DJ Taylor: Crying all the way to the bank

Celebrities love to lift the lid on their tumultuous lives, but why, other than to make money?

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Anthony Powell once wrote that whatever one most strongly believes about oneself should probably be kept to oneself – a remark that now seems as antiquated as a medieval frieze. This call for personal silence seems a particularly handy way into Rachel Cusk's Aftermath, an account of her divorce, over which the broadsheets have been agitating – and amusing – themselves for the past 10 days, if only because the prose style of Ms Cusk is sometimes as chilly as anything to be found in A Dance to the Music of Time. Having read it, sidestepped any debate on its precise significance as a contemporary feminine text (on the craven grounds that I am a man and have no vote), and felt an irrepressible pang of sympathy for poor Mr Y, her other half, I found myself wondering why such books get written.

The "confessional" came comparatively late to English literature and the rungs below. Then, with the idea that an absolute transparency about one's life, convictions and prejudices was automatically a good thing, no media personality worth his or her salt seems to be able to resist talking about their loves, dependants and foibles in public. In this respect, Ms Cusk is no more than an intellectual version of Katie Price and Kerry Katona, who appear weekly in celebrity magazines wondering if the current boyfriend is marriage material and cheerfully admitting to behavioural lapses.

As for an explanation, you could argue that such openness is in some way cathartic, a necessary sloughing off of emotional skin before a new layer takes its place. Narcissus gazes fondly down from above the mirror, and we should never forget that at the heart of most books and magazine contracts lurks filthy lucre. On the other hand, it could be countered that the comparative novelty of a stranger dilating in intimate detail on a relationship, whose other half would probably prefer that she kept quiet about it, has a more elemental undertow, that it stems from the basic human need to mythologise one's life stage by stage, and fashion the persona that will see you through. Broadsheet bluestocking and tabloid standby – Ms Cusk and Ms Price, to borrow Kipling's phrase, are sisters under the skin.

The week's most heartening story was the report of an opinion poll which deduced that a majority of the population is in favour of some kind of redistribution of wealth. According to the survey, undertaken for our sister paper, The Independent, 60 per cent of voters support the Liberal Democrat policy of increasing taxes for the rich so low-paid workers can be taken out of the tax system altogether. In addition, 58 per cent thought that tax cuts should be aimed at businesses rather than individuals, while 61 per cent believed that the Government is right to withdraw child benefit from families with a high-rate tax-payer.

The phrase "redistribution of wealth", which had Daily Telegraph journalists quaking in their galoshes when I was a boy, is so rarely used these days – certainly not by anyone on the Labour front bench – that it is worth asking what anyone who was serious about a more equitable social system might do to bring it about. Anthony Crosland's The Future of Socialism (1956) carries an illuminating mission statement: "The socialist seeks a redistribution of rewards, status, and privilege egalitarian enough to minimise social resentment, to secure justice between individuals, and to equalise opportunities; and he seeks to weaken the existing deep-seated class stratification, with its concomitant feelings of envy and inferiority, and its barriers to uninhibited mingling between the classes."

Unusually, in an era of widespread attachment to Clause IV socialism, Crosland thought that education, not nationalisation, ought to be the main lever in the creation of a more just society. By chance, The Independent's poll appeared on the same day as a report suggesting that government schemes to encourage poor students to apply for university places have more or less failed. One obvious way to redistribute wealth in the service of greater opportunity would be to establish a couple of thousand fee-free scholarships designed first to identify and then to subsidise the bright but impoverished at our elite universities. But this is probably a step too far, even for Mr Gove.

One can't help sympathising with Sofa King, the price-conscious Northampton furniture store upbraided by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) for using the slogan "Sofa King Low" in its promotional literature. On the one hand, the ASA's response was marked by its usual lightning speed: the original complaints from the public turned out to have been filed as long ago as 2004. On the other, there is the sense – all too common – of an official body training its howitzers on a soft target when more serious offenders are well out of range. An advertising standards board that meant business, you feel, would ask budget airlines to submit their misleading enticements in advance of publication.

Finally, there is that age-old doubt over what actually constitutes offence. As a concerned citizen, I find the current TV car advertisement in which a gang of vacant-looking youngsters scoot about the place to the accompaniment of a song insisting that "we want to party, we want to have fun, we want to be free" (the rubric about three-year finance deals instantly negating the freedom) far more offensive than lubricious puns about furniture. But then I support a football team of whom it used to be said that we were "Norfolk'n'good".

If nothing else, the latest round of Republican primaries has emphasised the pains that a modern politician has to take in calibrating what he seriously believes to the variegated opinions of his electors. Thus Mitt Romney, although the eventual winner in Michigan, is supposed to have lost ground by insufficiently compromising his free-market principles when it came to the recent bail-out of the local motor industry. Rick Santorum, meanwhile, is thought to have forfeited the votes of several thousand college graduates by declaring that Barack Obama was a "snob" for wanting universal college education.

This kind of hypertrophied sensitivity – or mock-hypertrophied sensitivity – is endemic to the modern political process, of course, but there are moments when you pine for the return of Aneurin Bevan, who famously remarked in the late 1940s that he couldn't care less about the upper classes and that such people were "lower than vermin". All terribly unfair to the upper classes, naturally, but at least one knew where Mr Bevan was coming from. If Ed Miliband could be got to remark of some mildly radical policy or other that this was what he believed and the Daily Mail's opinion of it was of no interest to him, we should all be that much keener on his prospects.

Comments