DJ Taylor: How to spot a leftie – an idiot's guide

There's still one policy on which they all agree – selective education is wrong. Also, the night Joan Collins made me feel special

Related Topics

How in these fraught and politically incoherent times do you identify a genuine left-winger? Thirty years ago there was a ready-made socialist's catechism to hand. Does the candidate believe in the virtues of nationalisation? Does he (or she) concede the advantages of a centralised, not to say command economy? Is he hostile to European political and economic integration? Does the spectacle of the rich at play fill him with puritanical horror? If you could answer yes to these four, then you were a socialist, and no further questions need be asked.

Three decades later, most of these elemental certainties have crumbled into dust. The billionaire and the New Labour cabinet minister walk arm in arm. The EU commissioner is valued for his ability to annoy Conservative MPs. The idea of a command economy has as much relevance to our modern predicament as a quill pen to a novelist, and a Labour front-bencher is as likely to utter the word "nationalisation" at the party's annual conference as he is to call for an impromptu rendition of "The Red Flag". In fact, about the only distinguishing mark of the bona fide leftie these days is a fanatical opposition to the idea of selective education.

After nearly 40 years of trying to ignore the fact that some children are cleverer than others, and that these children's ability to prosper is in certain cases impeded by a comprehensive education – you can see how carefully I am choosing my words here – we are at last in the very early stages of a proper debate about the advantages of selective schooling, and already the complaints have begun to stack up. Grammar schools, I learnt from last week's Independent, are an "obscenity", not to mention being "elitist" and throwing those not chosen to attend them on the scrap heap at the age of 11.

All this may well be true. But it is possible to agree that the 11-plus was (and is) cruelly divisive, while wondering why the generally accepted principle that if a child happens to be outstanding at football or music he (or she) should attend a school that encourages this talent doesn't apply to a mathematical whiz or a Latin prodigy. Ideally, state education should be able to stretch all children to the limit of their abilities. But if, as at least some evidence seems to suggest, some bright children are currently being failed by the state, then surely other arrangements have to be made? It is not their fault they weren't born with some of their classmates' disadvantages.

It is nice to know that bourgeois effrontery – defined as the middle-class habit of lecturing the less comfortably off on how they ought to spend their money – is still going strong. A splendid example could be observed in my local newspaper last week, in the wake of a report insisting that certain parts of Norfolk suffered unusually high levels of deprivation.

The original story had been illustrated by a photograph of Great Yarmouth's Nelson Ward, which has one of the highest unemployment rates in the UK. It was too much for a correspondent from Watton, who lamented that of the 15 houses pictured, no fewer than nine had Sky satellite dishes costing £40 a month.

What perhaps escaped this vigilant dish-counter is the fact that such contradistinctions are an elemental response to poverty. Even at primary school I couldn't help noticing that whereas middle-class boys such as myself wore long-lasting Startrite sandals, the children from the council estates turned up in fashion shoes that fell to pieces before term-end. The working-classes, Richard Hoggart once pointed out, have been cheerful existentialists for centuries. As for the denizens of Nelson Ward, and their tiny toehold on the rock face of a consumer society that otherwise excludes them, it's a shame they haven't yet got round to keeping coal in their baths.

To discover, on Wednesday, that Joan Collins has just entered her 80th year was to be reminded of her starring role in Taylor family mythology. For almost 30 years Miss Collins featured on my father's "dinner list", the roster of female celebrities with whom he thought he might enjoy a convivial evening. In the early days the cast featured such notables as Anne Aston, Bob Monkhouse's side-kick on The Golden Shot. Margaret Thatcher ornamented it for almost a decade and a half, but it was Miss Collins who always constituted this ensemble's centrepiece.

Curiously enough, I was once on the receiving end of her paralysing charm myself. It happened at a Spectator party when, having dramatically descended a staircase, she stood surveying the crowd gathered at its foot, caught my eye and for some reason decided to wish me good night. Was this the moment to rush forward and assure her that my father had admired her ever since he first set eyes on her in Decameron Nights in 1953?

If prudence counselled silence, then subsequent research suggested that the come-hither look on which Miss Collins has built her career is almost as old as the great actress herself. Anthony Powell recalled how, in the 1940s, he and his wife were sitting in the garden of Regent's Park Square when the 11-year-old Joan emerged from the bushes. "That little girl", Lady Violet remarked, with her usual prescience, "will get off with man, woman or child."

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: This post arises as a result of the need to...

Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teacher Required ASAP In Uminster

£120 - £150 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: I am recruiting on instruction o...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wimbledon, SW London

£24000 - £28000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wim...

Day In a Page

Read Next

I’m not sure I fancy any meal that’s been cooked up by a computer

John Walsh
Labour leader Ed Miliband delivers a speech on his party's plans for the NHS, in Sale, on Tuesday  

Why is Miliband fixating on the NHS when he’d be better off focussing on the wealth gap?

Andreas Whittam Smith
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness