DJ Taylor: Contemporary prophets

H G Wells and J G Ballard may have belonged to different worlds, but Al Murray the Pub Landlord could almost be an eminent Victorian

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Not long before H G Wells died, George Orwell pronounced this encomium to his early science fiction. "Back in the 1900s it was a wonderful experience for a boy to discover H G Wells. There you were, in a world of pedants, clergymen and golfers, with your future employers exhorting you to 'get on or get out', your parents systematically warping your sexual life, and your dull-witted schoolmasters sniggering over their Latin tags, and here was this wonderful man who could tell you about the inhabitants of planets and the bottom of the sea, and who knew that the future was not going to be what respectable people imagined."

Reading the tributes to J G Ballard, with which the earlier part of the week came crammed, I thought irresistibly of the difference between books like When the Sleeper Wakes and The War of the Worlds and Ballard's The Drowned World and The Wind from Nowhere. It is not that Wells's vision of the future was roseate and Ballard's pessimistic, for the citizens of Wells's projected worlds have unimaginable horrors visited on them. Rather, it is that Wells's early writings, taking something from that late-Victorian landscape of comfort and security in which they were forged, are still at least partly convinced that man is a dauntless creature who can survive most of the mud thrown at him by a predatory universe. Ballard's vision, on the other hand, is of eco-catastrophe, skyscrapered city-planets, sexual perversion and entropy. When was it, you wonder, that the future, at any rate for anyone creatively concerned with what it might look like, stopped being a matter of endless horizons and humankind's innate resourcefulness and became hard, sharp and uncomfortable?

Ballard's gift for techno-prophecy was made more complex by his self-acknowledged status as a contrarian agent provocateur. You could never be sure that he meant what he said. I remember, at least a dozen years ago, jotting down various classic Ballardisms that turned up in A User's Guide to the Millennium. On the redeveloped Thames Valley: "For me, this inter-urban landscape of marinas, research labs, hypermarkets and industrial parks represents the most hopeful face of Britain at the end of the century." How to improve London? "Launch a crash programme to fill the city with pirate TV stations, nightclubs, brothels and porn parlours." It was impossible to take these pronouncements seriously. You could only assume that Ballard, like many another writer before him, was having his little joke.

***

Going back to Orwell, I spent Wednesday night at the Foreign Press Association watching the award of this year's Orwell Prizes for journalism, books and – just to show how up-to-date we are – blogging. The most curious feature of the event was the way in which almost every speaker contrived to refer to the Observer journalist Nick Cohen. "This is my Nick Cohen moment ..." somebody would declare, to gales of respectful laughter. Or: "As my old drinking companion Nick Cohen once said ..." The source of this tide of (mostly) occluded reference wasn't hard to find. At last month's debate, convened to mark the announcement of the shortlists, Mr Cohen, who had perhaps lunched rather too well, made several flamboyant interventions, denounced the judges and was captured in full hectoring flow on YouTube.

What we were witnessing, I soon deduced, was the creation of a myth. No matter what Mr Cohen does, and however brilliantly he continues to comport himself as a journalist, he will always be remembered for this performance, and the tale will only grow more elaborate in the telling. Something very similar happened to the poet and man-of-letters Peter Quennell, over whose 1920s exploits at Oxford there hung a veil of quite fantastic legend. Anthony Powell recalled meeting a fellow Balliol man during the war who demanded: did he remember that fellow Quennell, who used to walk through the quad holding a lily in his hand? In fact, Quennell had done nothing of the sort. Poor Nick Cohen! In 10 years' time party-goers will be reminding themselves how he swung from the chandeliers while reciting from Das Kapital or offered to fight a duel with Lord Mandelson on the House of Commons terrace, and there is absolutely nothing he can do about it.

***

It was a week in which generational continuity sprang up on every side. Martin Bell was in Norwich for a charitable event, prompting a friend to tell me: did I know he was the son of Adrian Bell, celebrated Norfolk writer and author of Corduroy? Instantly a significant piece of the jigsaw of Mr Bell's life and accomplishments snapped into place. Then there were the lugubrious, bloodhound features of the late Clement Freud staring from the obituary columns and reminding you of his grandfather. More eye-catching even than this was the sight of Al Murray, the "Pub Landlord", staring from the posters advertising his forthcoming tour. No doubt about it, I thought to myself, examining Murray's bald, cheery but essentially tough-looking face (no disrespect to Mr Murray, but he shapes up like a bare-knuckle boxer in a fairground tent, or indeed a certain kind of pub landlord), he looks like someone I know. Then I remembered. The person whom Mr Murray conspicuously resembles is William Makepeace Thackeray, whose great-great-great grandson he happens to be, to the point where if you put a wig on his head and stuck an eyeglass on the bridge of his nose, he would be the dead spit of the 1833 portrait of his great-great-great grandad done by Daniel Maclise.

***

The Orwell Prize ceremony was full of practising journalists shaking their heads over the Budget, and retired journalists thanking God that their pensions were relatively secure. One aspect of government policy to which I always feel sympathetic, on the other hand, is the continual effort to improve road-casualty statistics by reducing speed limits on the country's highways. Another raft of proposals emerged this week in that eerie, exhausted dawn before the Chancellor's appearance at the dispatch box: a reduction from 60mph to 50 on some country roads, and from 30 to 20 in built-up areas. Inevitably, there was the usual sniffiness from motoring groups, prompting the thought that if the zeal that certain people bring to their defence of the right to drive dangerous lumps of metal too fast while wasting valuable energy resources could be transferred to an activity such as ending child poverty, the country might start to make some kind of social progress.

And yet one argument advanced by the AA's Edmund King seemed more or less unanswerable. It was – quite an admission for a motoring lobbyist – that no matter how drastically you reduce speed limits and try to improve road safety, there will always be casualties, because a percentage of those behind the wheel are not competent to drive. In saying this, Mr King was making a profoundly important point about the regulating principles of a great deal of modern life. Just as a proportion of drivers aren't fit to drive, and a fraction of the people in paid employment aren't up to their jobs, so numbers of parents aren't fit to raise children. But who are you or I to tell them so? In case this sounds like patronage, I wasn't up to my job when I worked in the City, and pined to be somewhere else. Oddly enough, one of the most serious tasks faced by the Government of a supposedly free society turns out to be putting limits on freedom. But while this is not a problem that can be solved by traffic legislation, the Government could start by reducing the limits, making sure that they are enforced (ie more traffic police) and forbidding the road to any vehicle that doesn't have an insurance disc fixed to its windscreen.

***

One of my great interests is the inexorable rise of slang expressions into relatively Olympian areas of public discourse where slang isn't usually to be found. Only the other week, Philip Hensher was complaining about a wedding where the officiating priest, in his address, used the word "whatever" in its modern, surly-ironic sense. Now I can go one better, with the publisher's advertisement in last week's TLS, congratulating Professor Wm Roger Louis on Texas University's Professor of the Year award, in which his book Ends of British Imperialism was described by Professor Stanley Katz, a former President of the American Council of Learned Societies, as "to die for". We are not very far off the spoof vernacular version of the Catholic Salutation devised by Evelyn Waugh that went: "Hiya Moll, you're the tops. You've got everything it takes, baby, and that goes for junior, too. Look, Moll, you put in a word for us slobs right now and when we conk out."

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