DJ Taylor: Who's a real celebrity, Gracie or Katie? You decide...or maybe not

We venerate talent in sport and music beyond all else, we worship plastic idols and get confused when faced with a real choice. Perhaps we need to get a grip
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The Independent Online

It isn't every day that the Secretary of State for Education finds himself splashed all over the sports pages.

Nonetheless, there was Michael Gove last Wednesday, being hailed as the potential sponsor of a scheme recently dreamt up by the enlightened gentlemen of the Premier League. Noting Mr Gove's enthusiasm for "free schools", the league is exploring a range of opportunities designed to treble the number of hours a week that boys can train. One plan under discussion takes in the viability of setting up schools in co-operation with clubs or other sporting bodies that would allow "a more flexible approach to education". The league's chief executive, Richard Scudamore, can envisage a day "when there would be a Premier League school in the North-west, for example, that allows players to combine playing football with their studies".

Given that the Premier League is a commercial organisation, whose aim – to put it bluntly – is to breed up a paddock-full of human racehorses for the public's gratification, you might think that this is a terrible idea. Its welcome subsidiary function, though, is to expose the outsize vein of double standards that runs through the state educational system. A 12-year-old who shows promise at sport, or can play a musical instrument to a high standard, is showered with encouragement and often given the chance of transferring to a school with specialist status in these fields. A 12-year-old who can write decent English or wants desperately to get to the bottom of Shakespeare's sonnets has to stay where he or she is, however unpromising the circumstances or feeble the tuition, on the grounds that if the child is educated with other children of similar ability, some kind of egalitarian principle will be breached.

It might be argued that the country needs teenagers who can write decent English or understand differential calculus more than it needs aspiring Premier League footballers, so why can't the most be made of their fledgling talents? All this reminded me of some friends of ours who, when their primary school-age daughter began to show alarming signs of academic prowess, were taken to one side by her head teacher and told: "The state system is no place for your child." If ever there were an indictment of our present educational arrangements, this is it.


Here in Norwich we are still recovering from the visit of Katie Price to the local Waterstone's to promote her new novel, Paradise. Sadly, child-care duties denied me the chance of attending, but the local media offered full particulars. Three hundred copies of the book were sold, and the queue of potential purchasers extended nearly 70 yards beyond the shop's front door. A 16-year-old girl was reported to have emerged in tears, remarking: "She's been a role model of mine for years. I'm shaking." Ms Price paid tribute to her fans, without whose support "I wouldn't be where I am today".

The most fascinating thing about modern celebrity, it could be argued, is how far it resembles bygone celebrity and how significant are the quantitative and qualitative differences. To put it another way, is the sight of 300 fans queuing for a glimpse of Katie Price the same as the hordes of mill-workers flocking to see Gracie Fields enter Rochdale town hall, or West End shop girls thronging the church porch as Lady Docker stepped up to be married? The answer, you imagine, is "no", the reason being that Gracie Fields, however stylised her appearance and worked-on her manner, was at bottom an ordinary person with a tangible link to the communities that sustained her career. Celebrities of the Katie Price school – and I mean no disrespect – are artificial constructs, so blatantly assembled to fulfil certain symbolic and commercial needs that you sometimes wonder if, strictly speaking, and despite much evidence to the contrary, they really exist.


According to a new study, the UK is a nation of "indeciders", unable to make a decision because they are "crippled" by too much choice. The "Confused Nation" report, undertaken by the University of Bristol and the price-comparison site, revealed that 47 per cent of those questioned were so overwhelmed by the variety of options available to them that they found even simple decisions hard to make. Hence the rise of the "indeciders", defined as "a group of individuals suffering from high levels of confusion while displaying an inability to be decisive, leading in some cases to depression". Harriet Bradley, of the University of Bristol, remarked: "With a constant stream of new media, daily technological advancements and aggressive multimedia advertising, it's no wonder that over half of Britons think life is more confusing for them than it is for their parents."

All this seems to confirm an ancient adage which is that, just as a sign saying "No Exit" generally means "Exit, but we'd prefer you not to use it", so "more choice" usually means less of it – or, rather, less satisfaction in its exercise. I know for a fact that I used to watch more television when there were three channels, rather than 300, and listened to more pop music when there were only half a dozen different varieties. Even more irksome is the standard technology company line about choice being "liberating" or even "empowering". It is worth remembering that quite a lot of "choice" is simply socially divisive and exists not to make life easier for consumers but to swell the bank balances of electronics manufacturers.


A good 10 days after the original article was published, fallout from l'affaire Patterson continues to descend. Christina Patterson, in case you haven't been in the loop, wrote a column in The Independent last week complaining about the apparent discourtesy and exclusivity of London's Stamford Hill Orthodox Jewish community, and suggesting, inter alia, that multiculturalism has its limits. The piece has been criticised as anti-Semitic and Ms Patterson herself has been subjected to personal abuse. One aspect of the row intrigued me above all, and this was the idea that Ms P, in criticising certain public characteristics of Orthodox Jewry, had been "judgemental".

No doubt about it, in this ever more relativist society of ours, where vampires presumably queue up for civil partnership ceremonies in their own dedicated vaults, to say that someone is "judgemental" is an insult more or less on a par with "snob". On the other hand, one could argue that every human activity is, in the end, predicated on a series of finely honed judgements, and that if we have an opinion about the way in which our society is run and are not obviously a racist or a lunatic, then that opinion is very often better let out than kept in.

Curiously, most of modern life is based on an uneasy silence, the idea that whatever one strongly believes is best kept under wraps for fear of causing offence to non-believers – even, oddly enough, if those things include (as they appear to in Ms Patterson's case) such elementals as civility and personal freedom. Nowhere are these evasions more conspicuous than in the field of personal relationships. Every couple of months in our little community there comes news of a marital fracture in which someone – generally, but not always, some man – has behaved with maximum gracelessness. All that follows among the peer group, though, is an embarrassed silence: the silence of people who profoundly disapprove, but prefer not to let that disapproval show. It is all a far cry from the conversation I remember having with my old college tutor, who had complained about an undergrad's habit of sneaking into the music room at night with his electric guitar and making a "dreadful racket". "That's rather a value judgement, isn't it?" I loftily demurred. "Precisely," Sir Keith (as he now is) shot back. "And we're here to make them."


Great interest has been expressed in the holiday destinations favoured by the current crop of Labour leadership candidates, the suggestion being that economic retrenchment has inspired a somewhat self-conscious frugality. Thus David Miliband is off to Northumberland, and his brother Ed is going to Cornwall. Andy Burnham is heading for the west coast of Scotland, while Ed Balls is attempting to mitigate the luxury of a trip to Maine by squeezing his family into a campervan. According to her office, Diane Abbott "might take a holiday somewhere in Britain later, but she has not got anything organised yet".

Readying myself for a single, populous week in Southwold (both grannies, three children, oldest child's girlfriend, countless cousins, camp beds in each alcove), I can assure at least four-fifths of Labour's Frugal Five that they are going to have to do a jolly sight better than this if they want to secure my vote.