DJ Taylor: The big picture

The Tory scheme to roll back the state; those who know their station; the artist formerly known as the greatest thing since sliced bread; and a one-string pony
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The Independent Online

It has scarcely been possible to open a newspaper lately without coming across someone addressing the idea of "big government" and the Conservatives' plans, unveiled at the party conference, to roll back state power.

This process is not without its ironies. In particular, given that the Thatcher government was responsible for perhaps the greatest upsurge in centralisation since King Alfred, the sight of David Cameron preaching the merits of "localism" may be compared to a reformed alcoholic treating pub-goers to a version of "Don't sell no more drink to my father."

In electoral terms, making a bogey out of statism has a lot to commend it. The words "Whitehall bureaucrat" occupy about the same place in popular demonology as "slum landlord" and "war profiteer" did in the age of Stanley Baldwin.

On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that what people really dislike about our current political arrangements is not so much centralisation, or even lack of accountability, but petty interference. Certainly the malign influence of development agencies and local government"'partnerships" is everywhere resented, as is the influence of unelected leaders: every time Lord Mandelson opens his mouth, parliamentary democracy looks a little greener round the gills. But it is the pettifogging irritations of everyday life that grate.

To take one obvious example, however well-intentioned, the continuing fuss over health and safety law strikes most voters as simply risible. In much the same way, the system of Criminal Records Bureau checking for anyone involved in youth work, which requires a new check for each affiliation, is merely an excuse to print forms.

It is all rather reminiscent of the scene in Simon Raven's novel Fielding Gray, set in the summer of 1945 at a thinly disguised Charterhouse school, when an ancient classicist known as the "senior usher", disparages the incoming Attlee government. "Socialists can never leave anything alone," the old man declares. "They start with one or two things that badly need reforming, and jolly good luck to them. But then it gets to be a habit .... As Macaulay has it, we can make shift to live under a debauchee or even a tyrant; but to be ruled by a busybody is more than human nature can bear."

The difficulty, though, as even most libertarian Tories admit, is that large parts of the national fabric, from the drinks industry to the Premier League, are still desperately in need of reform. And then there is modern Conservatism's in-built paradox: an instinctive social conservatism compromised by free-market economics. Thus, while home secretaries in the 1980s would have liked to keep our screens free of polluting foreign filth, economic liberalism meant media deregulation and satellite TV. Given how the prospective Tory government is shaping up – letting go the reins with one hand, tightening their grip with the other – these tensions can only get worse.

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As someone whose teenage years took in virtually every episode of Upstairs, Downstairs, to the point where I can recall individual lines of dialogue ("To think of this happening in a house where King Edward came to dinner" etc) I was delighted to hear that plans are afoot to reanimate the series. Featuring two of the original stars, Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins, and transferred to BBC1 (no surprises there), the franchise will now move forward to 1936, which presumably means that the wider national issue on display will be the Abdication Crisis.

But the revival of this fine old institution, and its top-notch character parts – Mrs Bridges, the housekeeper; Ruby, the drudging maid; Mr Hudson, the neurotic Scots butler – also confirms a much wider tendency: the early 21st century's obsession with the period 1918 to 1939. Next week, for example, BBC4 offers a series entitled Glamour's Golden Age, with programmes on Art Deco, early aviation and the bright young people.

Simultaneously, one can detect a revisionist agenda stealthily at work. Half the books written about the 1930s these days – see Martin Pugh's recent We Danced All Night – represent the decade not as a sink of human misery in which three million people drew unemployment benefit but as a well-heated middle-class swimming pool in which the harbingers of our property-owning democracy skipped happily about.

As ever, it all depends on which side of the social barricade you lurked. My father used to say that the difference between the council estates of the 1930s and their 1990s equivalent was that you no longer saw ragged children playing in the street. Alternatively, my great-aunt Nora, one of the most terrifying women I've ever met, once told me the 1930s were a wonderful time to be alive because "people knew their place".

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It was an exceptionally bad week for major artistic reputations. Damien Hirst's new exhibition was almost universally derided – The Independent's Tom Lubbock remarked that the only reason the pictures were on display was because they were by Damien Hirst – while critics queued to sling brickbats at Bob Dylan's bizarre-sounding Christmas in the Heart (pictured right). While not unprecedented, this collective urge to stop pussy-footing around in the presence of high-profile ineptitude is relatively unusual.

One of the literary world's most regular sights is the salvo of respectful politeness which attends a mediocre offering by a famous name. Curiously, this particular cat was let out of the bag not long ago by Martin Amis, while reviewing John Updike's posthumously published My Father's Tears and Other Stories in The Guardian. Of course, Amis deposed, in the course of an immensely schoolmasterly and fault-finding critique, he would not have written in these terms had Updike still been alive. And why on earth not, the reader felt like asking? One had an idea that critical honesty is more useful to the living than the dead.

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The pleasure that my teenage sons Felix, Benjy and I got out of Friday night's BBC Four electro-pop extravaganza, Synth Britannia, a worthy companion to last year's Prog Britannia and, one hopes, the forthcoming Metal Britannia, was slightly restrained by a knowledge of the environment in which the channel currently operates. Not only does the Culture Secretary presumptive, Jeremy Hunt, stand ready to pounce, but the corporation's (unspoken) policy of ghettoising its arts coverage has been compounded by a reluctance to come up with proper funding.

I spent part of last Thursday afternoon discussing a newly commissioned BBC Four series with its producer – a tip-top idea, you won't be surprised to learn, imaginatively conceived and likely to make a genuine contribution to our understanding of its subject. There's only one drawback to those involved; that, as my friend put it, "there's no money".

Now, why isn't there any money, when, as a glance at Friday's BBC2 schedule confirmed, lavish sums are on hand to subsidise such deathless classics as Strictly Come Dancing and Gardeners' World?

If Jeremy Huntreally has the nation's cultural interests at heart, as opposed to Rupert Murdoch's financial interests, he could start by telling the corporation to cut the BBC2 budget and put the money to better use elsewhere.

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Having said that, BBC2 does, to its credit, feature Later With Jools Holland, which this week showcased the gnarled bluesman Seasick Steve, here found playing his diddley bow, a curious instrument which seemed to consist of a single amplified wire stretched across a plank of two-by-four. Assuming that Steve and his flailing, grey-haired drummer would soon be returning to the Mississippi Delta that had spawned them, I was startled to find that he lives a few miles away in south-west Norfolk. A moment's reflection confirmed that, in fact, this kind of cultural transfer isn't unusual, and can sometimes work both ways. Jonathan Raban's Bad Land, an account of journeying the US prairie states, recalls an afternoon at a Montana rodeo attended by several elderly ranchers with broad Norfolk accents – all survivors of an in-bred clan who had settled there around a century before.

Of course, one can take these cross-cultural assumptions too far. I once heard of a Finnish couple, on holiday in Rome, whose male half, needing local information, approached another couple sitting nearby and addressed them in his native tongue. By an extraordinary chance he had chosen another pair of vacationing Finns. Having got his reply (also in Finnish) the man returned to his wife, offering the solitary comment: "There, I told you they would know the language."

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