DJ Taylor: By-election blues

Voter apathy at Norwich North; my gluttony at the BBC's expense; teenage indifference to the media; and a joyful, strange collaboration at Latitude
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The Independent Online

All week long the emails have been winging in. "Ed" has written to me about his plans for reducing carbon emissions. "Chris" has invited me to deliver leaflets and attend solidarity-enhancing social events.

"Gordon", mysteriously silent for a day or so, is no doubt itching to rejoin the fray. And the reason for these intent communications from cyberspace? The Norwich North by-election, brought about by the summary eviction of the sitting MP, Dr Ian Gibson, is reaching its final few days, and Ed (Miliband), Chris (Ostrowski, the youthful Labour candidate) and the others are desperate to maximise turnout.

By-elections, especially those staged amid the death throes of unpopular governments, used to be momentous affairs. I can remember, as a politics-obsessed teenager back in the late 1970s, the thrill of waking on a Friday morning to grasp the note left on the pillow by my father in the small hours that read "Con gain Woolwich West" or "Con gain Ashfield, Lab hold Grimbsy". Now, for some reason, the by-election circus has grown incorrigibly sedate.

It is not that the big-hitters haven't arrived to canvass – Messrs Cameron, Osborne and co have virtually set up camp in the shadow of Mousehold Heath and, walking into a railway station café the other day, I was confronted with the altogether alarming spectacle of a Tory MP recruiting himself with a bun before proceeding to the clotted north-city terraces. It is merely that no one seems to be able to work up much enthusiasm.

The LibDems have been making their usual noises, but this has never been a seat with a Lib Dem presence. There was a momentary flicker of excitement when the Eastern Daily Press hazarded that Dr Gibson might run as an independent, and another when Michelle Collins, the former EastEnders star, toured a street in the Labour interest. In the end, though, Dr Gibson thought better of this quixotic gesture, while Ms Collins declined newspaper interviews on "contractual grounds". These disappointments take their toll, alas, and a hustings booked for a hall in Hellesdon had to be cancelled when the candidates (12) outnumbered the audience (3). What will happen? People liked the Norwich City supporting, red wine quaffing, lefty maverick Dr Gibson, and large numbers of his supporters will probably stay at home, leaving the Tory candidate, Chloe Smith, to clean up. But you get the feeling that this is a contest that Labour will lose, rather than the Tories actively win.


On the day that the row about BBC expenses reached fever pitch, and it was revealed that certain of the corporation's gauleiters would be forgoing their bonuses, I settled down to watch Supersizers Eat ... The 1920s, an instalment of the amusing BBC2 series in which Giles Coren and Sue Perkins re-create bygone cuisine. My motive was simple vainglory: the show's finale was an attempt to re-stage the notorious "Red and White Party" of late 1931, in which an assortment of Bright Young People convened at a house in Regent's Park to (among other depravities) eat a colour-coded menu; yours truly appeared as an expert witness.

Leaving aside the programme's merits, and the decent-sized audience it attracts, no one involved in a production like the Supersizers franchise could fail to be struck by the gargantuan budgets on offer. This final scene, which occupied perhaps four minutes of an hour-long programme, took four hours to film, was staged at that symbol of genteel economy, the Park Lane Hotel, and had countless kitchen staff labouring to produce a far from frugal menu (Waldorf salad, borscht soup, lobster Neuberg, Pavlova etc).

Naturally, becalmed amid an array of talking heads that included the decidedly glamorous Celia Walden and Diana Quick, who played Lady Julia in the 198l TV dramatisation of Brideshead Revisited, I enjoyed myself no end, but it was difficult not to feel a twinge or two of conscience on the licence-payer's behalf. At a rough guess, setting up that four minutes' worth of prime-time can't have cost less than £10,000. Extrapolate that to fill six hour-long programmes and what do you get? Thirty years ago, A J P Taylor used to talk, unscripted, for half an hour to a grateful BBC2 audience on aspects of 20th-century history for a few hundred pounds. A false distinction, perhaps, but sometimes one feels compelled to make them.


Still with the BBC, the funniest thing I read last week – part of a longer interview in the Radio Times – was a remark or two dropped by the Radio 1 disc jockey Chris Moyles on the dullness of BBC radio. The problem, according to Mr Moyles, is that the corporation is so scared of offending anyone that edgy trailblazers such as himself and "Jonathan" (Ross, presumably) can scarcely be contained behind its prudish facade. If Mr Moyles has a redeeming feature, it is perhaps that he genuinely doesn't realise why so many people find him so hilarious, or that the hilarity stems not from his lads'-mag caveman act and the jokes about Will Young being gay but from sheer technical inadequacy.

The other amusing thing about Mr Moyles is his here-in-the-vanguard-of-radio line. Inside that bristling exterior, you feel, stalks a rapt, colonising spirit. One of the things that always terrifies me about BBC radio is the thought that, sooner or later, some of its more crowd-pleasing employees will want to clamber up the ladder, leading to a situation in which In Our Time, say, gets presented by Mariella Frostrup ("Now, Professor, from what you say Aquinas sounds like a very sexy man" etc), while Sandi Toksvig helms a Moral Maze debate peopled by Wayne Rooney, Pam Ayres and Lady Gaga. Actually I take it back – an ethics chat-show run on these lines would be a wholly fascinating experience.


Huge media interest attended the activities of Matthew Robson, the 15-year-old doing work experience at the investment bank Morgan Stanley, who produced a research note about the media consumption of his peers. His conclusion – that teenagers don't use Twitter, have little time for television, can't be bothered to read newspapers and find advertising "annoying" – was described by Morgan Stanley as "one of the clearest and most thought-provoking insights". The head of the bank's European media analysts revealed that the note generated six times more feedback than normal reports. My own response to this furore was a mild puzzlement. As my wife put it: did they really need a 15-year-old boy to tell them that? It is rather like asking a novelist what is wrong with the British book trade and raising your eyebrows when he replies that Waterstone's has too much clout and ditching the Net Book Agreement was a mistake.

What strikes a chord, oddly enough, is that dislike of advertising, which from my own professional vantage point realises a kind of Orwellian doublethink. As someone who makes a substantial part of his living devilling for newspapers I am keenly aware that adverts, the lifeblood of traditional media, subsidise practically everything I write, and yet nothing would induce me to read or watch one. Even the Test Match highlights have been ruined by their transfer to Channel Five and the regular encomia to whichever brand of Afrikaner hair oil happens to be sponsoring them. Media analysts have started to warn us that in the future we will have to get used to paying more for content. Well, strictures about TV budgets notwithstanding, I'd sooner pay the BBC.


By the time you read this, I hope to be in a field near Southwold with my 16-year-old son watching this year's Latitude festival. One highlight I shall be looking out for is the alfresco debut of a collaboration between the novelist Jonathan Coe and rock band the High Llamas. This isn't Coe's first venture into pop – he has previously written lyrics for the former Caravan and Hatfield and the North bass player Richard Sinclair – but it led me to wonder just how often these mixed-media get-togethers bear fruit.

Michael Moorcock, famously, used to perform with Hawkwind, who took their name from a short story of his entitled "Hawkwind Zoo"; the late Derek Raymond appeared with an outfit called Gallon Drunk; and Sir Salman Rushdie, remarking that he "loved hanging out with Bono", has graced a stage alongside U2. Clearly this branch of the arts has a whole lot further to go, and I look forward to that long-delayed communion between the Stones and Martin Amis ("Nabba - koff", I can just hear old rubber-lips intoning, "he's so fahn".) Or perhaps, thinking of some of the drily evocative and street-sharp lyrics that decorated Dr Feelgood songs 30 years ago ("She asks you for a hand/with the zip on her dress/And you say 'Oui, babe'/Cos that's French for 'yes'"), Mart got there already.