DJ Taylor: Pet hates

Tory triumphalism, the hounding out of traditional dog names, disturbing creativity, bookshop apartheid – and why there is nothing like a good moan
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The no doubt bumper audience that tuned into last Sunday's Radio 3 Literary Prom – an analysis of the cultural highlights of 1934 – will be interested to know that the most amusing moment ended up on the cutting-room floor.

The discussion, pre-recorded at the Royal College of Music, had petered to a close; our compère, Rana Mitter, had just asked the onlookers if they had any questions, when a rather intense-looking character three rows back stuck his hand in the air. A tad exhausted by the effort of keeping the conversational ball rolling for the past half hour, I missed the opening gambit and it wasn't until the words "mélange of cultural sweetbreads" floated into the mic, followed by a sharp intake of collective breath, that I realised our questioner was actually disparaging the very entertainment he had previously sat through. He would, we inferred, as soon as not have been there, and the whole thing – context-free and apparently detached from the musical performances going out on either side of it – was a waste of time.

All this set me thinking about the psychology of complaint. What, when it came down to it, did the man in the third row – beetle-browed and furious – think it was trying to achieve? Did he imagine that even so notoriously masochistic a concern as the BBC was going to broadcast this wounding demolition of its schedules in the middle of a prom concert? Clearly, some kind of personal gratification was being sought, as the look on his face, after Rana Mitter's spirited response brought a round of applause, was one of unrepentant glee.

Years back, when I worked in the City, I used to share an office with a girl whose hobby, it might be said, was complaining. Breezing into the office a little after nine with news of the defective washing machine that had ruined her weekend, or the uncompetitive motor-insurance quote that had turned her breakfast bagel to ashes, she would spend most of the morning self-consciously stewing over this hurt before, at about 1.30pm, lunchtime sandwiches consumed, audience of appreciative colleagues to hand, she was ready to pick up the telephone and let some poor sap in the call centre really have it.

What makes a professional complainer? Naturally, that primal urge to seek redress is a part of it, and so are those eternal quests in search of power and exhibitionist licence. But you wonder whether, in certain cases, the roots don't lie even deeper than this. Graham Greene once remarked of one of his business colleagues, the ever-querulous mid-century man of letters Douglas Jerrold, "Douglas gets as much pleasure from writing me a pompous letter as other people get from a good fuck."


There comes a stage in the life of most ailing governments when some kind of procedural tipping point can be seen to have been reached, after which any activity, and even the most modest attempt to turn the ratchet back a notch or two, is self-evidently futile. With the Major government of 1992 to 1997 that point was reached so early on – maybe even as prematurely as the flight from the exchange rate mechanism – as to paralyse its capacity to act for several years. What with the loss of the Norwich North by-election and the Conservatives' 18-point opinion poll lead, you have an idea that the Brown government reached its tipping point sometime this week. There is no way out and the only thing the strategists can do is to mitigate the scale of next summer's defeat.

Inexorable as all this may be, there is something uniquely depressing about the manoeuvres that precede these handovers. Imagine the misery that must be bred up in the mind of the average government minister as the civil servant hands him his brief, each knowing that another 10 months will see him gone. Even more alarming, perhaps, are the stories of City consulting firms jockeying for position, in the hope of squeezing contracts out of incoming chums. Certainly, the country is in an economic mess, over which our finest fiscal minds will soon have anxiously to confer, but the thought of PricewaterhouseCoopers, Ernst & Young, and others already gearing up to fleece the taxpayer of a few more billion pounds is enough to make one sick.

Then, of course, there is the thought of the likely aftermath of next year's general election. Just as the commentators of 1951 devoted disproportionate amounts of space to the titled lady who, in the wake of Attlee's defeat, pronounced that "Now I feel I can sack servants again", so the air on 7 June 2010 (or whenever it is) will be thick with the sound of middle-aged men with hard, expensive faces popping champagne corks on the assumption that once again the world has been made safe for capital, telephone-number salaries and looking down one's nose at the undeserving poor. About the only reason left for voting Labour, you sometimes feel, is to forestall snouts-in-the-trough Tory triumphalism of this kind.


According to a survey by Greenbee Pet Insurance, traditional dog names are a thing of the past. Instead of saddling their pets with the elemental standbys Fido, Patch and Rover, today's owners are apparently more influenced by celebrities, sports stars and even comestibles, with names such as Dizzee Rascal, Ronaldo and Kit Kat straying on to the graph. For the record, the top 10 were: 1. Molly 2. Poppy 3. Charlie 4. Max 5. Alfie 6. Millie 7. Jack 8. Rosie 9. Daisy and 10. Ruby.

There is, you might feel, something rather odd about this list, and the oddity lies in its distinct resemblance to the annual roster, published in The Times, of the most popular children's names. Why this sudden urge to anthropomorphise? Naturally, there is no more fail-safe a way into a person's interior life than what they choose to call their pets. One of the saddest newspaper stories I ever read concerned a family whose pit bull, destroyed after savaging a child, was called Dog. Orwell had a clipped poodle named Marx (I have never been able to work out if this was a joke.) Thackeray's step-father, who spent years living in post-Napoleonic Paris, christened his pet Waterloo for the simple pleasure of being able to shout its name in the street. I sometimes think calling our Labrador Astra was a mistake, owing to the number of people who persist in asking why we named her after a car.


Fans of Martin Amis's The Moronic Inferno may recall his wonderful early-Eighties interview with the film director Brian De Palma, auteur, if that is the right word, of Carrie and Scarface. This is going great, Amis reflects, after a paragraph or two of De Palma's insights into the movie business, he really is bananas. Much the same thought occurred to me on reading the interviews given by Lars von Trier to promote his controversial, and, judging by the reviews, unwatchable film Antichrist. Misogny has been diagnosed and inner demons stealthily pursued; there has been talk of "sadism for sadism's sake". Pasolini himself would probably be forgiven for assuming that von Trier is, as we used to say at college, several spoons short of a dinner service.

The idea that creative people should be as outrageously disturbed as the things they create is as ancient as the Romanticism from which it derives: for some reason exceptionalism in art is always thought to need matching by exceptionalism in the artist, and behaviour that would be thought tiresome in anyone else gets nodded through on the benefit of clergy principle. T S Eliot, introduced to the young Stephen Spender, is supposed to have asked him what he wanted to do in life, and got the answer that he burned "to be a poet". Eliot, diagnosing a lifestyle choice rather than a hankering to write poetry, shook his head. One doesn't have to be a left-wing theoretician to believe that, as the Marxists used to say, culture is "ordinary". How one longs for artists to be ordinary too.


The book I most enjoyed reading last week was the Cumbrian novelist John Murray's The Legend of Liz and Joe (Flambard Press), a dazzling piece of Lakeland folk-myth, which among other things contains a dialect epic set in the year 2018 (where in cussin ell duss thoo git aw this brass frae?) Although published in the same week as the Booker longlist, Mr Murray's novel has not featured on it, but then neither has anything else brought out by a small independent from the out-of-London margins. The apartheid practised by the British book trade – big safe books from big safe publishers piled up in big safe piles in Waterstone's while nearly everything else gets left to rot – continues.