DJ Taylor: Democracy thrives on reality checks; from Notting Hill to Liverpool

The Lib Dem conference proved that some politicians still represent more than themselves, while people power also informs a new actuality TV soap

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Lib Dem conferences are usually good value for money, and this year's was no exception.

I was particularly cheered by the stream of constituency delegates who arrived at the platform to deliver their verdicts on the "cuts". You could tell at a glance they were Lib Dems – not through any badges of affiliation but by certain idiosyncrasies of dress and style. The clerical dog-collar, the obtrusive waistcoat, the finger held aloft punctuating the torrent of exemplary good sense that surged below: all these are as characteristic of modern liberalism as seats around the cabinet table or bracing remarks about bankers. It was especially good to hear the delegate who declared that "fairness" in the realm of cost savings was a contradiction in terms, a wonderful rhetorical flourish that rather sidestepped the wider question of what a government is supposed to do with its limited resources when the country is hundreds of billions of pounds in debt and we are, in effect, living on tick.

Curiously, all this – the constituency mobsters marching proudly to the podium, the nervous expressions on the faces of presiding big-wigs – brought back memories of the Conservative and Labour jamborees of the 1970s. Both these parties long ago tamed their activists and turned their annual conferences into rallies, but 30 or 40 years ago such assemblies were the focus of some genuine grass-roots opinion. Never mind the occasions on which brother Bootle of the Wheel-tappers and Shunters Union advanced on to the platform to inform his comrades that James Callaghan had sold them all down the river; one of the nastiest things I ever saw in politics, as an impressionable schoolboy, was Margaret Thatcher's foreign affairs spokesman John Davies, trying to defend Rhodesian sanctions against the baying of some red-faced hearties from the Monday Club.

The Lib Dems have not yet learned the trick of anaesthetising grass-roots fervour: a touching belief in pluralism and democratic decision-making is still their distinguishing mark. And yet, for all the chastening of the hard-line Labour left and the old-style Tory racists, the air that hangs over the three major party conferences grows ever more sectarian: a result, you imagine, of the prodigious decline in party memberships. Back in the 1970s, the sight of brother Bootle outlining an "alternative" economic programme that could have been devised for him by the Kremlin was made narrowly tolerable by the thought that this, just about, was still a people's party. It was the same with Mrs Thatcher's Conservatives who, for all their obduracy, were at least representative of something. You sometimes feel that, in an age that manifestly doesn't "do" politics, the only things that modern politicians represent are themselves.

***

Watching BBC One's News at Ten Tuesday night, and wondering why it annoyed me so much, I realised that the source of the irritation lay not in the stories themselves but in the people presenting them. First up was the Lib Dem conference and a star turn by the BBC's political correspondent Nick Robinson. Mr Robinson's cheek on these occasions is simply breath-taking. He asks questions that a child of five would think uncivil, is smart-alecky and insinuating by turns, and contrives to give the impression that only the merest accident prevented him from running the country himself. Next came the corporation's economic commentator, Robert Peston, to dilate on bankers' bonuses. The corpse of J M Keynes, lately disinterred and brought out into the merciless light of a TV studio, could not have been more gravely condescending. We inferred that, however great the mess that might have been unfolding before our eyes, we were jolly lucky to have Mr Peston here to explain it all to us.

It is not, I should hastily add, that messrs Robinson and Peston don't know what they are talking about, for their analyses of the country's political and economic ills are usually horribly astute. It is just that, nine times out of 10, the information itself takes second place to the self-projection. Contrast this with the reports filed during last week's papal visit by the BBC's religious affairs correspondent, Robert Pigott. Mr Pigott was modest and unassuming. He explained various technical matters relating to the Catholic Church without inviting us to admire his cleverness, and the interviews he conducted were genuine conversations rather than exercises in point-scoring. Knowing how the BBC works, I wouldn't bet that promotion was on the cards.

***

Rock fans of a certain age will have been saddened to learn of the death of the former Florida gym teacher Leonard Skinner. "Coach Skinner" made the mistake, sometime in the late 1960s, of disciplining a boy named Ronnie Van Zant for his collar-length hair. Van Zant's band then rechristened themselves Lynyrd Skynyrd in tribute. Rather like Evelyn Waugh, who constantly inserted references to his old Oxford tutor C R M F Cruttwell into his novels, the group's mockery of their old teacher did not abate, and the cover of their 1975 album Nuthin' Fancy used the sign from a real estate business he had moved on to run, while neglecting to remove both name and telephone number. Happily, time seems to have softened these asperities, and the group's only surviving member, Gary Rossington, declared that "Our thoughts and prayers are with his family at this time."

There is, of course, no mythology quite as powerful as the mythology of band-naming: Led Zeppelin, for example, taking their moniker from Keith Moon's remark that they would go down "like a lead Zeppelin". Significantly, its power is such as to invest quite ordinary framings with a resonance they don't always possess.

The late John Peel had a story about his late 1960s stint as chauffeur to Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band when they were touring England. Beefheart, whom Peel credited with extra-sensory powers, and who could predict telephone calls, was then the farthest of the far out: the car once had to be stopped so that he could "hug a tree". On one occasion the band were booked to play a venue in the Midlands called Frank Freeman's Dancing School. This was an era when West Coast bands tended to be called Quicksilver Messenger Service or New Riders of the Purple Sage. "Wow," one of Beefheart's sidesmen – possibly the guitarist Zoot Horn Rollo – remarked, "that's a really groovy name." No, Peel found himself explaining, the proprietor was called Frank Freeman, and he, er, ran a dancing school.

***

Several commentators noted the distinctly collaborative air that hangs over Seven Days, Channel 4's new reality show set in Notting Hill. The producers have hinted that the programme will adapt itself to the immediate response of the audience. At the same time there is an implication that viewers will provide what one newspaper called "a consultancy service for those hanging on the brink of big decisions".

One hears a lot of this kind of thing these days, even in the upper reaches of the arts world. The novelist Kate Pullinger has speculated that, come the mid-century, novelists will find themselves writing soap operas for gangs of online subscribers, whose views on plot, character and theme will be factored into a constantly changing text.

The implications of this move to interaction in the arts are substantial. Not only does it threaten an end to that creative autonomy that all of us artists are supposed to regard as our battle-flag; it will almost certainly have a deeply depressing aesthetic effect. To go back to the narrower world of Notting Hill, surely a TV reality show is meant to be naturalistic – that, is the things that happen in it happen because they were meant to, not because some viewer sends an email? If the Seven Days principle were applied to great works of literature, Little Nell would already have risen smiling from her death bed and Hardy's President of the Immortals would have been told that he had had enough sport with Tess of the D'Urbervilles and should go off and find someone else to torment

***

It was a week in which, as generally happens in the autumnal feeding frenzy, madness descended on the book trade: "madness" being defined as "giving away products which people are anxious to buy". Stephen Fry's autobiography, cover price £20, is being sold for £10, while the eight titles included in the current Richard & Judy promotion are available at 55 per cent off. Independent booksellers wanting to stock up will find it easier to buy copies at their local supermarket.

Great for the punters, no doubt, but terribly bad for the trade, which increasingly finds itself having to use the items on which it could have made a profit as loss leaders, and whose advertisements grow ever more disingenuous as a result. "Stephen Fry at half-price" runs the Waterstone's poster, "because we love him". What this really means is "because everyone else is doing it, and we have to follow suit".

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