DJ Taylor: Let them be

From Stephen Fry to the Beatles – why do we refuse to give the nation's favourites an easy ride? At least Britain hasn't fallen out of love with the cinema
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The Independent Online

The position of national treasure used to confer an absolute inviolability, a detachment from criticism that no single gesture or moral lapse could undermine.

You sometimes felt that the late Sir John Betjeman – to name only one holder of the post – could have insulted the Queen Mother, or overturned a tray of Remembrance Day poppies, and yet still somehow emerge with the public on his side. Sadly, recent dispatches from the front line of national treasuredom suggest that the job isn't what it was. Stephen Fry, in particular, has attracted several complaints for rallying his legion of Twitterers in the Stephen Gately/Jan Moir affair. Rod Liddle, writing in The Spectator, referred to "Stephen Fucking Fry", while The Independent's Stephen Glover described him as a "self-styled intellectual", set against whom Moir was, "by any objective criteria, a much better writer than Mr Fry will ever be".

I don't suppose that Fry, coming across these comments as he sat peeling a mangosteen somewhere in the Sri Lankan jungle or trailing some exotic species of gnu out in the Kenyan savannah, will have been in the least troubled by them, but the phenomenon – the commentariat taking on a man whose untouchability has previously been taken for granted – is an interesting one. Part of it may be marked down as tall-poppy syndrome. Fry is as omnipresent in our cultural life as the black spot in a pirate adventure, flitting self-confidently from one high-profile engagement to another. Clearly this annoys a lot of people not so advantaged. Another part, though, reflects an absence that lies at the heart of modern public life. Forty or even 30 years ago there was such a thing as a "public intellectual", who, at times of moral crisis, would be brought out to adjudicate. One can just imagine how edifying, say, Malcolm Muggeridge would have been about Gately's death and Moir's article about it. Well, the public intellectual is long gone (although a debased version of him still survives on the other side of the Atlantic), and we have to make do with the likes of Stephen Fry – a poor substitute, perhaps, but in whose defence it can be said that he never sought the role.


Of all last week's milestones – the opening of the M1, for example, which turns out to have taken place as long ago as 1959 – by far the most significant was the 44th anniversary of the Beatles' arrival at Buckingham Palace to receive their MBEs from the Queen. Like practically everything to do with the Fabs, the intervening four and a half decades have seen a dense mythologising process at work. Only the other day, watching the Anthology DVDs for the umpteenth time, I discovered that the boys didn't, as was widely reported, smoke marijuana in one of the palace lavatories, but a common-or-garden cigarette.

Whatever went on in Her Majesty's washroom, there is no getting away from the enormous symbolic significance of this encounter, in which for perhaps the first time in post-war history, the Establishment found itself staring down the barrel of modern mass culture and deciding that some kind of accommodation had to be reached. As a child I could never understand why my parents' generation distrusted the Beatles quite so much, why my father, a sucker for every kind of popular music until the moment Elvis first swivelled his hips, turned unexpectedly caustic whenever John Lennon loped up to the mic. Curiously, on the very anniversary of the Fabs' descent on the palace, I came across an essay by the critic and poet Ian Hamilton, written shortly before his death in 2002, in which he remembered the intellectual climate of his 1950s adolescence. "They said: look out ... we are going to enter a society dominated by mass communications and consumerism, a society that isn't going to care about the things you care about. You do realise that's the way we're going, don't you? That was the Leavisite cry. And we said: Yes and we must prevent that. And we devoted whole lifetimes to trying to prevent it – and look what's happened." Quite without realising it, the Beatles were both the instrument of this process and, ultimately, its victims. As for my father's grimace whenever the opening yells of "She Loves You" sounded from the radio, it is all horribly reminiscent of Osbert Sitwell's dictum that the really depressing thing about growing old is that all the things the old men told you when you were young turn out to be true.


This week's business sections were aflame with news of a "revolution" in cinema attendance. Cineworld, the licensed operator of 77 cinemas in the UK and the Irish Republic, proclaimed a 10.9 per cent increase in box-office revenues in the 43 weeks to 22 October, while according to analysts at Neilsen EDI, overall box-office sales in the two countries have grown by 6 per cent to £838.4m in 2009. Various explanations have been offered for this upsurge, including "escapism from the grind of everyday life", recession-fuelled "staycations" and the novelty of movies in digital 3D.

Seen in the historical round, of course, early 21st-century cinema audiences are as nothing compared to the cloth-capped and mackintoshed hordes who made their way into the high-street Roxys, Hippodromes and Gaumonts of 70 years ago. In his newly published Family Britain, 1951-1957, David Kynaston notes that while in the 1950s film-going was in sharp decline since its 1930s hey-day, there were still an astonishing 22 visits per adult per year. The cheering thing about these statistics, though, is their confounding of a great deal of bygone punditry. Back in the 1970s a thick pall of gloom hung over nearly every cultural affiliation on the block. Cinema was washed up, we were constantly informed, as the citizens of the future would prefer to stay at home. Rock'n'roll was dead – I remember writing a long letter to the New Musical Express (NME) on this subject about six months before the dawn of punk – and the English novel was being borne away to an unmarked grave. Gratifyingly, each of these predictions turned out to be wide out of the mark. All this gives one hope for the survival of such contemporary write-offs as television arts programmes, "literary culture" and, well, newspapers.


Here in the East a corking row has broken out between the Tories' South-West Norfolk constituency association and Conservative Central Office. At issue is the selection as parliamentary candidate of Elizabeth Truss, and the revelation, sprung on the constituency association immediately after her induction, that in 2004-05 Truss had an affair with the then front-bench Tory MP Mark Field. The local Conservatives, piqued by this want of disclosure, have now referred the matter to a specially convened general meeting. Tempers are running high, and the celebrated Tory blogger Iain Dale has declared that "if SW Norfolk Tories are so incompetent that they can't even Google, that's their look-out. Their social attitudes are Neanderthal." Never mind Dale's ingenious substitution of the word "social" for "moral", all this is the tiniest bit disingenuous. What the Norfolk Tories seem to be complaining about is not that their supposedly back-woods morality is being outraged, but that a) Truss was not being candid with them, and b) that their objections are being over-ridden by a party whose leader was only a fortnight ago making loud noises about the merits of "localism". On the other hand, should Truss lose her chance of a seat, she would be perfectly entitled to point out that Field has somehow managed to hold on to his.


As could have been foreseen, the postal strike has offered financial institutions and government departments some wonderful opportunities in the field of what the late Sir Kingsley Amis used to call "sodding the public" – that is, adopting an attitude of maximal inflexibility designed to annoy the people you are supposed to be serving. Barely had news of the strike broken than there whizzed in a helpful email from Virgin Mastercard informing me that postal delays were no excuse for late payment. Various incomprehensible and time-consuming instructions for transferring money online were appended.

As a demonstration of the gap that exists between the boardroom and the man in the street (or in this case at the desk), this takes some beating. A small businessman, left out of pocket by undelivered cheques, is expected to sit on his hands, but a credit-card company simply assumes that public inconvenience shall apply to everyone except itself. Well, should my next statement carry an interest demand for late payment, I shall be finding myself another credit-card provider. A futile gesture, no doubt – the next lot can be guaranteed to muck me about even more – but even Pyrrhic victories have their satisfactions.