The most amusing aspect of David Beckham's 108th England cap, awarded after a 45-minute run-out against Spain on Wednesday night generally described as "mixed", was the number of siren voices raised in his disparagement. One of the more injurious belonged to the former England full back and 1966 veteran George Cohen, who observed that he didn't "see the necessity now to have him around when we have younger people in the squad". Further evidence of Cohen's plain speaking surfaced in a reprise of his comment to a reporter who back in 2002 had asked him whether he thought the England World Cup quarter-finalists should rate a Downing Street reception – "in my day we didn't celebrate finishing eighth".
The problem about the undisputed fact that David Beckham now has the same number of England appearances to his credit as the late Bobby Moore is that statistics almost never convey the reality of public perception. It is just the same in popular music, where the most successful British recording artist of all time, in terms of weeks spent on the singles chart, turns out to be Cliff Richard, and the record number of appearances on Top of the Pops is held by Shakin' Stevens. To go back to Beckham and his 108 caps, many of them acquired in 20-minute cameos or meaningless friendlies, I always remember my father's account of the Australian Ashes tour of 1948 in which the fast bowler Bill Johnston, by contriving to remain not out in 16 out of his 17 tail-end showings, racked up a batting average of 102. Asked by a sports journalist how he explained this feat, Johnston replied: "Class always tells". No doubt David Beckham feels the same.
As the news of the former Big Brother contestant Jade Goody's apparently incurable illness continues to resonate, several columnists produced anguished and accusatory pieces about "serious" newspapers' habit of running sneery little articles about the gormlessness of modern celebrities. Sympathetic (and accurate) as they were, most of them seemed to me, as a seasoned celebrity-watcher, to miss the point. The reason why middle-class newspaper columnists find the spectacle of Katie Price and Kerry Katona going about their lawful business so appalling is not based on personal dislike. When it comes down to it, Mesdames Price and Katona are simply collateral. No, what their critics are complaining about is the process that brings them wealth and exposure.
To someone nurtured on the principle that you succeed in the world by application and hard work, by cultivating a talent and honing a skill, the sight of other people whose selection is more or less arbitrary and who are rewarded merely for living their lives in public can be deeply disillusioning. The howls of righteous anger that erupt whenever a celebrity puts their name to a book that some willing amanuensis has written for them have exactly the same source. Writing a book, we were always told, was hard. Why should Cheryl Cole, now signed up by HarperCollins for
a cool £5m, be allowed to publish one? Who let this happen? But then arbitrariness, those unjust rewards that the puritans among us hate so much, seeps into nearly every compartment of modern life. You could be forgiven for regarding David Beckham's 108th cap as the spiritual equivalent of Katie Price's autobiography, for each may be thought to have its roots not in sport, or literature, but in showbusiness. Neither is quite as offensive as the fate of poor Jade Goody, who can only see out her contract with the media by dying in public, and whose probable destiny is the most unjust reward of all.
Like many another adjective ("liberal" and "democratic" spring to mind) the word "provincial" changed its meaning sometime during the second half of the 20th century. When William Cooper published his ground-breaking novel Scenes From Provincial Life in 1950, the title was put there only to mark his characters' detachment from London. When Anthony Powell, 40 years later, marked Philip Larkin down as "provincial" he didn't mean it as a compliment. It was not just that Larkin spent most of his adult life in Hull – Powell, for that matter, lived in Somerset – but that the values and attitudes Powell discerned in him were somehow detached from the contemporary pulse.
The London versus provinces debate has been going on for centuries, of course, but it was thrown into sharp relief by a letter I spotted in last week's Eastern Daily Press, commenting on a piece by the paper's political correspondent that criticised the sacking of Carol Thatcher by the BBC as political correctness gone mad. "Such a defence of someone using such offensive terminology would not be tolerated in a multicultural, multiracial city newspaper," wrote Peter Roberts of Dereham, "which only makes it so clear that you are a provincial newspaper." Here, you see, "provincial" is defined as reactionary and hidebound, if not positively redneck. Subsequent correspondents pointed out that the Mail and the Telegraph had carried similar articles and wondered whether that made them "provincial" too.
Whatever the merits of this debate, you sometimes feel that regional media can be forgiven their provincialism (however defined) if only because of the profound metropolitan bias of most national newspapers. Certainly there are some regional obsessions that don't go down well in SW1 and parts of what used to be EC4 – most people living in north-west Norfolk, for example, think Tony Martin, the Emneth farmer who shot dead a retreating teenage burglar, a national hero and can't see why he had to go to prison. Equally, though, it is important that these opinions are acknowledged to exist. One of the great problems currently undermining our national fabric is the assumption of a consensus on issues like race, justice and national identity, whereas all that really prevails is dissent and fracture.
One of the great consolations of history is its trick of showing that most of the things people enjoy complaining about now were going strong four or even five hundred years before. Reading Keith Thomas's indefatigably learned The Ends of Life: Roads to Fulfilment in Early Modern England, published last week, I discovered that much of the contemporary debate about conspicuous consumption and expenditure born of a desire for status rather than to satisfy a need has its origins in the 16th and 17th centuries. Throughout the Stuart age, as Sir Keith shows, there were repeated demands for laws to prohibit everything from clothes and furniture to coaches, tobacco, feasts and pastry shops. None of them, alas, had the slightest effect in curbing the public's absorption in what he calls "the social meaning of things". Even the most flagrant symbols of excess turn out to have their bygone echo. Years ago I remember being slightly shocked when a friend, who knew the owner of a book shop in Virginia Water, reported that Sir Elton John (as he now is) had visited the shop demanding "books". "What kind of books?" the proprietor wondered. "About 30ft's-worth" the owner of a sumptuous new mansion with gaping bookshelves is supposed to have replied. According to Thomas this request was prefigured as early as 1710, when a customer marched into an Oxford shop and ordered a yard of books "because that was the size of the empty space in his bookshelves at home".
By the time you read this, I should have achieved a lifelong ambition and seen those pioneering post-punks Magazine in concert – this at one of the reunion shows being staged in London, Manchester and Glasgow. One thing that should be conspicuously absent as Howard Devoto and co troop on stage is the element of buck-chasing that usually attends the not always edifying after-lives of rock stars. John Lydon is currently promoting Dairy Crest butter. Iggy Pop is fronting insurance ads. According to Thursday's news, something called the "House of Marley" is ripe to exploit interest in the late Jamaican reggae star.
On the other hand, the demographic reach of certain veteran pop ensembles is a great deal less problematic. Some years ago I interviewed Dave Hill, guitarist with Slade, whose surviving remnant was about to tour Poland. The tone was one of stark realism ("We make a reasonable amount of money and play to a reasonable amount of people.") But why Poland? It turned out that in the early Seventies, to Polish teenagers tuning into western stations on illicit short-wave radios, Slade singles were subversive cultural artefacts. I ended up thinking that Mr Hill, with his morlock hair-do and 4in boot-heels, was definitely on the side of the angels.