DJ Taylor: Debo and her muckers continue to thrive

The aristocracy is out and proud, basking in fawning popularity, and Rastafarianism is back, in the form of a TV mouse puppet

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To examine the photograph of the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire that graced the cover of this week's edition of The Lady was to be reminded of how triumphantly the hereditary aristocracy has adapted itself to the demands of a more demotic age.

The Duchess was there to supply reminiscences of her father, Lord Redesdale, who became the magazine's deputy general manager in 1904, and while a certain amount of familiarity attended the proceedings – the Duchess is referred to as "Debo" these days, rather like a South American footballer – no one could doubt that here, descending from the clouds, was a supremely important personage, and that The Lady's readers were in for a treat.

It was the same a day or so later when Earl Spencer announced his engagement to a charity worker named Karen Gordon. You might think that the late Princess of Wales's brother engagement ranked rather low in the newsworthiness stakes, but no, the BBC news practically fell over itself to offer details of the ceremony to be conducted at Althorp a bare six weeks – gasp – after the Earl's nephew walks up the aisle at Westminster Abbey with his own bride, and doubtless Hello! is at work on one of its legendarily fawning interviews.

Seventy years ago, when the idea that the struggle against Hitler was "a people's war" still had some mileage and the spectre of the Attlee government loomed, pundits used to predict that it was all up for the stately-home brigade, and that a new reforming tide would see them washed up on the beach so many starfish. Somehow this hasn't happened, and the mystique that surrounds ancestral privilege seems as potent as ever – made all the stronger by its ability to gather up distinctly un-aristocratic constituencies in its trail.

My Oxford college – by no means as crammed with former private-school pupils as Andrew Neil would have us believe – had a real-live viscount, whose habits, inclinations and possible attendance upon the rowing eight were discussed with an awful gravity. My father, not one to be impressed by titular precedence, once returned from a bowls match to announce that he had met a Labour peer who he says introduced himself as Lord Lingram (although I can find no record of such a name). Even here, in the presence of a superannuated trades unionist rather than the scion of some ancient house, Dad couldn't quite conceal the semi-comic enthusiasm with which he had bawled out "Good wood, My Lord" as His Lordship trundled up the green. In much the same way, Thackeray preferred writing letters complaining that lords no longer asked him to dinner from the comfort of a nobleman's study.

***

Great annoyance was expressed over the Ministry of Defence's decision to sack 38 of its personnel by email. At least one of the men involved – warrant officers on rolling, one-year contracts – is thought to be serving in Afghanistan. The Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, has condemned the way in which the sackings were communicated as "unacceptable".

Bad-mannered as these summary firings may be, the outrage that accompanied their exposure seemed faintly artificial. In particular, it seemed to be based on an assumption that the conditions in which people lose their jobs in civilian life are different, whereas they are quite often just as bad, if not worse. Anyone who has worked in the City of London, for example, will recall the sensation of returning to one's desk to find a colleague sacked and his bin-linered belongings removed from the building in the time it takes to eat a sandwich. Journalism, too, has always offered a venue for the most barefaced administrative savagery. "Never work for a liberal, dear boy," Philip Hope-Wallace, the veteran music critic of The Guardian, was said to counsel younger friends. "They always give you the sack on Christmas Eve." Set against these incivilities, the 38 warrant officers might think they were treated with a punctilious courtesy.

***

Still with employment, or its lack, this week's economic news contained one very unfortunate juxtaposition. On Tuesday, Barclay's Bank trumped even the most optimistic predictions of City analysts by announcing a pre-tax profit of more than £6bn. Only a day later, in the wake of rising inflation statistics, it was revealed that the UK unemployment figures had risen to 2.5 million, with the number of out-of-work youngsters now at an alarming one in five.

As with the burning question of bankers's bonuses, one senses an impasse. The Government's mission is to see as many people as possible in employment, while financial institutions are determined to employ as few workers as they can. This is called "rationalisation" and impresses shareholders and competitors no end. Rather than concentrating on bonuses, the Government could have a more positive effect by insisting that corporate titans create employment – opening branches, for instance, in deprived areas where high-street banks are prone to retreat. The £9m that Barclay's CEO Bob Diamond is apparently about to trouser would pay a thousand bank clerks' salaries for several years. And if anyone imagines that banks don't need more staff they should try going into one or ringing it up.

***

Devotee of children's TV that I am, I was pleased to be summoned downstairs by my 10 year-old the other day to watch an episode of CBBC's controversial series Rastamouse. Not a great deal seemed to be happening – our hero, expounding all the while in villainous faux-Jamaican, was examining some hub-caps – and it was difficult to work out where the controversy lay. I later discovered that Rastamouse's fondness for cheese is reckoned to be a joke about cannabis and that there have been murmurs of "stereotyping".

You suspect that the Rastafari cult kicked-off here with the mid-1970s arrival of Bob Marley. I can remember, as a 15-year-old, coming away from the New Musical Express's review of "No Woman No Cry" with a confused impression that it was about smoking sackfuls of ganja and lying around in the sun. The curious thing was how quickly the UK media swallowed all this, to the point where West Indian culture and Rastaman vibrations were assumed to be more or less synonymous. It took a Jamaican friend to explain that Rastafari was looked on as the spiritual equivalent of Trotskyism. So what is CBBC going to serve up next? Grishnakh the death-metal chinchilla? Donovan the psychedelic hamster? Leo and I can hardly wait.

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