DJ Taylor: The bare-faced truth about the state, the Beatles, and Homer's latent Catholicism

The cuts have thrown up a philosophical debate, Catholics are claiming Homer Simpson, and the BBC is becoming a techno tyrant. Thank goodness for the wit of Paul McCartney
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The Independent Online

The BBC political correspondent James Landale was the first pundit to note that one result of last Wednesday's spending review would be to redefine the citizen's relationship to the state.

As the day wore on, and the full extent of George Osborne's fiscal manoeuvrings became clear, this theme was taken up by other commentators, to the point where it sometimes seemed that some highly practical realities – the umpteen billion pounds worth of cuts, the 500,000 lost jobs – were being crowded out by a pair of hulking abstracts: "society" on the one side, and the individual on the other.

And how do we feel about "the state", here in high-tech, consumer-materialist 2010? The old post-1945 days of nationalised industries and common purpose, that mighty whale surging through the ocean with millions of dutiful minnows trailing in its wake, are long gone. To judge from the opinion polls, the average Briton's attitude to this Leviathan involves a curious kind of double-think: keen on the services that the state provides, much less keen on the taxation that pays for them; mortally offended by cuts in child benefit for people who don't need it, reliably contemptuous of "spongers" on welfare.

No doubt these confusions are endemic to any society that embraces economic liberalism while remaining darkly aware of some of economic liberalism's implications. But each of them gestures at a larger question, which is the idea of "community", the obligations we have towards it and the part it plays in keeping an increasingly disparate nation together. Critics of the Prime Minister's Big Society – an idea in which, ominously enough, this month's Tory conference took no interest whatsoever – usually complain that it is merely a piece of sleight-of-hand, encouraging volunteers to take over the tasks previously performed by salaried employees of the state. Even The Daily Telegraph, that reliable barometer of bourgeois selfishness, has complained that the "coping classes" are becoming over-stretched.

But the problem, you sometimes feel, goes way beyond economics. The difficulty about so much early 21st-century life is that the cultural institutions designed to bring people together have a fatal habit of driving them further apart. I want to like my fellow citizens, and I want to feel that I am as one with them, share their aspirations, and participate in the same communal project. Put me down in front of EastEnders, on the other hand, or a Premier League football match and I end up faintly appalled by the willed raucousness, that dreadful "the gang's all here" mentality that Richard Hoggart castigates in his seminal account of the deadening effect of mass culture, The Uses of Literacy. What we need are some new communities, in which we can all play our part. I have no idea what form they might take.


One of the week's more depressing stories was the news that the government is launching a campaign to persuade the nine million adults who have no interest in the internet to take the plunge. It is thought – no surprises here – that the scheme will feature a number of hitherto technophobic celebrities, bidden to proclaim the advantages of getting connected, whatever one's age, status or socio-economic background. All this, with its faint hint of coercion, reminded me of a short story by Simon Raven called "For Whom The Bell Tolls" (1959) which reflects Raven's almost pathological dislike of that innocuous piece of technology, the telephone.

Set in the 1970s, after the passing of the "Communications Act introduced by the Socialist government of 1965", the story features a reclusive and bureaucrat-hating novelist named Nicholas Quinn. Reminded that "it is the enforceable obligation of every citizen to make himself readily available should officials, in any of their numerous capacities, have need to contact him", Quinn is eventually compelled to install a phone. In fury, he conceals the apparatus under blankets in a sealed box, has a heart attack and then dies while trying to retrieve it so that he can call for help.

Looking back on the piece, Raven made a point that seems to apply to nearly every technological innovation wished upon the public: "like most other so called amenities of modern life, the telephone is essential for dealing with the complexities which the telephone itself has caused, and it is quick to assert its tyranny at the expense of those who would ignore it." This was written in 1963, 30 years before the advent of the worldwide web, but it seems uncannily prophetic.


The book I most enjoyed reading last week was You Never Give Me Your Money, Peter Doggett's meticulous account of the Beatles in the years after the band fell apart. One of Mr Doggett's many achievements is to dispel various of the urban myths that grew up around the Fab Four in the 1970s. So one learns that John, George and Ringo did not, as was widely believed at the time, drive round to Paul's house after one of their acrimonious court cases so they could lob bricks through the window. Neither did a suggested Lennon-McCartney reunion live on US television fall through because John's chauffeur lost his way to the studio. In fact the two of them just couldn't be bothered to turn up.

Even more satisfying, though, is Doggett's ability to deduce one or two general behavioural principles from this morass of super-charged egos and doing what one liked. The Beatles' undoing, he concludes, was that they imagined that "they operated in some magical dimension where their actions had no consequences". The personal fall-out from this conviction could be fantastically injurious. I particularly liked the story of McCartney inviting Lennon and Yoko Ono to stay and then leaving a letter addressed to them on the mantelpiece containing the single sentence "You and your Jap tart think you're hot shit". As the pair stood there "in shock", McCartney arrived to announce that he had done it "for a lark".


Still with pop music, interviewed in this week's Radio Times, Sir Elton John offered some bracing remarks on the shortcomings of the modern songwriter. Today's tunesmiths, the 63-year-old superstar asserted, were "pretty awful". The X-Factor judge and music producer Simon Cowell might have discovered some talented artists, "but the only way to sustain your career is to pay your dues in small clubs". Sir Elton then reminisced about his mid-60s apprenticeship in Bluesology and his partnership with the lyricist Bernie Taupin. This "wasn't successful until we'd had six years of hard graft and disappointment, as well as great times".

I remembered this evocation of a lost golden age while attending to the latest instalments of BBC4's month-long celebration of the "singer-songwriter". Usually no Friday night is complete without a sit-down in front of one of the channel's compilations from the vault, but as such staples of the Seventies airwaves as Kris Kristofferson gave way to Buffy Sainte-Marie and Dory Previn to Don Williams, one began, sadly, to think that one could have enough of limping acoustic guitars, earnestness, facial hair, smock-dresses and constant reminders that you were a lady (pronounced "leddy") and I was a man, so really we ought to get it together. By the end it would have been no surprise if Harry Enfield had marched on stage in a fake beard to add vocal harmonies. One of the most dreadful things about bygone popular art is the habit of its genuine artefacts to start resembling spoofs of themselves.


The week's most startling claim was undoubtedly the official Vatican newspaper's assertion that Homer Simpson is a Catholic. Citing a study made by a Jesuit priest, L'Osservatore Romano declared that The Simpsons is "among the few TV programmes for kids in which Christian faith, religion and questions about God are recurrent themes". No problem about the series having a religious dimension, but how does that make Homer, who attends a Protestant church and has never stroked a rosary bead in his life, a Catholic? Of course, the Catholic church's trick of claiming affiliation where none exists is centuries old. Eighty years ago, for example, GK Chesterton proposed that Dickens was "almost" a Catholic on the strength of Barnaby Rudge's sympathy for Catholic victims of the Gordon riots.

At the same time it is perfectly possible that Homer has started growing into a role of which his creators have, as yet, no real comprehension; that his Catholicism exists, as it were, in their subconscious, discernible to informed outsiders but not to them. Devising the character of Angela Lyne in Put Out More Flags, Evelyn Waugh found himself mystified by the way in which she seemed to be taking on an existence beyond his control. Then, about half-way through, he realised that "Mrs Lyne drinks". Instantly her incoherent appearances in cinemas were explained. Art, like the Catholic church, moves in mysterious ways.