DJ Taylor: Freedom's a slippery slope

Technology's double edge, voters who might veer, the demographics of disapproval, journeys around Larkin's Hull and pondering winters past

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There was a moment this week – a very brief moment – when I found myself sympathising with the government of Mr Wen Jiabao.

It came when the news broke that Google was threatening to withdraw its search engine on the grounds of censorship by the Chinese authorities, and that such social networking sites as Facebook and Twitter were in jeopardy. Thirty seconds later I pulled myself together, of course, and acknowledged that any effective opposition to Mr Wen and his grisly band of tyrants can only be cultivated by way of the internet.

At the same time, what might be called the paradox of modern technology remains. Naturally, in the ground-down Orient social networking sites and mobile phones are a liberating force, ripe to sustain dissident cadres and transmit images of state-sponsored repression to the wider world. In the consumer-materialist West, on the other hand, the techno-package is really only there to coerce and subdue the people who buy into it.

The latest offering from Vodafone, for example, is not – whatever the adverts may say – intended to "liberate" or "empower" its purchasers: it is there to reduce them to an identikit norm, to make money for Vodafone and, a year or two later, become obsolete so the whole process can begin again.

To extend the catchment area a bit, I never walk past the local branch of Game, with its cheerless vistas of whey-faced tinies and their dads turning over the ex-rental copies of Corpsegrinder 5, without thinking that such places are essentially the moral equivalent of the Victorian gin palace. Google's tangle with the Chinese authorities is, in the end, an awful warning. Short of marching over their frontiers and expelling their leaders by main force, we can only free the citizens of the world's totalitarian regimes through technological subterfuge. Once this freedom has been achieved, we can then start exploiting and corrupting them again – by technology. In an ideal world there would be less technology and less exploitation. Unfortunately, the relationship between the two is now too closely knit for fracture.

***

Political highlight of the week was the news that in the Brighton Pavilion constituency (Labour majority 5,030) Caroline Lucas is apparently poised to become the country's first Green MP. According to a recent opinion poll of 2,000 electors, Ms Lucas is on 35 per cent, the Conservatives on 27, the sitting MP, David Lepper, on 25 and the LibDems a distant fourth with 11. Additionally, 63 per cent of Labour and LibDem supporters, maintained that they were prepared to switch their votes to Ms Lucas if this could prevent the Tories from seizing the seat.

Commentators were generally approving, on the grounds that the country could do with a Green MP or two, and yet the evidence of voting intent detected in the survey is by no means new. The current edition of Robert Waller and Byron Criddle's invaluable Almanac of British Politics identifies several constituencies – most of them university towns – with a substantial bloc of sophisticated leftish electors, disillusioned with Gordon Brown and prepared to opt for a smaller radical party if the circumstances demand it.

Curiously enough, one of these turns out to be my own constituency, Norwich South, where the majority of the former home secretary, Charles Clarke, stands at a decidedly shaky 3,653. The LibDems are pressing hard, but so too are the Conservatives. To complicate matters even further, the leading party in terms of votes cast across the constituency in last year's local elections was the Greens. Norwich South, in fact, is that very rare thing, a four-way marginal, where it wouldn't be inconceivable for the winning candidate to inch home with under 30 per cent of the vote.

Obviously a LibDem-Green pact would settle Mr Clarke's hash for good, but there is as much chance of this happening as Martin Amis settling down to write a novel about a little boy called Jonjo living happily in his parents' country rectory. As it is I have a sneaking feeling that Mr Clarke will – precariously – survive.

***

There were other political – or perhaps only social – reconfigurations going on in the wake of David Cameron's speech on the Conservative policies for "the family". Much of this was routine, but I was particularly struck by his plans to combat the sexualisation of children, ban the lingerie for the under-10s in which so many of our clothing manufacturers seem to specialise, and crack down on exploitative images in magazines and films. This seemed so precisely to reflect the message of Living Dolls, Natasha Walter's new book on the cul-de-sac into which early 21st century feminism has wandered, that I wondered if Conservative Central Office and Ms Walter's publishers hadn't secretly convened a joint publicity campaign.

All nonsense, of course, and yet the Cameron-Walters alliance is a fine example of the grinding noise made out there in society of a series of shifting tectonic plates capable of seriously disturbing the mainstream political agenda. Politicians have always had trouble in harnessing the British puritan vote, because of its immensely variegated nature. Ancient working-class Puritanism – almost extinct now, but a terrific force in its day – was a product of Nonconformist religion. Middle-class Puritanism, on the other hand, was half-economic and half moral: frugality was necessary to make money, but simultaneously good in itself. Running alongside them came a strain of upper-class Puritanism observable in that abstruse social redoubt known to historians as "the aristocratic poor" – people with exalted connections but no money. To these different parts of the demographic can now be added the country's ethnic minority groups, most of whom are as socially conservative as any pre-war Blackpool landlady. If Mr Cameron could wield these varied constituencies into a single weapon – with or without Ms Walter – there is no knowing what he might do.

***

The funniest arts world story I read all week was the news that the city of Hull will shortly be marking the 25th anniversary of Philip Larkin's death with a five-month festival. Among the main attractions will be an "interactive tourist trail", designed to give admirers of his poetry an insight into what one report called "the everyday places which inspired his work and fuelled his inimitable scathing wit". These include the Brynmor Jones Library, where he worked, his lodgings on the top floor of a house in Pearson Park, and 105 Newland Park where he spent the last years of his life. Jean Hartley, who with her former husband, George, published his early poems, has suggested that "anyone who takes the trail will see a lot of Hull that they would not normally see and hopefully bring them closer in touch with Larkin and the places he loved".

A slight drawback, perhaps, is the lack of very much evidence that these were the places that the poet – famously crotchety, if not downright misanthropic – loved. The move to Newland Park, for example, ("an utterly undistinguished little modern house") produced several gloomy letters to friends. Never mind! Clearly what might be christened the anti-tour is here to stay, and doubtless before long the principle will be extended to one or two of Larkin's contemporaries. How about a trip round "Kingsley Amis's London" ("Admire the Garrick Club chair in which Sir Kingsley post-prandially held forth ... Now on to Bertorelli's restaurant, where this celebrated author would partake of the celebrated 'Fascist lunches' with his right-wing friends ... A short taxi ride brings us to the Basil Street flat in which he shacked up with his fellow-novelist Elizabeth-Jane Howard in 1963...")? I can hardly wait.

***

As the snow heaps finally recede, it is worth reflecting on the attitudes expressed towards them by that barometer of public opinion, the people who write letters to newspapers. To some of them, inevitably, the spectacle of ungritted roads and uncollected refuse was a potent symbol of our national decline, the mark of a negligent bureaucracy and an executive that had lost touch with its citizenry.

I lost count of the number of letters I spotted complaining that newspaper delivery boys and girls could get through but, mysteriously, not council trucks. Then there were the roseate optimists, keen to thank the Good Samaritans who have picked them up and dusted them down after falls on the ice. Bad weather, they concluded, brought out the best in people.

Finally, there were the writers for whom snow-clogged streets were, plainly, the reminder of a long-lost, but better-organised world. The Eastern Daily Press, for example, printed several letters from elderly correspondents pointing out that in the 1930s gangs of unemployed men would be compelled by the authorities to clear paths through the tundra. They wondered why this excellent scheme couldnot somehow be reintroduced. No doubt about it, for all the horrors that oppress us, from Google to the Norwich branch of Game, there are times when the 21st century seems an altogether splendid place to live in.

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