DJ Taylor: Let them drink Scotch

Welcome to a world where the booze lobby looks on through rosé-tinted glasses, film buffs don't get a chance to see Gilliam's vision, and we all watch poor Jade's suffering packaged for primetime TV
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The Independent Online

You sometimes feel that public life would be incalculably enlivened by an award for the heroic defence of the indefensible.

Various likely-looking candidates spring to mind for its inaugural bestowal – the businessmen agitating for a third runway at Heathrow, say, or Edmund King, public face of the RAC – but my own favourite would be David Poley, chief executive of the Portman Group. This body, established by the drinks industry "to promote responsible alcohol consumption" always seems to have a single raison d'être: whenever anyone proposes any remotely enlightened measure to reduce the nation's dependency on alcohol, they leap up to oppose it. This week's revelation that the Scottish government intends to stop booze being sold at "pocket-money prices", while restricting its display and introducing a "social responsibility" tax for retailers who flout the law, offered a pattern demonstration of the way in which the group fights the drinks industry's corner for it. "The Scottish government is not listening to reason," Mr Poley insisted. "These plans will punish all drinkers while only scratching at the surface of our drinking culture."

Scottish alcohol consumption, by the way, is estimated at 23 units per adult per week, which is the equivalent of 570 pints of beer per head of population a year. As the parent of two teenage boys who, additionally, involves himself in youth work, I quite often find myself attending presentations on the alcoholic dangers imperilling our young people. The presenters nearly always make the same three points: that the problem of underage drinking was cranked up yet higher by the advent of alcopops in the mid-1990s; that teenage alcohol abuse would be roundly diminished if the age at which you could buy drink was raised to 21; and that the stuff is simply too cheap. None of this, of course, cuts much ice with Mr Poley and his colleagues, who will go on denying the link between cost reduction and consumption (and if people aren't attracted by money-off promotions, then why are supermarkets so fond of them?) with all the zeal of a flat-earther confronted with a receding horizon, and making spirited interventions on radio discussion programmes. The new euphemism for "drunkenness", I discovered not long ago, while listening to one of Mr Poley's colleagues on The Moral Maze, is "alcohol misuse" – as sinister in its way as the military habit of blowing the heads off people who live next door to your intended targets and calling it "collateral damage".


The most startling Hollywood story of the week took in Terry Gilliam's new film, The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus. Six months in the can, independently financed to the tune of $20m, and starring such luminaries of the form as Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell and the late Heath Ledger, Gilliam's tale of a travelling circus magician who makes a series of Faustian pacts with the Devil has so far failed to find a distributor. There are several explanations for this neglect, but The Hollywood Reporter has dropped dark hints of punter-deterring experimentation, or, as one insider put it, the risk of "a word-of-mouth problem with general audiences who are not attracted to that type of material". The stark note of middlebrow horror that sounds through a popular art form whenever anybody does anything remotely left-field has rarely been better conveyed. At the same time it encourages the film-buff to shed a silent tear for all those numberless independent features that lie quietly in their cans in some Shepperton hangar like so many aborted foetuses.

Some years ago I was mystified to hear that someone had made a film of Jonathan Coe's early novel The Dwarves of Death, but that not even the presence of the late John Peel in a cameo role could persuade anyone to release it. Even worse, perhaps, is the fate of films conceived on the tax-loss principle whose promotion is a matter of general indifference to their backers. Back in 2003, for example, Nick Moran starred in a version of BS Johnson's sparkling experimental – that dreadful word again – novel Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry. Where, one wanted to know, were the cinemas at which it would be shown? Curiously, there didn't seem to be any. Six months later, a friend found a pile of DVDs in a remainder shop knocked down to £2 a throw. Meanwhile, every multiplex in the country continues to show half-a-dozen versions of what is essentially the same film. There is something wrong somewhere.


When the historians of 2109 come to reckon up the case against New Labour, it seems pretty certain that the failure of its higher education policies will rank fairly high on the charge sheet. But now comes something to set against the teeming campuses, collapsed standards and money spent on the wrong things (the real scandal about Sam Kay of the disqualified Oxford University Challenge team was that such a confirmed brainbox couldn't raise the funding for a PhD) – the news that Liverpool Hope University intends to sponsor an MA course in "Beatles Studies". Doubtless teeth-gnashing purists in some of our older universities will be diagnosing an exercise in crass populism. And yet, as more than one pop theorist has recognised – see, for example, the late Ian MacDonald's wonderful Revolution in the Head – John, Paul, George and Ringo offer a fail-safe route into the cultural and political landscapes of the 1960s.

For one thing, their career offers a perfect example of the developmental arc described by most popular art-forms, in which mass acceptance is very soon followed by avant-garde shadings and the break-up of the original audience into separate constituencies. In 1964, as somebody once pointed out, everybody liked them. By the era of The White Album (1968), "Revolution 9", and bed-ins for peace, only people under 30 did. Quite how the course will leave its mark on academe remains to be seen, but I am already keenly excited by the thought of such thesis titles as Carroll, Lear, Lennon: An Eternal Golden Braid, and Rock Recidivism: The Poetics of 'Getting Back'.


When does a novel become an historical artefact? This thought was prompted by a week spent reading Penguin Modern Classics' reissue of Norman Collins's 1945 best-seller London Belongs to Me, for, as well as providing a lively introduction, its editor, Ed Glinert, has compiled several pages of end-notes – this in a book first published only 64 years ago, and many of whose original 880,000 purchasers will still be around. Surely, I asked myself, reading Glinert's glosses on The Trocadero ("one of the most popular early twentieth-century West End music halls"), and Captain Ramsay (Tory MP and Nazi sympathiser arrested in May 1940), everyone knows this stuff – only to be pulled up a dazzling exposition of the dialogue snatch, "She'd let Jack the Ripper stop if he could pay", in which Glinert detects an occluded reference to the painter Walter Sickert and the rumours linking him to the Ripper murders. In the end, Glinert's 20 notes seem slightly inadequate. I was particularly struck by a scene in which the electricity fails and one of the characters enquires, "Where was Moses?". This gestures at the immensely popular war-time catchphrase "Where was Moses when the lights went out?" The correct response, in case you didn't know, is, "In the dark".


The tabloid feeding-frenzy over the continuing misery of Jade Goody and the death of Ivan Cameron offered fresh answers to that elemental question: "What is popular culture actually for?" Perhaps we should start by establishing terms and remembering that there is practically no such thing as popular culture (defined as an expression of genuinely popular taste rising from society's lower end), only a mass culture imposed from on high. In the old days, the popular culture peddled by high-circulation newspapers and television sit-coms was always supposed to be a unifying force, based on a shared vernacular and some common assumptions about human behaviour. Now you have a sneaking suspicion that it is the other way round.

Anyone who saw a certain redtop's "exclusive" photo of Jade's wedding, later thought to be a possible reversal of an existing shot with the bride's headscarf borrowed from another picture, of Kylie Minogue, or The Times's picture of a distraught Samantha Cameron returning from her son's death-bed, might be forgiven for thinking that all "popular culture" really does is to discourage intelligent onlookers from taking any interest in it.

To put it another way, I want to be on good terms with my fellow man (and woman) and be a functioning part of the society I inhabit. Ten minutes in front of primetime television, or 10 seconds in front of a redtop, on the other hand, is enough to turn me into a raging elitist. It is not the lives portrayed there that are suspect, just the manner of their portrayal.