DJ Taylor: Picking at the carrion

Why do serious commentators responding to the deaths of popular cultural icons feel the need to project their political preoccupations out over the coffin?

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After the corpse, inevitably, the carrion. With the fall-out from Michael Jackson's death continuing gently to descend, some enlightened professional body ought to award a prize for the most amusing article written about it.

My own frontrunner would be Gilbert Adair who, in an impressionable thousand words or so last weekend, managed to compare his subject's face to Nijinsky, Valentino, Jean Marais, Dorian Gray as photographed by Cecil Beaton, and the Mona Lisa as rhapsodised by the Victorian critic Walter Pater. But Jackson-frenzy raises a much more salient question: when did the fashion for serious cultural commentators to respond, with varying degrees of hysteria, to the deaths of major pop-cultural figures really kick in?

The most likely date for this shift in perspective would seem to be the late 1970s. I can recall there being a corking row in August 1977 after The Times opted to lead with Elvis Presley's obituary rather than a tribute to a distinguished clergyman who had died on the same day.

Come John Lennon's assassination in December 1980, the ratchet had rolled irreversibly on to a new setting, and we had to endure hour upon hour of analysis by roomfuls of embattled custodians of the zeitgeist. This is not to say that Elvis, or John Lennon, or even the Prince of Neverland weren't important – only that highbrow investigations of popular culture have a terrible habit of projecting their own intellectual and political preoccupations out over the coffin.

And so we get what must to any casual observer be the unutterably bizarre spectacle of Germaine Greer on Dionysiac myth, Gilbert Adair on the aesthetics of physiognomy and the black activist who assumed Jackson was an ethnic version of St Sebastian, dying with a thousand arrows in his heart. As so often in these cases, the really interesting stuff hangs frustratingly out of reach.

***

Regular patrons will know of this column's interest in the charge-sheets of the language police, and in particular their habit of proscribing bits of time-honoured vernacular, not because anyone has been offended by them but to reduce the possibility that, at some remote, future point somebody might be.

This week's victim is the term "brainstorm", which two members of my family have just been counselled to avoid. The first was my wife, gently chided by an NHS professional, the second was my 13-year-old son, warned off it by his geography teacher, and in both cases the rationale was that it might cause offence to the mentally ill. Naturally, no one wants anyone suffering from anything to be made more miserable by slighting references to it, but you wonder in this case exactly how many schizophrenics had disparaged the word, or whether the sensitivities supposedly being trampled on were really those of their overseers?

Exactly the same thoughts were stirred by the news, earlier this week, that a Kentish morris-dancing troupe had been asked to appear without blacked-up faces, thereby stifling a tradition that had lasted for nearly 800 years. If anyone, having seen their performance, had complained, then you could see the point – just about – of these representations.

At this stage, though, the offence was purely hypothetical. The problem about this nervousness in the face of something which, like humour, will always take on a life of its own, is that each new euphemism is immediately suspect. After all, everything, if looked at closely enough, is probably offensive to somebody.

Apparently the OK term for "brainstorm" is now "mind shower". No prizes for noticing which is the more vivid expression. And if I were hydrocephalic, I think I'd find "mind shower" jolly offensive.

***

Blur's reunion gigs – at Glastonbury, and in Hyde Park on Thursday and Friday – made me think about "bovarism", derived from Madame Bovary and defined as "imagined and unrealistic conceptions of oneself". One of the great 20th-century literary bovarists, according to Malcolm Muggeridge, was Evelyn Waugh, a publisher's son from Hampstead who, from the moment of his first success, behaved as if he were a duke, or rather, as someone unkindly put it, in the manner that he imagined a duke would behave. My own introduction to bovarism came courtesy of a boy called Bob Miller, two years above me at college, who enjoyed pretending that he was a horny-handed scion of the Tyneside proletariat and justified views on any social question with the refrain: "Ah'm more wukkin' class than thee" (his cover was eventually blown by an admissions tutor who pointed out that under "father's profession" on his Ucas form were the fatal words "company director").

What does this have to do with Blur? Only that, interviewing Damon Albarn many years ago at the height of Britpop, I discovered that we were both practising bovarists. It took only a moment or two's chat to reveal that Albarn's background was similar to mine, and that both of us were the sons of provincial teachers. On the other hand, the Blur frontman was then at the height of his mockney, knees-up-mother-braahn phase. I was, of course, behaving normally. The tape, when played back, sounded like Little Lord Fauntleroy quizzing his gamekeeper ("Well, Damon, I must say that's most frightfully interesting"... "Not 'arf, I mean, innit", etc). Curiously enough, the Blur single whose appearance we were celebrating ("Country House") contains a reference to Honoré de Balzac ("He's reading Balzac/Knocking back Prozac"). But the real French literary signifier, as Damon no doubt knew, was Gustave Flaubert.

***

Interviewed on Wednesday night's edition of Front Row, Johnny Depp could be found claiming that he never watched his own films once they were made, preferring to walk away from the successions of projects with, as he put it, the "experience" rather than the "product". Vanity always seems such an elemental part of the average artistic persona that this kind of indifference to the future life of the artefact you have just created seems faintly shocking – like tearing up the wedding photos or using your old prefect's scarf to clean the car.

Only the other day, for example, reading a proof of Michael Slater's forthcoming life of Charles Dickens, I was struck by the accounts of Dickens's rapt absorption in his proofs, his absolute prostration in the face of his own brilliance. There is a sharp difference, of course, between feigned lack of vanity and the real thing. Certainly, interviews with the teeming contingent of writers who claim not to read their own reviews, are habitually undermined by whingeing along "I gather people say that" lines. Genuine selflessness, consequently, still has the capacity to startle. It took me ages, when introduced to Margaret Drabble for the first time and determined to tell her how much I like her early novels, to work out that I seemed to know more about them than she did herself.

***

Like Oscar Wilde's young man, who had drunk so much of the good wine that he wanted to see what the bad wine tasted like, I have always been fascinated by book reviews written in what might be called the spirit of deliberate perversity.

There was a terrific example in last week's Guardian critique of the second volume of Isaiah Berlin's letters, in which Professor Terry Eagleton offered a kind of masterclass in the art of using the subject put in front of you as an excuse for doling out your own opinions while leaving the book itself trailing forlornly in your wake.

As well as allowing Eagleton to cover the by no means uncharted territory of how much he loathed Oxford and its social-climbing dons, it was also faintly disingenuous. At no point in the proceedings, for example, would you have gathered that Eagleton himself taught at Oxford for years and was as much a part of its establishment – albeit its default establishment – as the hoariest old port-swilling snob from Christchurch.

As it happens, I remember Terry Eagleton from Oxford. I remember the hilarious episode in which Dr Colin McCabe, a fanatic, radical post-structuralist, lately relieved of his Cambridge tenure, was invited to the English faculty to lecture.

Led on stage by Eagleton, who clearly thought the revolution had arrived, gave a clenched-fist salute and told us that "this man needs your support", Dr McCabe offered only an uncontroversial hour on Shakespearian prosody. All of which made me think that Eagleton's take on university life is, in its way, quite as stylised and otherworldly as Isaiah Berlin's – as bogus in the end as Damon Albarn's cockernee vocalising, or even the Oxford accent that my father complained about ("Where did you get that half-crown voice?") on my first vacation home.

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