Naturally, newspaper proprietors can't always be keeping an eye on what their editors are up to: media empires don't run themselves, and the micro-management of individual redoubts is not always an option.
Even so, I was rather disconcerted to read The Sun's account of the prelude to Michael Jackson's memorial service. "TOUTRAGE" screamed the front page above an attack on agencies that had got hold of tickets to the event (originally distributed gratis after a lottery draw) and were selling them on. Surely, I thought to myself, The Sun and its proprietor are supporters of free-market economics? What could be more enterprising than to determine the need for a particular product – in this case tickets for the Jackson memorial – in a market where demand vastly exceeds supply, and then proceed to clean up? You could almost argue that, by way of the stranglehold he exerts over satellite sports broadcasting, Rupert Murdoch is no more than a glorified ticket tout himself.
Seen in the round, The Sun's outrage over ticket touting is a prime example of that increasingly common modern phenomenon: the peculiarly unselfconscious desire to have one's cake and eat it too. We are all – well, most of us are – free-market liberals, until we are presented with the result of free-market liberalism pushed to its logical extreme. We all believe in freedom of expression, until a book or a film rolls by which, as in the case of Sacha Baron-Cohen's Brüno, is thought to encourage "negative stereotyping" of a particular interest group. Nowhere is this desire to bang a particular drum only as loudly as it suits one to bang it more evident than in the regular stand-offs between freedom of expression and the sensitivities of religious believers. In the extraordinary conflagration that followed the BBC's screening of Jerry Springer: The Opera a few years back, when 45,000 evangelical Christians complained to Broadcasting House and the then controller of BBC2, Roly Keating, was forced into hiding, the newspaper comment columns positively hummed with assaults on those who presumed to censor artistic freedom.
What would have happened, on the other hand, if the BBC had commissioned a satirical take on, say, the life of the prophet Muhammad, some of whose supporters know how to make their annoyance stick? Christianity is a soft target, you see, which satirists and professional atheists have a licence to attack. If I were a newspaper editor, I should commission A C Grayling to write an article alleging that Muslims are credulous half-wits and sit watching the crowds throw stones at my office windows in the proud knowledge that I had struck a blow for genuine equality.
Lungs, the debut album from Florence and the Machine (the tall redhead who climbed up the side-stage scaffolding to such dramatic effect at Glastonbury), has been playing on the kitchen stereo all week. Not knowing very much about Florence, I decided to do some research among the music papers. Here, a curious divergence of opinion prevailed. Half the pundits thought she was the new Kate Bush. The other half had their doubts. Why was this? Well, according to the man from Mojo (a fan), one of the principal objections to the flame-haired chanteuse is that she is "too posh". Turning from the question of what Ms Welch's social origins had to do with her musical talent to the Guardian website, I discovered a piece that began: "Old Etonian, friend of David Cameron, the (very) wealthy man behind the Purple Ronnie franchise – there are several reasons not to like Giles Andreae ..."
Now snobbery, the best definition of which may be "a judgement arrived at via a purely arbitrary standard", is doubtless a very dreadful thing, but in some ways inverted snobbery is even worse. Would anyone reviewing the new Irvine Welsh be allowed to venture that he was "too working-class"? Or open a profile of John Prescott with "Common as muck, friend of Gordon Brown, the (very) dim son of a Hull railwayman – there are several reasons not to like John Prescott?"
On the other hand, conventional top-down snobbery is still strong. Sauntering round the paddock at Newmarket Races the other day, I came upon a patrician couple who were extracting vast amusement from the costumes worn by some of the ornaments of "Ladies' Day". "Garsh, Simon," the female half remarked, tugging at his sleeve, "you must come and look at this one." The dropsical young woman crammed into what looked like a bell tent may have looked ridiculous, but she had as much right to be in the Newmarket paddock as Lord and Lady Puffbuttock.
Staying with snobbery, the book I most enjoyed reading this week was a proof copy of Michael Bloch's forthcoming biography of the diarist and country house salvager James Lees-Milne (1908-97). Fascinating as Bloch's study undoubtedly is – Lees-Milne knew everybody, from Winston Churchill to Mick Jagger – it raises a question that very often occurs with biographies of celebrated literary and social figures: why are the people who roam around in them so frightful? Almost to a man (and woman), the upper-class notables with whom Jim dines and carouses – let alone the subject himself – are the most terrible collection of self-aggrandisers and bores. And yet Lees-Milne, the evidence of half a dozen friends of mine who knew him insists, was a charming and courteous man. It is the same with the late Sir Angus Wilson, who emerges from his biography as the most egotistical old narcissist who ever flounced out of a dinner party but whose chums all testify to his niceness and elan.
But the cause of this gap between reality and its printed memorial is relatively straightforward. Most public figures end up stylising their attitudes and pronouncements to the point where any newcomer to the party is simply baffled. Reading a Bloomsbury Group anthology the other day, I came across a remark by the critic Raymond Mortimer to the effect that they were the best company he'd ever had the luck to find. No doubt he was right. On the other hand, no book I have read about Virginia, Lytton and co, has ever shown this to be the case.
Great excitement here in Norfolk over the activities of someone the local media christened "the £69 man" and his cataclysmic effect on the finances of Roughton Parish Council. "The £69 man" is a certain Tony Musker, whose persistent complaints about the parish accounts for 2007/08 led to the hiring of an independent auditor and the submission of a £9,000 bill, which has brought the council to the brink of insolvency. The auditor concluded that one or two trifling errors had been made, including the transfer of 55p into the wrong column; £69 is the sum per head of the adult population supposedly required to balance the books. For his part, Mr Musker is unrepentant, claiming that the council was giving "incorrect information".
The comments of those local people interviewed on BBC's Look East programme suggested that Mr Musker would be best advised to keep indoors for a few days. My view is that, in however small a way, he epitomises a part of our national spirit. I have never met Mr Musker, but I feel I know him well. He is the man at the committee meeting who, when everyone else is desperate to go home, raises his hand and says, "On a point of order, Mr Chairman", the man who actually does have a matter arising, the man who will go to any lengths to impose his personality on the proceedings. My father, who I think would have admired Mr Musker, had a fail-safe strategy for meetings. If the window was shut, he would ask for it to be opened; if open, then shut.
According to one recent survey, two-thirds of middle-aged women would prefer the novels they read to have "raunchy scenes". In the wake of this revelation, Josa Young, whose new novel, One Apple Tasted, will presumably fit the bill, took to the pages of The Daily Telegraph to wonder why, if sex is such an important part of human life, it can't be treated "honestly".
To the novelist, oddly enough, writing about sex presents the same problems as writing about sport. Both are – more or less – romantic activities. Each, if treated realistically, requires an intent concentration on technical detail that will end up making the thing being described much less romantic. How, for example, would you like a Premiership footballer imagined in print? A sports journalist of the Olympian kind will go on about stalwart Corinthians, grace and skill and soccer aesthetics. The reality, as well as grace and skill, is young men kicking each other, swearing at the linesmen and tumbling over thin air in the hope of hoodwinking the referee into giving a penalty. In sport, as with sex, reticence is all.