DJ Taylor: btw

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The Independent Online

It turns out that the widely publicised row about Woolworths' decision to stock the 'Lolita' bed for six year-olds (later withdrawn) derived from simple ignorance. Now we're told that no one at the Woolworths website had heard of Vladimir Nabokov or his fictional nymphet. All that can be read as a symbol of the no-doubt horrifying decline in mass general knowledge. At the same time, the variety of recondite information that sits in the average head can often come as a shock. My 12-year-old son, for example, is a bizarre repository of obscure facts about American history. He knows – to particularise – that Richard Nixon's middle name was Milhous and that he owned a dog called Checkers, and that Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was formerly Bouvier. He has even heard of President Taft (1909-13). It's a bit less encouraging, on the other hand, to discover that all these facts are simply a result of long-term exposure to The Simpsons.

I was very struck by the definition of "consultation" offered by Simon Carr in his column the other day – a PR exercise undertaken to validate a decision that has already been made. One sees it everywhere. Last year, my son's school spent several months "consulting" its parents about co-education when it was clear to all but the most purblind naif that the deal was done. Here in Norfolk, local councils have spent the past three months "consulting" local people about where to put the 26,000 new houses demanded – without any consultation at all – by the Government. But what if you disagree with the scheme in the first place, much less the probable development sites, whose identity a child of five could establish after five minutes among the documentation? For some reason there is no box to tick.

The Government's latest scheme to improve standards on the inner-city school front line is apparently to recruit former services personnel who might be able to instil a bit of "military discipline". Experience counsels caution. My own 1970s schooldays pullulated with ex-RAF men, retired ornaments of the Merchant Navy and English masters who had commanded Gurkha platoons, and hardly any of them could keep order. It was the frail, owlish men, kept from National Service by bad eyesight and whose only weapon was sarcasm, who quelled the teenage rampage.

Saddened by yesterday's news that the Spice Girls will never again tour, I found myself watching a late 1990s video of their early single "Wannabe". It was, of course, staggeringly inept: only two of the girls could dance; not all of them could sing; and Mrs Beckham, as she now is, could do nothing but scowl. But just as certain clumsy but well-meaning professional footballers are, mysteriously, adored by their fans, so entertainers who make a virtue of amateurishness are often forgiven for their sheer lack of pretension. It is when they start writing autobiographies, issuing books of holiday snaps and taking themselves seriously that it all starts to go wrong.