DJ Taylor: Strange bedfellows

A hotel is bringing in human hot-water bottles; cuddling up to Rupert Murdoch; cold-shouldering elitism; and warming to the latest celebrity book programme

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Ever alert to changing attitudes in the workplace, I was fascinated to learn that a leading hotel chain is now employing "human bed warmers" to help its guests achieve a good night's sleep.

According to press reports, Holiday Inn will be offering "walking electric blankets" dressed in custom-made sleeper suits to up the between-sheets temperature before the long-term occupant of the bed slides in. One expert, at least, is impressed – Dr Chris Idzikowski, director of the Edinburgh Sleep Centre, maintains that the scheme "could help people get off to sleep". A Holiday Inn spokeswoman has remarked that the idea "was like having a giant hot-water bottle in your bed".

The difference between service and servility is, of course, rather a fine one. The type of self-abasement one gets from staff in transatlantic hotels always seems just about tolerable because of the apparent sincerity of the people abasing themselves. So cheery are the questions about how you slept and the satisfactoriness of the room that the guest, if he has any sense of decency, usually responds in kind, insisting that, yes, he slept like a top and the room was great. Home-grown hotel staff, it is generally agreed, have trouble in maintaining this level of solicitude, on the grounds that the degree of dissimulation required is just too great to be borne.

From the historical angle, one had an idea that old-style British servility – the deference of the Primrose League, the ingratiating cap-tweaker telling the vicar's wife that he was "temperance", the banners that appeared above certain East End streets during George V's silver jubilee proclaiming their inhabitants "poor but loyal" – had gone out at about the time of Attlee's 1945 general election victory. But no, here it is raising its head again, courtesy of the kind people at Holiday Inn. How do the staff feel about it? Neutral? Dehumanised? Proudly convinced of their status as another cog in the wheel of the company's "leisure offering"? It would be nice to know.

***

With a dissolution of Parliament if not exactly looming then dimly visible over the horizon, great excitement attends the manoeuvrings of Rupert Murdoch. Lord Mandelson, not always the most reliable prophet on the block, believes that in return for The Sun's support, David Cameron has vowed to ensure that BSkyB, which Murdoch controls, should retain its stranglehold on the pay-TV sector. The head of Sky News has suggested the impartiality laws should be scrapped, unleashing rumours that Murdoch wants to refashion the channel into a slightly less unrestrained UK version of the rabidly right-wing Fox News. "There is evidently some sort of understanding between Cameron and the Murdochs," The Independent's media columnist, Stephen Glover, recently proposed. "Whether it is an actual deal, time alone will tell."

Like many people who cut their journalistic teeth in the late 1980s, I always have horribly mixed feelings about the Lizard of Oz, in which an acknowledgment of the harm he has done to the standard liberal idea of a civilised society is balanced by a hulking personal debt. To expand this piece of Orwellian double-think a bit, it is possible to keep simultaneously in your head the memory that while nearly everything to which Mr Murdoch has set his hand, from The Sun to satellite television, has irremediably coarsened our national life, his effect on the British media has been to create the conditions in which you yourself could flourish. By defying the print unions during the Times lock-out and installing new technology in his Wapping plant, in effect Mr Murdoch engineered the newspaper revolution of the late 1980s. Not only were there more newspapers, they were bigger and more imaginatively conceived, and with the end of the old NUJ fiat about new recruits having first to serve out their apprenticeship in the provinces, there was room for young talent. None of this would have taken place without old Rupert here, whom I continue to regard as both a highly undesirable influence and as the nobly enlightened sponsor of my career.

***

Three recent linguistic developments that will have sent a thrill of horror through any sensitive newspaper-reading breakfast table. First, the near-blanket use of "elitist" in a disparaging sense. Thus David Cameron, in introducing the Conservatives' new plans for teacher training, declared them "brazenly elitist" with the agent provocateur's aim of winding up Ed Balls, the Secretary of State for Schools – as if education weren't, almost by definition, about creating elites, by allowing the people involved in it to develop their individual talents to the highest possible notch.

Second, the use of verbs commonly employed before prepositions without additional garnish. All week, for example, I have been reading about the journalists reporting on the events in Afghanistan being "embedded". Embedded in what, exactly, and with whom? Third, the terrible grinding noise that occurs when you take an abstract noun and turn it into an intransitive verb. Not long ago Gordon Brown observed, of the victims of flooding, that he was sorry for those who had been "impacted". He meant "those people on whom the floods have had an impact". But it sounded as if the people he was sympathising with were actually up to their necks in mud.

***

Amanda Ross's TV Book Club (pundits Gok Wan, Jo Brand, Nathaniel Parker, Laila Rouass, Dave Spikey) has attracted lashings of more or less favourable coverage. Contrary to the expectations of certain jaundiced old highbrows, the first list of books was agreeably upmarket, but I was struck by Jo Brand's take on Sarah Waters' novel The Little Stranger. She expected to have trouble with this one, Ms Brand deposed, as she didn't like ghost stories, or books set in the Second World War, or posh people. Far be it from me to raise an eye at the reader determined to limit his or her literary experience at all costs, but it would be fascinating to see the Brand theory of criticism – an intent subjectivity that brooks no challenge – brought to bear on other parts of television.

Imagine, for example, that Ms Brand was invited on to Match of the Day and asked her opinion of Sir Alex Ferguson's chances of steering his Manchester United side to the Premiership title. Presumably she would reply that she did not like the colour red, or the city of Manchester, or the Scots. Naturally, all criticism is subjective, and F R Leavis was just as prejudiced as the Amazon reviewer who grants Cormac McCarthy's The Road, below, single star, but I was suddenly reminded of the arguments my father used to have with my maternal grandfather, which invariably ended with my grandfather protesting that he was entitled to his opinion, and my father countering that he was also entitled to keep it to himself.

***

As a former PR exec, I always feel a sneaking sympathy with marketing men charged with the really dirty jobs out on the industry's margin. Imagine what it must be like to work on the publicity side for one of the big tobacco companies. The product is known to be injurious, the court cases are stacking up, but still some kind of fist has to be made of the provision of cancer sticks to the nation's smokers. I was once interviewed for a job by a Tory MP, who ran a consultancy that, as far as I could deduce, spent its time trumpeting the advantages of powdered baby milk to mothers in developing countries, and the two of us simply engaged in a doggedly unrelenting chat, in which the moral implications of what the firm did might have been locked in a strong-box underneath the desk.

But the corporate spokesman who seems to have been dealt the hardest hand of all is undoubtedly that uber-apologist of the UK drinks industry, the Portman Group's chief executive, David Poley. Mr Poley was all over the papers again on Thursday, angrily reacting to the British Medical Journal's criticism of his paymasters for "seducing teenagers" into buying their products and encouraging the description of Lambrini, a perry aimed at young women, as a "kids' drink". "We are proud of the regulatory system for alcohol in the UK, which is admired across the world," he insisted. One might also be proud of Haringey council's handling of the Baby P case, or Mr Campbell's defence of the WMD dossiers. By chance, the BMJ's call for minimum pricing of alcohol coincided with a report in the local paper about a man who had drunk himself to death on cheap supermarket booze. The official Portman Group line, by the way, is that alcohol misuse "is largely an individual problem best avoided and managed through education, counselling and medical treatment". Mr Poley is rather a genius in his way.

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