DJ Taylor: Come on Pauline

Mrs Prescott joins the ranks of superior Labour wives; it's the end of the line for a lottery yob; three cheers for experts; bored stiffs; and dreamers
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The Independent Online

With Sarah Brown just a tiny bit over-exposed these days, and Cherie Blair having blown the few remaining shreds of her credibility by letting off a violent offender for religious reasons, a new star has suddenly risen to join the firmament of Labour politicians' wives.

Step forward Pauline Prescott, whose lately published autobiography attracted such headlines as "Let's hear it for Pauline – what a wonderful woman" and who was herself acclaimed for "not fitting in" in a world of "Identikit Labour luvvies". Naturally, much of this approbation is faintly disingenuous. The reason right-wing newspapers affect to admire Mrs Prescott is that she is a convenient stick with which to beat her feckless husband, but it was impossible to ignore the note of genuine admiration.

Among the various qualities on display, onlookers seemed particularly keen on Mrs P's reaction to the news that her other half had had an affair with his secretary. Told that she would have to leave chez Prescott in the small hours to escape a ravening horde of press cameramen, she refused to go, sent the guilty party out into the night instead and spent the next day dealing with builders who were starting work on a new downstairs loo. All this offers further proof of one of the great imbalances of British politics: the superiority of Labour wives to their Tory counterparts. One can think of dozens of bright, clever women whose determination to impress themselves on the public consciousness in their own right makes you wonder whether they wouldn't have done a better job in parliament than their husbands. Lady Healey, for example, is a distinguished biographer. Dame Jennifer Jenkins did sterling work as chairwoman of the National Trust. Even better, perhaps, is their habit of writing books about their domestic lives. By reflecting on her 45-year marriage to the railwayman's son from Hull, Mrs Prescott joins a select pantheon that includes Susan Crosland and Lady Morrison of Lambeth, author of Memories of a Marriage. It would be nice if Mrs Brown could be persuaded to join this sorority, but one imagines that the chances of Life with Gordon appearing on library shelves in the near future are pretty remote.


Here in Norfolk, the local media have produced instructive codas to the story of Michael Carroll, self-styled "King of Chavs", who, after winning £9.7m on the National Lottery back in 2002, is reliably reported to have blown the lot. Mr Carroll, who turned up to collect his winnings in an Asbo-buster's electronic tag, was subsequently abandoned by his wife, spent thousands of pounds a day on drug parties and put his name to an autobiography entitled Careful What You Wish For.

Seven years on, Mr Carroll is commendably matter-of-fact. "The party has ended and it's back to reality," he is quoted as saying. "I haven't got two pennies to rub together and that's the way I like it."

The really curious thing about this modern morality tale, though, is its foreshadowing in a short story written well over a century ago by the late-Victorian novelist Arthur Morrison. "Squire Napper", from Tales of Mean Streets (1894), features an improvident labourer, who inherits £300 out of the blue from the will of a long-lost brother. Immediately throwing over his job, he and his wife embark on an orgy of conspicuous consumption. Barrels of beer and expensive finery crowd out the newly rented house in Canning Town: the legatee amuses himself by hiring a socialist orator to harangue him in the comfort of his parlour. One day the Nappers wake up to find the last sovereign spent: shoulders are metaphorically shrugged, and the old patterns of life are instantly resumed. It was Richard Hoggart in his classic The Uses of Literacy (1957) who remarked that the working classes had been cheerful existentialists for centuries. On the other hand, there is a salient difference between Bill Napper and Michael Carroll. The former goes back to his job on the road-gang; the latter resumes his £42-a-week job-seeker's allowance.


Staring at the cover of my eldest son's copy of the New Musical Express, as it lay on the mat on Wednesday morning, I discovered a contribution to a debate that continues to animate the arts world. "The fans have spoken louder than the critics," the frontman of a band called The Courteeners proudly declared – one of those traditional vindications uttered by every unfashionable rock group from Grand Funk Railroad to Uriah Heep, in which detractors are invited to compare the stack of bad reviews with the jumbo-size pile of record sales.

For some reason "the critics" are having a bad time of it in the modern media age. When Amanda Ross was publicising the launch of her new TV book club the other month (Gok Wan, Jo Brand, etc) practically the first thing she did was to reassure nervous punters that it wouldn't be a critics' show. In some ways this distaste for lofty judgements and canonical fervour is an understandable reaction to a great deal of bygone snootiness. All the same, you sometimes wonder quite what point the modern mistrust of expertise is intended to prove. After all, who would the average football supporter prefer to see commenting on a game? Sir Alex Ferguson or Mr Shouty from the terraces?

Not long back, writing a piece about the passing of the old-style literary man for the New Statesman, I remarked that even now, in the age of the book blog and the cyber pundit, if I wanted an opinion about a new novel my first port of call would be the man or woman in the newspaper books page. Scanning the online responses a few days later I was a bit startled – all right, not very startled – to find this unexceptionable sentiment marked down as "elitist". No disrespect to the book blogs, which are often written with genuine verve and pizzazz, but the issue at stake is not so much elitism as ability to do the job.


I was more than a bit alarmed to read the results of a survey that suggests being bored can be bad for your health. According to researchers from University College London, who analysed questionnaires returned by 7,000 civil servants between 1985 and 1988, those who complained of being bored most often were more likely to die of heart problems. The effect was reduced after taking into account underlying health conditions and "harmful behaviour", but, even so, the message was clear: ennui can be fatal. To someone whose life is spent trying to fend off boredom, this had a terribly chastening effect. In fact, I straightaway sat down and compiled a list of the activities I find tedious. Walking the dog came out top, closely followed by most forms of social life, any meeting lasting more than 20 minutes, almost all television, and eating meals in restaurants. By the time this mighty roster had been completed I was left with the disquieting revelation that, really, the only things I liked doing were being with my wife and family, reading, writing, jogging, and watching Norwich City FC and the Cringleford under-10s side ornamented by my youngest son (38 goals this season and rising).

One thing that isn't boring, oddly enough, is the bore himself. Some of the most fascinating moments in life come at some otherwise anodyne dinner party when the person next to you, without the least self-consciousness and in the absolute certainty that what they have to say is of interest, holds forth about their career as an Isle of Man potato farmer or the varieties of screw available in Homebase. It is the same with fiction, where the self-absorbed monomaniac is a comic staple. The basis for a long and healthy life would seem to be: avoid boredom while embracing the bore.


Coincidences nearly always turn out to be less impressive than they sound. As a twentysomething working in the West End, nothing seemed more predictable than bumping into my aunt in Piccadilly: she quite often went to the Royal Academy; I quite often walked home to Pimlico. On the other hand, ghostly prefigurations – the idea that once something strays unexpectedly into your mind, it will then come back and set up camp with a vengeance – never fail to cause a stir. Earlier in the week, for reasons it would take a psycho-analyst to unravel, I had a dream about Albert Booth, once secretary of state for employment in the Callaghan government. Three days later, I found myself reading his obituary. A rationalist would say this was simple chance. My explanation is sheer triumph of the will. As the American poet Delmore Schwartz once put it: "In dreams begin responsibilities."