Howard Jacobson: Let's move the tents to Simon Cowell's backyard


Click to follow
The Independent Online

In Zurich briefly to give a reading, I look out of my hotel window towards the Lindenhof and see what appears to be a fairground or gypsy encampment. I hear music and smell roasting meat.

As I have a little spare time before I read and have always followed the smell of roasting meat the way the children of Hamelin followed the Pied Piper, I leave the hotel and climb the hill. Whether there's a hog sandwich going begging up there or not, the view of the city promises to be good.

I'm right about the view but wrong about the fairground. The tents turn out to be the headquarters of "Occupy Zurich". The Lindenhof has a history as a centre of civil demonstration, and the bannered wigwams certainly look appropriate here. If you're going to camp out in the middle of a financial capital, better the quiet spaciousness of the Lindenhof than the crush of St Paul's Cathedral. It is all very seemly. Signs proclaim "Kein Alkohol"; occupiers sit placidly around a campfire, listening to someone talk. Fifty years ago I would have chosen such a place to go to university. Camaraderie, outdoor lectures, pretty views, hog sandwiches – only a shame about the alkohol.

I wouldn't have lasted long. I don't get on with tents. I don't like so close an encounter with the earth or so intimate a connection to the elements. The metaphysics of camping trouble me too. I don't care for the spiritual condition of tented people, those who play at being unaccommodated, who feign wonderment and simplicity and love. Love! Some of the least genuinely loving people you will meet live in tents and sing sweetly to guitars. Not for nothing is Pan, the half-goat god of woodlands, pastures, pipes and tents, always pictured with a lubricious sneer on his face. Never yet have I shared a view on any subject with a tent person. And yet, reader, here's the strangest thing: this time, so long as I don't have to listen to a single word the "Occupiers" have to say about how they'd make the world a better place, I agree with them entirely as to how horrible the world's become. Better the tent people a thousand times than that ex-Dragon James Caan explaining on Newsnight that enough is never enough in business, and that if you don't pay CEOs a sufficient salary per annum to save Greece twice over they'll go elsewhere. To which the short answer is "So let them".

We've been hearing the business community telling us for years that no amount of money is too much to pay to get the best. And we've been watching their eyes glaze over when we ask why the same principle doesn't apply, say, to teachers, who are of more importance to society than CEOs. But this time even the defenders of the indefensible appear to know their time is over. Allow your greed to turn the world in which you exercise it into a hell hole, and where's the advantage (never mind the fairness) of your £18 m? It might even be that through the clouds of defeated self-interest a glimmer of understanding is beginning to dawn about the practical meaning of inequity.

So the tent people are winning this one hands down. They don't even have to say much. Just let the unimaginatively selfish panic before their steady scrutiny and ultimately condemn themselves. But if the objects of our revulsion are those who lay waste to our world, we shouldn't confine ourselves to bankers and CEOs. There are other forms of pillage. Why aren't the tenters camping, for example, outside one of Simon Cowell's houses? Not to charge him with causing financial ruination but its cultural equivalent. There's more than one kind of birthright you can steal: there's the right to an affordable education and a fair wage, but there's also the right to a dignified intelligence, free of falsity and trivia and pap. Don't stop with Cowell. Make life horrible for everyone who, in the same spirit and out of the same pursuit of riches, makes life horrible for us: that shameless host of television producers, directors, executives responsible for the odious and heartless drivel that is The X Factor and the like. A heartlessness that spills over into the way even serious commentators and reviewers deride and belittle the already bemused contestants – those sad souls washed up briefly on the shores of false hope. A heartlessness that diminishes all our resources: our stock not only of sense but of kindness.

If we are finally rejecting financial despoliation then we should just as firmly reject the ruinous despoliation that goes by the name of entertainment and which we are blackmailed into accepting on pain of being stigmatised as prigs and killjoys. Except that there's no joy in it, reader. Stand for a moment at a counter of celebrity gossip magazines for kids. Top of the Pops: "Wow! Aston's Private Pics"; Heat: "Gary – the truth behind the rumours"; Closer: " 'Marry me or else' – Jordan demands a proposal within three weeks" – just stand for a moment and imagine the inside of the heads of those for whom a syllable of this could be of use, and then ask who's publishing it, conceiving it, writing it. Wow! Aston! Who, for the love of God – what adults, perhaps with children of their own would foul the communal nest this way, peddle these noxious nothings to generations of children they don't know? How do such people sleep at night? And why do we let them? Time to pitch more tents.