the next half-decade or so, the Tolkien estate might ponder another item that all we Tolkien fans are badly in need of: a proper biography of the author himself. So far there have been two attempts: a pioneering 1977 effort by the late Humphrey Carpenter and a book by the American writer Michael White, published to cash in on the film of The Fellowship of the Ring and following Carpenter's template to the point of plagiarism. As to why we need a third, the most obvious reason is that Carpenter's, though immensely well-constructed and researched, contains hardly anything about Tolkien the man. Carpenter once told me that two chapters on this enticing subject were blue-pencilled into fragments by Tolkien's son, Christopher.

This is not to stake the claims of some knicker-draw-riffling sensationalist out to dish the dirt, merely to note that Tolkien has been dead 37 years, and that there are still two or three dozen people about – academic colleagues, younger friends – who knew him in the later stages of his life and might have interesting things to say about him: see, for example, the tantalising sketch in the book dealer Rick Gekoski's Tolkien's Gown. Another 10 years and, such is the nature of biography, it will be too late.

***

Nick Park could be found in this week's Radio Times discussing the premature ending of the tie-up between his company Aardman, based in Bristol, and Hollywood's Dreamworks studio. Having come together for a five-movie deal in 1999, the two parted company in 2007 with only three films – Chicken Run (2000), Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2006) and Flushed Away (2007) – in the can. There was talk – very polite talk – of "cultural disparities" and a suggestion that no one in America knew the meaning of the word "trunnion".

Although nothing was said about this, you suspect that the main difficulty in transporting Mr Park's animations to the drive-ins of Nowhere, Nebraska lies not in their localisation or even their whimsicality, but in the contrasting views that British and US audiences take of humour. It is not that Americans don't understand irony – five minutes in front of Ugly Betty is enough to establish that – merely that British comedy tends to concentrate on actual jokes and American comedy on wisecracking: a kind of endless low-level crossfire that never delivers a body-blow but fells its victim through the cumulative effect of a dozen rounds of buckshot, while relying for its effects on call-and-response collusion with a dutiful audience. To watch those early episodes of Cheers (sample: fat man walks into bar, remarks "Boy meets beer. Boy drinks beer. Boy has another beer", audience goes bananas) was simply to register the existence of a community of which one could never be a part. In these circumstances, for Mr Park to manage as many as three out of his five films was quite an achievement.

***

Paul Taylor, theatre critic of The Independent, is clearly a very brave man. At any rate he could be found in Wednesday's paper admitting that his first reaction to the late Sarah Kane's celebrated play Blasted (1995), now being rapturously revived at the Lyric, Hammersmith, was that it was like putting your head in a pail of offal. Reading Mr Taylor's account of how he subsequently came to regard the play as a masterpiece, I was reminded of other catastrophic misjudgements of this kind: the distinguished rock critic Charles Shaar Murray declaring of an early Clash record that if this was a garage band then it ought to be returned to the garage forthwith, or the director of the PR company where I worked in the mid-1980s observing of the first box of Trivial Pursuit seen in the office that it was "a nice little game that might sell a few at Christmas". And which thrusting young litterateur was it who remarked of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's universally acclaimed Love in the Time of Cholera (1987) that this was a sad falling off from former glories? Reader, I leave you to guess.

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