DJ Taylor: Clichés – we're all in them together

It's been a bumper week for overworked phrases, self-delusion, and commercial irritations

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Hunched over his or her laptop in a book-strewn study somewhere in the Home Counties, an enterprising journalist is doubtless hard at work on a list of the year's most resonant clichés. There will probably be a space for "technocrat". The "squeezed middle" will have a paragraph all to itself. Looming up on the rails, however, and liable to swamp these early leaders with the vigour of its performance in the finishing straight, is "we're all in this together". Minted a couple of years back, but taking on a whole new significance in the wake of recent economic news, this phrase looks set to join Harold Wilson's "white heat of the technological revolution" as one of the most unfortunate prime-ministerial utterances ever coined.

It is not just that some people continue to enjoy £100 a head luncheons in the West End while others nervously await the loan shark's knock. Rather, it is that in the past 20 or 30 years the whole basis of what might be called our collective life has been more or less undermined. Undoubtedly, the individualising tendencies promoted by politicians of both right and left have something to do with this abandonment, but so do the consequences of modern mass culture, which though designed to draw people together have the effect of alienating that sizeable minority that likes its art to stimulate rather than to anaesthetise.

And then there is the fatal influence of technology, which, while sold to its consumers as a communal enterprise ("It's good to talk", "Make new friends", etc), ends up substituting a virtual, or at least indirect, world for genuine interaction. The average middle-aged citizen keen to involve himself or herself with other people, to embrace the generously collective rather than the selfishly solitary, can sometimes wonder what exactly happened to all the institutions that once enabled them to do this. Asking myself the other day what kind of collective activities I had participated in during the past month, I came up with a church service, two Norwich City games, stake-outs on the touch-line watching my 11-year-old's football team and a trip to hear Alan Hollinghurst read from his latest novel. Naturally, there are worse ways of spending your time, but it is light years distant from the national solidarity on which the Prime Minister is so keen.

***

One of the most depressing things about tyrants, dictators and genocide-mongers is their habit (usually towards the end of their careers) of claiming if not the moral high ground then one of its subsidiary crags. A fine example of this tendency could be found the other day in the appearance before a United Nations-backed tribunal in Phnom Penh of the 85-year-old Nuon Chea, former deputy to Pol Pot, and in this capacity responsible for the deaths of around 1.7 million Cambodians during the late 1970s reign of the Khmer Rouge. "I don't want the next generation to misunderstand history" Mr Chea told a packed court, no doubt taking out an onion as he did so. "I don't want them to believe the Khmer Rouge were bad people, war criminals." As for the disappearance of so many of his countrymen, this was apparently the fault of marauding Vietnamese troops. "It was the Vietnamese who killed Cambodians."

The psychology of despotism has myriad facets, of course. On the one hand, the tyrant may genuinely believe, or delude himself into believing, that what he did was for the best – like General Pinochet liberating the oppressed Chileans from the Marxist horde. On the other, the assumption of moral rectitude is a kind of spiritual insurance policy guaranteed to confound the liberal-minded people who will eventually sit in judgment on you, by hinting to at least some of them that you may only have been misguided. Set against this historical backdrop, President Assad of Syria's recent comment that he couldn't get terribly worked up about the 4,000 deaths so far recorded in protests against his regime and that he didn't "own" the security forces responsible for them was rather refreshing. No doubt about it: this kind of callousness takes guts.

***

The week's most amusing spectacle was unquestionably Nancy Dell'Olio at a celebrity event organised by the Huffington Post at Westfield shopping centre in London (left). Among other pronouncements, Miss Dell' Olio – a lissom 50 – declared that age had virtually ceased to matter in the 21st century, that she would be "honoured" to pose for Playboy, and that she had spent most of her time backstage at the Strictly Come Dancing studio fighting off the attentions of men 20 years her junior.

The charm of Miss Dell'Olio's unbridled self-regard lies in the fact that its existence doesn't seem to have occurred to its subject, while its fascination rests on its re-animation of some enticing, if rather elderly, ghosts. When she got on to her willingness to pose for Playboy – from whose commissioning editor, curiously enough, no invitation has yet arrived – I was irresistibly reminded of Tony Benn's declaration in the early 1960s, that he was determined to throw off the stigma of being an intellectual. This led his former Oxford tutor and fellow Labour front-bencher Tony Crosland to remark that to throw off a stigma it was first necessary to acquire one. As for the stuff about age ceasing to matter, this seemed to gesture at the claim made by the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Elias Canetti to one of his many admiring mistresses that he "defied" death. Alas, for all his defiance, Canetti died in 1994.

***

With Christmas only a fortnight away, competition for the most irritating festive television advertisement is hotting up. Surely, I thought, nothing could be more offensive than the Paco Rabanne ad in which the lickerish-looking couple frolic amid diamonds, wads of bank notes and piles of expensive shoes. But barely a day had passed before this was replaced in the demonology by the WH Smith ad in which Ruby Wax, sounding as if she has just been pumped full of helium, canvasses the attractions of various non-books knocked down to a price guaranteed to bankrupt the rest of the trade.

Then, of course, there are the families-together-at-Christmas ads in which multi-generational clans – game grandpa, chipper dad, fruity mum, wide-eyed tiny – squat zealously in front of the Wii while the mince pies grow cold behind them. Yet pride of place has to go to the Kinect interactive sport and dance games in which the voice-over proudly insists that "You are the controller". This is so obviously not true – the only controller being the technology that is manipulating the people gulled into buying it – that you wonder why the Advertising Standards Authority doesn't get involved.

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