DJ Taylor: Touching a nerve

What do you say when an interviewer hits a little too close to home? And the declining standard of MPs, April Fool's jokes, and debates about the arts
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The Independent Online

To anyone who makes their living out of what now tends to get called the "print media", ie books and newspapers, the agenda was a rather familiar one: is the book trade recession-proof? And what effect does economic downturn have on the kind of items people buy and read?

There are a number of possible responses, at any rate to point two, all of them narrowly reductive. One is to suggest that punters like escapism when times are hard and will start buying holiday romances and detective fiction. Another is to declare that, no, people want refractions of the world around them, and so stark realism will be the order of the day.

All this was going reasonably well when Ms Gilbert, who had already asked several questions about the bright new digital future, ebooks and declining newspaper circulations – as I write this the owners of the Chicago Sun-Times have just filed for bankruptcy protection – suddenly demanded: did I think, given the relentless pressures of the new media, that the job I did actually had a future? What do you say in such circumstances? Never mind that techno-prophecy is nearly always wrong, that experience suggests newspaper corporations will soon find a way of charging for online content, or that the tactile heft of a book will always give it the edge over some portable scroll, what about one's personal livelihood?

In the end, I muttered some nervy bromide about there always being a place in the world for the hack. With luck, Ms Gilbert will have interpreted this as an apologia pro vita sua. To me it sounded more like the cry of a stricken beast.

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The interesting thing about the volley of abuse directed at MPs in practically all the news stories filed about parliamentary expense claims (in which the words "fat cats", "snouts" and "troughs" tended to predominate) was the focus which these complaints now take. Exposés of Westminster graft – the boulevardier son employed as part-time research assistant, the porn stash chalked up to the tax-payer – come round as regularly as the Victorian muffin man: no one is surprised by them any more.

Recently, though, a new note has been sounded above the swell of public dissatisfaction. This is the thought that MPs, as well as being venal and nest-feathering, are essentially mediocre types who would have difficulty in holding down paid employment outside the House of Commons.

The first point to register about these accusations is that critics have been making them for decades. Political commentators of the 1950s, for example, regularly lambasted the gentlemanly deadheads of the Tory back benches or the entity known as "Brother Bootle" – the superannuated trades unionist put out to grass in some safe northern constituency and marked down as lobby fodder.

If the general standard has fallen off even since these by no means golden days, one explanation must lie in the inability of most modern parliamentarians to speak convincingly in public.

MPs of the pre-1990 vintage cut their teeth in a world of meeting halls and open-air rallies, which encouraged them to think on their feet: even Brother Bootle and Sir Bufton Tufton, after all, were expected to open their mouths on the hustings. Back in 1981 I saw Lord Owen, as he now is, harangue the Oxford Fabians a month before he left the Labour Party to found the SDP, and the effect – whether or not you agreed with him – was quite electrifying. These days most MPs are made deeply uneasy by the sight of a room full of swivelling heads – no doubt for excellent reasons.

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If Members of Parliament are not what they were then neither, regrettably, are April Fool's Day jokes. The celebrated Panorama report on the Italian spaghetti harvest, which showed workers pulling down hanks of pasta from trees, was screened some years before I was born, but I can still remember the fervour with which my parents used to reminisce about it.

Set against this epochal gag, modern attempts to pull the wool over the public's eyes nearly always seem horribly tame. As a connoisseur of the media send-up, I spent about an hour of Wednesday morning poring over newspapers and websites, with very little success. The Independent's story about the Venezuelan "Miss Universe" visiting Guantanamo Bay had to be a fake, I told myself, and the Eastern Daily Press had quite a good picture of a New York fire engine "racing to a blaze" which turned out to be a children's toy, but a BBC report that the Simpsons are to feature on US postage stamps seemed all too plausible.

The reason why top-notch April Fool spoofs are so difficult to bring off these days is, you imagine, a result of the ever-diminishing gap between what really goes on in the world and satirical representations of it.

This is a point that professional satirists always make – it was Craig Brown who remarked that John Prescott and Victoria Beckham are "beyond satire".

Certainly, if I read a newspaper report proclaiming that Katie Price had been adopted as prospective Conservative MP for some Home Counties constituency or that Jeremy Clarkson was chairing the judging panel of this year's Man Booker Prize, I should simply nod my head in weary resignation. As ever, life has an infallible habit of pre-empting, and in some cases far outstripping, art.

Seventeen years ago this week I was sued for libel by a man whose name I had given to the villain of a novel I had published. My wife spent the morning believing that it was an exceptionally malicious practical joke. It was only later that the serious business of swearing affidavits, writing contrite letters and putting the flat in her name kicked in.

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Like the row about MPs' expenses, another well-nigh elemental debate that resurfaced this week was the question of the impact of television on our impressionable young people. A survey of school teachers had suggested that one of the prime causes of the decline in behavioural standards was premature exposure to Little Britain and EastEnders, with children as young as six or seven cheerfully reprising pieces of sexual badinage picked up in Albert Square.

The particularly dreary thing about these discussions is the habit of those involved of separating themselves into diametrically opposed camps, like iron filings obeying the magnet's call: on the one side, those who believe that TV simply reflects the society of which it is a part; on the other, those who maintain that it is capable of leading its viewers by the nose. You always feel that it would be easier to conduct this debate if we could agree on the first principle that "art" (I am using the term pretty generally here) has the capacity to influence behaviour, something that many of those professionally engaged in it always make a point of denying.

Some years ago, for example, Professor John Carey wrote a book entitled What Good Are the Arts? His conclusion was that they were no good at all, to which the obvious rejoinder was: if English literature is a waste of time, why have you spent the past half-century teaching it?

If we believe that art can exalt, if we suppose that it can change things – think of The Jungle (1906), Upton Sinclair's exposé of the Chicago meat-packing trade, which had the laws altered inside a year – then we ought to acknowledge that it has to have the capacity to debase as well.

Of course, people have a perfect right to gloat over their copies of Grand Theft Auto, just as the Home Secretary's husband has a perfect right to watch his adult movies. What they don't have the right to dois to assume that these activities take place in a moral vacuum.

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The arts world's non-scoop of the week has to be Mrs Valerie Eliot's decision to "release" a 1944 letter from her husband rejecting the manuscript of George Orwell's Animal Farm, ahead of a BBC2 Arena documentary scheduled for later this year. In fact, the letter was printed in Bernard Crick's 1980 biography of Orwell, with a footnote mentioning that it was communicated by Mrs Eliot to The Times in January 1969, so it has been in the public domain for all of 40 years.

Rather than making a fuss about something that is already widely known, Mrs Eliot would be better off upping the rate at which her late husband's correspondence is being published. The last volume – the only one so far vouchsafed – appeared as far back as 1988.

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