DJ Taylor: Democratic dissent

Difficulties with recalcitrant natives, reductive critics, pubs in perpetual decline, the problem with petrolheads, and artistic intimations of Lady Gaga
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The Independent Online

This week's hot political topic, according to the newspapers, is "localisation", the idea that local democracy, to which all political parties reverently subscribe, should actually mean something.

Not content with staging a constituency plebiscite to select its incoming candidate in Totnes, the Conservatives, darkly conscious of their party's reputation as the great centralising force in British society over the past 30 years, have begun to make encouraging noises about the need to devolve power from the anonymous bodies that currently administer it to local organisations accountable to the communities they serve. Splendid as all this is, it's not being unduly cynical to wonder whether, like other desirable-sounding abstract nouns – "liberalism", say, or even "freedom" – localisation is far more attractive on paper than it might be in practice. After all, the genuine transfer of power from SW1 to the debased provincial margins would not only strike a mortal blow to the philosophical basis of the country's entire administrative structure (the idea, as Douglas Jay once put it, that "the gentleman in Whitehall really does know better what is good for people than the people know themselves"), it would also throw the nation's planning system – based, more or less, on allowing developers and the construction industry to do what they want – into complete disarray.

Consider what might happen here in Norfolk if somebody decided to "localise" the power chain. At present the county's million-plus inhabitants are tyrannised by the East of England Development Agency (a quango) and the East of England Regional Assembly (unelected). Both these organisations are, among other things, working to fulfil the Government's order (unmandated) for an extra 26,000 houses in the greater Norwich area – in other words, to plot the transformation of a small provincial city into an East Anglian mega-hub.

To judge from surveys of public opinion, hardly any one in the area, apart from developers and the construction industry, wants this to happen, yet the "consultation" documents sent out last year offered only a range of options. If you wanted to dissent from the scheme as a whole, you were forced, as my wife and I did, to scrawl "I am opposed to all these suggestions" across the page.

You see Whitehall's dilemma. If you allowed the citizens of Norwich the liberty to vote on these schemes, heaven help us, you would get a majority against, and how embarrassing would that be? The point about local democracy, alas, is that you have to abide by its decisions, however ill-reasoned or bloody-minded they may turn out. Only the other day, a public meeting was convened near the site of a proposed renewable energy plant on the edge of Thetford Forest. Forty-six people attended, of whom 45 considered the scheme unworkable. In any decently run society, that would be the end of it, but no doubt the planners are already hard at work to find a way of finessing it through.

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What might be called the school of reductive criticism, in which complex and abstruse bits of art are boiled down to their absolute essence, can be a bracing experience. There is a queer sense of exhilaration, sometimes, in being told that Anna Karenina is really only an up-market romantic novelette, or that lying beneath the world-in-meltdown superstructures of Martin Amis's London Fields is a quite funny novel about darts. Even so, I was a touch startled to read a review of Thomas Pynchon's new novel Inherent Vices in one of the London freesheets, which hailed it as a "crime caper". The man in the Literary Review, alternatively, drew attention to Pynchon's playful pastiches and his "bleak evocation of the urban landscape", not to mention the snapshots of "a world starting to unravel".

Still, there is no getting away from the seductions of this kind of approach to art. I look forward to a re-reading of Finnegans Wake that sees it as a murder-mystery pure and simple (Who is Finnegan? How did he die?) and an account of The Waste Land ("April is the cruellest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land", etc) as a fantastically left-field gardening manual.

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The debate over the decline of the British pub – kicked into gear once more by the news that hostelries are now closing at the rate of something like one a day – has been going on for a very long time. Victorian travel books, for example, are full of complaints that coaching inns aren't what they were and (the dernier cri in any well-regulated establishment) that mine host no longer waits obsequiously on his guests at table. Twenty years ago, as an aspiring Evening Standard feature writer, one of my first commissions was for a routine 1,500 words on the terminal ill-health of the London pub. Various explanations have been offered up for the constant round of shut-downs and sell-offs – the most obvious being the availability of anything on sale behind the bar at half the price at the supermarket round the corner. But the real reason, you feel, is the end of what might be called a genuine pub culture, the thought of an institution that, in however artificial or temporary a way, existed somewhere fairly close to the average community's heart.

A mark of the pub's centrality to vast acres of bygone English life, for instance, was its ability to inspire popular songs, some of them of extremely high quality. Orwell once said that he would sooner have written "Come to the Pub Next Door" ("Come where the boss is a bit of a sport / Come to the pub next door") than practically any poem in the English language. I feel much the same about a wonderful antistrophic call-and-response number my father used to sing: "They're building a house" (boo), "a pub-er-lic house" (hooray!). "They're not selling beer" (boo). "They're giving it away" (hooray!). Without pubs, London pubs especially, a whole sub-stratum of 20th-century fiction, including everyone from Patrick Hamilton and Julian Maclaren-Ross to Kingsley Amis, would more or less cease to exist. Half a century later, pubs tend to fall into two categories: raucous beer-palaces catering for the smashed-out young, and poncified eateries full of middle-aged bores (not the insult it sounds – I am a middle-aged bore myself). It is no wonder that no one wants to go into them, or would sooner do his (or her) drinking at home.

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The warning from Dr Faith Birol of the International Energy Agency that world oil supplies are in steep decline produced the usual furiously mixed reaction. Petrolheads leapt forward to insist that this was a good thing as it would stimulate the need for alternative sources. Scientists canvassed the utility of something called "frozen methane hydrate", which lurks a mile or so beneath the earth's surface and can apparently keep us going for another thousand years or so. Environmentalists – sorrowful rather than triumphant – professed themselves vindicated.

Whatever the exact amount of oil left in the ground, we have clearly reached a point when symbolic gestures of intent are needed. The European Parliament could begin by promoting a law to limit Formula One within the EU – what other "sport" is predicated on the squandering of the world's natural resources? The BBC could follow by decommissioning the brave boys at Top Gear. Tiny gestures, perhaps, but a start.

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All summer long, watching the coruscating progress around the music festivals and up and down the charts of the pop sensation Lady Gaga, I have been struck by an odd feeling of déjà vu, the thought that I had heard her name somewhere before, albeit in an alien context.

Earlier this week, I remembered. Eighty years ago this month, curiously enough, exasperated by a rash of so-called "stunt parties", Punch magazine produced a lampoon called the Dull Young People. Here, the magazine's correspondent is escorted by his chum "Lady Gaga" to an entertainment in Bloomsbury hosted by a young woman called the Honourable Batsin Belfry and her husband, Bobo.

Cross-dressing, drunkenness and self-conscious dissipation are the order of the day. Losing sight of Lady Gaga for half an hour or so, the interloper eventually finds her with an arm round the waist of "a young heavyweight in horn-rims dressed as a baby" listening to a hollow-eyed girl in tutu and opera-hat singing a song with the refrain "It's terribly thrilling to be wicked".

Does art imitate life or is it the other way around? Art wins out every time.

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