DJ Taylor: Graduates take heart – I was turned down by 'Scouting Weekly'

Employers can be huge snobs, but our class obsession has always been a boon for novelists and, of course, celebrity magazines...as Katie and Alex show
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The Independent Online

It was a particularly bad week for graduate job prospects.

According to one survey, each vacancy on offer to the current crop of university leavers is currently being pursued by 69 applicants. To make matters worse, further data chewed over by the business columnists suggested that British graduates compare badly with their foreign counterparts with regard to skills, flexibility and general ability to interact with their fellow workers. Then came an inflammatory article in the Atlantic Monthly alleging that female graduates were far more likely to succeed in the present climate than males. As if this weren't depressing enough, certain employers were on hand to confirm that, in a buyer's market, they were only interested in candidates from the Russell Group of supposedly elite universities.

The last piece of news, in particular, reminded me of a conversation I had all of 15 years ago with the graduate recruitment partner of the City accountancy firm in whose marketing department I drudged. It was shortly after the old polytechnics and further education colleges had secured their upgrades, and the number of bona fide universities had risen to over a hundred. Surely, I proposed, the annual "milk round", in which leading employers tour the county promoting their organisations to third-year undergrads, must have become a logistical disaster? "Oh no," our man replied. "You see, we only recruit from six universities." And here he mentioned Oxford and Cambridge, a couple of London colleges and one or two hotbeds of provincial industry, while muttering about the immensely bright trainees it was possible to import from the University of Singapore.

Even then, a decade-and-a-half ago, it was possible to foresee the swindle that university education was about to turn into: those three years sold to hundreds of thousands of 19-year-olds, not on the premise that education is a good thing in itself, but on the basis that a degree gets you a job. Whereupon the young people seduced by this mantra discover that only a certain kind of degree from a certain kind of university will do the trick. The only faint consolation is that we have been here before. Here is a by no means exhaustive list of the jobs which this particular Oxford graduate failed to land between June and December 1982: cub reporter, East Anglian Daily Times; graduate trainee, Macmillan publisher; ditto Harvester Press; ditto Jonathan Cape; subscriptions manager, London Review of Books; assistant verger, Norwich Cathedral; temporary lecturer, University of Durham; assistant editor, Scouting Weekly; junior history master, Repton School .... I don't think I need go on.

***

All of a sudden the eternally beleaguered BBC has a new scourge. I refer, of course, to Sir Michael Lyons, chair of the corporation's trust, who has been making his presence felt this week in all kinds of unexpected ways. According to the trust, not always known for taking an interventionist line, the BBC's decision to close down BBC6 Music was a mistake, there should be greater transparency over the salaries paid to top performers, there are two many antiques and property shows on day-time TV, and the corporation has, additionally, failed to differentiate the near-identikit outputs of BBC1 and 2.

All this produced a variety of entertaining newspaper articles, some of them declaring that the trust was only confirming what every intelligent viewer had known since the early 2000s, others producing stout defences of "formula" TV on the grounds that this was what the punters wanted. Seen in the round, though, Sir Michael's pronouncements seem to confirm a truism first uttered by Kingsley Amis back in the 1950s, that "more will mean worse". No medium seems to proliferate more wantonly than TV. Scarcely a day passes without the digibox informing me that some new service is available, and yet the overall quality of the services so kindly provided continues to decline.

There are, you suspect, two reasons for this. One is that high-quality television needs large amounts of money to fund its schedules. The other is that it demands a steady stream of talent. Both these are now terminally dispersed. If, on the other hand, the money and the talent could be concentrated on a mere half-dozen channels then these survivors would probably be rather good. As it is, the choice offered most digibox owners is simply that of grading the different varieties of rubbish on offer. Meanwhile, according to Sir Michael's reasoning, the best thing for the BBC to do would be to shut down BBC2 immediately and transfer its budget to the immeasurably superior BBC4.

***

The book I most enjoyed last week was not, alas, a contemporary one: Adam Sisman's biography of Hugh Trevor-Roper will have to wait. No, it was a copy of H G Wells's 105-year-old comedy Kipps (below), for which an enterprising publisher wants a new introduction. Set at the dawn of the Edwardian era, and featuring a ground-down draper's assistant who inherits a fortune and tries to become a "gentleman", Wells's masterpiece is not quite the sepia-tinted slice of bygone social history it might seem. Its themes turn out to be so up to date that any self-respecting 21st-century social theoretician would do well to give them a look. Wells's point, based on bitter experience, is that class distinctions exist in every echelon of society. Thus Kipps's shopkeeping uncle despises his Methodist neighbour for being "a blarin' jackass", while the young ladies of the draper's emporium, where he fetches up in misery, look down their noses at servant girls. By extension, the meanest street in Camberwell is likely to be riven by class prejudice because the dustman at No 21 thinks himself superior to the rat-catcher at No 23.

Tedious as these fussy social judgements may seem, they are also vital. Without them, for example, the English novel would scarcely exist. In a lean week for arts news, the pundits have fallen over themselves to debate the views of the US critic Lee Siegel, who proposed that the American novel is dead, or at any rate dying. One reason for this behemoth's extreme ill-health, it might be argued, is that American social distinctions are based on the straightforward notion of "status". Over here we have class, an infinitely more mysterious and promising subject for literary enquiry.

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There are not many occasions when you stand before the magazine rack in the local Waitrose and burst out laughing, but one of them came on Wednesday when I caught sight of the Closer cover celebrating Katie Price's marriage to her doughty cage-fighter, Alex Reid. Under the headline "The Happy Couple's Wedding Vows" the bride had threatened "If you cheat on me, you're out," while the groom had responded, "If there's not enough sex, I'm off." The brutalism that seethes beneath the surface of the modern attitude to celebrity is much remarked these days, but the transformation of downmarket "fame" into sheer spectacle has rarely been quite so flagrantly displayed: the granting of huge amounts of publicity to people in the public eye by a medium that can scarcely disguise its contempt for them. This can also be seen in the novels to which Ms Price puts her name, in which, as more than one critic has pointed out, Ms Price's ghost-writer is clearly having a lot of fun sending up her employer. As ever, you feel sorry for the children.

***

I burst out laughing a second time while reading Private Eye's summary of a letter received from lawyers acting for the Barclay twins, owners of The Daily Telegraph, complaining about a "false and seriously defamatory allegation", published in the issue of 8 June. The item in question was a mock-Telegraph front page exposing two tax-dodging brothers living on "the remote Channel Island of Brilleau". One's initial thought, that the Barclays must be a pair of monumentally humourless asses, is swiftly replaced by a second – that their lawyers must have put them up to it – and then by a third, which is how absolutely par for the course is this inability to laugh at oneself amongst even moderately powerful people.

How many times in my life, I wondered, have I walked into – a partner's office? A don's study? – to find it occupied by some fat little autocrat almost oozing amour propre to whom any remotely ironic remark has to be explained on a word-by-word basis? My father used to say that the test of a "decent bloke" with whom you "knew where you were" was whether you could "sit down in a pub and have a pint with him". Thinking of some of the walking nightmares one has sat down and had a pint with, my own definition would be: someone who doesn't mind a joke at their expense.

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