Barely had the post-Christmas sales begun, and the average town centre become a place of thronged, Gadarene horror, than what might be called the great fiscal paradox of 21st-century economics kicked in.
Still suffering from the adverse effects of a fortnight's bad weather, and with the spectre of a 2.5 per cent VAT rise lurking just around the corner, spokesmen for the big retail chains positively fell over themselves in their anxiety to implore the public to get out there and spend money.
Stephen Robertson, director-general of the British Retail Consortium, was heard to remark that the high street would need "at least 5 per cent" sales growth before next Tuesday to be able to "tough out" 2011. It was apparently nothing short of our patriotic duty to invest in some of the electronic gadgetry and designer bathrooms on offer at discounts that in some cases were thought to approach 75 per cent.
Amid reports that British shoppers are expected to spend £5.2m in the January sales, there lurked a suspicion that all this was, to use that elegant modern phrase, counter-intuitive, and that, with bad times inching across the horizon and hundreds of thousands of redundancies in the pipeline, the last thing the specimen consumer wanted to do was to rack up credit card debts that would have to be settled some time in the dim and increasingly uncertain future. Every private instinct counsels prudence, sober caution and not laying out all your wherewithal on a mobile phone that you don't actually need, but no, expert opinion still maintains that the only thing guaranteed to keep the economy going is limitless credit and not worrying about what tomorrow will bring.
Although no word has yet been heard from the Chancellor, you can't help noticing that the retail trade's urgings are in direct opposition to the Government's own long-term fiscal policy, which seems to be predicated on paying off debt as soon as possible. Naturally, one can hardly blame the retailing gurus for their zeal: after all, informed observers have suggested that as many as 1,000 businesses may go bust unless these sales targets are met. What one can complain about is the unspoken assumption, to which the leaders of all political parties subscribe, that the only way out of our difficulties is economic growth and – the acme of all modern human achievement – higher living standards. Sooner or later, as anyone who has attempted to calibrate the aspirations of the developing world with the drying up of the planet's natural resources soon comes to acknowledge, Western economies are going to stop expanding, and belt-tightening, now regarded as a periodic inconvenience, become a settled habit. It would be far better if governments had the guts to admit this now rather than have to deal with its consequences 10 years down the line.
Politics has been slow to re-animate itself after the festive break, but some particularly dreary partisan voices began echoing around the newspapers once it became known that Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrats' deputy leader, has taken on the job of selling the Government's higher education reforms to prospective students. Mr Hughes, who abstained in the Commons vote on raising tuition fees, will assume the role (unpaid) of "access advocate", whose brief is to persuade poorer children that they will be able to afford a university education when the new arrangements start to take effect.
Inevitably, the elevation of Mr Hughes to this new post was marked down by his Labour opponents as a very bad thing: "cynical window-dressing", as somebody nicely put it. But on what grounds, exactly? Mr Hughes's 28-year career in the House of Commons has been marked, more or less, by adherence to principle, by support for the policies which he believes in and disparagement of those he dislikes. Like the Labour Party's Frank Field, he has sometimes been prepared to see the merit of schemes not dreamt up by his own colleagues. Whatever you may think of the Government's higher education policies, no one to the right of the Socialist Workers Party could doubt that Michael Gove is genuinely committed to widening the social basis of university entry. It could even be argued that his determination to allow disadvantaged children to "better themselves", as Samuel Smiles might have put it, knocks anything his Labour predecessors did into a cocked hat. There was plenty of cynicism befouling the atmosphere on the day of Mr Hughes's appointment. Most, alas, came from Opposition benches.
As a devotee of the folk myth, I was rather saddened to read this week's debunking of the widely held belief that, with the onset of global warming and the break-up of the ice-caps, polar bears have begun to arrive on our shores. There were apparently two sightings in 2010: a report from the RSPB that one had been washed up, still alive, on the Hebridean island of Mull; and the occasion in September when Naomi Lloyd, a presenter on ITV's West Country breakfast bulletin, assured viewers that a sodden corpse had been discovered on the sands at the Cornish resort of Bude. Alas, neither was bona fide. The Hebridean appearance turned out to be an imaginative April Fool, while the Cornish specimen was eventually unmasked as a drowned cow, bleached white by seawater.
All this struck me as a wonderful example of media continuity, in this case hitched to that inexhaustible public appetite for bizarre natural occurrences which persists from one century to the next. A Sunday newspaper staple from the early 1900s, for example, was the story of the man swallowed by a whale in the Red Sea and taken out some days later, still alive but bleached by the whale's gastric juices. Naturally, this defies all scientific and medical precedent, but there are references to it in popular fiction until at least 1939. All the evidence suggests that while the desire to construct folk myths is a constant, their content changes in response to the materials that lie to hand. Thus the cautionary tale from the Red Sea probably derives from the biblical story of Jonah. The migrant polar bears, alternatively, are a by-product of public alarm at the prospect of impending environmental catastrophe. And how long, you wonder, before the first genuine escapee surfs into Falmouth with an ice floe disintegrating under its paws?
The ecstatic national response to Wednesday's Ashes victory over Australia reminded me of one or two of the behavioural forecasts that prophetically minded people used to go around making in the early 1980s. One of them was that, 30 years hence, the film industry would have ceased to exist. Another was that office workers would stay at home and "tele-commute". A third – equally misguided, as it turned out – was that cricket would cease to be one of our national sports.
The reason given for this prognosis, especially in left-wing papers, was that cricket was an inherently snobbish game, most of whose appurtenances (white flannels, striped blazers, etc) and rituals were an expression of class prejudice. Unfortunately, ideological deconstructions of sport nearly always fail to note that the kick most spectators obtain from it is rarely quantified in class terms, but derives from the excitement of the spectacle on offer. I was watching a Norwich City FC game once with a friend when we realised that the two skinheads in front of us were avidly discussing the Boat Race – an event in which neither of us, despite being Oxford undergraduates, took the faintest interest. Who knows, charabanc trips from Toxteth to the summer polo championships at Windsor Great Park are probably being chartered as I write.
The books I have most enjoyed in the dreadful post-Christmas desert when nothing gets published, and the literary editors never ring, were messrs Weidenfeld & Nicolson's new edition of H G Wells's five social comedies from the first decade of the 20th century: Love and Mr Lewisham, Kipps, Tono-Bungay, Ann Veronica and The History of Mr Polly. It is a fatal mistake to admire a bygone classic simply for what it tells you about your own environment, but nothing, it turns out, could be more relevant than a book such as Kipps or Tono-Bungay 100 years after their first publication. Essentially, the tale of the ground-down draper's assistant Art Kipps, who inherits a fortune and sets up as a "gentleman", is an immensely pointed analysis of the psychological consequences of upward social mobility: the effect that being pitch-forked out of one social class into another is likely to have on the small matter of your soul. As the Government's "access advocate" charged with propelling all Art Kipps's modern-day equivalents into higher education, Simon Hughes ought to put in a bulk order.Reuse content