Dominic Lawson: Modern life is rubbish - and here's why

The BBC has turned its main nightly news bulletin into a ghastly display of phoney sincerity
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The Independent Online

British families travel increasingly long distances to realise the dream of "getting away from it all". But it isn't necessary to get into an aeroplane to leave behind all the trivial irritations of 21st-century Britain which deplete the spirit and erode morale. Time travel is the method I prefer: for the past decade the Lawson family has taken its annual summer holiday on the Isles of Scilly.

Technically, it is true, the Isles of Scilly are part of Britain, and operate the same calendar. But, as anyone who goes there can attest, they are a reminder of what life used to be like on the mainland, but is no longer. That, no doubt, is why many old people choose to retire there. The particular island we stay on is an almost exaggerated version of some lost rural idyll: it has fewer than 200 inhabitants, no cars and one pub.

To make the prospect of tomorrow's departure even more enticing, I have been making a list of the manifestations of modern British life that most irritate me. In the certain knowledge that this will reveal me to be nothing more than a misanthropic male approaching his fiftieth birthday with ill grace, here, in no particular order of significance, they are.

Popular culture - or pop culture, as it is now abbreviated: this is a contradiction in terms, if by the word culture we mean something which elevates rather than depraves. Yes, I know that the ancient Romans commissioned friezes which showed people engaging in acrobatic acts of sexual congress, but these were for purely private pleasure, not for bug-eyed contemplation by the entire population. It is astonishing that even apparently grown-up newspapers believe their readers want to know all about the inept fumblings of the underemployed exhibitionists who comprise the cast of reality television. When editor of The Sunday Telegraph, I refused to publish any news stories on Big Brother, and its imitators, in a hopeless attempt to reverse the tide. I don't think that's why I was sacked, although you never know.

Linked to this is gripe number two: the way in which young women seem increasingly keen to use their bodies rather than their minds as a means to self-advancement.

In this context I urge you to see Natalie Haynes' one-woman show at the Edinburgh Festival. She quotes a survey of the 16-year-old readers of a teen magazine. Asked to choose between a range of careers, 63 per cent chose "Glamour Model" as their preference, while 25 per cent chose "Lap Dancer". It's perfectly possible that these preferences were ticked as a joke, and in any case magazine surveys are notoriously unreliable as genuine social indicators. But Natalie's comical consternation at such poverty of ambition in post-feminist Britain is well worth listening to, even if you doubt its absolute statistical truth.

Of course, it is true that countless generations have denounced the lax sexual morals of their successors. My maternal grandmother, affronted by the excesses of the Swinging Sixties, used to lecture me on how the terminal decline of great empires was always accompanied by publicly sanctioned sexual and moral depravity. At the time, I would only think that it didn't stop her using very rude Latin words to beat me at Scrabble. But her basic point was historically accurate - and besides, in the great sweep of history, 40 years is less than the blink of an eye.

The BBC has, to its great credit, managed to resist the temptation to compete with commercial television in exploiting the self-abasing tendency of youth. But it has followed its rivals in turning the main nightly news bulletin into a ghastly display of phoney sincerity - my gripe number three.

It's bad enough that newsreader and correspondent now pretend to be talking to each other rather than us, the audience, but do they seriously think we believe they need to call each other by their first names five times in even the shortest two-way? Well, Darren, we don't. Worse still are the contrived encounters when they are both together in the studio, and then act out a "live" interview which is all too obviously a rehearsed gavotte, complete with stagey nods of dawning comprehension from the newsreader, who finishes, inevitably, with the reverential: "Thank you for that, Evan."

Perhaps the BBC should send all its newsreaders on the same course that must have trained the country's railway station announcers. They seem able to impart vital information in a completely self-effacing manner, all day long. Sometimes, however, these paragons are given some very stupid things to say - which leads on to gripe number four.

Since the suicide bombings of 7/7, we are now constantly being told by announcements at all main railway termini to "look out for any unattached items of luggage". What they should be saying, of course, is: "Look out for any items of luggage attached to suspicious-looking people." I can see why they don't. We can all agree on what constitutes unattached luggage; what constitutes a person of suspicion is altogether more subjective. But if the aim of the announcements is to impart useful information, rather than merely add to the general sense of unease, wouldn't it be sensible to give up the pretence that the threat is from inanimate objects rather than from people?

Just as we now have apparently serious broadcasters behaving as if they were in showbusiness, so those actually in showbusiness are increasingly taken to be serious political figure - my fifth and last gripe.

It is extraordinary how much credibility now attaches to the opinions of "celebrities", simply because their faces might be recognisable to members of the public. A 28-year-old ex-Coronation Street actor called Adam Rickitt ( no, I hadn't heard of him either) was recently selected to be on the Conservative Party's "A list" of parliamentary candidates, ahead of many party members who had devoted years of their lives to voluntary political work. On this tenuous basis, Mr Rickitt made an appearance on BBC's Question Time, and was mooted by Conservative Central Office as someone suitable to replace the retiring Michael Howard as the candidate for Folkestone and Hythe at the next election.

Of course, actors should not be disqualified from a political career. Ronald Reagan showed what could be achieved by a man with the film actor's gift for communication via celluloid. Reagan, however, had for many years been President of the Screen Actors Guild, a trade union of some political clout, before he entered politics full-time. But, before too many pertinently ask what my qualifications are for lecturing the readers of this newspaper, I am now leaving for the Isles of Scilly. If I don't return, just assume something went wrong with the time machine.

d.lawson@independent.co.uk

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