DJ Taylor: Matters of life, death, justice – and football

Would there have been any point in putting Osama Bin Laden on trial? And what will follow Norwich City's promotion?
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The Independent Online

The odd thing about Osama bin Laden's death was the difficulty in marshalling any consistent view of the issues it raised.

My initial reaction to the TV pictures from New York, in which ecstatic revellers whooped and hollered, and the air was rent asunder with cries of "USA", was a simple distaste for the spectacle of so many people exulting in the fact that another human being had been wiped off the face of the earth. This was quickly replaced by the thought that telling anyone who lost a relative or friend in 9/11 how they ought to feel was a fine old piece of liberal presumption and ought to be stoutly resisted.

Then there was the question of what Bin Laden's passing meant for East/West relations. Here, too, all manner of politico-moral goalposts seemed to have shifted, and we were briskly informed by the pundits that this was at heart a pyrrhic victory, the body in the Abbottabad compound having for some years been a mentor rather than an active player in al-Qa'ida's missions against the decadent West. Finally, there was the notion, canvassed by Geoffrey Robertson QC, that had America wanted to emerge from the affair with any moral salubrity it should have taken Bin Laden alive and tried him in a public court so that "justice" could have prevailed.

This struck me as highly contestable. Where exactly would Bin Laden have been tried, and who would have tried him (Mr Robertson seemed to think an ad hoc Security Council tribunal at The Hague would have done the trick)? Would Bin Laden have recognised the authority of the jurisdiction that arraigned him? What would have happened to him after he had been found guilty? And what would have been the effect on what Private Eye might call the Muslim extremist community of seeing its martyred figurehead daily on the world's television screens for however long the legal proceedings took?

To draw an obvious historical parallel, Churchill's greatest fear, as the Second World War ground to a close, was that Hitler would be captured alive. The founding principle of Bin Laden's career, after all, was his refusal to play by the West's rules. In much the same way, the Ulster priests anxious to convene "talks" with dissident IRA gangs will always be spurned. Dissident IRA members don't want to talk: they want to kill people who disagree with them. And so we are back with that ancient liberal dilemma: the necessity to shoot unarmed men with sub-machine guns, or risk being annihilated by people who have fewer scruples about performing these acts than you do yourself.

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Reading Edward St Aubyn's new novel At Last, I was struck by the absolute impossibility of writing a "realistic" study of that benighted social grouping, the English upper classes. Excellent though it is, St Aubyn's treatment of his cast is really only a series of pot-shots. And in supplying what in its darker moments is not much more than a kind of psychiatrist's report, it reflects a tendency that has been going strong in English literature for the best part of a century.

Broadly speaking, a novelist who wants to write about the upper crust in this democratic age of ours is limited to three approaches. He can either romanticise his characters (à la Evelyn Waugh); he can fawn upon them in the manner of Julian Fellowes; or he can have a high old satirical time exposing their moral delinquency. None of these techniques, from the point of view of the art itself, seems particularly helpful: in some ways we have scarcely moved on from the pantomime villains with names like Sir Tumley Snuffim and Sir Mulberry Hawk who decorate Dickens's early work . It is sometimes said that upper-class life is so stylised as to virtually guarantee this treatment, but then what could be more stylised, more governed by baffling protocols, than life on a sink estate or a Barratt home cluster? Meanwhile, an entire section of the national demographic lurks tantalisingly beyond the novelist's reach.

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The former government adviser Roger Bootle, now an economist at the accountancy firm Deloitte, has predicted that the typical household will see its disposable income fall by 2 per cent this year, the equivalent of £780. This, Mr Bootle suggests, will make it the toughest year for household finances since 1977. The Deloitte forecast prompted two questions. What were families spending their money on in 1977? And what are they spending it on 34 years later?

As for question one, the most striking differences between 2011 and 1977 are how relatively little money there was and how relatively little there was to spend it on. Music still came by way of vinyl records; video and DVDs were years away; there were only three television channels. As to what people spend their disposable income on now, a clue came in the survey commissioned by Tata Steel suggesting that the nation's children are turning into couch potatoes, festooned with mobile phones and MP3 players but unable to run a few yards without collapsing. In a small percentage of cases, this 2 per cent fall in household incomes will bring genuine hardship. In the vast majority, though, it will just mean slightly less money to spend on gadgets. This can only be a good thing.

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I spent the week in a state of mild euphoria, the inevitable result of Norwich City's improbable promotion to the Premier League. Immediately, what had taken place assumed an almost mythological dimension: a team of plucky underdogs, put together on a shoestring, clawing their way back to the big time as their majority shareholder, Delia Smith, looked on proudly from the grandstand. No doubt their other celebrity fan, Stephen Fry, has been despatching commemorative tweets.

The curious thing about this dazzling triumph – a bare 21 months ago the club was bottom of League One – is the horribly mixed feelings it stirred once the dust had settled. One can already predict, for example, that ticket prices will soar, that several of the players who won promotion will have to be quietly dispensed with, and that the ground will be even fuller of burly young gentlemen yelling at the referee to fuck off. On the other hand, if soccer gets by on myth, however easily unpicked, then it is also sustained by narrative. Every day for the next three months the local paper will be full of transfer rumours. Are we after that talented Tottenham youth trainee, Sylvester Fridge? Or bidding for the veteran FC Twente playmaker Eustace Pistachio? Is Gary Neville coming out of retirement to grace our defence? I can hardly wait.

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