Saturday, 11 April 2009

The column to end all columns

I used to read quite a few blogs; I don’t any longer. Over the past year or so, I have gradually stopped reading blogs about topics I don’t really care about; blogs that don’t make sense however hard you try to fathom what they’re striving to say; blogs whose authors use the pronoun ‘we’ to refer to themselves; blogs written in painfully bad English; blogs written by admirers of Marie-Antoinette and/or the Romanovs; blogs written by hypocrites; blogs written by sycophants, and blogs whose authors are hypocritical sycophants.

Instead of blogs I’ve been reading newspaper columns online. What is the difference between a blogger and a columnist? The former does it for free; the latter gets paid? Nope: the newspaper columnist has an editor (no one would let me ramble on the way I do in print and that’s as it should be). I am getting fonder of edited stuff by the minute.

The majority of the columns I read are interesting and occasionally perceptive, but none has been more strikingly so as this one, by the delightfully grumpy Giles Coren. It was published in the Times, on 22 November 2008. It refers to events that happened a few months ago, but the main message is even more relevant now, as the recession deepens. I haven’t agreed so much with anything anyone has written for a long time, but then, to me, ‘middlebrow’ is a dirty word.

We need high culture when the index is low

Forget Siberian flosspots. When we’re living on boiled squirrel we should turn to Tolstoy, not trash.

I don't want to give you the wrong impression - and make you think that I give a gibbon's blue goolies whether or not John Sergeant and some horse-thighed Croatian belly-dancer were robbed of a chance to win that game show – but there was one vein of comment in the quagmire of cack spouted about it over the past week that did, briefly, engage me.

And that came when the pro-Sergeant “lobby” appeared to marshal itself around the rallying cry that “the judges should lighten up, it's just a bit of fun, we need distracting from the grimness of the recession”. And I just absolutely do not agree. I cannot see the link. I do not grasp why global economic meltdown should necessarily create an appetite for dumb vanity and shallowness.

Dancing is a moronic activity at the best of times, and when turned into yet another opportunity for celebrity exhibitionism and flawed voting schemes that give democracy a bad name (among a viewing public too lazy to turn out in any significant numbers for elections that really might make a difference to their lives) it appears more imbecilic still. Fiddling while Rome burns.

If a man has lost his job, if his children have holes in their shoes and he is living off soup made from the ninth boiling of a squirrel, then how dare we imagine that his lot will be eased by the sight of a retired journalist waddling round a dance floor with some thunder-bummed Siberian flosspot? (or Slovenian or Russian or whatever she is – I've not seen the show but I've seen the photos in the paper, and nobody colours their hair and body like that except to compensate for a childhood lived under communism).

The media, perhaps understandably, have turned very monochromatic of late. It has only two notes: mad, screaming pessimism about money on the one hand, and brutish, wailing enthusiasm for the lowest of low culture on the other. As if a lack of perspective at both ends in some way created balance.

This week, for example, the papers, when briefly turning their attention away from Strictly Come Dancing, have been thoroughly boob-struck, wrapping stories about the “moral failure” of banks around photographs of Nigella with her shmams out, and running front-page headlines about families losing their homes alongside I'm a Celebrity... video-grabs of big, wet, plastic norks in the jungle.

I do not want to appear hypocritical here, for I am as easily distracted by a big artificial rack on a dim-witted WAG as the next man, but it's not a “new Jordan” that this country should be looking for just at this precise moment, it's a new outlook on life. A far more serious and grown-up one.

And don't look up from your copy of the No1 bestseller Look Who It Is! - My Story by Alan Carr and give me “escapism”. Escapism is an illusion. Escapism is what has got us into this mess. Buying on credit, from the tiddliest MasterCard lunch you couldn't really afford to billion-dollar leveraged buyouts, is, when you boil it down, just escapism - avoiding any sort of engagement with objective reality and doing something just because it feels good at the time. Like a child might do. Or a monkey.

This is not the time to waste a week of your life with Alan Carr's autobiography (or Dawn French's or Paul O'Grady's or Richard Madeley's) and think it counts as reading a book. Because it doesn't. You have borrowed unwisely. You have taken a week off your life that you will not get back at the end, and when you shut whichever compendium of venal drivel you chose, you will still owe thousands on your worthless home and be in no less danger of losing your job.

If you had at least read a bit of Tolstoy, you might have expanded your mind a little. If, instead of watching all those reality shows, you had learnt Japanese, you would be in a better position to remain in work. And if, rather than calling radio phone-ins to say that Len Goodman is a spoilsport, you had learnt the French horn, you would, if nothing else, be able to play your children a bit of Mozart while they sit shivering round the last candle in the house.

I cannot tell you how furious I am with these people who seem to think they should be given back the money they spent on voting for John Sergeant. Anyone to whom a single pound represents a significant, useful quantity of money, and who spent it on a celebrity game show vote, should have his or her assets frozen immediately – under the counter-terrorism laws if need be. Their children should be taken into care. And they should have their credit cards melted and moulded into a stick with which they should be flogged until they bleed.

How in the world can people be angry about a game show? How can a country in 2008 (with the National Intelligence Council in America predicting 20 impending years of environmental tragedy and nuclear war) truly divide into two camps on the question of whether or not the dancing, per se, is the lifeblood of Strictly Come Dancing? It's not funny. It's not even wholesome. It is rancid. If the people who have got so angry about the “injustice” of John's departure had any balls, they would be out lynching bankers.

The point is that all these distractions and escape channels were created not by recession but, quite the opposite, by economic boom.

It was the fat years that made us lazy, dumbed us down, replaced great television with a series of reality shows and killed literature to make room for celebrity whingeing and kiddy books repackaged for adults. It is no coincidence that the publication cycle of Harry Potter, from the first book to the seventh, marked almost exactly the years of economic growth. It is a fat, lazy race that turns its brain off as a prelude to cultural engagement.

Fat, like the seven fat kine in Pharaoh's dream, and the seven lean kine who came after and ate them up. We laid nothing by in the fat years except shlock and dross, and now we turn to it and find that it offers us nothing. Shopping as leisure activity, for heaven's sake. Bluewater, Lakeside, Westfield. The descent into Gomorrah is all-encompassing and headlong. We have not just lost our money, we have lost everything.

Sensible investment designed to repay over the long term would not have screwed everything up the way wild speculation for short-term profit has done.

And the same is true in the culture. Things are going to be pretty crappy now for quite some time, and the short-term fixes of reality television and celebrity biography are not going to help. It would be a great thing if bad times meant we found room for proper books again, and slightly less poisonous popular culture. In the long run, we will end up feeling better if we moderate the gloom of a life with less money by focusing on higher things, not lower ones.

Off to read a ‘proper’ book!


  1. lady jane grey11/04/2009, 09:21

    I more or less agree with him - expect his strange opinion about people with childhood spent in communism. I'm one of those and still manage to keep my hair and body colour pretty decent (well, I don't colour any of them...).

    Well, basically I'm of the strong opinion that we do need high culture any time - before, during and after recession. And now I'm off to read a proper book !

  2. Why doesn't he tell us how he REALLY feels? ;-)

    Seriously, that was an amazing takedown of popular culture - not that I am against it, mind you, it has its place, but indeed we would be better off if people would be more engaged in the business of actual elections than about who gets "voted off the island."

  3. I agree with him as well.

    I recently purchased "How To Read A Novel: A User's Guide" by John Sutherland. I found that the more time I spent on the computer, the more fractured my brain became. I didn't understand some blogs that I normally read, and thought it was because I was losing the knack, or skill, of reading.

    One memorable passage Sutherland describes is from the novel Anna Karenina. There is a lenghty quote about Anna attempting to read her book: about the rug over her knees, the smells around her, the weight of her paperknife in her hand, and the sensual pleasure of cutting the pages as she reads. I haven't read Tolstoy, but now I want to. I'm just finishing Pat Barker's Regneration triliogy, and then it's on to the joys of AK! But, I am surprised that in this day and age, when we have beautiful books available for $5.00 CDN or less, for hardcover books, that libraray budgets are being reduced. The libraries have no budget to increase circulation. When I was a child we lived in rural Nova Scotia. We had access to a book mobile, which is exactly what it sounds like: a library on wheels. The librarians chose materials carefully for their clients. And it was free, so there was no excuse to not read. How is it possible that we have learned to expect so much less?

  4. The book How Fiction Works by James Wood is another book about writing that really makes one want to read the books he talks about.

    I agree about libraries – I'm unemployed at the moment and taken to haunting my local library for reading matter. They actually tell me that they accept book and DVD donations from people now, because they have so little money to spend. They mostly buy paperbacks and then laminate the covers, which I think is a good solution.

    I like Giles Coren, he reminds me of Germaine Greer in the way he just plunges in and says the unacceptable, with amusing exaggeration that makes it all the more palatable.

  5. lady jane grey17/04/2009, 08:38

    Lulu, where do you live ? If it's anywhere in Europe could you pls give me a contact to the library, waiting for book-donations (email the best).

  6. I live in London. I'll ask the library for an email address next time I go.

  7. LJG, I'm very glad to learn you are not perma-tanned. I think Giles Coren can be forgiven for writing what he wrote: we do see an awful lot of 'orange' Eastern European women in London. I am quite sure they are not the majority.

    Glad you agree with the main point. People are usually scared of being labelled as elitist if they hold such views.

    F, I can't comment on those reality shows: I never watch them.

    C, I haven't read How to Read a Novel. Sounds like I should. There is no doubt that spending so much time in front of a computer screen is rather noxious. I am aware I have less patience with the written word than I used to and I am quite distressed by it.

    I haven't used a library for a long time: everything I need for my work can be found on the internet these days and I do like to own the books I read (only paperbacks, though), but, as a child, going to the library was an incredible treat. I can still remember the thrill of climbing to the top floor of the Mairie du IIIe arrondissement in Paris and choosing books. I can remember their smell too.

    L, I'm making a note of that title too. Sounds great.

    I might try my local library and see if they accept donations: I need to make some space on my shelves.

    I do like those funny, opinionated people. I find it difficult to disagree with Germaine about anything, even when she is being blatantly silly. LOL!


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