Are Beckett and Joyce the new X Factor?

Nick Clegg hero-worships Samuel Beckett, Joe Biden adores James Joyce. Are politicians telling us th

At the end of April, with the final televised debate complete and Cleggmania already on the wane, Nick Clegg wrote a blog for the Guardian in which he waxed lyrical about his love for his "hero" Samuel Beckett.

The Lib Dem leader explained passionately that he has read Waiting for Godot "over a hundred times" and revels in the writer's "sparse, unembellished prose". He concluded that "it is impossible to grow tired of Beckett".

While this provoked a certain amount of chatter in the campaign gossip columns and on theatre blogs, it was by no means a game-changing election story. Given that Beckett is a notoriously nihilistic and impenetrable writer (Clegg admits that he finds his style "direct and disturbing"), the contrast between the revelation and the usual pandering-to-the-people tone of politicians' cultural preferences is undeniable.

Election interviews are full of the inanities that politicians feel they have to peddle in order to hoodwink the electorate into believing they don't have intellectual, "highbrow" tastes -- David Cameron's professions of love for the Smiths and Bennie Hill and Gordon Brown claiming to watch The X Factor regularly are notable examples.

But here is the leader of a British political party admitting to hero worship for a very "highbrow", difficult author with whom most of the electorate will not be very familiar. Are the politicians slowly escaping the clutches of their PR machines?

Beyond the small world of the UK blogosphere, others were paying more attention to Clegg's unusual declaration. It was pretty comprehensively covered by the main US political bloggers, including the Daily Dish and Politico, and they were unanimous in their view that this affection for Beckett on Clegg's part was political cyanide, or, as Michael Tomasky put it:

You British folks understand, don't you, that if an American presidential candidate said his hero was Samuel Beckett, he'd be finished. I mean totally finished. He couldn't even get away with an American equivalent. It'd be one thing for a US pol to say Mark Twain. That's about the only serious writer in history a pol could name and survive.

And yet, despite astonishment from across the pond, Clegg's personal profile was not noticeably marred by his admission. Perhaps it will stand as a valuable example now that a similar preference has leaked out about one of their own -- the vice-president has just been caught in an act of affection for James Joyce.

Joe Biden's annual financial disclosure report has just been released, and although it showed that he had accepted notably few gifts, one does stand out. He received a first-edition copy of a chapter from Finnegans Wake, signed by the author, James Joyce, and valued at $3,500.

Now, Joyce is just as obtuse and highbrow an author as Beckett, and it will be interesting to see whether Biden receives any adverse coverage for valuing such a work so highly. Or perhaps, as demonstrated by the limited impact of Clegg's admission, we have moved a little further into a new kind of relationship with our politicians.

Admittedly, it is a very small step, but it could be that we are starting to trust them to speak of their true personal preferences and to accept what is revealed.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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