DJ Taylor: No through road

Depression in commuterland, and not just because of the snow; protesters on the streets; strikers at the picket lines have we been here before?

Sunday 08 February 2009 01:00

Apart from the band of encomiasts who believe that Kate Winslet films are good merely because Kate Winslet stars in them, the reviews of Revolutionary Road were what is known in the trade as "middling".

Some people thought that while Winslet could do drawn-out scenes of marital strife, Leonardo DiCaprio failed to shape up. Other people thought that while DiCaprio was delightfully petulant, Winslet seemed under-engaged. A third group thought that Sam Mendes's treatment of Richard Yates's novel was over-respectful, and there was doubtless a fourth group of literary hardliners who thought that it wasn't respectful enough. Hanging over most of these criticisms, though – good, bad or indifferent – was the assumption that what we had before us was something that, in the last resort, was narrowly figurative: that DiCaprio and Winslet, in playing the fraught suburban couple Frank and April Wheeler, were somehow representative of a vast demographic tide. At the very least, it appeared, Revolutionary Road was a savage indictment of something. But what exactly? Apple-pie, Eisenhower -era suburbia? The stifling of talent and enterprise (April is a frustrated actress)? The post-war rat race (cue shots of Frank stepping off the train in New York with hundreds of identically-dressed worker ants)?

The all-purpose abstract noun "repression" was not actually used in any of the reviews I saw, but it lurked in the bedroom closet along with the length of rubber tubing that April eventually uses to procure an abortion and set up the film's immensely gloomy ending. The difficulty with most of these interpretations is that, among the denizens of this small-town social hub, only the Wheelers seem to be getting it in the neck: everyone else in the neighbourhood looks to be more or less enjoying themselves. It is Frank and April's inner demons that bring them down. And so, in the end, Mendes's film, like Yates's novel before it, is an exposé of human exceptionalism. Far from fronting an oppressed constituency, the Wheelers represent no one but themselves. In much the same way, Madame Bovary is less a critique of social arrangements in 19th century provincial France than a study of a single, highly individual woman, and Jude the Obscure less a parable of Victorian social advancement than the story of a Victorian stonemason unique to his trade. All of which is a testimony to our deep reluctance to let art, and the people who wander about in it, exist on their own terms rather than huddled up en masse beneath the societal blanket.


The BBC was generally agreed to have overdone its coverage of the snow: Fiona Bruce was too excitable; there were too many weather forecasters enjoying their brief moment in the sun, so to speak; and too many pictures of gambolling schoolchildren and stationary buses getting in the way of real news. Among these trifles, it was a pity that more television cameras weren't focused on the visit of the Chinese premier Wen Jiabao to these shores, and the reception afforded him by Gordon Brown, left.

What, you wondered, was going through the Prime Minister's mind as he seized this foxy old tyrant by the hand, loudly addressed him as "my friend", for the benefit of any reporters who might have been hovering nearby, and dragged him away to the banqueting hall, while a posse of policemen held the human rights protesters at bay? Was he faintly embarrassed? Did he genuinely think he was doing good? Or was he grimly acknowledging to himself that the demands of realpolitik make stooges of us all?

In the run-up to last summer's Beijing Olympics there was a great deal of talk in official circles about "dialogue" with the Chinese not only being absolutely necessary for our economic well-being, but a splendid way of exerting "pressure" on Mr Wen and his satellites in the field of human rights abuses. Would Mr Brown or his Foreign Secretary care to explain exactly what benefits Mansion House dinners bring to people who don't have a vote and are likely to be imprisoned (or worse) if they take to the streets to protest about it? You sometimes feel that if some mineral vital to the economic health of the West suddenly turned up beneath the Burmese paddy fields, Mr Brown would be reliably on hand, dressed in his evening suit, to toady General Ne Win into the Guildhall, while issuing bromides about our deep concern for his subjects' human rights.


Meanwhile, like gyves about theleg of a medieval felon, the phrase British jobs for British workers continues to hang round Mr Brown's neck.

A trawl through the reference books insists that practically every British prime minister eventually mints some slogan that will come back to haunt him, be used as rope with which to hang him and generally make him wish he had kept his mouth shut. With Neville Chamberlain it was "peace in our time". With Harold Macmillan it was "never had it so good". Harold Wilson immortalised – or perhaps only immolated – himself with "the pound in your pocket" or possibly "the white heat of the technological revolution". No account of Jim Callaghan's three-year tenure at 10 Downing Street omits "crisis, what crisis?"

All week long, of course, the Prime Minister's defenders have been pointing out that what he actually meant was that we needed to provide the training and the qualifications that will help the unemployed off the dole queue. Sadly, this is not the way that the public's interpretation of political statements works. Callaghan always maintained that what he really said, on returning from a summit in Guadeloupe to a country battered by the Winter of Discontent, was "I promise you that if you look at it from outside, and perhaps you're taking a rather provincial view at the moment, I don't think that other people in the world would share the view that there is mounting chaos." An attempt to calm the nation's jitters was taken as complacency, and Jim's goose was cooked. It is the same with "British jobs" which, like "Calais" and Mary Tudor, will probably be found engraved on Mr Brown's heart after his death.


What exactly is "wit"? And is it transmissible? These questions were prompted by Leslie Mitchell's new biography of Sir Maurice Bowra, Maurice Bowra: A Life. Bowra (1898-1971), in case you hadn't heard of him, was celebrated in his Oxford stamping ground as possibly the most legendary wit ever to hold forth at an upmarket dinner table. The problem is that, 60 or 70 years later, most of the bon mots that had star-struck undergraduates paralytic with mirth – "a friend said to feel things 'only sin-deep'" – don't seem in the least bit funny. Like a pop lyric detached from its grounding amid guitar, bass and drums they lack the atmosphere and the row of attentive faces that gave them bite.

Seeking to prove the point that "wit" rarely travels, I looked out some remarks of the Regency dandy Beau Brummell and found that they, too, were dependent on having been there at the time (specimen remark to an acquaintance he saw walking with the future George IV: "Who's your fat friend?") Even Wilde's aphorisms carry a suspicion of being thought up in advance. On the other hand, certain combinations of genuine spontaneity and real mental acuteness precariously endure.

I laughed out loud recently at an account of an Oxford dinner where the historian A L Rowse was complaining to Bowra's great chum John Sparrow, then warden of All Souls College, that Sparrow had never read any of his books. "Do you know Tudor Cornwall, John?" Rowse boomed. "No," Sparrow dead-panned back, glancing at the distinguished philosopher who sat nearby. "Do you know Stuart Hampshire?"


The part of Norwich I live in is being laid waste by the Tesco juggernaut and a new "Tesco local" is being built on the site of a defunct garage a mile or so up the road. All the usual things happened: umpteen applications, each successfully repelled by an alliance of residents, shopkeepers and local councillors, lots of legal manoeuvring and a final appeal which the planning inspectorate unaccountably upheld.

All this zealous trampling of local sentiment seems somehow less offensive than the rubric I discovered last week on the top of a box of Tesco apple cereal bars beneath the heading "fun fact" (spelling and punctuation follow the original): "oats start off as a green colour when growing and then turn brown when the sun has dried them out. oats are harvested from the field and taken to have their outer layer removed, as we don't eat this part. how long can you shake you arms as if you were shaking the outer layer of the oats?" You would think it impossible to patronise a five-year-old, but somehow Tesco has managed it.

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