Like so much in life, the quality of practical jokes is in a state of exhausted decline. Even that climactic moment in the joker's year, All Fool's Day, was something of a damp squib. It is not that we have lost our collective sense of humour: there is much to laugh at on TV, for example, so long as one avoids the comedy programmes. It is more that the division between the serious and the ludicrous has been eroded beyond repair.
Around April Fool's Day, there were stories in the press about a reality show to find new senior civil servants, a row in a lift between the would-be London mayors during which Boris called Ken "a f***ing liar", a woman who became a celebrity after saying she was too pretty for her own good, a cabinet minister who caused a national panic by talking about jerry cans.
All of these stories had the hallmarks of the lumbering facetiousness of Fleet Street in jokey mode but, almost certainly, some of them are true.
I would have laid good money that, for example, the woman complaining about her own good looks was one of the better leg-pulls. Having taken a well-deserved holiday from the newspapers for the day, I returned to discover that an ordinary-looking middle-aged woman – Samantha Brick, was it? – had become internationally famous having written a whiney newspaper article about being beautiful.
It was not intended as a joke, but the hysterical, global reaction to it was really quite funny. The mere mention of her name caused men to sneer and women to self-combust. With a few hundred words, she had transformed herself into a celebrity. She was famous. Well done, Mrs Brick.
The point about her story – its only source of interest, in truth – was how in 2012, if you can surf the right wave of controversy, you can transform your life. It is something of a knack to get strangers talking about you. Katie Price has it, and so do Martin Amis, Joey Barton and Germaine Greer.
The Mrs Brick phenomenon was not about self-esteem, feminism, sexism, vanity, bullying, the Daily Mail or the social media. It merely proved just how fascinated our culture has become with the intimate lives and insecurities of individuals, nakedly exposed in the media.
A little over four decades ago, the feminist writer Carol Janisch wrote an essay called "The personal is the political". It became a slogan at the time; today it could be written over the gates of our culture. In the age of the reality show and the internet, the personal trumps the political at every turn.
The charm offensives of politicians, the media obsession with obesity and health problems, the near-insane self-exposure of celebrities and columnists: all appeal to the emotional, prurient side of our natures at the expense of seriousness, judgement and good sense.
Being 'in touch' is not the be-all
The need for politicians to prove their ordinariness is not, it turns out, an exclusively British problem. The same accusation which has been levelled at our own leaders – Cameron (class), Osborne (money), Maude (jerry can, kitchen supper), Miliband (geekiness) – was this week deployed in America by Mitt Romney against President Obama. All these leaders are deemed to be "out of touch".
It is, apparently, more important now to know how much a loaf of bread costs, or to feel the pain of someone having difficulty paying bills, than to have the right policies. Empathy, not judgement, is seen as the greatest virtue in public life.
Is being out of touch such a crime? The point about governing is that the person making difficult decisions is sufficiently removed from the fray of everyday life to form the right policy. Politicians are not social workers. Crying into their pillows at night (or pretending to) may make them appear nicer and kinder but it can be a recipe for bad government. It was when Tony Blair began to feel that he was seen as (as he put it in a leaked memo) "out of touch with gut British instincts" that his government began to unravel.
The new obsession with being in touch with ordinary people reveals a political class that has lost confidence in its own judgement and moral strength.
Creativity lurks in the countryside too
Everyone wants to be creative. Even on that freak show for suits. The Apprentice, Chairman Sugar and his creepy henchmen look out for "creativity" among their oddball contestants.
It is no surprise, then, that a book called Imagine: How Creativity Works by the American author Jonah Lehrer is riding high in the bestseller lists. One of the tricks of being creative, Lehrer claims, is to live in a city. It is "an engine of innovation ... Being around all these other smart people makes us smarter."
It is a peculiar argument. Does the fact that I am lucky enough to be surrounded by the glories of nature in the spring necessarily make me stupider, less creative, than someone picking his way through the litter-strewn streets of London or New York?
To my simple bumpkin mind, that seems just a touch presumptuous.Reuse content