DJ Taylor: The name of the dame

Whoever gave Vera Lynn the nickname ‘forces’ sweetheart’ knew what they were doing. The TUC is feeling purposeful too, and true to its roots

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It pains me that workingclass culture is sneered at andridiculed,” the Labour MPJon Cruddas observed in The Independent earlier this week. “Fifty years ago it was seen as noble and dignified.”

The odd thing about this remark is the assumption that working-class or “popular” culture, defined as ordinary peopledevising their entertainments and their lifestyles on their own terms, still exists. After all, it is a very long time since Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy (1957), dueto be reissued as a Penguin ModernClassic on 1 October with an introduction by Lynsey Hanley, demonstrated how even in the immediately post-war era the urban culture of northern England was in rapid retreat before a mass culture, mostly imported from America, and imposed from above. Half a century later, Hoggart’s world – claustrophobic, warm-hearted, occasionally violent but above all self-sustaining – has vanished over the cliff.

Trying to establish a date at which this change kicked in, I always turn to the popular entertainments of my own county. Back in the early Sixties, Norfolk was home to the memorableAllan Smethurst, the Singing Postman, with his plaintive chants about the crab boats drawn up on the Sheringham shale. Twenty years later, when the BBC launched a local radio station, the corridors suddenly thrummed to the boot-steps of smock-wearing ancients with aliases like Sid the Rat-catcher and The Buttercup Boy – less the real thing, I inferred, than opportunistic approximations of it. The greater distinction – between a popular culture and its mass-cultural successor – always seems to me a crucial one. Whenever anyone these days makes a joke about the terrible naffness of certain clothing styles and certain recreations, it is some small consolation that they are lamenting a process rather than expressing individual or collective taste.

Browsing through J B Priestley’s novel Angel Pavement the other day, I came across a paragraph in which Priestley describes the Saturdaynight descent of thousands of London twentysomethings, including his hero Harold Turgis, on the picture palaces of the West End. “Across ten thousand miles” two Hollywood magnates “had seen the one-and-sixpence in Turgis’s pocket and, with a swift gesture, resolving itself magically into steel and concrete and carpets and velvetcovered seats and pay-boxes, had set it in motion and diverted it to themselves.” Priestley was writing in 1930, which means that mass culture, and all the hoodwinking and patronage that accompanies it, has been going on for more than 80 years. To alter the focus a little, possibly the most depressing retail outlets in 21st-century Britain are the Game shops that over the past 10 years have mushroomed in every high street – simple exercises in collective brainwashing, a Marxist would say, designed to siphon off capital that would be better spent elsewhere. But this isn’t what I’d call “popular culture” and I can’t imagine Mr Cruddas does either.

Still with the Labour movement and its tribunes, just about my favourite television programme back in the late-1970s was the BBC’s coverage of the TUC Conference. I liked it not just for its rancour, and the vengeful interruptions exploding from the floor, but for what to me, as the innocent product of a middle-class hearth, seemed an air of almost blatant corruption. This was the era of deals cut in smokefilled rooms, “solemn and binding” agreements not worth the paper that no one had written them on, and hundreds of thousands of votes changing hands as the result of some lunch-time intrigue. The TUC gets rather less media attention these days, so I was interested to read the reports of this year’s conference in Liverpool, and in particular the attitudes of various union leaders to the prospect of a Tory government arriving before they next convene.

Brendan Barber, the pragmatic general secretary, has had two “getting to know you” meetings with David Cameron and is prepared to work with a Conservative administration. Mark Serwotka, the general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union, has met the shadow Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude – an encounter that does not, however, involve any conflict of loyalty as Mr Serwotka is reportedly so left wing that he regards most of the government front bench as Tory stooges. As for the Unite union, well, they decline to meet any Conservatives at all. It is, of course, extraordinary that this kind of posturing still goes on – think of the percentage of union members who are getting ready to vote Tory – but as I recall from the TUC conferences of the 1970s, “democracy” means different things to different people.

The book I most enjoyed reading last week was Snark: A Polemic in Seven Fits, the New Yorker film critic David Denby’s assault on what he defines as “a certain strain of nasty failed humour … abuse of a particular kind – personal, low, teasing” which he believes to be undermining not only journalism but public discourse as a whole. Enjoyed up to a point, that is, for when Mr Denby leaves the humid world of the Republican scandal-sheets and the celebrity web-mires and heads east to Private Eye, his cultural grasp seems less assured. According to Denby, in calling the Beatles “The Turds” back in the 1960s and lampooning Sgt Pepper (“Their latest LP, A Day in the Life of Ex-King Zog of Albania, took over five years to make and includes combs on paper, the sound of the Cornish Riviera Express leaving Paddington …”), the Eye made “an astounding mistake”, by declining to surf the pop-cultural tide.

But surely one of the key elements of satire is its ability to distinguish between cause, or symptom, and longterm effect? It is perfectly possible to believe that the Beatles wrote some wonderful songs while contending that what their music represents, along with the decade that spawned it and which it helped to fashion, is a titanic wave of me-first consumer-materialist individualism that we could have happily have done without. To put it another way, the Beatles both re-engineered the popular culture of their day and simultaneously helped to destroy it, validating The Uses of Literacy along the way. My father used to say that the three factors responsible for the crack-up of Western civilisation were jeans, fish fingers and “She Loves You”. I never thought for a moment that he was joking.

Confidently predicted to roar to the top of the album charts with their remastered back catalogue, the Fab Four were in the end kept off it by the 92-year-old Dame Vera Lynn, “the forces’ sweetheart”, as every newspaper that ran the story insisted on calling her. All this prompted the question: when, exactly, did Dame Vera attract her authenticating gloss? Nicknames, after all, are very difficult to implement. How many times, for example, have I stood in a classroom, a college bar, a changing-room or an office and heard a wag cheerily pronounce of some ripe target for satire, “Right now ... we’ll call you Scab-lad” (or Badger or Pinhead as it might be), only for none of those listening to take the slightest interest

In a long career of devising nicknames I have only twice hit the button. The first time was with a boy in the year below me at school who, it seemed to me, carried himself as if balancing a gigantic tail behind his back, like a squirrel, and whom I christened “Tufty”. The second was when I had the bright idea of calling the gang of somewhat self-absorbed late- Nineties columnists of the William Leith/Zoë Heller school who beguiled their readers with rapt accounts of the Thai takeaways they’d enjoyed with their friends the night before, the New Solipsists. Whoever thought of calling Dame Vera “the forces’ sweetheart” was a genius in his or her way.

Death is no respecter of deadlines: celebrities have an unfortunate habit of dying at times of maximal inconvenience to newspaper editors. In the wake of Princess Diana’s fatal latenight car crash, several people had an instructive time comparing what was said about her in the freshly written news pages of next morning’s papers and what had turned up in the columns and features at the back end penned a day or so before. In much the same way, the passing of the chef Keith Floyd caught several people on the hop. Only a few hours before his death, at least one television critic had waded into a Channel 4 programme in which he was admiringly interviewed by the actor Keith Allen: “There is already plenty of evidence to suggest that Keith Floyd is not a particularly nice man, and plenty more emerged here …” wrote the Independent’s Brian Viner. Naturally the de mortuis nil nisi bonum maxim soon took hold, but even so one or two obituaries were notably circumspect. Somehow one was rather cheered by this absence of humbug. Would Viner have refiled his piece had he been writing it the day after Floyd’s death rather than the day before? One wonders.

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