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

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst - Banking - London - £550 - £650

£550 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Business Analyst - Traded Credit Risk - Investmen...

Data Insight Manager - Marketing

£32000 - £35000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based o...

Data Centre Engineer - Linux, Redhat, Solaris, SAN, Puppet

£55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A financial software vendor at the forefro...

.NET Developer

£600 per day: Harrington Starr: .NET Developer C#, WPF,BLL, MSMQ, SQL, GIT, SQ...

Day In a Page

Silhouette of clubber dancing Hacienda nightclub  

A comedian has opened an alcohol-free nightclub. Is he having a laugh?

Jessica Brown Jessica Brown
Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape