DJ Taylor: Strawberries and Sugar, and other British horrors

The Lonely Planet guide tells it like it is in the age of the pugnacious celebrity – and now Newt Gingrich wants to rule the world

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To watch Newt Gingrich unveiling his candidature for the Republican presidential nomination on the BBC news was to be reminded, yet again, of the unbridgeable chasm that separates American political arrangements from our own.

For a start, Newt is in his late sixties, an age at which most British politicians are quietly writing their memoirs or presiding over the affairs of some Oxford college.

Then there is the number of his wives, now settled at three, whereas most aspiring British prime ministers make do with one, or possibly two. Most distinctive of all, though, is the air of unreality that forms around practically every American public figure at some point, and to which Mr Gingrich, in the dozen or so years since he left the House of Representatives, has unhesitatingly fallen prey. Pictured alongside his fragrant wife Callista, he looked, not to put too fine a point on it, as if he had been shot full of Novocaine, or, to extend the simile a bit, like a grotesque waxwork that had tugged free of its moorings in Madame Tussauds and wandered out into the street to harangue the floating voter.

All this, perhaps, is of secondary interest. The real question is: can Mr Gingrich win? And here, too, another salient difference instantly declares itself: nobody quite knows. For purposes of comparison, when Michael Foot became leader of the Labour Party, and Iain Duncan Smith leader of the Conservative Party, no one gave them a chance, for the impetus that brought each of them to prominence was so obviously a mingling of desperation and sentiment. But Newt's decision to throw his hat in the ring is far more likely to be an act of deliberate calculation than a quixotic gesture. He also has vast amounts of money and is being talked up as a "conservative intellectual". Lord save us all: anything may happen.

***

The furore surrounding the new Lonely Planet guide to Great Britain was vastly entertaining, with sitting duck after sitting duck going down under a hail of sniper fire. Stoke, according to the compilers, is "a sprawl of industrial townships tied together by flyovers and bypasses", while Surrey is "made up of uninspiring towns and dull, sprawling suburbs". As for the much-vaunted attractions of the Cornish Riviera, Newquay is defined as "a non-stop parade of beach-blond surfers, boozed-up clubbers and cackling hen parties". The book's co-ordinating author, David Else, has defended the exercise on the grounds that "we're not trying to promote any place, we're telling it how it is".

Curiously, the public reaction to this catalogue of overcrowding, overcharging and blight seemed to be one of mild resignation. No outraged Cardiff hoteliers ("A prodigious boozing town – beered-up lads and ladettes tottering from bar to club to kebab shop") were seen rushing out into the streets to immolate themselves in protest. All this raised a wider, and well-nigh philosophical, question about the poor opinion that successive generations routinely hold of the age in which they live. Victorian England, for example, which posterity tends to regard as a model of scientific and cultural purpose, was regarded by most Victorians as incorrigibly ugly.

It was the same with the 1930s, remembered by most of the people who lived through them as a kind of Gehenna of unemployment and political drift, and only now being reinvented by social historians keen to emphasise the rising living standards of the bourgeoisie. Sometimes the process works in reverse, and the 1960s, that great age of personal freedom, is increasingly seen as the era in which duty and responsibility went out of the window in favour of the whiny consumer-materialism that now has us by the throat. As to what the historians of 2050 will make of the Britain of 2011, you have a horrible feeling that the Lonely Planet guide will clog up the index cards like no other source.

***

It was a bad week for Lord Sugar, the number of whose television appearances was thought to have left him over-exposed, and the haute-stylisation of whose combative personality has begun to attract criticism from business leaders on the ground that this is not how commerce works. Worse, Lord Sugar's decision to set himself up as soccer guru is thought to have been ill-advised, in the light of his not terribly successful stint running Tottenham Hotspur.

As for his gradual transformation into a yet more pugnacious caricature of his original self, this, you couldn't help feeling, is the effect that the media has on virtually everyone it picks up. Only the other month, having lunch at the Oxford Literary Festival, I watched a woman trying to engage Professor David Starkey in conversation as he stood talking to a friend. For nearly 20 minutes Professor Starkey ignored the imploring face at his side, until a passing publicist took it upon herself to intervene.

Why does no one ever call a Sugar or a Starkey's bluff? For some reason the question "Why are you so bloody rude?" always freezes on one's lips. The fascination of Radio 4's recent tribute to John Freeman, presenter of the Face to Face interviews of the 1960s, lay in its hint that the formalisation of the modern celebrity personality had yet to kick in. Freeman's guests were friendly, interesting and in one case even tearful – and gave a fair impression of being ordinary people rather than PR-schooled freaks. There is a moral here somewhere.

***

It was a good week, on the other hand, for Britain's strawberry-growers. According to reports, the fine weather has produced a bumper harvest. Yields are up 150 per cent, and Tesco, that fervent sponsor of domestic agriculture, has cut foreign imports by half. However, your delight in this deluge of soft fruit does rather depend on your location.

Born and bred in Norfolk, I always raise a weary smile at the prospect of a bowl of strawberries. This is the natural consequence of a serious teenage over-indulgence in them 30 years ago. The only way to earn summer pocket-money in the late 1970s was to head out to the strawberry fields, and no picker worth his hire would dream of starting work without making a light breakfast on two or three punnets of them. By the same yardstick, the Volga sturgeon-fishers doubtless turn their noses up at caviar, and the New England maple-syrup harvesters opt to put saccharine in their tea. Rather like Lord Sugar's snarl to camera, taste was ever the most artificial of constructs.

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