DJ Taylor: Election defeat finds the Left as tight-lipped as Lord Charles

It took a letter to The Independent to give the first reaffirmation of Labour's core values, while the passing of the ventriloquist Ray Alan also prompts reflection

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Ever since New Labour's calamitous general election defeat I have been waiting to read a re-statement of the classic Leftist case, of the kind that Tony Benn used to supply to newspapers after the electoral melt-downs of the 1980s.

Curiously enough, it came not in a speech delivered by some Labour politician to his chastened constituents but in a letter written to The Independent by a Mr Peter Day of London SE27. Mr Day's target was the "broken society" of which the incoming Prime Minister has talked so much, and his question whether, if society really is "broken", government policy will really be aimed at the people who broke it. Certainly, according to Mr Day, those prone to anti-social behaviour need help, "for these ills are not all self-inflicted". But what, he wonders, are we to do with those "whose effect on society is malign because they have opted out in different but more fundamental ways?" Apparently these include people who choose to educate their children privately, patronise private hospitals rather than the NHS, and even "those who buy their own books and never visit a public library".

"Society demands that everyone plays their part and pays their part" Mr Day spiritedly concludes. Tony Benn, writing in the New Statesman circa 1983 couldn't have put it better. And on one level, of course, Mr Day is bang right. Communal life, in its broadest sense, rests on the willingness of individual citizens to fund it in proportion to their means, irrespective of what they actually get out of it. To put it another way, I might argue that the level of service I receive from the £2,500 I hand over in council tax every year to Norwich City Council represents shockingly bad value for money. On the other hand, I am uneasily conscious that local services have to be paid for and that I am in a better position to underwrite them than most.

But then there is Mr Day's assumption that it is our duty to pull together even if our personal freedoms are compromised as a result. It takes more ideological courage than I possess, for example, to condemn people who make sacrifices to privately educate their children because they suspect the education will be better than that offered by the state. As for the injunction to visit public libraries, I might answer that the members-only London Library, which enjoins silence and, additionally, stocks the kind of books I want to borrow, is more my cup of tea. Mr Day would probably reply that while individual freedom is a wonderful thing, only state interference can help the minority of the population who don't have the liberty to make these choices. This, essentially, is the contemporary Left's dilemma. It would be nice to see someone like Ed Balls addressing it instead of droning on about "cuts".

*****

To mark the US publication of Martin Amis's novel The Pregnant Widow, Graydon Carter wrote an interesting piece in The New York Times Book Review considering the by now almost Identikit reception that attends the unveiling of any of Mart's books in the UK. The cycle, as Mr Carter points out, begins pre-publication with a few eye-catching authorial remarks which are instantly misreported by a grateful media, denounced by columnists and held up to general ridicule. The reviewers then speed, slavering from the leash, to pronounce that, whatever the merits of the new novel, it is not, alas, in the same league as Dead Babies (1975), Money (1984) or London Fields (1989). A year or two's silence follows, after which the whole business begins again.

No doubt Mart, whose hands-on, hands-off relationship with the media is practically Diana-esque in its collusions, is an extreme case, but the wider implications of Carter's argument are worth noting. By and large, the successful authors of the post-war era are judged, or at any rate popularly judged, by their early work. Thus Amis senior's reputation stands or falls on Lucky Jim (1954), in exactly the same way that Salman Rushdie's professional calling-card will always be Midnight's Children (1981), despite the incontestable merit of much of the stuff written afterwards.

Searching for a cause, one finds it in the attention that began to be paid by newspapers to literature in the 1950s for what were essentially non-literary reasons, the acres of print lavished on such stereotypes as the Angry Young Man and the Working Class Novelist, in which the presumed angriness or the alleged working-classness were somehow more important than the words on the page. The misfortune of the late Alan Sillitoe, who died last month, was that his first novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958) had him irrevocably marked down as a documentary realist of the Midlands kitchen sink. In fact, as the next half-century showed, Sillitoe was a great deal more than this, just as Mart – whatever you may think of him – is a great deal more than the (comparatively) fresh-faced 35-year-old who wrote Money.

*****

Reading the obituaries of the ventriloquist Ray Alan, who died last week at the age of 79, I wasn't in the least surprised to hear of their subject's apprenticeship on the post-war variety hall circuit. Alan began his career at the Lewisham Hippodrome, where he was taught to play the ukulele by George Formby, before making his professional debut at the Palace Theatre, Ramsgate, in the company of a dummy named Steve the Pageboy.

All this confirmed a truth that historians of "light entertainment" very often forget, which is the absolute centrality to recent popular culture of the old variety tradition. The variety halls may have been shut by the early 1960s, but most of the great entertainers of the succeeding 30 years – from Morecambe and Wise to Benny Hill – cut their teeth in such inhospitable redoubts of the trade as the Glasgow Kelvin Hall (from whose stage Eric and Ernie once retired in complete silence, with the doorman muttering "They're starting to like you, lads"). Watching some old Saturday Night Live tapes from the 1970s the other night, featuring John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray, I found myself tracing a line that ran back through Monty Python and the goons before stopping at the Crazy Gang. Large amounts of bygone footage survives and can be found on YouTube, for example this joke of Max Miller's: a mouse falls under a bus at Piccadilly Circus and staggers, bleeding, into a shop advertising "Mouse Organs". Strange, the proprietor remarks, a lady mouse had appeared only the other day on the same errand. Ah yes, the first mouse replies, that would be "Our Monica".

This seems much funnier than anything dreamed up by Ricky Gervais.

*****

The furore accompanying Venus Williams's appearance at the French Open in a plunging black lace negligee and flesh-coloured knickers stirs several questions. One is the eternal puzzle of why people array themselves in outfits that make them look grotesque. The other is that equally elemental conundrum about flamboyance in sport. Sportsmen and women whose appeal to their fans rests on add-ons (the volatile behaviour, the exotic hair etc) need an exceptionally level head. The public, while occasionally seduced by the histrionics of a Huntz Hall or a Paul Gascoigne, tend to prefer modest diffidence to the grand gesture. As a teenager, I always thought the distinction between Bjorn Borg and Ilie Nastase was effectively a moral one: quiet authority versus showing off. On the other hand, extreme modesty can turn into a kind of flamboyance by default. My sporting grandfather, for example, made such a fuss about not making a fuss of his achievements that the self-deprecation became the spiritual equivalent of a victory somersault.

*****

How relentlessly the whirligig of fame and celebrity steams on, I thought to myself, staring at the Private Eye front cover in which the Queen remarks to the Duchess of York that she would "love to see Andrew again", and the Duchess replies "That'll be £500,000 ma'am". It turned out that none of my children (17, 14 and 10, and reasonably media-savvy) had the faintest idea who the Duchess was. But then Sarah Ferguson's goose was cooked in our family from the moment at her wedding when the cameras showed her mouthing the word "Hi" to a friend in the congregation. "No class" my father pronounced. It was one of his more prophetic remarks.

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