DJ Taylor: The drive to celebrityville

It seems our political destiny lies in the hands of Motorway Man. Everyone else, though, is obsessed with Cheryl and Ashley, or Alan Partridge

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It was always on the cards that the pre-election shuffle would throw up some potent new demographic symbol, and sure enough the past couple of weeks have seen the figure of "Motorway Man" shamble out into the political spotlight.

Motorway Man, who joins such time-honoured psephological abstractions as "Worcester Woman" and "C2s" has found himself briskly anatomised all over the place. In fact, such was the spate of newspaper articles devoted to him that I started keeping a list of his habits and aspirations.

As his name suggests, he is presumed to drive a mid-range family saloon or people-carrier and to spend much of his time cruising Britain's motorways in pursuit of his job. Domestically, he favours the modest private estate. He is likely to be married and have two children, whom he would like to educate privately if he had the money, but is currently content to send to the local state school whose exam statistics he vigilantly monitors. For relaxation he likes the internet, foreign holidays and going to the gym. Although he voted New Labour in 1997 his political loyalties are ambiguous, and the blandishments offered by David Cameron may be just the thing to cosset both his ambitions and his anxieties. At any rate, it is at him, and people like him, that Lord Ashcroft is supposed to be targeting the astronomical sums he has put at the Conservative Party's disposal.

There is always something faintly amusing about this kind of sociological construct, individual human beings parcelled up into huge communal slabs and all apparently salivating away like Pavlov's dog when a particular bell is rung above their heads.

Equally, there is something horribly depressing about the mental processes involved, for they acknowledge an assumption that is built into the modern political system like the wiring in a toaster: that by and large the impulse that causes people to vote in an election is fundamentally materialist. Motorway Man, naturally enough, is out for what he can get for himself and his children, and the encouragement offered him by politicians of all shapes and hues is an example of what Malcolm Muggeridge, writing as long ago as 1964, called the "politics of the trough", in which we are invited to bury our snouts for another five years.

It would be splendid if the fate of our political leaders – and our national destiny – could be determined by such unsung parts of the demographic as "sink-estate grandmother" or "unemployed, unskilled teen", but for some reason such people have so little interest in politics that they cannot be relied on to vote. In their absence, the field is clear for Motorway Man, with his gym subscription, foreign holidays and hulking philistinism. But now, you see, I am making almost as many assumptions about my fellow man as Lord Ashcroft.

****

Naturally I was on tenterhooks about Cheryl and Ashley. Who could not be? Never mind the disquieting noises from the South Atlantic or the refinancing of the public debt. Had she really ordered him out of the house? Was he going? And was it true that she was instantly changing her name back to Tweedy? One could only hope that Gordon Brown had found space in his schedule to write to the unhappy pair, assuring them that his thoughts were with them at this difficult time. The curious thing, perhaps, about this separation in High Life was its elevation to the status of universal signifier. Even The Guardian found columnists prepared to agonise on the vexed question of what took her so long. By Wednesday morning, every single one of the celebrity tat magazines was displaying Cheryl or Ashley – but mostly Cheryl – on its cover.

One can't help feeling that this kind of willed universality is a mistake, for it assumes a cultural homogeneity that doesn't exist, or does so only in artificial circumstances. Quite probably at least a third of the UK's adult population – certainly the over-50s – doesn't know who Ms Cole is and couldn't care tuppence about genital-texting love rat Ashley. As the media is now starting to discover to its cost, we inhabit not a single macro-community but a series of micro-communities, ever more detached from each other in habits, attitudes and morals. Most people who buy "serious newspapers" are, you suspect, unrepentantly bored by the constant sucking up to pop culture – as tedious in its way as the league tables of women Martin Amis may have slept with 30 years ago.

****

If there has been any benefit to the wider world in the revelations from Gordon Brown's private office, it lies in the attention now being trained on bullying in the workplace. What might be called the psychology of bullying is, it always seems to me, grossly misrepresented. First there is the very common assumption that "bullies are cowards". Well, I can think of several young gentlemen of my teenaged acquaintance who weren't cowardly in the least: they simply enjoyed beating up smaller boys. Then there was the idea – again, dealt out with all the solemnity of Holy Writ – that if you only stood up to the bully he would back down. I tried this with a boy called Kirk in the English classroom in 1975 and ended up with four stitches in the back of my head.

On the other hand, the notion that women are more adept at bullying than men, proceeding with stealth and subtlety rather than main force, always seemed to have something in it. By far the worst bullies in the City of London were the handful of women who had risen to positions of power and eminence and were having a perfectly splendid time annoying other women who weren't so fortunately situated.

Then there is the eternal question of how you deal with these onslaughts. My father always maintained that the solution was banter. Being harangued once by his immediate superior at the Norwich Union insurance company, he gravely remarked: "Mr Ames, I believe the directors have installed a listening device in this office." Ames then clambered on to his desk and proceeded to shout abuse into the air vent. This had the effect of not only diverting his wrath, but converting it into a sort of cosmic dissatisfaction. A smart move, no doubt, but I should hesitate to try it on Gordon Brown.

****

There was a heart-warming moment on Thursday morning when I discovered that Norwich has been shortlisted for the 2013 City of Culture award. The other candidates are Birmingham, Sheffield and Derry, which suggests that the judges' decision is more or less made: encouragingly, the bookmakers are already quoting odds of 6-4. But a little reflection soon suggested that this newfound pre-eminence has its drawbacks. For a start every halfway totemic and, in some cases, risible figure associated with the place, from Delia Smith to Alan Partridge, has been brought out and ceremoniously exclaimed over as if no one had ever heard of them before. The leader of Norwich City Council, Steve Morphew, seemed anxious to gloat over the thumbs down administered to our great local rival, Ipswich. But the council's current enthusiasm for "culture" is all the more remarkable in the light of its previous near-indifference. This is an administration, after all, that could have had a proper concert venue back in the early 2000s, but voted instead for a superfluous shopping mall – with the result that half the retail property in the old city centre is unlettable.

****

The book I most enjoyed reading last week – up to a point – is Barry Miles's London Calling, described as a "countercultural" history of the capital since 1945. Mr Miles's main point of focus is the 1960s, of which, as the co-founder of the famous Indica bookshop, he was a notable ornament. If there are three conclusions to be drawn from this pageant of free concerts, love-ins, drug-busts and all-nite grooveramas, they are, first, that the 1960s really only happened in about three square miles of central London; second, that most of this stuff has worn incredibly badly; and third, that while gnashing his teeth over the consumer-materialist surge of the post-war era, the average West End hippy's lifestyle really only offered a rather ominous reflection of it.

Art, you sometimes feel like pointing out, needs a certain amount of moral and intellectual equipment to make it function effectively, no matter how strong the hankering for personal fulfilment. "My dear," Brian Howard once remarked of the 1920s Surrealists, "all they are trying to do is to paint without any effort, and we all know where that leads". One of the places it led was the Soho garrets of the 1960s.

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