DJ Taylor: The art of running

How politicians grin, flatter and emote in an election race; mislaid memories of a rocker yet to run his course; why British literature seems slow out of the blocks; and Coe vs Ovett...and class

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The late Michael Dibdin's novel Dirty Tricks, published shortly after Mrs Thatcher's fall, contains a bravura account of an imaginary Prime Minister, self-evidently based on that lady, addressing her electorate.

"You don't want a caring society," deutero-Thatcher insists. "You say you do, but you don't, not really. You couldn't care less about education, and health and all the rest of it. And don't, for Christ's sake, talk to me about culture. You don't give a toss about culture. All you want to do is sit at home and watch TV. No, it's no use protesting. I know you. You're selfish, greedy, ignorant and complacent. So vote for me!"

For some reason I remembered this harangue earlier in the week while contemplating the not very edifying spectacle of our glorious leaders reaching out to the voters who may or may not support them in three months' time. We have reached that point in the pre-election cycle when politics, even more than usual, is about the business of self-projection, in which each gesture, nuance and pregnant hint will be instantly picked apart by the media for the benefit of those watching or reading at home.

All this prompts a question which the modern political process usually finds it safer to ignore: what do our leaders think about the people who elect them, and the media-driven razzmatazz which brings that electing to life? Gordon Brown is a former academic and the author of a first-rate biography of the old ILP ideologue James Maxton. What can he think of a system that forces him to appear on television in the company of an ingratiating reality-softener and talk about his dead child? The same goes for David Cameron, with his Oxford first, now compelled to grin, flatter, pat babies on the head and promote himself in ways that are an insult not only to his intelligence but to the sensibilities of most of the people looking on.

It is not enough to say that politicians have always been showmen, that Neville Chamberlain's 1930s broadcasts as Chancellor of the Exchequer were the last word in histrionics, or that Harold Macmillan would have made an A-grade Butlins redcoat. Neither is it enough to point out that politicians cannot "be themselves" in any meaningful sense, as a lifetime in the business will have destroyed most of the qualities on which "self" depends. Rather, it is that the rules of engagement with the electorate have become so stylised that it is impossible to operate beyond them. Useless to say that what politics needs is another Labour chancellor like Philip Snowden or Stafford Cripps – austere, cerebral types who couldn't have cared less what the public thought of them – for both would be instantly taken away and given a makeover. Alternatively, all that austerity and inflexibility would be used as a way of packaging them for mass consumption. One politician's metaphorical hair shirt is another's prime-time slot, and the only constant is the medium that orchestrates them both.

****

Although Barack Obama's first term is still only in its 14th month, I wasn't in the least surprised to discover that the Republican presidential hopefuls for 2012 are already limbering up. The grass-roots Tea Party movement continues to carry all before it, and the hard-line right is already mobilising behind primary challenger J D Hayworth, a former congressman and radio host who held the first rally of his campaign in Phoenix, Arizona, last week. Curiously, though, the frontrunner in a race that won't be decided for another two-and-a-half years is none other than 2008's defeated candidate John McCain, to whom the vice-presidential challenger, Sarah Palin, has already pledged undying fealty.

There are, God knows, more than enough distinctions between British and American politics, but one of the most marked is the American habit of assuming that politicians mature with age. Even if he sees off J D Hayworth, and then defeats the incumbent, Mr McCain will be a ripe 76 before he strolls across the White House lawn. Gordon Brown's political career, on the other hand, seems likely to stall at the age of 59. Tony Blair was gone at 54. But this home-grown insistence that the possession of a pensioner's bus pass automatically superannuates you from high office is a recent phenomenon. James Calla-ghan was premier at 67. Denis Healey served as shadow foreign secretary well into his seventies. The gerontophile tendencies of previous generations were even more marked. Losing his seat in the 1945 election, the 71-year-old Tory cabinet minister Leo Amery straightaway set about looking for another constit-uency, and was taken aback to be told that the party was looking for younger men. But the exclusion of the late middle-aged to elderly from contemporary politics is only one of the symptoms of that hulking societal paradox, which continues to insist on the advantages of "yoof" amid a landscape crowded out with lively yet frustrated OAPs. Perhaps Martin Amis, with his recent warning about "silver tsunamis", may be on to something after all.

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Reading in The Bookseller that Weidenfeld & Nicolson will be publishing Keith Richards' autobiography later this year, I asked my wife – much more au fait with publishing gossip than I am – who would actually be writing it. Our suspicion that some major-league amanuensis would have to be brought in was confirmed when, browsing through the rock journalist Nick Kent's wonderfully entertaining Seventies memoir Apathy for the Devil, I discovered that the lucky man is James Fox. Mr Fox has previous with the Stones, having starred alongside Mick Jagger 40 years ago in Nicholas Roeg's film Performance.

The status of the rock celebrity ghostwriter has been rising in recent years. Glen Matlock's I Was a Teenage Sex Pistol, for example, not only credited Peter Silverton, Matlock's assistant, but also allowed him to write his own preface. But James Fox's role sounds as if it will be terribly exacting. Among other things, Kent reveals that Keef was so out of it in the 1970s that he, Kent, had to sit down and give Fox a precise account of his movements during the early part of the decade. Perhaps the book's sub-title should read: "By James Fox. Based on an idea by, and with the occasional participation of, Keith Richards, and the reminiscences of his friends."

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Listening to Mark Lawson's excellent Radio 4 series, Capturing America, I was reminded of one of my favourite theories about modern American literature. This is that the enthusiasm it attracts on this side of the Atlantic has as much to do with topography as literary merit. No one in their right minds would dream of denying that, say, Annie Proulx and Cormac McCarthy are coruscating talents, and yet at least half of their allure transparently derives from the exoticism of their locales – those sparse Wyoming back-drops and characters with names like Leecil Lee and Dixon Forkenbrock. An English writer couldn't write a sentence like "He got on his horse and rode down the long street into America" (McCarthy) because, by and large, English writers tend to live in Chertsey or Hemel Hempstead and travel by bus. Presumably this process works both ways, and there are tribes of American readers eternally seduced by English novels set in Kensington. No doubt as I write this, the members of some book group in Nowhere, Nebraska are exclaiming over the minutiae of the latest Anita Brooker ("Lapsang Souchang from Fortnum & Mason. Ya ever hear of that, Lurlene?" etc). Geographical factors are not made enough of by critics.

****

As a diehard athletics fan, I was intrigued to learn that the BBC is making a film about the rivalry between the two great middle-distance runners Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett. Whoever gets the nod to direct should perhaps remember that the presumed class separations of this relationship were wildly inaccurate: Coe, widely represented in the media as the epitome of public-school Corinthianism, was the state-educated son of an engineer; while Ovett had attended a south coast grammar. There was a faint echo of these (supposed) divisions in a row that erupted in my local paper this week after the headmaster of Norwich School suggested that the majority of Olympic medals were won by private school pupils, and criticised the hostility towards competitive sport shown by the state sector in the Seventies.

Nonsense, opponents declared: the private sector had more money and better facilities. This brought to mind my private-school gym-teaching mother and her athletics team which, in the late 1970s, performed so successfully that the local state schools quietly ganged up and excluded it from the City championships.

Far from enjoying superior facilities, the girls trained on a patch of grass so tiny that only half a track could be marked out on it. They simply happened to be keener. There is a moral here somewhere.

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