DJ Taylor: We talk people up, we talk them down. So what's the reality?

Titanic footballers, out-of-touch ministers, Sixties myths, booze-lashed Britain and peevish Northerners

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With a bare five days to go until the start of the World Cup, the language of football reporting – always hyperbolic – has stepped up a gear to meet the demanding new challenge of South Africa 2010. Here are some particularly impressive specimens taken from the week's sports pages. On Joe Cole: "He supplied a visionary ball through a cluster of Japanese players ..." [Shorter Oxford definition: "able or accustomed to see visions".] On the partnership between Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard: "These two titans of English football" [Shorter Oxford definition: "elder brother of Chronos ... applied descriptively to machines of great size and power".] Again, on Gerrard and Lampard: "... the infamy of their partnership" [Shorter Oxford definition: "evil fame or reputation".] And then, of course, there are the ultra-bathetic glances at the past's great thinkers, in which Private Eye's Pseuds Corner so regularly delights. Thus, from Wednesday's Evening Standard: "If Karl Marx was right to say that history repeats itself first as tragedy and second as farce, then there's something ridiculous brewing for [Gareth] Barry and England."

The curious thing about these vertiginous flights into the upper reaches of the English language is that one only laughs when they are applied to football. In cricket, oddly enough, fine writing is always assumed to be a necessary part of the package. Neville Cardus – and legions of up-market cricket correspondents who followed in his wake – could write about a ball being "sweetly smote" to the "distant boundary" without any of his readers turning a hair. The reason, you imagine, lies in the flagrant divide that exists in football between the (presumed) romanticism of the spectacle and the physical reality of the game as played. On the one hand, rolling green sward, plucky Corinthians and stalwart custodians of the goal, and on the other bawled obscenities, brawny thugs kicking each other and the smell of embrocation. In these circumstances you can appreciate the football correspondent's dilemma. A scrupulously realistic account of a football match would go something like: Fulchester's Lee Fredge has the ball. He brutally assaults his opponent. The referee gives a free kick. Fredge tells him to fuck off ... In some ways, the visionary titans luxuriating in their infamy are a small price to pay.



•••

Several commentators have waxed appropriately satirical about Jeremy Hunt, the new Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, and the revelation, courtesy of Piers Morgan, that he had no idea what Britain's Got Talent was when the two of them last met. Much as one sympathises with Mr Morgan's irritation, surely this is a point in Mr Hunt's favour rather than the reverse? One of the most ludicrous characteristics of the last administration, after all, was its habit of sucking up to various behemoths of popular culture of which it clearly hadn't heard until the PR advisers counselled enthusiasm: Gordon Brown, for example, claiming to like Arctic Monkeys and favouring us with his opinion of Susan Boyle.

There must be a decent percentage of the population whose ideal Culture Secretary would be a man (or woman) who revealed that he never watched commercial television, demanded to know why BBC4 was so negligibly funded, declared that tabloid newspapers were vulgar, and wondered why BBC2 had to waste so much public money on gardening programmes and property makeovers when it could be commissioning quality drama. Who knows? Perhaps Mr Hunt is that man.



•••

The definitive list of the bestselling singles of the Sixties, which several newspapers published earlier this week, made fascinating reading. Cultural orthodoxy insists that this was the decade of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. The raw data assembled by the Official Chart Company, on the other hand, told a rather different story. Seven Beatles records, certainly, with "She Loves You" and "I Want to Hold Your Hand" at numbers one and two respectively, but also appearances from Ken Dodd, the Seekers, Tom Jones, Engelbert Humperdinck, Acker Bilk, Cliff Richard and Rolf Harris. In fact, excluding the Fabs and Elvis (a solitary showing with "It's Now or Never"), not a single bona fide rock act appeared on the chart. The veteran disc jockey Tony Blackburn, who compered the Radio 2 programme on which the list was unveiled, seemed faintly puzzled: "This brings back fantastic memories," he commented. "It comes as no surprise to see the Fab Four at No 1, but other aspects of the chart are perhaps a little unexpected." No comparable chart has been produced for album releases, but, according to Guinness World Records, the winner would be – not Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, alas, but The Sound of Music.

All this confirmed a suspicion first bred in me as a teenager in the late Seventies, which was that the spangled decade lately passed was pretty much a media construct, in which ordinary people were told so loudly and repeatedly that the times they were a-changing they began to believe it – even when the evidence suggested that the greater part of our national life was actually standing still. The suspicion continued to fester when, as a twentysomething, I used to amuse myself by asking older friends who had grown up in the Sixties what they remembered of it. Almost to a man, and woman, they claimed to have noticed the social changes only in retrospect – that is, at the point when newspapers and academics began to urge that they had taken place. It will be interesting to see what the social historian David Kynaston, whose monumental history of the post-war era has got as far as 1957, can do to unpick these myths of hipster libertarianism and unfettered sexual licence.



•••

For some time now, the more astute political commentators have been pointing out that the fundamental ideological divide, here in the 2010s, is not between right and left but between the materialists and the puritans. There is an echo of this in the current disagreement between the incoming Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, and the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence over the latter's call for a minimum price for beer, wine and spirits. Mr Lansley thinks that such a move could unfairly penalise people on low incomes who drink responsibly. The Portman Group, that beacon of social enlightenment, has suggested that minimum pricing is "too simplistic".

In faint mitigation of this stout defence of the average person's right to drink himself into insensibility, and to keep the nation's Saturday-night gutters safe for the alcoholically challenged young, the Government has announced that supermarkets and off-licences will be banned from selling alcohol "below cost". Leaving aside the question of what "below cost" means, this excellent scheme ought immediately to be applied to other industries. How wonderful it would be, for example, if shops were not allowed to sell books "below cost". At a stroke we should be spared the sight of supermarkets flogging the new Dan Brown at 40 per cent of its cover price and creating a supply chain so bizarre that independent booksellers find it cheaper to buy their stock from Asda rather than from Mr Brown's publishers.



•••

With the first Test against Bangladesh recently concluded, and the second now in its third day, I have been enjoying my nightly stake-out in front of the Channel 5 highlights. Perhaps "enjoying" isn't quite the right word, as scarcely an evening goes by without one yearning for the staid certainties of the old-style BBC coverage. Even more annoying than the ad breaks and the sponsor's logo, though, is the sound – and on several occasions, the sight – of the former England batsman Geoff Boycott patronising the opposition. There was a particularly awful moment earlier in the week when Boycott, interviewed on the pitch alongside the Bangladeshi opener Tamim Iqbal (who had just made a century), loudly informed him that his team weren't really up to Test match status.

Naturally, this peevishness brought unhappy memories of Boycott's own Test career – the finicking about for five-hour centuries and the savage strops whenever anyone ran him out. And, queerly, stridency of this kind would be easier to bear if it weren't delivered in a Yorkshire accent. How many times in my life, I wondered, listening to Boycott in excelsis, have I walked into a room to hear some authoritative, common-sensical voice whose origins clearly lay somewhere between Leeds and Pontefract briskly laying down the law? My father used to say of his time in the RAF during the Second World War that there was never any danger of not knowing what to do, as the people who came from Lancashire knew everything, and what they didn't know the people from Yorkshire did.

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