DJ Taylor: Going Gray

Prayer, or going on a demo, may be the only way to score; otherwise take comfort in your looks or spin a good yarn. Whatever you decide, forget about dad

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According to all known behavioural precedent, middle age is supposed to bring a hardening of the ideological arteries, the calcification of the opinions of youth – which may have been pretty extreme in themselves – into something more adamantine still.

Watching television coverage of the Copenhagen summit the other night, and in particular the spectacle of a protester being put in a half-nelson by a couple of burly thugs from the Danish constabulary, I discovered that, on the contrary, one of the most sincerely held beliefs of teendom had undergone a 180-degree turn. As the product of an impeccably God-fearing lower-bourgeois home, I was brought up to regard "protesters" – a category that included everyone from striking mineworkers to the student hordes – as more or less on a par with plague rats. Picket lines were there only to be breached by sturdy libertarians, and the peace women of Greenham Common were simply Soviet stooges, ripe to be displaced by water cannon. The only demonstration I have been on in my life was a CND march from the Embankment to Brockwell Park, and that was because the Style Council were playing the free concert at the other end.

Watching the Danish riot police do their stuff a quarter of a century later, I realised that mass protests – whether complaining about climate change, the excesses of the City of London or greensward ploughed up for motorways – are about the only route most people can follow in making their opinions felt. In the 1970s, after all, back in the days of the "mixed economy", governments could, and did, exert some kind of influence over commerce and industry. Thirty years later, in a global hypermarket where a rich man threatened with Treasury-grab needs only to up sticks to a more emollient tax regime, there is no way of administering a rebuke to arrogant corporatism short of chucking a brick through its vestibule window.

The same goes for an arrogant bureaucracy. Here in Norfolk, to narrow the focus a little, environmentally concerned citizens are smarting at the news that the Government intends to fund a bypass around the northern part of Norwich. Its aim, many people suspect, is not to relieve congestion in the city, but to build houses for thousands of incoming workers for whom jobs have not yet been created. There is no democratic means of opposing this decision – and, significantly, the consultation document was a fait accompli, asking not if one supported the scheme but which bits of countryside ought to be obliterated in its path. The only way I can relieve my feelings, consequently, is to chain myself to a digger or throw refuse at the cement lorries.

*****

Reading this week's political gossip, I felt a pang of sympathy for David Prescott, the publicist son of John Prescott. There had been talk that Prescott Jnr, having failed to be selected as Labour candidate for his dad's old seat of Hull East, was angling to succeed Nick Raynsford, who holds the (relatively) safe seat of Greenwich & Woolwich. Sadly, rumours of Mr Raynsford's retirement turned out to be premature.

All this confirmed a long-standing suspicion that one of the worst things in the world to be is the son of somebody famous. Whatever job you manage to pull down, there will always be someone to blame the appointment on parental graft, and whatever talent you may display will be endlessly called into question. "Saw A N Wilson," runs a jocular letter of Philip Larkin's to Robert Conquest in May 1984 – Wilson was then literary editor of The Spectator – "and tried to get him interested in my projected series 'Talentless Sons of Famous Fathers' – [Auberon] Waugh, [Martin] Amis, [John] Fuller, [Philip] Toynbee – can you think of any more? I think he took to it."

More alarming even than this, perhaps, is the way in which talent can sometimes work itself out through the succeeding generations. Historians of Victorian England have noted a classic three-tier ascent – or, depending on how you look at it, decline – whereby the grandfather makes the money and the son consolidates the social position, only for the grandson to veer off into a faintly decadent career in the arts. Thus Joseph Firbank, the great Victorian railway contractor, gave way to a Unionist MP and, finally, to the reclusive dandy-novelist Ronald Firbank, a man so consumed by shyness that he once spent a dinner party hiding under the table. On this evidence, John Prescott's grandchildren will be worth looking out for.

*****

As a late-fortysomething who was recently taken for 35 – admittedly in poor light – I was fascinated to read the reports of a survey which claims that you are – literally – as young as you look. According to a team of researchers from the University of Southern Denmark, people who look younger than their age enjoy a longer life than those who look older. Perceived age, it turns out, is linked with a molecular biomarker of ageing called telomeres: whereas a telomere of shorter length is thought to signify faster ageing, people in the study who looked young had longer telomeres.

All this made me worry about the man who taught me medieval history at Oxford, a parchment-faced youngster who looked ready to slide into the grave at any moment, but who a glance at the college register confirms to be still going strong; and recall an envious memory of Lord Jordan, former leader of the engineering workers, who, as a fiftysomething trade unionist 20 years ago, always gave the impression of being a teenager who had wandered into the room by mistake. On the other hand, the Dorian Gray principle is not indefinitely sustainable. A habitual shock of middle age is the sight of some re-encountered friend, long known for their striking juvenility of manner, now inexplicably sunk into cragged-up decay. One of the last entries in the notebook George Orwell kept until his premature death runs: "At 50, every man has the face he deserves."

*****

Literary forms come and go, of course, but the latest branch of literature to show signs of a renaissance seems to be the short story. Several competitions have recently come into being, sponsored by, among others, Radio 4 and The Sunday Times. Now comes news that a website will be offering audio files by "the giants of European literature" for download. Featured items include Margaret Atwood's "Betty" and Ian McEwan's "Solid Geometry", which features a pickled human penis in a jar.

When asked why short fiction should suddenly be in vogue again, after long years in the doldrums – even now, the only reliable UK market for a 2,000-word piece is Radio 4's Afternoon Reading – pundits usually mutter about the brevity of the average reader's attention span here in the multitasking, cyber-fixated 21st century. On the other hand, you doubt that any of this is going to sell more volumes of short stories. Even in the 1930s, people were complaining that most readers found it increasingly beyond them to jump from one set of characters to another a dozen times in a single book. Worse, like everything else, stories seen en masse are rather sickly things, whose tricks and subterfuges clever readers soon learn to decode and then get bored by. Welcome though these competitions and websites are, the emphasis is clearly on "short": "Solid Geometry", for example, is only a few pages long. Some of the best short stories in the language – certainly the Victorian ones – can extend to novella length. Thackeray's "The Fatal Boots", in which a man is haunted through his life by a pair of top boots, is all of 20,000 words long. Can they get this sort of thing on to an MP3? We shall see.

*****

A certain amount of amusement trailed the admission by the Liverpool vice-captain Jamie Carragher that, in the wake of half a dozen defeats, only divine intervention could do the trick: "We have to stick together, get through it and, as I am doing, pray to God that at the end of the season there will be something worthwhile for what we've gone through." Considering how many times the Deity is flippantly or derisively invoked these days, Carragher's transparent seriousness is rather impressive. As a teenager I used to regard pious schoolfriends who maintained that they were "praying for something" with infinite disdain. But even if one doesn't happen to believe in God, it's possible to appreciate the value of a small, demarcated space in which a problem – or even another human being – can be brought into focus. Interestingly, two days after this pronouncement, Liverpool beat Wigan 2-1. On the principle that those in need of divine intervention are sometimes the last to know it, I shall certainly go on praying for Richard Dawkins.

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