DJ Taylor: If only Gore Vidal had stood for Grimsby

Britain has always been hospitable towards people born with silver spoons in their mouths yet keen to represent the interests of the masses

Share
Related Topics

Only five days have passed since Gore Vidal's death, and already one feels like calling for a moratorium on descriptions of him as "the last of his generation" or a "unique voice" in contemporary transatlantic culture. In fact, Vidal belonged to a distinctive but not particularly uncommon category: the well-bred young man of scintillating brilliance who tries to fashion a career for himself in radical politics. Vidal's difficulty was that the context in which this fashioning took place was late 20th-century America, an environment not only increasingly hostile to left-wing thought but also to patrician entitlement and, you sometimes suspect, intelligence per se.

Naturally, the most compelling evidence for this shift in political sensibility tends to come from the Republican Party, which 40 years ago was full of Nixons and Rockefellers and is now awash with Romneys and Santorums, but the Democrats, too, are expert practitioners of the art of rendering everything fat, fine and nuance-free. Its effect on Vidal was doubly unfortunate. Not only did it marginalise him, but it soured an already waspish tone and turned him into an aphorist, a political gadfly rather than the really serious operator he aspired to be. No doubt there were times when Vidal looked rather longingly across the Atlantic, for the British political system has always been a great deal more hospitable towards people born with silver spoons in their mouths yet keen to represent the interests of a part of the demographic whose tableware is generally made of plastic.

Consider, for example, the career of the indisputably blue-blooded Arthur Ponsonby, formerly page to Queen Victoria and throughout the 1920s the darling of his left-wing Sheffield constituents; or, for that matter, Anthony Crosland (Winchester and Trinity, Oxford) returned by the proud electors of Grimsby for six elections in a row. Impressed by the middle-class juggernaut that has recently steam-rollered its way through our national life, social commentators sometimes forget that the really serious alliance in British politics is the one forged between the upper classes and the mob. It was this compact that allowed Disraeli to reinvent the Conservative Party in the second half of the 19th century, and a version of it sustained Harold Macmillan in the 1950s. The modern Labour Party could do with an aristocratic wing. If I were Ed Miliband, I should be staging my recruitment drives outside the gates of Eton College.

"I am well aware that what I am about to write may be considered elitist nonsense," my colleague Simon Kelner remarked the other day before sitting down to anatomise the delights of the £195-a-head Noma experience, currently available at Claridge's Hotel. Its impresario, René Redzepi, produced a nine-course meal including such amuse-gueules as flowerpots with nasturtiums and edible soil, and handfuls of ants wriggling around in crème fraîche. The "foraging" tendency in haute cuisine, of which Mr Redzepi is such a deedy exponent, is all the rage these days: only last week I came across a lavish encomium to a New York restaurant called Atera, whose chefs spend most of their time polishing strips of birch bark or tastefully arranging pieces of meat on glistening beds of hay.

No subject more naturally distinguishes the puritan from the sensualist, of course, than his (or her) attitude to expensive meals in restaurants. As a twentysomething PR executive, part of whose job was to be taken out to lunch by printers' representatives, it took me two years to get beyond ordering the chicken, on the basis that chicken is usually the cheapest item on the menu. Above this dilemma, though, hangs a philosophical inquiry. What function do top-of-the-range eateries – particularly those that pride themselves on serving scones with caviar – actually serve?

The answer cannot only be to offer patrons something unusual to eat, for the percentage of genuine gourmands is probably fairly small. Essentially, they are there to provide the well-to-do with another agreeably symbolic way in which to get rid of their money. The psychological compulsion to spend at any cost is quite as fascinating as the obsessive urge to hoard it.

The publisher Anthony Blond used to recall that, when being entertained by the novelist Simon Raven, he was shocked by Raven's habit of bumping up the bill by ordering not a single bottle of some high-grade vintage but two half-bottles.

According to book-trade gossip, proof copies of Ian McEwan's new novel Sweet Tooth had to be withdrawn on the grounds that McEwan had unwittingly given his male lead the same name as a real-life academic at the University of Sussex. Fresh from a read-through earlier this week, I fear that McEwan may have missed another potential stumbling block. The book, set in the early 1970s, features a female character named Serena Frome, the daughter of an Anglican bishop. Ms Frome, she informs us, "grew up with a sister in the cathedral precinct of a charming small city in the East of England".

This city, to judge from descriptions of it, is not hard to identify. Not only is Ms Frome rather free with her favours, as they say, but the sister is at one point glimpsed smoking dope not far from the episcopal palace. Let us hope that the daughters of any East-of-England bishops are not feeling litigious.

React Now

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

Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property Solicitor - Exeter

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: EXETER - A great new opportunity with real pot...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Private Client Solicitor - Exeter

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: EXETER - An outstanding senior opportunity for...

Sauce Recruitment: Retail Planning Manager - Home Entertainment UK

salary equal to £40K pro-rata: Sauce Recruitment: Are you available to start a...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - London - up to £40,000

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Creative Front-End Developer - Claph...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: When is a baroness not a baroness? Titles still cause confusion

Guy Keleny
 

CPAC 2015: What I learnt from the US — and what the US could learn from Ukip

Nigel Farage
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower