DJ Taylor: Preserve us from well-meaning celebs and skateboarding PMs

Politicians who attempt to engage with the kids invariably end up looking foolish – just as Jamie Oliver's admirable attempts to tackle America's obesity crisis have received short shrift

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With the general election no more than a few weeks away, I was fascinated to read the results of a survey undertaken by some academics at the University of East Anglia into what happens when politicians affect to be "cool".

According to the report's authors, Professor John Street, Dr Sanna Inthorn and Martin Scott, political parties will "no doubt" seek the endorsement of celebrities and appear on popular entertainment shows to "engage young people in the political process". Unhappily "such attempts to exploit popular culture" are almost always doomed to failure. Newspaper articles accompanying the survey were illustrated by such notorious symbols of faux-engagement as the Arctic Monkeys (supposedly favoured by Gordon Brown), Tony Blair playing an electric guitar on a visit to a community college, and Noel Gallagher drinking champagne at one of the early New Labour Downing Street receptions.

Curiously, the ghosts stirred by this deeply sensible advice were of rather elderly vintage. I was reminded, in particular, of a famous photograph from 1977, last seen in the book that accompanied Channel 4's excellent The Writing on the Wall series, of James Callaghan hanging out with some young people in the north of England. Jim, who at this point in his prime ministerial career had just reached pensionable age, is balancing on that quintessential young person's artefact, a skateboard. He looks horribly ill at ease. The teenage boys clustered around him seem deeply embarrassed. There is also a suspicion that several of them do not know who he is.

Whichever aide came up with this idea should have been instantly taken away and reminded that such exposure not only doesn't win votes, it can lose them as well. How one longs for a generation of austere and defiantly uncool politicians, who not only aren't interested in popular culture and its tribunes, but don't feel that they have to pretend to suck up to them. A Gordon Brown who took to the papers wondering who Chris Evans was or inquired why ITV was broadcasting The X Factor when it could be sponsoring serious drama would be a lot surer of my vote than he is at the moment.

***

Always intrigued by those unofficial yardsticks of human behaviour built out of bitter personal experience, I was intrigued to read a piece by Dominic Lawson in which he referred to "Utley's Law". Seeing the headline, I naturally assumed that it would have something to do with the old Telegraph journalist T E Utley. In fact, Lawson was memorialising a lady named Virginia Utley, who had been secretary to a number of MPs. Reckoning up this variegated experience, Ms Utley had concluded that those who had the best public images as kind and caring men were complete nightmares as employers, while those who had the reputation of being hard and unfeeling were absolute joys to work for. Lawson christened this "Utley's Law" and suggested that it offered a failsafe barometer for measuring hypocrisy levels in today's generation of public figures.

Recalling the long line of schoolmasters, dons and grand City eminences for whom it was one's duty to labour in earlier parts of one's own life, I realised that Mr Lawson, via Ms Utley, has put his finger on one of the great psychological contradistinctions of the modern age. As a teenager, negotiating my way through that minefield of favouritism, indifference and sheer incompetence which characterised the Seventies-era educational system, I always preferred the hard-as-nails disciplinarians who'd been there 30 years, on the grounds that you knew where you were with them. They were never, to particularise, going to enter you for the wrong exam by mistake or hoick you out of the hockey team on a whim. It was the same in the City of London where, oddly enough, it was easier to work for Mr B H R Hudson-Davies, a gentleman who looked as if he could have been the secretary of a society got up to suppress light nonsense, on whose desk I used gingerly to have to leave the proofs of the staff magazine, than flakier and more capricious younger men.

Queerly, the parallels apply to modern professional life. Whatever their political affiliations, most freelance journalists worth their salt would prefer to work for Rupert Murdoch's newspapers than certain other organs, on the basis that they'll print the piece when they say they will and not muck you about. As the music critic Philip Hope-Wallace's father is supposed to have advised him: "Never work for a liberal, dear boy. They always give you the sack on Christmas Eve."

***

Apparently, Air New Zealand has been forced to apologise for a training manual which advises crew members to keep their eye on Tongan passengers in case they "drink the bar dry". The manual, published in New Zealand's Sunday Star-Times, has been criticised for its wanton generalisations about a range of nationalities. Koreans, cabin staff are warned, demand good manners, while Thais expect a souvenir of their flight. Hong Kong Chinese are alleged to be demanding, while Samoans "appreciate a rug". Needless to say, the stereotyping of Tongans as "uncontrollable alcoholics" has drawn the most ire. Melino Maka, chairman of the New Zealand-based Tongan Advisory Council, commented: "I don't think Tongans are any different from others when there's free access to alcohol."

The problem, alas, is that people play up to stereotypes, they don't resent them. Historians are generally agreed that the rise of the stage Irishman of the 19th century was a collusive process in which locals and tourists combined: there was no single exploitative chain. Post-Hardy, someone once observed, Dorsetshire peasants acquired the vanity of the artist's model. The same point applies to class stereotypes. A southern friend of mine once went to stay with his girlfriend's family in somewhere like Doncaster. "Eh lad," her father admonished him on the first day, "why's tha weerin' lairy keks?" (Translated: "Why are you wearing peculiar trousers?") It took him the best part of a day to work out that his host didn't really talk like this, but was merely having a bit of fun.

***

It was no surprise to find that Jamie Oliver's descent on the city of Huntington, West Virginia, to launch his TV series Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution has had mixed success. A mere 6.1 million viewers tuned in to the opening instalment, and Mr Oliver's attempts to improve the eating habits of a place recently shamed as the least healthy city in the least healthy state in the most overweight nation in the developed world has provoked talk-show fury. "We don't want to sit around eating lettuce all day," a local shock-jock harangued him. "Who made you king?"

If there is any consolation for Mr Oliver, as he marvels at the playpens full of butterball tinies gorging themselves on breakfast pizza, it is that most trans-Atlantic cultural impresarios bear these scars. It was the same for Mrs Frances Trollope, whose Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832) drew attention to the objectionable habit of spitting on the floor, and the Dickensian send-ups of Yankee bumptiousness that throng the American chapters of Martin Chuzzlewit. For upwards of 200 years, in fact, British visitors to the Land of the Free have shaken well-meaning heads at the terrible oddity of American life, only to have the bewilderment returned in spades. At least Mr Oliver has not yet reached the level of Evelyn Waugh, who, when an American fan came up to gush about Brideshead Revisited, remarked that he'd thought it pretty good, too, but in the light of praise from a vulgar American woman, he might have to reconsider.

***

Truculent ingrates bent on getting a little of their own back for some slight are usually chary of advertising the fact. It used only to be in Victorian novels, or Victorian light opera, that Sir Jasper Murgatroyd stalked out of the room in the last chapter (or act) swearing that he'd be revenged on the whole damn pack of 'em. Odd then that Ian Watmore, the departing chief executive of the Football Association, enraged by the leaking of a confidential email, should declare that "if I ever find the person who leaked the briefing then I will ensure that that person's reputation is damaged beyond repair". In these circumstances, one can almost predict that Mr Watmore won't find the culprit, much less settle his hash. So often, alas, revenge is simply not worth the having. My father waited a quarter of a century to avenge his treatment at the hands of a sadistic maths master, whose amiable habit it was to knock him off his chair first thing on a Monday morning. When re-encountered, Mr X was a broken-down old man whom civility forbade him to rebuke. But perhaps Mr Watmore is made of sterner stuff.

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