DJ Taylor: The trouble with class

Opponents who brought about the fall of Speaker Martin are accused of being motivated by snobbery. But, for true elitism, Oxford's academics are in a league of their own while poor Norwich City are now third rate

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In the end, against all the odds, one had to feel sorry for Speaker Martin, whose humiliation was beamed out on prime-time TV and whose remote descendants will be reminded of his failings whenever they so much as open a school textbook.

The bluster and belligerence of previous weeks spent rebuking Ms Kate Hoey for having the cheek to ask him a question faded away, and all that remained was the spectacle of a harassed old gentleman, deeply uncertain about some of the parliamentary protocols offered up for him to interpret, clearly desperate for a bolt-hole somewhere in the Westminster wainscoting to go and hide in. Poignant as all this was, it was not made any the less painful by the attempts of Mr Martin's friends to talk up his predicament in class terms. No sooner had he announced his resignation, in fact, than we had Lord Foulkes taking to the TV studios to employ what might be called the Prescott Defence.

The real reason why people were so sharply opposed to Mr Martin, Lord Foulkes assured us, was that he was a former sheet-metal worker from Glasgow and, in addition, a Roman Catholic. As excuses go, this one struck me as horribly feeble. If Mr Martin's Catholicism has been an issue in Westminster over the nine years of his tenure, then somehow the nation's political correspondents have missed it: William Hague's baldness has been more lavishly discussed. Similarly, what Mr Martin's detractors were complaining about was not his social origins but his reluctance to offer a lead at a time of political meltdown in a chamber over which he presides. But smokescreens of this sort blow all over the modern political landscape. The Prescott Defence, in particular, is about 10 years old. Poor John, the argument runs, railwayman's son from Hull, sneered at by all the toffs on account of roughness of manner. By and large, though, the mockery made of Mr Prescott during his time in government had very little to do with class. Private Eye's "Let's parler Prescott" spoof, for example, was written not to express snobbish contempt for a horny-handed son of the soil come to hob-nob with his betters, but to float the idea that a cabinet minister who addresses parliament ought to be able to do so in language that his listeners can understand.

***

In the debate about life imitating art or whether it's the other way round, I nearly always vote for art as the primal motivating force. This prejudice was confirmed by Wednesday's news that Liu Zhihua, the last of the Chinese activists convicted in relation to the "hooliganism" perpetrated in Tiananmen Square 20 years ago this month, has finally been released from prison. Mr Liu's crime was to have organised a strike in a factory. The life-art nexus comes from an old Buzzcocks' song with the uncannily prophetic title "Peking Hooligan".



You know me cos I hang around the bicycle sheds

Kicking over the traces in my fancy footwear

As I go wrecking and stealing

Around Tiananmen Square

I'm a Peking hooligan

I'm a social problem

I'm a Peking hooligan



There are further references to the protagonist not wanting to "go back to the fields" and paying "no heed to Mao's words/I heard after every meal".

All this, oddly enough, was written in 1976, a good 13 years before Mr Liu and his friends started organising sit-ins. Meanwhile, a wider question remains. What, essentially, is the difference between China and Burma? Both are immensely autocratic Far Eastern regimes in which dissent is routinely suppressed, human rights ignored and no one can vote out the tyrants who oppress them. The answer is that the one with no economic clout has pariah status while the other, as a major trading power that might just help the world out of its recession, has to be kowtowed to by the governments of the West.

***

The book I most enjoyed reading this week was Enlightening, the second volume of the late Isaiah Berlin's compendious letters, covering the period 1946-60. Curiously, the enjoyment stemmed less from Berlin's trademark intellectual fireworks, his views on liberty, historical inevitability and so on, than his confirmation of the view that of all forms of bitchiness, Oxford academic bitchiness is the deadliest of all. And so we have Berlin on the delicious spectacle of his colleague A L Rowse miscalculating the calibre of an American college audience ("a lecture as must have given pleasure to the ladies' luncheon clubs in Cheltenham and Bath, and perhaps their equivalents here too"). We have Berlin attending on Sir Maurice Bowra as he patronises the Russian poet Vyacheslav Ivanov ("And there I sat while he went roaring in his terrible French about nothing – platitudes about Sophocles, about Russia, about Rome, about everything of a most shaming, appalling kind ..."). And we have him turning delightfully de haut en bas over proposed literary commissions ("I ... would rather not read books for review, especially by Mr Crick, whom I have met and thought not over-intelligent"). The late Sir Bernard Crick, to whom this refers, was, incidentally, one of the great political theorists of his era.

Berlin, it goes without saying, was an exceptionally brilliant man, but perhaps the moral of these 844 pages, expertly edited by Henry Hardy and Jennifer Holmes, is that Oxford common room gossip is only of interest to the inhabitants of Oxford common rooms. I can remember, a quarter of a century ago, just down from Oxford, bumping into my old tutor in a college quadrangle and gravely discussing some slur that had been pronounced on him by, as it may have been, A N Wilson in a weekly magazine. Clearly, Sir Keith – as he now is – opined, early success had gone to Wilson's head, and I felt an exquisite little affaire thrill at being on the edge of great events. Twenty-five years later, you sometimes feel that the best thing that could be done with, let us say, Christ Church Meadow would be to plough it up for cabbages. Rank hypocrisy on my part, of course, who dined at Christ Church only the other month, but donnishness in its purest form can be very difficult to bear.

***

The Premier League soccer season doesn't end until 5.45 this afternoon, but for the past week the sports pages have been aflame with post-shutdown predictions. Most of these concern the destinies of star players booked for instant departure should their clubs be relegated. Sunderland's Kenwyne Jones, for instance, has made ominous remarks about "not knowing what will happen" should Sunderland go down. All this brought home to me how little I understand about the game, despite 40 years spent on terraces, latterly on bucket-seats, watching it take place. One thing I never understand is how players can't be kept to their contracts. Another thing I never understand is the way in which obvious liabilities are allowed to waltz unhindered from club to club. Here is Joey Barton, for example, by no means the greatest player who ever graced a football pitch, suspended from Newcastle's squad after practically maiming an opponent and thereafter abusing his manager, and already three or four Premier League clubs are on his trail.

A third thing I don't understand is why incoming managers are always gifted millions of pounds to squander on refashioning sides to their liking. "Of course, he's not working with his own players yet," TV pundits invariably declare as some newly arrived and under-performing Ron or Harry squirms uncomfortably in the technical area. In the old days of tighter budgets and lower expectations, managers simply did what they could with the resources at their disposal and trusted to expertise. Taking over at Norwich's Carrow Road stadium in 1992, Mike Walker inherited a squad mostly recruited in the Premier League's bargain basement and within 15 months had them rolling over Bayern Munich in the Uefa Cup. But 16 seasons later Norwich have just been relegated to League One, so perhaps I am wrong about this.

***

A literary friend of mine once voted A S Byatt the most terrifying woman he had ever met. My own mild preference for the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire was overturned by the sight of Joanna Lumley rallying her Gurkha horde outside the House of Commons and the memory of meeting her years ago at Anthony Powell's memorial service. Rapt, engaged and politeness itself, Ms Lumley also gave the impression that any put-down she cared to administer would be absolutely glacial in its force. There is a wry account in Powell's Journals of her non-appearance (on medical grounds) at a lunch party and subsequent letter of apology and request for a signed invitation. Powell writes: "Feeling even a celebrated actress might have sent her refusal a shade earlier than 12.55, [I] inscribed card: 'Alas, Miss Otis regretted ....'" Gordon Brown doesn't know his luck.

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