DJ Taylor: Generation Ed? Not much to make a song and dance over

A carefully pitched opening number from Mr Miliband, plus why, sometimes, one longs for the days when pop reviewers were properly brainy, and irony, like social justice, was alive and kicking

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For all the talk about the "dawn of Generation Ed", the new Labour leader's speech to his party conference was a kind of object lesson in equivocation, or – to use a less suggestive word – balance.

It could hardly have been anything else. Three days into a job is not the best time in the world to alienate the 49.35 per cent of the electorate who voted for your opponent, and so Mr Miliband, while not averse to the odd eye-catching remark, was also concerned to reassure. The last government had made mistakes and lost badly, but had also done a lot of jolly good work. Cuts were a bad idea, but so was insufficient pragmatism in the face of a hulking deficit. No one wanted "overblown rhetoric" and "irresponsible strikes". And yet ...

One waited to hear what Mr Miliband might have to say about that highly desirable abstract "social justice", and one waited, alas, in vain. To be sure, there was some stuff about the "Good Society", later expanded by Tessa Jowell, but that is not quite the same thing. No doubt there are good reasons for this absence. One of the reasons why social justice, which might be defined as "encouraging the conditions in which the largest possible number of people can enjoy opportunity, security and a decent standard of living", takes a back seat these days is that those who are keenest on it have realised how extraordinarily difficult it is to procure.

Thirty years ago, large sections of the old-style Labour left believed in equality of outcome: the idea that any particular talent one had should be harnessed to the common good, and the possession of a skill regarded as its own reward. Clearly, this was never going to be a vote-winner in aspirational contemporary Britain, so lately the left has had to line up with the other main parties behind equality of opportunity. The problem about this, as even the libertarian right tends to admit, is that no such thing exists, because the whole basis of modern life is skewed in favour of the upwardly mobile middle class. Wayne from Grimethorpe Colliery Comprehensive can sit the same A-levels as Tarquin from Winchester, but if Wayne is less well taught and lives in a sink estate, the Oxford place will be Tarq's.

The depressing thing about this imbalance is that you cannot legislate against it. The only real solution to social inequality, it might be argued, is a moral readjustment, a fundamental shift in the way the people at the topmost rung of society think about the people at the bottom. If Mr Miliband and his colleagues were really serious about social justice, they would have to start by addressing the whole shiny, techno-driven, consumer-materialist waste-heap on which so much of early 21st-century life incontinently blossoms. You get the idea that Mr Miliband will be working with the system rather than against it. And who can blame him?

*****

My order already placed for Robert Wyatt's new album For the Ghosts Within, I was charmed to hear the man himself being interviewed by John Wilson on Front Row. Here the former Soft Machine drummer declared that he had no interest in irony and "hadn't got time to make fun of things". Whatever he said, or sang, he meant to be taken with absolute sincerity. There followed a cover version of the Louis Armstrong classic "What a Wonderful World", which if one knew anything about Wyatt's circumstances – he has been confined to a wheelchair since tumbling out of a fourth-floor window in 1973 – was almost unbearably poignant.

The wider question, though, is a bit more problematic. Pace Mr Wyatt, it is difficult to imagine an art form that could get by for very long without irony: the English novel, for example, would cease to exist overnight if it were taken away. The same goes for the most basic interactions of the supermarket queue or the sports match touchline. My brother used to have a trick of responding to unwelcome requests by replying "Reckon I will". This, it always struck me, was not narrowly ironic, defined as meaning the opposite of what was said. Instead, it was nothing more than a complex take on an entire relationship.

What "reckon I will" meant, approximately, was "Our intimacy, such as it is, is close enough for you to know already that I do not wish to do what you have proposed. By suggesting it, you have given me the chance to make a joke at my expense, but also at yours, because it shows the futility of your asking me in the first place." On the other hand, bitter experience of scanning the online responses to newspaper articles one has written reveals that readers are always at their crossest over ironical remarks – either because they don't realise that a joke is being made, or because they think humour inappropriate to the task in hand. So perhaps Mr Wyatt is on to something after all.

*****

The book I most enjoyed reading last week was Wait for Me!, the memoirs of the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, which has turned out to be one of the surprise best-sellers of the autumn. Its fascination lies not in the lashings of fresh data about the madcap Mitford sisters, "Muv" and "Farve" and wicked Lady Diana Mosley, but in the light shed on that age-old question of what makes upper-class people different from the rest of us.

If Deborah Devonshire's 90 years on the planet are anything to go by, their distinguishing marks are an immense, residual toughness, a formidable self-deprecation and an infallible sense of duty. Episodes to which a middle-class writer would have devoted whole chapters are dismissed in a page (of the Duchess's meeting with Hitler in 1937 she wrote at the time "We have had quite a nice time here & we've had tea with Hitler & seen all the other sights"), and what emerges is a kind of stylishness by default. The diarist James Lees-Milne, staying at Chatsworth in the 1960s, once noticed a signed photo of President Kennedy, to whom the Devonshires were related by marriage, turning yellow on the corner of the mantelpiece: it was of so little moment to the Duke and his wife that they hadn't bothered to have it framed. Who needs a style guide or an etiquette primer when you could have 10 minutes with Debo?

*****

One of the people I felt sorriest for last week was Rupert Murdoch's daughter-in-law Sarah, who, booked to announce the winner of Australia's Next Top Model live on TV, plumped for the wrong name. "It's you, Kelsey," Ms Murdoch informed 19-year-old Kelsey Martinovich, while her rival Amanda Ware stood disconsolately by, only to add, as the correction was buzzed through, "Oh my God ... It's Amanda. I'm so sorry. It was fed to me wrong." In her defence, Ms Murdoch claimed that she had been told earlier in the evening that Ms Martinovich had won, and that when it came to the announcement her ear-piece had gone dead.

The terrors of live television are not always appreciated by viewers. Radio, by contrast, is a doddle, if only because whatever goes awry – even when, as once happened to me in a phoned contribution to the Today programme, you are being asked questions about a studio debate you can't actually hear – no one can see you. With TV, on the other hand, the humiliation is public, and the pressure that much more intense. I can still remember the first words ever spoken to me by a television floor manager, and they were: "This is live TV, sonny" – I was all of 29 at the time – "and even if you have an epileptic fit we shall carry on filming." No doubt about it, Ms Murdoch got off lightly.

*****

Usually I try to steer clear of the "Tory view of culture", that reactionary aesthetic line which holds that art, music, criticism and so on have fallen off deplorably since some bygone high point. Unhappily, this determination took a knock when I read Wednesday's New Musical Express singles reviews. "This is wonderful," Marina Diamandis, frontwoman of Marina & The Diamonds, remarked of "All Packed Up" by Idiot Glee. "I feel like it's the kind of song I can listen to while walking round a toy factory and also the kind of song I can smoke a hundred cigarettes to and get shit-faced on red wine in Hackney. I love the vocal – I just keep wondering if the singer's hot, to be honest."

And to think that one used to complain about the theorising egg-heads of the 1980s NME, with their smart-alecky references to Baudrillard and Derrida. Come back, Paul Morley and Ian Penman – all is forgiven.

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