Chitty Chitty Bang Bang we loathe you

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The Independent Online

Of the sorrows that afflict the writer, none are less likely to win him sympathy than those that attend the publication of his latest book. Ill-positioned reviews, unflattering publicity photographs, being mistaken on the underground for someone else who has a book out – who cares! He who would be a writer must take the kicks with the halfpence.

I accept this callousness myself as the price I pay for an easy and opinionated life. But just once in a while we writers have to go to such extremes to drum up notice – agreeing to read and review another writer's book, for example, in return for some fleeting mention of our own, or attending, on the same principle, a West End show we would ordinarily suck ratsbane rather than sit through – that it is only common humanity to feel for us.

Spare a passing thought for me, then, penned into a seat at the London Palladium, surrounded by a species of person – part grown-up, part child, part I cannot tell you what – for whom the appearance on stage of a toy motor car called Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is the occasion for such delirious ovation that I fear the balcony in which I am imprisoned will come crashing down, that the rubble of the London Palladium will be my final resting place, and that the words "O you pretty Chitty Bang Bang/ Chitty Chitty Bang Bang/We love you" will be the last I ever hear.

There is an upside to this. In the course of accepting that you must sing for your supper and be willing to discuss work other than your own, you are occasionally forced to re-read something wonderful, such as, to taken one example from last week's labours, George Orwell's 1984. And guess what? A remarkable coincidence, I grant you, but the subject of 1984 turns out not to be dictatorship and the tyranny of orthodoxy as I'd remembered, but Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

In fact the film of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang first came out in 1968 not 1984, but all that proves was that Orwell underestimated the rapidity of our decline. Otherwise he foretells it with great accuracy, charging particular departments at the Ministry of Truth with the production of exactly that genre of proletarian musical entertainment to which Chitty Chitty Bang Bang belongs. We need not concern ourselves here with the Ministry's other responsibilities – the "rubbishy newspapers" stuffed with nothing but "sport, crime and astrology", the sensational novelettes or the pornography for the masses put out by Pornosec; sufficient to our purposes are the "sentimental songs which were composed entirely by mechanical means on a special kind of kaleidoscope known as a versificator".

That the Sherman Brothers, Richard M and Robert B, would not care to think of themselves as mechanical versificators I do not doubt. They did however write regularly for Walt Disney, who knew the sentimentality that he wanted and kept repeating it, to the detriment of children's imaginations the world over. What I heard in the Shermans' contribution to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, anyway, was a musical banality that made me want to vomit, and an emotional vapidity that made me want to vomit over them.

Take "Me 'Ol Bam-Boo", a knock 'em dead, slap it around, do it again and again song and dance number for men dressed in a loose-crotched ethnic olde worlde version of longjohns. Quite what these ersatz morris men had to do with anything that one might call Chitty Chitty Bang Bang's narrative or musical integrity, I have no idea. They just appeared, carrying their staves, with the sole intention, as far as I could tell, of cockneyfying the occasion. I don't think I need to remind readers of this column that cockneyfication in any of its manifestations is an abomination to us. We didn't like it when Tommy Steele or Max Bygraves did it, we like it still less when Young British Artists and Young British Telly Chefs do it, but when Americans who wouldn't know a cockney if he brained them with his 'ol bam-boo do it, we are ready to go to war.

Of the host of unwarrantable cultural assumptions in this utter wasteland of a song, I draw just two to your attention. The first relates to punting on the Thames. Someone should have told the Sherman Brothers that punting on the Thames, with or without a bamboo, is the equivalent of riding your horse into a saloon on Fifth Avenue.

The second assumption is that morris dancing, as it is normally performed, is effete and needs energising. Now I happen to be a great admirer of morris dancing. Forget the real ale and the hairy polytechnical jesting; what can be marvellous about the morris dance is the fearful mockery of it, the joshing lightness of those burly men, hinting at other sorts of agility, and the rasping knowingness of the music.

As far from rural innocence as any activity could be, the morris dance teases you with its ambiguities, making your heart stop, sometimes, with its unexpected reversions to violence. Done well, the morris dance puts you in touch with the vital force of the English themselves; yet it is this, the power of their own lungs and intelligence, the depth and complexity of their own passions, that they are prepared to see diluted into the perky pap of "Me 'Ol Bam-Boo". Prepared? Reader, they stomped and roared for the joy of it.

"What could possibly become of such a people," Orwell asked, "in whom the living intuitive faculty was dead as nails, and only queer mechanical yells remained?" Except it wasn't Orwell who asked it, it was Lawrence. Proving that once upon a time there was more than one man who took our aesthetical degradation seriously. Never mind whether Chitty Chitty Bang Bang inspires kids to dream, or teaches them the wrong attitudes to foreigners. The thing is "prolefeed": an aesthetic offence. And as Orwell showed, whoever would ruin us, ruins us aesthetically first.

Howard Jacobson's new novel 'Who's Sorry Now?' is published by Jonathan Cape

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