DJ Taylor: Lady Gaga and the TUC prove there's nowt new under t' sun

With the BBC celebrating the cultural emergence of the North and the press reviving the spectre of union power, the past week has been like stepping back in time
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The Independent Online

The week's most instructive political event was the exercise in shadow-boxing conducted by the TUC – meeting at their Manchester conference – and the middle-class media.

Antiphonal and combative, a master-class in non-communication that reminded one of P G Wodehouse's aunts bellowing to each other "like mastodons across a primeval swamp", this offered an uncannily accurate definition of the adjective "proleptic" – attempting to come to terms with something that has yet to happen, or, to put it more cynically, getting your retaliation in first.

Although a certain amount of public sector cuts have already been announced, the Chancellor's comprehensive spending review will not be completed until next month: its implications will not be fully apparent until 2011. Already, though, one or two left-wing unions have been making their ideological presence felt. Bob Crow, of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, for example, has called for a campaign of civil disobedience, as well as urging trade unionists to "link up together because we are confronting the same enemy; otherwise they will pick us off one by one".

All this strikes an adversarial note not seen in UK labour relations for nearly a quarter of a century: media reaction has been almost uniformly hostile. The spectre of the three-day week has been much invoked, and Brendan Barber, the TUC's general secretary, has been several times reminded of his duty to protect his members' interests rather than tell democratically elected governments what to do. Beneath it pulses that age-old tremor of bourgeois anxiety that, 30 years ago, used to relieve itself in talk about "holding the country to ransom" and in letters to The Daily Telegraph written "by candelight".

Quite a lot of this resentment, it should be pointed out, is based on sheer envy. The chartered accountant who contemplates the spectacle of a picket line may despise its attendants, but he is just as likely to wonder whether his own interests are quite so well protected. A professional services firm in EC2 can sack you at 10 minutes' notice if it feels like it: the concept of worker solidarity hardly exists. On the other hand, it is worth recalling that no institution or vested interest in the country is up to the fighting weight of middle-class activists when the latter set their minds to it. Twenty years ago, we lived in a mansion block next to Fulham FC's Craven Cottage ground. Every six months or so, the club would announce a scheme to develop the area, put in flats or stage a fundraising rock concert. Instantly, a complex mechanism of bourgeois protest would snap into gear. Petitions would be filed, QCs shipped in to offer advice, cross letters written and invariably the club would back down. When it comes to the economic consequences of Mr Osborne – to paraphrase Keynes – the middle classes can look after themselves. In a week when a man widely regarded as a slot-machine capitalist assumed a pivotal role in the British banking system, Mr Barber and his allies are entitled to protest as loudly as they can.


There was great excitement on both sides of the Atlantic over Lady Gaga's appearance at the MTV Music Video Awards. Arriving on stage to accept the first of her numberless trophies, Lady G was found to be wearing a dress constructed of raw meat. Insisting that "I am not a piece of meat", she then used her talk-show interview with Ellen DeGeneres to warn, somewhat cryptically, that "if we don't stand up for what we believe in and if we don't fight for our rights, we're going to have as much [sic] rights as the meat on our backs".

I'm sure I can't be the only pop aficionado to wonder whether Lady G's entire persona isn't second-hand. Even her name, as this column has already pointed out, is derivative, being taken from a Punch article that appeared as long ago as 1929. As for the dress made of meat, this was pioneered all of 28 years ago by Linder Sterling (now a distinguished contemporary artist, but then a feminist chanteuse) while performing with her band Ludus at Manchester's Hacienda Club. Wanting to complain about the management's habit of screening pornographic films, Ms Sterling emerged in a costume of raw chicken. This was pulled back at the end of the final number to reveal an outsize dildo. No doubt about it, Lady Gaga is going to have to up her game to equal this level of attack.


The week's TV highlight was BBC4's Northern showcase. This included a rerun of a bracing 2005 documentary about Mark E Smith and his hapless sidekicks in The Fall, a Time Shift feature presented by the novelist Andrew Martin and starring such boreal icons as Alan Sillitoe and Shelagh Delaney, and The Road to Coronation Street, a period drama that gamely recreated the circumstances of the show's inception half a century ago. If there was one drawback to these attempts to outline the North's emergence as a cultural force, it lay in a faint awareness of what might be called a moral superiority, the thought – observable in British cultural life for well over a century – that anyone who hails from beyond the Trent will always be a finer fellow than some languid hedonist living in pampered luxury in the feather-bedded South.

The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), George Orwell's account of his Depression-era journey through the North, has some bracing remarks about what he calls the "curious cult of Northernness". As he points out: "A Yorkshireman in the South will always take care to let you know that he regards you as an inferior." Later he remembers driving through a "rather beautiful" village in Suffolk with a Northern friend, who observes: "Of course most of the villages in Yorkshire are hideous; but the Yorkshiremen are splendid chaps. Down here it's just the other way about – beautiful villages and rotten people. All the people in those cottages are worthless, absolutely worthless."

My first proper exposure to Northerners en masse came at university. They had names like Andy and Steve, were invariably charming and courteous, had a tendency to study chemistry, and relished the pies on offer in the college dining hall. Happily their occasional gibes about "fooking Southerners" could be dispelled by recourse to an atlas. As I never tire of pointing out to regional class warriors, a ruler laid lengthways over the map of England will show that Norwich lies further north than Birmingham.


As the Pope embarked on his whistle-stop tour of Britain, Catholic celebrity-spotting continued. Last week's Tablet roster of the UK's most influential lay Catholics was much consulted. Wayne and Coleen, obviously, were "of the faith", but so also were the Cabinet Secretary, the last-but-one prime minister and the chancellor of Oxford University. There are two points worth making about these identifications. One is that they show how tolerant we have become of non-Anglican Christianity: 150 years ago, for example, in an era when a clergyman who preached in a surplice rather than a black Geneva gown would be accused of "Roman fever" and an MP once canvassed the re-naming of Christmas as "Christ-tide" on the grounds that the former contained the word "mass", such a list would have been regarded as evidence of a popish plot. The other point is how little interest is taken in the actual beliefs that they apparently proclaim. From the angle of the average newspaper, "being a Catholic" is simply to belong to a kind of glorified social club. I was reminded of a chat-show appearance by Paul Weller sometime in the Eighties when the talk turned to youth cults. "I'll always be a Mod," Weller remarked. "It's like being a Catholic." This was a prophetic remark.


I was fascinated to read the news reports about the Hampshire town of Lymington's attempts to ward off modernity's paralysing claw. Having already defied plans to instal an Argos shop, its citizens have now seen off the pub chain Wetherspoon. The population is united in its hostility to downmarket incursions, and even a 22-year-old declared that she believed Messrs Wetherspoon would "attract the wrong kind of people". Much as one sympathises with the Lymingtonians, the temptation to read them a lesson about the inexorability of change is impossible to resist. One of the most depressing things about the torrent of histories of the Sixties now on the market is the discovery that practically every politician, architect or artist who wandered through them seems to have realised what a dreadful effect they would have on our social fabric. Yet still, ineluctably but unstoppably, the Sixties happened, and we are still wading through their debris 40 years later. Sooner or later, in pursuit of "progress" or "jobs", someone – Tesco or Wetherspoon or Barratt – is going to make a terrible mess of Lymington, and for all the vigour of the middle-class activist, there is nothing that anyone can do about it.