DJ Taylor: Middle-class mania

The bruising legacy of the 1970s; Dan Brown gets the Potter treatment; why we watch SpongeBob SquarePants; and how a king's death imperilled Cromer FC

Sunday 16 March 2014 04:46

Some enterprising pollster ought to ask the question: which 20th-century decade most fascinates the British public?

While periodic attempts are made to revive the 1980s – never with much success – and the 1960s retain their allure as the crucible of What Went Wrong, my own vote would go for the 1970s, currently being celebrated, or disparaged, in half a dozen new and forthcoming books. Andy Beckett's When the Lights Went Out has just been published; Francis Wheen's Strange Days Indeed is in the press; the follow-up to White Heat, Dominic Sandbrook's account of 1964-70, is due next year.

The pat explanation for this torrent of print is the 30th anniversary of Margaret Thatcher's ascent to power. Underlying it, though, is a much more wide-ranging concern for the circumstances that encouraged her, and a deeply held conviction that the period 1970-79 marked the end of something – the Butskellite Consensus, if that phrase means anything to anyone under 40, or at any rate a way of looking at the world that the intervening 30 years have blown into fragments.

One thing that chroniclers of the decade of Edward Heath, Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan, and Jack Jones, Hugh Scanlon and Joe Gormley – for this was an era in which trade union leaders bestrode the landscape of current affairs like tussling mastodons – nearly always forget is the note of bourgeois hysteria that rose intermittently above it. My father, an otherwise level-headed man, genuinely believed that at some point in their lives his children would wake to the spectacle of Russian tanks cruising the streets of Norwich. By mid-decade, right-wing punditry had taken an unrelievedly gloomy turn. Robert Moss's The Collapse of Democracy (1975) begins with a fictitious letter from the London of 1985, now in a state of "proto-communism". Julian Fane's Revolution Island (1980), an immensely pointed jeremiad masquerading as a novel, is set in 1982, the year in which "our last Conservative government was deposed by the Trade Unions, over whom it had again attempted to assert its democratic authority".

However exaggerated, or susceptible to burlesque – see for example EP Thompson's essay "Writing by Candlelight" – attitudes of this kind were an authentic reflection of how millions of middle-class people actually felt. If, like my father, you were a fifty-something middle-manager trapped between a terrified executive and a gang of surly shop stewards, with the inflation rate at 20 per cent and the country in hock to the International Monetary Fund, you could be excused a little bourgeois hysteria, and you could be excused its bleak transmission to your children. One of the most bruising legacies of the 1970s was middle-class resentment of organised labour: its consequences are still unravelling.


Walking past my local Waterstone's the other day, I noticed a wonderful example of the UK book trade's infallible habit of shooting itself in the foot. Dan Brown's new novel, The Lost Symbol, a successor to his mega-selling The Da Vinci Code, appears in the autumn. Six million copies are supposed to have been ordered up from the printers. Although the book is not published until September, when its cover price is expected to be £18.99, Waterstone's is already taking advance orders for the enticing sum of £9.49.

There are two points to be made about what, at first sight, looks a commendable act of charity. The first is that Waterstone's will make no profit on the book, as it will be selling it at more or less the trade price charged by the publisher. The second is that, by using the novel as a loss-leader whose function is to bring customers into its shops, Waterstone's is guaranteeing that no one else in the book trade, apart from Mr Brown and his sponsors, will make any money out of it either.

As with the last Harry Potter, about £20m that could have been used to shore up the world of bookselling – a retail market badly in need of a cash bonus – has simply been thrown away. Short of re-imposing retail price maintenance, there is no solution to the bizarre spectacle of independent booksellers finding it cheaper to buy a particular title from the shop down the road rather than order it from the publisher. The most effective response – which I don't suppose anyone will have the guts to propose – would be for every other bookseller in the UK to boycott the book. If millions of pounds are to be lost on The Lost Symbol, then why not let Waterstone's lose them?


The award for the week's most enlightened act of cultural salvage goes to the Essex Record Office's Sound and Video Archive for underwriting the release of a CD featuring a century's worth of local dialect. The inroads made by low-level urban demotic – Estuarine and its goblin variants – into localised ways of speaking are often thought to be a fairly recent phenomenon. In fact, Martin Astell, the archivist in charge of the project, suggests that the retreat of the original Essex dialects before a tide of colonising cockney was being prophesied as early as the 1880s. Coming from a part of the world where they take speech differentiation very seriously, I always feel a little shiver of pride on hearing some word, or pronunciation of it, that can't instantly be tracked down in the Concise Oxford.

Even in Norwich, where quite half the population talks as if it had just shambled out of Albert Square, many of the ancient variations still apply. My sister, for example, if she likes something, will remark that it is "reely nice", Norwich pronunciation of "ea" always going for the long "e". The woman who cleans our house, on the other hand, a native of Costessey, a bare three miles away, will flatten out the vowels and say "rarely". "Oh dare" in Costessey means "Oh dear". That said, the days when ancients deedily bicycling along the north Norfolk back lanes would hail each other with cries of "Ha' your fa got a dicker, bor?" (not as rude as it sounds, and merely meaning "does your father keep a donkey my friend?") are long since vanished into the mist. Hats off, though, to the Essex Record Office for this spirited attempt to fling back the monocultural tide.


Talking of monocultural tides, the most predictable arts world event of the week was the news that ITV will be scrapping The South Bank Show when its host, Melvyn Bragg, retires from the company next year. ITV's conspicuous lack of interest in Bragg & Co, whose relationship to the channel as a whole might be compared to a Sevres vase in the grasp of a chimpanzee, was symbolised by its habit of beaming the show out on the cusp of midnight.

The awfulness of British terrestrial television – and the even greater awfulness that will follow The South Bank Show's demise – is a columnist's staple, of course, but just to reassure myself I consulted the roster for Thursday night. BBC1 had EastEnders, a DIY feature and Crimewatch. BBC2 had settled for cookery, health spas, Sir Alan Sugar and Graham Norton. Over on ITV1 Emmerdale gave way to the good clean family fun of The Bill ("A man suffering from motor-neurone disease is badly beaten") and Taggart ("A lecturer is stabbed to death in front of 30 trainee police officers"). Channel 4, meanwhile, was lining up Madeleine McCann, "extreme male beauty" and Gordon Ramsay in the USA. No doubt about it, the children's SpongeBob SquarePants DVDs win out every time.

Commercial TV bosses always complain that lost advertising revenue explains their lack of enthusiasm for highbrow drama and programmes about the Sistine Chapel, but given the dreariness of what remains, is it any wonder that the smart money is taking flight to cyberspace?


Here in Norfolk we are still in deep mourning at the demise of Norwich City, relegated to the third tier of English football for the first time since 1960. What little sporting sympathy there is to spare has been lavished on the players and staff of Cromer Town FC, threatened with the loss of their ground, Cabbell Park, by what must count as one of the most obscure trust clauses in legal history.

The land was bequeathed to the people of Cromer as long ago as 1922 by a local benefactress named Evelyn Bond-Cabbell. Unhappily, recent inspection of the lease revealed a clause stating that it would expire 21 years after the death of Queen Victoria's eldest grandchild. King Olav V of Norway, who had that honour, died in 1991, which means that the lease runs out in January 2012. Club officials are now anxiously negotiating with Mrs Bond-Cabbell's descendants, one of whom has declared that "her wishes are paramount".

Quite as much as Melvyn Bragg, or the rich dialects of Essex, the club (nickname, inevitably, "The Crabs", 11-times winners of the Lifeboat Cup) deserves your support.

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