When Skinner, his mocker, was asked if he regretted this, he replied with a series of quips; well of course he did: in England, the quip is king. A more conventional defence, though Skinner didn't bother with it, is the argument that highly paid entertainers such as Lee must be tough enough to survive the butts of other highly paid entertainers such as Skinner and Baddiel. Jeering at entertainers, after all, has been with us since the nets and tridents of the Coliseum. But I'm not convinced and I feel sorry for Lee. Something crude and relentless has happened to the British idea of satire which owes much more to playground baiting and the baying of drunken kids than it does to Rowlandson, Hogarth and the early years of David Frost. The satirist is now the centre-stage bully rather than the wittiest spectator, and he has become insufferably self- satisfied. Short of Michael Howard, can there be anyone smugger than Angus Deayton or the wits who host the over-supply of sports shows? They themselves richly deserve to be satirised. The armour-plating of their self-irony has made them too invulnerable.
For about ten minutes one morning a couple of years ago I wanted to shout at, shake and possibly hurt someone whom I didn't know. It's a perfectly ordinary story. I was driving to work and had stopped at a set of lights. A white van (they are almost always white vans) overtook too fast and close on the inside lane and smashed my car's wing mirror. There was a loud bang. The van driver must have heard it and felt the impact, but he accelerated away from the lights and I drove after him. We left the main road and went twisting through the back streets of Islington at what was probably a dangerous speed. Eventually he stopped and I got out. He denied the damage. We shouted at each other. Nothing was achieved or resolved. I got back in the car and found that I was trembling.
I'd been seized by a temporary madness: road rage. According to research undertaken by the Oxford English Dictionary, the phrase first appeared in print in a Florida newspaper in 1988, though a British clinical psychologist, David Lewis, recalls using it in this country at around the same time. Unlike other new labels for old ideas - post-stress syndrome instead of grief and shock - road rage is a useful encapsulation of a peculiar and potentially lethal condition that previously had no name. Last week, in the wake of the M25 murder, Dr Lewis speculated on its likely causes. First, more people in a bigger hurry. Second, more crowded and slower roads. Third, a sharp decline in courtesy brought on by what Dr Lewis described as "a kind of cut-throat philosophy".
This list makes perfect sense, but it was another of Dr Lewis's perceptions - not at all new - that seemed to me to get to the heart of things. People become different when they get into their cars; they develop "a sense of mastery". One of the best places to observe this is not the M25, mad and bad as that may be, but a country such as India where cars are fewer but the roads no less crowded with other stuff - bicycles, bullock-carts, goats, crushes of pedestrians. Drivers there behave like charioteers, honking with grand superiority as they clear the road before them. Superficially, nobody else on the road seems to mind too much, but India can be a deceptively passive place. If a driver, while sweeping down some country road, accidentally kills or injures someone, he obeys the classic Indian advice and runs away. The wrath of the crowd can be lethal - India's form of road rage is not so much between cars as against all of them. It may yet catch on here.
Many parallels have been drawn between John Major's bizarre beef crusade against Europe and the spirit that won the Second World War, which is perhaps as he intended. But the prize for the man who gets closest to that spirit must surely go to Graham Riddick, the Tory MP for Colne Valley, who said: "Playing the game like English gentlemen has failed. It is time we took the gloves off." That might have come straight from Powell and Pressburger's The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, which was British wartime propaganda at its subtlest and best. As one of Blimp's young opponents says in the film: "How many agreements have been kept by the enemy since this war started? We agree to the rules of the game and they keep kicking us in the pants. When I joined the army, the only agreement I entered into was to defend my country by any means at my disposal, not by National Sporting Club Rules but by every means that has existed since Cain slugged Abel!"
Fine stuff. The pity is that the present enemy includes the many British primary schools that have also rejected beef, and not Hitler.Reuse content