DJ Taylor: Have a HobNob: the antidote to the rising celebrity tide

A-level grades may be rising, but elsewhere the rot is setting in. We need more posh voices on TV, and a better standard of excuse from ne'er-do-wells
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The Independent Online

Accompanying the release of this year's A-level results comes the usual spat about widening access to Britain's universities. Sir Martin Harris, director of the Office for Fair Access, has told the Government that it is both socially unacceptable and economically wasteful that too few talented people from disadvantaged backgrounds realise their potential. According to Sir Martin, identifying bright but badly off teenagers is the key to ensuring that a greater proportion end up at Oxford or Cambridge. Oxbridge admissions tutors, meanwhile, have protested that for several decades now they have been bending over backwards to admit promising candidates from poor homes. The problem, they allege, is the difficulty these children have in achieving the kind of A-level scores routinely chalked up by Hugo and Jacintha from fee-paying Poshleigh Grange.

A further complication has emerged this year in the new A* grading system, designed to help elite universities identify the brightest of the bright, with the head of the Independent Schools Council, David Lyscom, admitting that private school pupils will get a disproportionate share "because of the way they are taught". (In fact, the figures show that 17.9 per cent of all independent school entries were awarded an A* compared with 5.8 per cent of those from comprehensives.) Whereupon the educational progressive, seething with rage at this injustice, begins to tie him or herself up in knots. University entry, you see, is officially based on academic merit. The only reliable guide to academic merit – crude, admittedly, but is any other measure less so? – is an exam result. Private schools, owing to their selective intake and concentration of resources, are better at getting their charges good grades.

Right then, thinks the progressive, what we need is some positive discrimination that waves in bright, aspiring Wayne from Grimepit Colliery Comprehensive with his three B grades at the expense of languid, well-drilled Torquil from Eton with his three As. But this, it seems to me, is thoroughly immoral. If you have a selection process based on academic criteria, then only academic criteria can suffice: Torquil's 92 per cent in Physics has to beat Wayne's 91, because both of them sat a competitive examination under the same conditions and Torquil, however much we may resent the fact, performed better. The only solution to this impasse is for educational progressives to stop abusing the private system and start collaborating with it. By far the best way of promoting social mobility would be to select, say, 20,000 children from disadvantaged backgrounds and pay (or subtly compel) the private sector to educate them. No doubt the teaching unions would be furious, but education, curiously enough, is there to serve the interests of those being educated, not those doing the educating.


As a connoisseur of the excuse, I was fascinated to hear of the England cricketer Graeme Swann's appearance at Nottingham magistrates' court on a drink-driving charge. Pulled over at 3am, and smelling so strongly of alcohol that an attendant policewoman was nearly asphyxiated by the fumes, Mr Swann explained that he was on a mission to rescue his cat, which had become trapped beneath the floorboards. Anxious for the animal's welfare, he had interrupted his birthday celebrations to drive to the local Asda in search of screwdrivers. According to PC Steven Denniss: "As he approached us, from the manner of driving, I thought we had a burglar or a stolen vehicle. He was waving the screwdrivers, saying 'It's not for what you think, the screwdrivers aren't for what you think'."

All this confirmed a long-held suspicion that the "excuse", if properly worked up and plausibly outlined, is an art-form more or less on a par with the haiku or the villanelle. In fact, Mr Swann's defence puts him straight in the Sir John Squire class. Sir John, a celebrated inter-war literary figure, once told a disbelieving editor that his failure to deliver a promised poem was due to its having blown out of a taxi window on the way to the office. The clinching fact about these exercises in extenuation, inevitably, is that they very often turn out to be true. As a prefect on "late duty" in the school sixth-form club, and asking some slack-jawed malcontent what he thought he was doing strolling in at 8.53am, I got the reply: "Herd of cows on the A11." Acknowledging that this was either a) the literal truth or b) simply inspired, I instantly let him off.


The television programme I most enjoyed last week – the only television programme I actually watched apart from the new series of Ugly Betty – was BBC4's In Their Own Words, the first of a three-part series devoted to archive clips of celebrated British writers. The distinguishing mark of these bygone interviews, as more than one TV reviewer remarked (including our own, see page 55) was how posh everyone sounds. Virginia Woolf's vowels seem so strangulated that you wonder how she could get them out of her mouth. Evelyn Waugh, questioned by John Freeman in the notorious Face to Face interview, sounded like a marquis rebuking an upstart domestic. Having seen a preview of episode two, I can report that this tendency becomes even more exaggerated in the supposedly more proletarian 1950s. Kingsley Amis and Simon Raven have clearly been modelling their vocal styles on Jeeves and Wooster. Even Alan Sillitoe, born into poverty so extreme that his chief memory from childhood was of shifting the family's possessions by handcart from one set of flyblown digs to the next, sounds as if he has been spending his royalties on elocution lessons.

When was it, you wonder, that television went all demotic on us, and what was the motivation? One suspects that, as with most Regrettable Modern Tendencies, politicians had something to do with it. There are some revealing anecdotes along these lines in Susan Crosland's biography of her husband Tony Crosland, Foreign Secretary in the Callaghan government. "How can you expect all that Light Programme audience of girls in love with your voice and lads who like your style, really to become your fans without knowing your name?" Hugh Dalton enquired of the still donnish-sounding "C A R Crosland" in the 1950s. As a cabinet minister, Crosland complained to one of his assistants that he sounded too "lah-di-dah". The underling replied that he thought people liked an educated accent. Having listened to a CBBC presenter last week who mangled the stress or the pronunciation of every word in the sentence she (haltingly) spoke, I think a return to "C A R Crosland", dinner-jacketed announcers and Rada accents can't come soon enough.


All week long, celebrity's intrusive tide has been rolling up the beach, staining vast acreages of a previously unpolluted world with its irrevocable taint. On Monday, passing the local Waterstone's, I noticed a poster advertising a biography promotion that read "From Stephen Fry to Nelson Mandela, read about the lives that have inspired you". No doubt about it, Nelson was lucky to make the cut against that kind of competition. Then on Tuesday I read a newspaper report about a woman alleged to have murdered her husband, which contained the tremendously pertinent information that they lived in the same street as the Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood.

Happily, an antidote lay to hand in Louise Wener's recently published Different for Girls. Ms Wener, for those of you too young to remember the heady days of Britpop, fronted a band called Sleeper, who managed three top-10 albums in the mid-1990s only to sink almost as soon as they had surfaced. What gives Ms Wener's account of her brief period in the spotlight its kick is the absolute matter-of-factness with which she treats a series of events that would have sent most other people to the Priory. Venturing out to the local Spar on the day that her picture appears on a magazine cover, and clocked by a disbelieving customer at the till, she simply offers him a HobNob from the packet in her hand. When the bubble bursts and the record company loses interest, she merely resumes her old life, marries the drummer, starts a family and settles down to write novels. In more than one way, Different for Girls is an exemplary book.


"At fifty", runs an entry in Orwell's last literary notebook, "every man has the face he deserves." Reaching that state this morning, and depressed by the aphorism ever since I first came across it, I decided to take a look. Most of the evidence turned out to be negative. Less like Bugs Bunny than at 10; less thin than at 20; less anxious than at 30; less harassed than at 40. Mother's teeth. Father's wariness. The truly dreadful thing about Orwell's remark is its determinism, its sense of just deserts, life reckoned up and accounted for, supernal judgment. Osbert Sitwell once observed that the really awful thing about growing old was that all the things the old men told you when you were young turned out to be true. Well, he was bang right about that.