Terence Blacker: We are all debased by this seeping vulgarity

The executive elected to prove his seriousness by showing his private parts in public
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The Independent Online

So it was with two recent items that touched glancingly on matters of business etiquette and on the Tory leadership race. In the first it was revealed that, in order to secure a deal, a manager had taken off his clothes and walked into a meeting stark naked. This event, it hardly needs to be added, took place in a publishing house.

The cliché that publishers, once goofy toffs living on a private income, are now hard-eyed, straight-laced technocrats is only partially true. Those who work with books are as temperamentally incontinent as any other media professionals. Such is their longing to be zany, that - as with someone with no sense of humour misjudging a joke - the result can be as embarrassing and revealing as the naked executive.

The man worked, rather shockingly, for the respectable firm of Penguin. His team were competing for something called The Joy of No Sex, which was written by the comedian Will Smith. When Smith and his agent came to hear Penguin's presentation, their marketing manager decided to express his enthusiasm for the project by entering the boardroom stark naked.

The comedian, one imagines, was more bewildered than shocked by a senior executive electing to prove his seriousness by showing his private parts in public. Yet somehow it is not entirely unexpected. One of life's unwritten rules used to be that the world is divided into grown-ups and show-offs. A minority - actors, comics and most writers - were genetically inclined to make fools of themselves; in fact, it quite often went with the job. The rest were adult enough to know that flashing, whether metaphorical or actual, was something to be done behind closed doors, in the company of indulgent friends or family.

It was a useful divide. Society needs those who have responsibility for more than their own self-expression to be grown-up about their work. Once they start trying to be as amusing as a show-off, the system breaks down. But no one can quite be trusted to be serious-minded any more. More and more people long to perform: it was why the character of David Brent in The Office struck such a chord.

So vulgarity begins to seep through the fabric of society. Marketing managers take their clothes off. Fellow executives roar with appreciative laughter. We all become a little bit more stupid and debased.

Nowhere has the dividing line between the straight and the silly been more disastrously eroded than in politics. It has become accepted that to be serious-minded, perhaps to the point of humourlessness, is an electoral liability. A streak of wackiness is an essential component of the modern politician's personality; it reassures voters and commentators that he or she is not guilty of the great modern sin of being "out of touch with ordinary people".

There have been landmarks on the progress of politics from the adult world to that of the show-off - Blair heading a football with Kevin Keegan, Mo Mowlam taking her wig off during a TV interview, much of the career of Ann Widdecombe - but the emblematic figures of this decline are Mr and Mrs Neil Hamilton.

The ease with which the pair moved from being a government minister and his wife to rent-a-prat regulars on the reality TV circuit, without anyone being particularly surprised, says little about the Hamiltons - who are exceptional only in their shamelessness - but much about how the establishment has changed.

Even in circles which used to be more or less grown-up, those of politics or business, there is now no merit in reticence or etiquette. The capacity for making a complete fool of yourself, whether by taking your clothes off or by appearing on I'm a Celebrity - Get Me Out of Here!, becomes a career asset.

It is difficult to take this descent into silliness too seriously, as my second small item from the home news pages confirms. The camp and faintly absurd Derek Laud, who once wrote speeches for Margaret Thatcher and almost stood as a Tory MP but ended up doing a turn on Big Brother, has just appointed a PR team to look after his promotional interests. It is, naturally enough, Christine and Neil Hamilton.

And what has this famous couple in mind for their protégé? Celebrity Love Island? Stars in Their Eyes? Not at all. "He wants to do serious things and has been approached by a major TV company to do a programme on the Tory leadership," Christine has said.

Far from viewing with a certain distrust a man who has made his reputation through a stupid form of TV, the Tory candidates appear to have been falling themselves to win Laud to their side. The most apparently serious-minded of them, David Willetts, has gone out of his way to boast to the press about discussing leadership issues with the Hamiltons' client.

For some reason, the idea of a rather dull political leader, perhaps one who wears a suit and has difficulty telling jokes, has suddenly become rather appealing.

terblacker@aol.com

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