DJ Taylor: Search for a star

High-profile vacancy? Get a celebrity. Subversive criticism is over, but a book on the 1950s shows many things don't change, "fat" jokes being an exception

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The row between the Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, and the Labour chair of the Children Committee, Barry Sheerman, over Maggie Atkinson's appointment as the next Children's Commissioner had one rather ominous sub-text.

This was Mr Sheerman's comment, apropos Ms Atkinson's supposed lack of public relations skills, that "some people were perhaps hoping to get Esther Rantzen or Joanna Lumley in the role". Mr Sheerman didn't reveal whether he was one of this happy band. Neither did he specify just exactly what qualities Mesdames Rantzen and Lumley might have brought to a post whose remit is a vague-sounding "to promote awareness of the views and interests of children", but the underlying assumption weaves through modern life like knotweed through a lawn. This is that no exercise in public consciousness-raising can be expected to succeed unless it has a celebrity at the helm, irrespective of that celebrity's ability to do the job.

There was an uncannily similar moment a decade ago when, on the death of Ted Hughes, the late Mo Mowlam deposed that Sir Paul McCartney was just the person we wanted for the vacant Poet Laureateship. As it happened, Sir Paul had recently published a volume of verse, of which Private Eye made such gleeful satiric hay that the great man sent a minion round to complain. In the end Andrew Motion got the nod, but there was a brief, bewildering moment when it looked as if Macca might have been a contender.

The idea that celebrity guarantees a kind of personal transcendence, that the qualities demanded by the celebrity's specialist field are instantly transferable to other areas of creative or administrative life is one of the great modern delusions. Ms Rantzen, after all, is intending to stand for Parliament next year. The photo-montage advertising this autumn's Cheltenham Literary Festival featured countless stars of stage and screen who had written books, or had them written for them, but hardly a single bona-fide writer. Pressed to defend the media's absorption in a series of self-promoters to whom a previous age would not have given houseroom – the other day I counted 16 magazines carrying versions of the same headline about Katie Price's emotional difficulties – celebrity fanciers usually offer some bromide about the interest and excitement brought to the otherwise mundane lives of their fan base.

Leaving aside the worm's-eye view of life that this implies, there is something terribly servile about it, an assumption that ordinary emotions and aspirations can only take second place to the serious business of what Miss Price gets up to with her chunky cage-fighter. The really depressing thing about celebrity-worship is that it is fundamentally anti-democratic.

***

Several of Ludovic Kennedy's obituarists quoted the verdict of the 1970s TV critic who, in appraising his chairmanship of Did You See?, coined a phrase that became the title of Kennedy's autobiography: "He gives me the impression that he has been good enough to drop by to see if he can help a bit while on his way to the club." Rather fewer, though, identified the critic as The Spectator's Richard Ingrams. As a teenager who spent his entire pocket money on weekly magazines, I always regarded the Callaghan-era Spec, and in particular its arts section, as my surrogate university. Peter Ackroyd supplied coruscating film reviews, there were star-turns in the books pages by the likes of Benny Green and Auberon Waugh, but pride of place in this cornucopia was occupied by Ingrams's TV column. Its idiosyncrasy was that Ingrams disliked, or affected to dislike, or at any rate did not take seriously, the medium he was bidden to appraise, watched it on an old and intermittently defective black-and-white set, and frequently grew so bored that he simply gave up and wrote about something else (there were several columns, I seem to remember, devoted to the technique of making straw-bricks for one's Aga).

No modern editor would tolerate this kind of subversion, of course, but there are huge advantages to the Ingrams brand of anti-criticism. For one thing, it undercuts the assumption that the art-form one is criticising is automatically valuable. Clearly, there are times when none of the week's films or albums is worth watching (to judge from Anthony Quinn's column in The Independent, this happens about once a month). It would be nice if the critics could bring themselves to admit this, and move on, rather than solemnly reviewing them all.

***

The book I most enjoyed reading this week was David Kynaston's forthcoming Family Britain, 1951-1957, the second instalment of a projected four-volume history of the period 1945-1979. The past may indeed be a foreign country, as the novelist LP Hartley once insisted, but almost from the opening page I was struck by a terrific sense of continuity. The 1951 general election, for example, was won by the Conservatives on a platform of a smaller state and fewer government controls, along with a promise to abolish the much-disliked war-era identity cards. There was an on-going row between the Tor-ies and the BBC, and in early 1952 a majority of Conservative MPs voted to abolish the corporation's monopoly. Beneath the political stratosphere, the tiniest details of social life and media preoccupations seem oddly prefigurative. Thus I was intrigued to hear about the Daily Express's controversial "anti-pedestrian" motoring correspondent Basil Cardew, who fought a series of campaigns against such constraints on individual freedom as lollipop ladies and zebra crossings. Like the complaints about "big government" and Tory sniping at the BBC, even Jeremy Clarkson has his atavars.

***

The Sun, always reliable in these matters, offered a near-forensic account of the luncheons enjoyed by Britain's fattest man, the 70-stone Paul Mason. According to their report, Mr Mason is partial to four large portions of cod, two pies, four battered sausages, six large helpings of chips, mushy peas and assorted garnishes. There were also details of his daily routine, the seven carers engaged to turn him to prevent bed sores, the specially-constructed ambulance that is to take him to hospital for surgery and the £1m his chronic obesity is thought to have cost the tax-payer. The odd thing about the feature was the faint uncertainty of its tone. Historically, the "fat man" occupies approximately the same place in British humour as mothers-in-law or newly-weds – ipso facto funny and thoroughly deserving of every brickbat that can be thrown at him. In novels of the inter-war era, anyone over 13 stone is automatically referred to as "Tubby" in much the same way that anyone with a hooked nose is always "the Jew".

Twenty years ago, Mr Mason would have been instantly written off as a self-destructive drain on the valuable resources of the NHS. Here you got the feeling that although The Sun was itching to jeer at him as a gargantuan self-indulger, gaily stuffing his face while half the world starved, some odd sense of decency, or merely a newfound reluctance to judge, was staying their hand. In the end, there followed a muted little leading article, wishing Mr Mason well but suggesting that we could all do with a bit of belt-tightening. I couldn't for the life of me decide whether this was progress, of a sort, or whether a certain amount of residual English puritanism was being cruelly stifled.

***

Sale-room bargain of the week, apparently, was the $15,000 (£9,100) paid by an American collector for a lump (described as a "quiff") of Elvis Presley's hair. The item, formerly the property of the late Gary Pepper, was supposedly shorn from Presley's scalp prior to his enlistment in the US army in 1958. Curiously, there was no mention of proof of authenticity – the very first thing, bitter experience insists, that a purchaser needs to be sure of. Some years ago a huge, gun-metal stapler arrived in the post together with a note from the journalist and biographer Valerie Grove explaining that it had belonged to George Orwell, when he worked on the left-wing weekly magazine Tribune, and that she had bought it for me at a fund-raising auction.

Luxuriating in this unlooked-for gift, I was a trifle cross (as was Ms Grove) to read a diary column by Alastair Campbell in which he claimed to have bought "Orwell's stapler" in precisely similar circumstances. We were even less pleased, a little later, to discover an advertisement for a third such event, presided over by the RMT union's Bob Crow, in which the star item was ... presumably Tribune had a suitcase full of the things.

How many of Elvis's quiffs are there lurking in Stateside showbiz museums? I think we should be told.

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