The Saturday editions of The Times and The Guardian are not cheap. Each cost Malcolm the equivalent of what was, when he started, a day’s wages at the mineral-water factory or a dozen pints of Steward and Patteson.
Malcolm also asks for quality in his reading. He prefers well-written, well-argued, well-structured prose to anything that is merely catch-penny and sympathetic.
So, today, he found himself disappointed by Matthew Parris, doing no more than a workmanlike job on the post-Conference position of the Tories:
… the Tory project roars onward to power. But when power comes, and brings the post-election disappointments that will surely ambush a government inheriting wrecked national finances, worried constituents and a nation still uneasy in its soul about Europe, Mr Cameron and his whips will need all the credit they can accumulate among Tory MPs.
There was something better among the Times columnists, though — Janice Turner exposing the hypocrisy and confusion in Chris Grayling’s Wednesday rabble-rousing:
… roll up for Grayling’s Great Deals: “Four-pack of super-strength lager UP £1.33!” “Super-strength cider — DOUBLE in price!” “Alcopops — large bottle — a soaraway £1.50 MORE!” Clearly he wanted to show command of detail, how much he’d stiff us on Special Brew to the exact threepennorth. But it conveyed what the caring Tories, with their Iain Duncan Smith understand-don’t- condemn social policy unit, can no longer say out loud: their visceral loathing of the British underclass.
She did a quick trolley-shimmy round her local Sainsbury’s:
… my own under-age teenage fave Babycham — “the happiest drink in the world” — is still a snip at £3.18 but, at only 6 per cent proof, it would take more than four dainty bottles to make you feel like smashing up a bus shelter. Special Brew (two litres for £6 at 9 per cent proof) seemed worthy of Chris Grayling’s opprobrium until I spied this week’s soaraway offer: £7 for two bottles of nice Chilean chardonnay, 11.5 per cent proof. Neck that outside the community centre and you’d be in pole position for an ASBO.
No prizes for guessing what sits beside Malcolm’s keyboard.
But then Turner pedals to the metal:
... there is only one winner, endorsed by maudlin Russians and Scandinavian suicides for centuries: vodka. Just £6 a litre and EU regulations dictate that it must be 37.5 per cent proof minimum. Mr Grayling insisted that he would root out shopkeepers selling alcohol below cost price. But the point of vodka is that, as it is little more than distilled potato juice, it costs pennies to produce.
I had dinner once with the director of a premium vodka company who told me that around 90 per cent of the price tag was branding. Artful advertising — Smirnoff’s surrealism, Absolut’s urban cool — and sponsorship of A-list events give an identity and aura of sophistication to a liquid that is little better than what a Latvian peasant brews in his bath.
Oh, nice. Very nice. The build-up to a delicious bathos. Even the punch-line (which, of course, this week of all weeks, has to be champagne, gets a twist:
What the Tories haven’t appreciated is how naff champagne has become. The buzz marketing phrase of the last decade was affordable luxury. Just as low-grade cashmere is available in Bhs and the rock star’s drug, cocaine, is snorted by hairdressers, so champagne is sold in every corner shop. Once confined to the wedding toast or Formula One triumph, acidic, banging-hangover fizz is now so ubiquitous that I’ve come to agree with Christopher Hitchens that it ranks among the four most overrated things in the world, with lobster, picnics and anal sex.
Worrying thing there … what do Hitchens and Turner know of those comparators? And all at the same time?
All that aside, the best single piece of writing so far seen by Malcolm this week-end is Ian Jack in the Guardian. It, too, starts from drink, with the title:
A country of cold beer and ginger beer
Jack’s conceit starts from seeing Cameron’s Conference speech deriving from Kenneth Grahame:
“Yes, it will be a steep climb,” said Cameron to his conference or as the Water Rat told the Mole, “but the view from the summit will be worth it. Let me tell you what I can see.” “Oh, do Ratty do,” said the Mole, panting behind. The Rat was already at the top, with a claw shading his eyes. “I see a country where the poorest children go to the best schools not the worst … I see cold beef, cress sandwiches and ginger beer in a hamper … I see … I see …”
From there Jack develops into a shrewd political observation:
To historians, the interesting thing may be that for 13 years spanning the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st centuries Britain was ruled by a party born inside and chiefly supported by the Northern Metaphor, whose second prime minister wore so many of its qualities. Look at the constituency names attached to the members of its cabinet: South Shields, Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, Blackburn, Normanton, Leigh, Pontefract, Edinburgh South West. Out of its 20 members elected to parliament, 13 have seats north of the Trent.
The shadow cabinet tells a different story: Arundel and South Downs, Chesham and Amersham, Surrey Heath, Beaconsfield, South Cambridgeshire, Chipping Barnet, Havant. Twenty of 28 members have seats in southern England. England north of Birmingham is represented by George Osborne (Hatton in Cheshire) and William Hague (Richmond, North Yorkshire).
On the way he taps into a telling antinomy:
In 1969, the Australian writer Donald Horne offered his notion of competing metaphors.
In the Northern Metaphor, Britain is “pragmatic, empirical, calculating, Puritan, bourgeois, enterprising, adventurous, scientific, serious, and believes in struggle”. In the Southern Metaphor, Britain is “romantic, illogical, muddled, divinely lucky, Anglican, aristocratic, traditional, frivolous, and believes in order and tradition”. The winner in this contest was decided at least a century ago when, in Horne’s words, Britons decided it wasn’t “for what they did but for what they were that destiny had rewarded them so lavishly”.
In Malcolm’s days, the Tories who have bridged that gap have been the likes of Harold Macmillan. He was physically lacerated by the trench warfare of WW1 and then emotionally by the unemployment and destitution of his Tees-side constituency. It is no coincidence that Hilda Margaret Thatcher (daughter of the corner shop, married a millionaire) originated from south of the Trent, that classic dividing line. Cameron has northern links, and could go either way.
Back to the newsprint.