I used to think it was transport policy that drew the most conspicuous line between the New Labour ideal and what are sometimes called "the harsh realities of government". Then I realised that, no, the decade-long procession of Transport secretaries – what were there names? Can anyone remember them? – were clearly a fine body of hard-working public servants inexplicably constrained by circumstance. No, I decided, it was Environment where the inability of the government's head to see what its hands were up to was so singularly pronounced. Then came another brisk shift in perspective, symbolised by the departure of the reshuffled Lord Adonis, and I deduced that, in fact, Education offers the most extreme example of ministerial rhetoric parting com-pany with reality. Will the Academy scheme survive? No one seems to know. All that remains, as anxious parents and teaching union spokes-persons continue to clog up newspaper letters pages, is fresh evidence of the New Labour education paradox: a party that officially wants to encourage bright children, especially those from disadvantaged homes, to achieve the best results that they can; and a residue of dogged Old Labour sentiment, going back as least as far as the 1960s, which sometimes seems to be actively opposed to anyone achieving anything at all.
Sometimes this turned up in novels – Margaret Drabble's early fiction, for example, is full of bright young women more or less apologising for their high IQs – but it was most marked in the press: in Lord – as he now is – Hattersley's bracing homilies on the advantages of comprehensive education, for instance, which nearly always seemed to be based on the assumption that it was more important to stop certain children achieving too much than to persuade certain other children not to achieve too little.
As a child growing up in 1970s Norwich, I was on the receiving end of one of these little educational experiments myself. The local council – violently opposed to selection – was, unhappily, obliged by law to supply 15 or so pupils a year to the direct-grant school I attended. They got round this by something called "computer selection", which effectively meant picking the names out of a hat.
The result was that for most of the Seventies, the school opened its gates to a little cadre of malcontents who spent the next four years taking their dissatisfactions out on their schoolmates. Even now, 30 years later, these attitudes are still not quite extinct. Only the other day it was reported that some university admission tutors are reluctant to use the A-level marks now supplied to them by exam boards to separate out their A-graded applicants, presumably on the grounds that it would mean admitting that one child was cleverer than another.
* The merits of In Our Time, Radio 4's highbrow showcase, its new series now under way, are so regularly talked up by the critics that its presenter, Melvyn Bragg, must strain his wrists merely picking up the cuttings file. One of the most heartening things about the programme, I discovered this week, is the sweet reasonableness of its message boards. In fact, the civility of the participating listeners knows no bounds. To be sure, a recent discussion of "Miracles" brought a complaint or two about Melve being too "reverential towards monotheism", but, generally speaking, grateful politesse is the order of the day. Perhaps it's simply that the BBC censor is hard at work filtering out invective, but such courtesies are in painful contrast to the atmosphere of most newspaper sites. I never contribute a piece to The Guardian's online operation, for example, without the grimmest sense of foreboding setting in. No sooner is the article filed than the missiles come howling in from cyberspace. Worse, perhaps, than being ranted at by people you have never set eyes on is the feeling that what you have written is really only collateral, a heaven-sent excuse for two embattled titans of the internet to slug it out before their admiring peer-group. All of which confirms my suspicion that the virtual world – gratifyingly anonymous, helpfully intangible – is a wonderful place for working off some of your resentments.
* There was a whole lot more resentment on display in the week's newspapers. Some of it seemed to surround Andrew Lloyd Webber's plans for the disposal of his £750m fortune. Another cloud hovered around the neglect of various American novelists by the Nobel jury. Most, in the last resort, looked horribly factitious. Reading the Mail's account of the will-writing Lloyd Webber's decision not to leave any of his money to his children I was pretty sure of what I might find, and there it was – the word "snubbed". A closer read soon established that the little Lloyd Webbers weren't noticeably aggrieved by parental insistence that they should stand on their own two feet, but stories of this kind are of no use to anyone unless they can somehow be rendered adversarial. It was the same with the news that neither Philip Roth nor John Updike had landed this year's Nobel Prize in literature, bestowed instead on the French novelist Jean-Marie Gustav Le Clézio. "American writers snubbed" ran the inevitable headline. But to be passed over for something is not the same as having some truculent disparager purposely deny it to you. Back in the 1950s, for example, my father – who had no sporting qualifications other than a Norwich and District Business Houses League medal – applied for the managership of Exeter City FC. He never got a reply. No doubt about it: Dad was snubbed.
* The annoyance expressed by the spokesmen of Rotherham at Jamie Oliver, on the other hand, seemed altogether genuine. The row provoked by the headlining chef's descent on the South Yorkshire town, and his discovery that some of its citizens lived on a diet of kebabs and couldn't boil a kettle, has now been going on for nearly a fortnight, with one local councillor contending that his constituents are being stigmatised as "thickos".
But what is Jamie Oliver supposed to do? The only logical end to complaints of this kind is to insist that no one with what it would probably be polite to call differently oriented eating habits should ever be filmed anywhere, for fear of offending the people who live next door. It was all uncannily similar – albeit that the offending item was a work of fiction – to the spat stirred up some years ago in the East End by Monica Ali's novel Brick Lane. What seemed to offend some of the area's community leaders was that the Sylheti heroine ended up committing adultery. Local people simply did not do this, the pundits maintained. But there was a subtext. It was not only that local people did not do this, you inferred, but that if local people did do it, then attention shouldn't be drawn to the fact.
* Earlier in the week I spent an instructive couple of hours with London Calling – not a Clash retrospective, as it happens, but a glossy celebration of the 40th anniversary of Time Out (Ebury Press, £20).
Together with Duncan Fallowell's increasingly surreal interview with Sir John Betjeman from 1984 ("Sorry I'm a bit late actually. The King's Road is blocked off." "It's not the punks, is it?") and some no-nonsense hipster classifieds ("Lonely guy, 24, seeks attractive and understanding chick to share experiences and pad in Holland Park, rent £5pw") from 1971, the highlight is a 1981 piece about the London literary world's enfant terrible, Martin Amis. Here Amis reveals that his most vocal critics are feminists, outraged by the apparent sexism of his work. "I really think it's just fashion criticising me" the 31-year-old author opines. "My stuff will still be the same when feminist criticism moves away from it and on to something different. If you want to talk in those terms, then my fiction isn't anti-women, it's anti-people."
All this reminded me of a spiky feminist declaration which came my way at about the same time as Amis spoke to Time Out, in which some priestess of the movement briskly proposed that there was good reason to believe that the differences between men and women were environmental rather than integral. If, on the other hand, it could be proved that nature rather than nurture was to blame for gender inequality, then we should have to call for "the end of the biological male person". Like the poor, and the Rotherham kebab-scoffers, resentment will always be with us. It just sometimes changes shape – and target.Reuse content