DJ Taylor: Is Joey Barton a Roundhead or a Cavalier?

The Civil War may be hundreds of years ago, but its divisions still linger. Talking of unending atrocities, Alan Partridge is back

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TV highlight of the week was BBC4's Roundhead or Cavalier? Here, as the camera dwelt on members of Civil War re-enactment societies as they arrayed themselves in costumes of ever more extravagant cut, Clarissa Dickson Wright descanted on the charms of Prince Rupert of the Rhine, Charles I's cavalry commander, while contributors such as AS Byatt and Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen wondered whether the divisions of the mid-17th century were responsible for a 350-year fissure in British society.

In airing this issue the BBC's commissioning editor was making a profoundly important point about the way in which the contemporary world works, for the Cavalier-Roundhead divide is observable in practically every area of early 21st-century life. It could be seen in the recent London mayoral elections (Cavalier Boris versus Roundhead Ken); it has always been a feature of top-level cricket (Cavalier Brearley, say, versus Roundhead Boycott) not to mention various branches of literature and the arts.

The significant thing about this demarcation is its ability to transcend the usual barriers of ideology and taste. It is not, for example, a distinction between right and left, for there have been Cavalier socialists (Hugh Gaitskell, Tony Crosland) just as there have been Tory puritans, notably Margaret Thatcher. To note that it sets gentlemen against players, amateurs against professionals, free spirits against joyless bureaucrats and pizzazz against niggling efficiency is to acknowledge its fundamental location in the realm of style.

Equally significant is the habit of intellectual celebrities to define themselves in its terms. Even George Orwell once declared that he would have backed Charles I against Cromwell's men on the grounds that the latter were "such dreary people".

To the seeker for social justice, the political implications of Cavalier style can be deeply disturbing, for it is predominantly an upper-class affair. Turning up in literary London in the 1980s, one couldn't help noticing that The Spectator (staffed by hospitable Tory Etonians) was far more welcoming to the apprentice scribbler than the dour and impenetrable New Statesman.

To go back to the Civil War's function as a piece of spiritual litmus paper, when QD Leavis once remarked that her husband, had he lived in the 1640s, would have been one of Cromwell's generals, FR Leavis is supposed to have observed "No my dear, I should have been Cromwell".' Instantly one sees exactly the kind of person Leavis was, and the absolute necessity to steer clear of him at all costs.

One unexpected consequence of Manchester City's title-winning victory over Queen's Park Rangers in last weekend's concluding Premier League fixture was the Twitter campaign launched by QPR's Joey Barton against his detractors.

Barton, sent off for assaulting Carlos Tevez, was enraged by the criticisms offered by Match of the Day pundit Alan Shearer, and even less impressed by the comments of Shearer's colleague Gary Lineker. Without going into detail, Barton implied that he knew things about the "Squeaky Clean" Lineker that would blow his Roy of the Rovers image to fragments.

Curiously enough, Barton not only has a point about Lineker (who I once, in a Spurs-Norwich game, saw beat down the ball with his hands with his back to the referee before kicking it past an incredulous Norwich goalkeeper); he has also, albeit unwittingly, drawn attention to a much wider truth about public morality. This is the existence of skeletons in nearly every private closet now thrown open to the public gaze.

A final judgement on the date at which the lives of most public figures ceased to be respectable will have to wait for social historians. Martin Amis's theory was that it kicked into gear with the arrival of the baby boomer generation. In the course of some withering reportage from the 1988 Republican convention, he notes that George Bush Sr chose the youthful senator Dan Quayle as his presidential running mate "unaware of the slowly dawning reality that all baby boomers are unelectable, by definition (none of us is clean: we've all smoked joints, had sex, worn bell-bottoms, gone to the toilet and so on.")

As a native of Norfolk I have always had mixed feelings about Steve Coogan's Alan Partridge creation. On the one hand the evocations of flatlands life ("This morning's farmer" etc) beamed out on his spoof "Radio Norwich" show were painfully close to one or two of the items occasionally broadcast on the BBC's local station. On the other, the banner advertising Alan's autobiography ("A book that simultaneously spills the beans and makes other people eat their words") has been attached to the roof of Norwich Station for about the last six months, and these things eventually grate.

Now comes the disquieting news that Coogan has signed a deal with Sky Atlantic that will not only return Alan to the small screen but "give fans a glimpse of his native Norfolk". Naturally, nothing is more righteously ambivalent than Norfolk's attitude to Norfolk celebrities.

My father regarded the late Allan Smethurst, the "Singing Postman" of 1960s musical legend, as a doggerel-spouting potato-head, whereas I esteemed him as a genuine rustic poet. Doubtless there are publicists who regard Alan Partridge as the greatest advert the Great Eastern Land ever had. In the end, one has to concede that Mr Coogan's great advantage is that he was born in Lancashire.

What, after all, can they know of Norfolk, who only Norfolk know?

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