The battle between high and low culture comes round as regularly as the weekend football results. It could be glimpsed most recently, for example, in the complaints over the award of a knighthood to Sir Mick Jagger, following the previous decorations for Sir Bob, Sir Paul and Sir Elton. It could be noticed at the end of last year in the protests at the amount of newspaper coverage allotted to the death of George Harrison, in the suggestion that Downing Street neither knew nor cared that V S Naipaul had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and in half a dozen other low-grade arts-world skirmishes. The curious thing about this conflict - a savage, no-holds-barred struggle to anyone professionally caught up in it - is that nine-tenths of the population barely know that it exists. Pavarotti and Puccini, the Beatles and So Solid Crew - it is all simply "music" to the specimen radio browser or megastore CD rack sifter. The vast cultural chasm that supposedly exists between a Tchaikovsky symphony and Andrew Lloyd Webber is a matter only for the arts police.
Like many another long-running engagement, the high culture/low culture stand-off has a habit of moving on from battleground to battleground. At one time it was popular music. Were the Beatles as good as Mozart? Is Bob Dylan as good as Shelley? These are facile comparisons at the best of times, taking no account of context, audience or aspiration, but still they go on being made. Now the battle is fought over television. Respectable newspapers are forever telling us that TV isn't worth watching or that BBC2 is only interested in cookery and herbaceous borders. Jeremiads of this kind are easy to write; I have written a couple of them myself. "Look at a week's TV," an editor will say, quoting the extraordinary number of hours that the average viewer is statistically proven to watch, "and see what you make of it."
Fish swimming in a barrel are not more easily despatched. It takes only a few hours of television, let alone the 25 hours of which the average weekly diet supposedly consists, to cure the TV tyro of his curiosity, to leave him or her feeling intellectually short-changed, talked down and condescended to. A programme such as Kilroy seems to me infinitely worse than any of the depravities one occasionally encounters on Channel 5, quite terrifying in its prurience, its patronage and its fake communality.
Yet though television is unremittingly ghastly, there are distinctions to be made. The guest TV reviewer who plunges head first into the moral rumpus room that is, say, EastEnders and emerges keen to express his distaste for the medium, is usually supposed to be denigrating something called "popular culture". The standard tabloid argument advanced to destroy anyone who maintains that the viewer would be better off walking round the block than watching an early-evening soap opera runs thus: if millions of people like something, then that something must necessarily have merit, while not to like it is to cut oneself off from the cultural preferences of "ordinary people". There is, therefore, something "democratic" in watching Coronation Street and something "elitist" in proclaiming the advantages of a screen filled with literary profiles.
In fact, this distinction is horribly bogus. The point about the television programmes that clog up the early evening schedules, the films shown in high-street multiplexes and the newspapers on sale at W H Smith is that they are not manifestations of "popular" culture. They are manifestations of mass culture, which is a rather different thing. If you take the standard definition of popular culture as being something like "the processes of ordinary life", then what could be further removed from it than, say, the Sun or the latest Hollywood blockbuster?
To make this point is not to disparage the Sun, or the latest Hollywood blockbuster - however much you may feel they need jumping on good and hard - merely to say that they are forms of mass entertainment imposed from above on the people who consume them. Mass culture, it might be said, covers the varieties of social organisation and social ritual brought to us by the mass-cultural impresarios - Rupert Murdoch, Steven Spielberg and all the rest of them. Popular culture is something that, within certain broadly conceived limits, we create for ourselves.
Inevitably, popular culture and mass culture are closely related, but it is an unequal relationship in which far more is taken than is given, and all the publicity ends up on the wrong side. In fact, one might start by asking: does such a thing as popular culture, in any meaningful sense of the phrase, still exist? And, if so, where exactly? As the mass publicists stamp their patterns ever more firmly on the national fabric - the great transformation of 20th-century British cultural life, it could be argued - what happened to the ordinary world, the world that, before Hollywood and Fleet Street and TV, fixed its own boundaries, cultivated a garden that needed no Charlie Dimmocks to set it right?
The trail leads us back to the gnarled and prophetic figure of Richard Hoggart, whose The Uses of Literacy (1957) remains one of the earliest, and most effective, attempts to understand the nature of the mass culture/popular culture divide - to establish, as it were, exactly what was going on in the average postwar working-class parlour. Hoggart's studies of cheap novels and magazines, newspapers and contemporary cinema, interspersed with memories of his own pre-war north-of-England childhood, realised a gloomy portrait of a certain kind of cultural life in steep decline. The old, close, tightly knit working-class culture of stuffy front rooms, allotments, back- to-back housing, fish-and-chip suppers and charabanc trips - the kind of world reproduced in a novel such as Walter Greenwood's Love on the Dole (1933) and observed in Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) - was falling apart. In its place was emerging a mass culture made up of tabloid newspapers, advertising and Hollywood: a culture that robbed the landscapes it colonised of any localised distinctiveness and was, above all, external to the thing it had begun to dominate.
It is important not to overstate this case: Hoggart himself was worried that his report on postwar working-class life might be misunderstood, above all by the people who might be expected to sympathise with it. His argument was not, as he put it, "that there was in England one generation ago, an urban culture still very much 'of the people' and that now there is only a mass urban culture". Rather, it was that the appeals made by what he called "the mass publicists" were made "more insistently, effectively and in a more centralised form today than they were earlier; that we are moving towards the creation of a mass culture, that the remnants of what was at least in part an urban culture 'of the people' are being destroyed".
Half a century later, what can we say about the kind of cultural changes that Hoggart described? On one level, inevitably, all that Hoggart foresaw has happened, and with inconceivable haste and nastiness. We live - and a stroll down the average high street reminds us of this - in a world that tends increasingly to the identikit, whose citizens buy their goods at the same shops, speak in the same undifferentiated south of England Estuary whine and are encouraged to take their values from a queer kind of mid-Atlantic small-screen never-never land.
On a much more fundamental level, too, the old working-class fiefdoms that Hoggart defined, themselves a monoculture of a sort, in which everybody in the same street did the same job or was unemployed, have irretrievably broken down, their inhabitants pushed on the one hand down into poverty, or on the other elevated into a burgeoning middle-class world that gets its money from computers and the service industries. My great-grandfather was a labourer. My grandfather read electricity meters. My father was an insurance clerk. I write books. What does that tell you about developments in English working-class life over the past century or so? In adapting to these huge transformations of livelihood, aspiration and influence, "ordinary" culture has also lost one of its defining personalities: the working-class autodidact.
The self-taught "ordinary" man, with no formal education to speak of, yet keenly alive to the lure of learning - the millhand who reads Chekhov during his tea break while the looms clack above his head, the descendant of D H Lawrence's and Gissing's slum intellectuals - wanders through Hoggart and through the works of "northern" writers such as Alan Sillitoe, Philip Callow and Stan Barstow. What happened to him? At a guess, his modern equivalent went to university, enjoyed his studies but, discovering that "there was no money in books", took a job in financial services. One might think, on the evidence of a 1930s slum novel, that interwar working-class life was depressingly ground-down and homogenous - a matter of "father", muscles warped by years of manual labour, raising pigeons in the loft while "mother" boozes tea in a cockroach-strewn kitchen. In many ways, though, it provided the conditions in which individuality and intellectual quiddity of the kind celebrated by Hoggart, Sillitoe and others could flourish. To put it another way: a university is a wonderful thing, but what would it have done for Lawrence?
None of this is to suggest that "popular culture" has somehow ceased to exist, vanished beneath a tide of Kentucky Fried Chicken wrappers and 7 UP cans, for there are certain areas of national life that will always be vulnerable to irruptions of genuinely popular taste. By far the most conspicuous of them is popular music. According to all the known laws of mass cultural production, "pop" is an area in which content, style and taste is sewn up in advance by the business, with stars and hits manufactured by cigar-chewing executives in Denmark Street. Yet every few years the industry is subject to a seismic street-level shift: a series of revolts that includes everything from punk to UK garage and scares the taste-formers stiff until such time as its edges can be sanded down for mainstream consumption (this process was outlined over 30 years ago in George Melly's book Revolt into Style). Simultaneously, in a fragmenting marketplace, where each musical genre has a roster of sub-genres notionally related to it, some kinds of music, like some brands of literature, develop, mutate and conduct relationships with their audience, according to their own laws, distinct from mass-culture orthodoxies.
Language is another area in which popular culture - the world that goes on out there rather than on screen or page - is more than capable of holding its own. The lists of neologisms in the latest editions of the standard dictionaries suggest that these additions to the word hoard can be split into two categories. Half of them - "doing a Delia" and so on - were inventions of the media. The other half, usually slang phrases of the "I offered him out" variety (meaning "I suggested that we could settle our differences outside") have silently and mysteriously taken root in English demotic, only rising to startle the lexicographers after years of usage in the unofficial world. A few seconds' thought locates half a dozen phrases in everyday use that have simply arrived from nowhere, lodged in the popular consciousness without ever declaring their origins. Even today, in the age of mass-market newspapers, there is still a difference between the way in which people speak to each other and the way in which they are spoken to. One can see it by turning from, say, the editorial page of a local newspaper to the births, marriages and deaths column or listening to the chants that rise up from the average football terrace.
The idea of having some kind of control over your life, the feeling that you have the ability to shape it rather than having it shaped for you, becomes all the more important when one sees the way in which mass culture is capable of reinventing popular culture in its own image, whittling away its oddities and refining what remains to a mainstream pattern, often leaving only a parody of the original. The Norfolk where I grew up 30 years ago was full of "characters". None, perhaps, was more bizarre than Allan Smethurst who, in the guise of "the Singing Postman" (Smethurst's day job before he turned professional), sang plaintive, self-penned numbers about the Sheringham crab boats and "following the binder round". The thing about Smethurst, and the curious kind of folk poetry set to music that he produced, was that he was quite sui generis: he simply turned up one day with his cassette tapes, acquired a manager and, before a premature decline into alcoholism, started making records.
Some years later, Smethurst having vanished into well-remembered legend, the BBC founded a local radio station. Suddenly, the studios were again awash with "characters" - sheepdog chivviers, dialect raconteurs, smock-wearing ancients with names like "Buttercup Joe". The difference between the Singing Postman and this tribe of imitators was that the former was a proper example of local culture, while his heirs were just people who had seen a bit of television and thought they knew what local culture ought to look like. The spirit of rural Norfolk? In the mass-culture age, an old fraud in a made-to-measure smock will always have the edge over someone as genuinely odd as Allan Smethurst.
Does any of this matter? After all, most inhabitants of the early 21st century, looking at the landscape Richard Hoggart describes in The Uses of Literacy, would probably thank God that they live in a world of decent housing and unemployment benefit. Equally, no one would seriously dispute the superiority of our current shopping mall dreamscapes to long years of semi-starvation on the dole. All the same, you are left with a feeling that we have lost quite as much as we have gained from this wholesale obliteration of past English life.
Every so often one comes across a book - it might be about anything from birdwatching to North Country fairs - a record or a picture that introduces its readers to a world entirely beyond the reach of the mass culture, still surviving, still capable of informing the way in which countless lives are lived. All this, it goes without saying, is vitally important to our sense of self. The person who uses a dialect phrase because he remembers his father using it, or knows the date at which the fragments of the wall that dot the boundary of his city were built, is a part of his environment in a way that someone ignorant of these things is not. Curiously enough, it is still possible to live a substantial part of your life beyond the stultifying embrace of the mass culture, a culture whose main achievement, it might be said, is to steal from us the sense of who we are.
D J Taylor's latest novel, The Comedy Man, is now available in paperback from Duckworth (£5.99)