DJ Taylor: Nanny knows best

When it comes to drinking (and driving) we do need a steer. But they can't leave internet refuseniks alone either; even what we are allowed to laugh at has limits

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Nothing was more predictable than the general reaction to the scheme of the Chief Medical Officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, to address the problem of binge drinking by way of a rise in the price of alcohol to 50p per unit, making the price of beer a minimum of £1 a can and wine around £4 a bottle.

Government ministers were lukewarm to the point of tepidity. The drinks industry was incandescent. The public, interviewed outside shopping malls or on teeming high streets, declared that it was well out of order. Equally predictable, perhaps, was the reaction of journalists. These, I noticed, divided into three camps: shoulder-shrugging devotees of the "we Britons have always liked getting pissed and there's nothing anyone can do about it" line; those sympathising with the Portman Group's "why penalise the vast majority of law-abiding citizens?"argument; and a third category hot on the trail of that well-known 21st-century bogey, "the nanny state".

The trouble with these stout defences of individual liberty and personal autonomy – which, as a paid-up liberal, I naturally support – is that so many of our citizens clearly need the nanny state peering over their shoulders on a 24/7 basis. Earlier in the week, I discovered, the Cambridgeshire police set up a roadblock in the village of Histon. In the course of the next two or three days they stopped 70 motorists for not wearing seatbelts and a further 40 for using mobile phones while in transit. In all, 120 on-the-spot or fixed-penalty notices were handed out, which suggests – this part of Cambridgeshire not being particularly extensive or populous – that a substantial fraction of its demographic is driving illegally all the time. To bring the issue – literally – to one's own doorstep, the other morning I walked down our drive to the point where the A11 meets the road into Norwich and found a police car parked on the verge. Wasn't it remarkable, the driver and I agreed, how, seeing him there, the cars slowed down as they approached the built-up area rather than, as is usually the case when traffic flows are light, speeding up? Nanny state or no nanny state, as the parent of three children who regularly walk down the road and cross it, I'd like the constabulary lying in wait there as often as resources allow.



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Last week's jaw-dropping statistic was the news that Stephen Fry has just secured his 300,00th "follower" on Twitter, the most modish of the social networking facilities. Given the speed at which online take-up inflates, the figure is probably a good 10,000 higher by now. Even Barack Obama has apparently been left far behind in Mr Fry's babbling slipstream. Reflecting on the fact that a small London borough's-worth of people can now listen to his irritation whenever he gets stuck in a lift, Mr Fry maintained that he had "more power than Louis XIV" and that access to cyberspace was "very empowering". Trying to work out what he meant by this, I decided that he didn't mean straightforward physical capacity – the thought of all those 300,000 Twitterers suddenly taking to the streets or surging up to vote in a parliamentary election is rather horrifying – but the ability to source and utilise information. And yet, seen in these terms, nothing could be less empowering than the kind of material yielded up by an internet search engine.

For a start, there is far too much of it. Then again, the user who comes to it with no knowledge of research other than that gained by previous experience of the internet has little idea how to discriminate between the different kinds of data on offer, and no inkling that certain books may be superior to certain websites. As a biographical resource, for example, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography knocks everything else into a cocked hat. As with so many aspects of our proliferating media – from digital TV channels to new local radio stations – the slogan "more choice" nearly always turns out to mean less of it.



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Still with technology, I was highly amused by reports of a speech given by Ofcom's chief executive, Ed Richards, at the London School of Economics, in which he pledged to "win over" the millions of Britons who don't want broadband internet access even though they can afford it. In the course of his address, Mr Richards presented new Ofcom findings which suggest that of the 40 per cent who do not have broadband, just over half are "self-excluded". Even though people were "bombarded by messages about the range of benefits of being online," he complained, "there seem to be millions who are not yet persuaded."

No doubt about it, that old colonising bureaucratic spirit is not yet dead in this country, whatever people may say to the contrary. A semiotician could have enormous fun decoding some of the cultural assumptions on which this speech was based, but it was that "self-excluded" that really struck me. Rather like the TV inspectors who automatically assume that anyone who says they don't own a television must be lying, Mr Richards clearly can't come to terms with the fact that there might be millions of people who have considered the widely publicised advantages of technology and then quietly decided to reject them. The sheer ingratitude of it! Elysian fields of cyberspace stretching out before them in which for some reason they don't want to roam!

But then, most innovations in modern commercial life tend to be brought in with very little regard for the consumers on their receiving end. It is the same with the shops that no longer accept cheques or the public utilities who demand to be paid via direct debt on the grounds that it is "more convenient". Convenience, one always wants to yell out, ought to work both ways.



***



One of my favourite academics, Cambridge's Professor Mary Beard, was in the news last week on account of a public lecture in which she embarked on a stand-up comedy routine derived from a 4th-century joke book, The Philogelos (the "laughter-lover"). The lecture, given at the University of Newcastle, and entitled "Seeing the Ancient Joke", examined the idea that certain comic themes are a constant in human society. Among other items, Professor Beard had turned up a 1,600-year-old precursor of the Monty Python dead parrot sketch in which a slave-owner who complains of the death of his new purchase is told by the seller: "He wasn't dead when I owned him."

The "comic elementals" debate is a classic example of the eternal stand-off between what might be called the progressive and the Tory views of history. On one side are the Comedy Conservatives, who believe that certain things – bodily functions, physical embarrassment – are ipso facto funny. On the other side are concerned liberals, who insist that the mark of human progress is our distaste for laughing at cripples or finding it frightfully amusing to pop down to Bedlam to giggle at the inmates. The problem about the progressive view, alas, is that nearly every trick in the comic handbook ends up on the blacklist. I once listened to Ricky Gervais on Radio 4 solemnly itemising the various things it was no longer possible to be funny about, and by the time he had finished there wasn't a great deal left in the barrel. Professor Beard's conclusions were interestingly mixed: certain themes (awful women, body odour) were still going strong; other bygone rib-ticklers had sunk beneath the tide. Again, I'm as liberal as the next man, but on the day that mothers-in-law stop being funny, British comedy will have ceased to exist.



***



The role for which I shall always remember the wonderful Natasha Richardson, who died last week, came from a very early stage in her career – the part of Mrs Keach, the vicar's wife in the film of J L Carr's novel A Month in the Country. It was an extraordinary performance – calm, understated, hinting at all kinds of disturbance behind the placid exterior. The tributes to Ms Richardson's talent have been everything they should be, but I was a bit startled to find Ken Russell, who directed her in Gothic, enthusing about her "ephemeral delicacy", not to mention her "intelligent beauty". Did he mean that her delicacy had been and gone or, as seems much more likely, that she specialised in the fleeting glance and the oblique gesture? And, while clever women can certainly be good-looking how can beauty itself, an abstract condition, be "intelligent"?

I discussed this with a couple of English dons of my acquaintance and we agreed that in both cases we had an idea that we knew what Mr Russell meant but that it could have been a great deal better expressed. Far be it for me, as a puzzled viewer of several of Mr Russell's later films, to suggest that intelligibility is not really his strong point.

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