The pathetic thing about Hague's story is not the 14 pints, but the impulse behind telling it

Normally when people come back from holiday in the middle of August and ask if anything interesting has happened while they have been away, if anyone famous has died, it is difficult to think of anything apart from crop circles.

Not this August. Nobody who has been away will ever catch up. There are medieval-style mobs prowling a housing estate and threatening people who, according to a friend of a friend who met someone in the pub, said something funny to the ten-year-old daughter of a woman living round the corner. Notice that, even here, even when it was established that people with no connection at all to the matter were being driven out of their homes, Labour and Conservative politicians alike seem compelled to mention the "understandable" strong feelings of parents, as if strong feelings themselves possessed some kind of legitimacy.

Then there's William Hague and his 14 pints a day as a teenager. It is certainly an awesome amount - 14 pints of anything is a lot of liquid. You could almost have a bath in it. Imagine it inside you, the sound you would make as you moved around.

In his GQ interview, Hague said that that's the sort of thing you can do as a teenager. Not me. I remember, when I played in the first XV at school, having to do an impersonation of being a man. This largely involved going to the pub and drinking beer and pretending to like it. I could just about manage a pint and a half, with effort and lots of crisps to go with it. About ten years later, I was telling someone about this and she replied: "Well, if you didn't like it, why did you drink it?" Women don't understand these things, do they?

What is truly pathetic about Hague's story is not so much the 14 pints, which is patently false, but the impulse behind telling it. You're being interviewed by a men's magazine, so you talk about beer. And the idea that you impress young voters by telling them about your beer-drinking capacity is barely a notch up from boasting about your morris dancing.

The problem here is that careers seem to demand more dedication, or at least more time, than they used to. In the 19th century, ministers would pop into the Commons, but they would also manage estates, write books, practise as lawyers, travel extensively. Most of them would have had a serious career before becoming a politician. Now there isn't time for that. They do semi-political jobs before getting a seat and, from then on, a serious politician barely has time to watch a television programme, let alone read a book.

In his recent memoir, Bryan Magee describes how he wrote his major book on Schopenhauer in the mornings, alternating with bursts of work as a Labour MP in the afternoons and evenings. But then, what became of his political career?

That's all right, but occasionally they feel they have to pretend to be like what they think we are like, hence Hague's baseball cap and Tony Blair's extraordinary mockney accent. I feel I should attack their behaviour, but it is so enjoyable that I don't want them to stop doing it.

And the deaths - Alec Guinness, the possessor of the most famous 2.25 per cent in movie history (his share of Star Wars), and Robin Day. For anybody under the age of about 30, the huge coverage of Day's death - lead story on the TV news, two or three entire pages in each of the broadsheets - must be baffling. Who was he? They must feel the way I feel about the famous personalities whom my grandparents talked about: Raymond Glendenning, Richard Dimbleby. And, after all their years on TV or radio, these celebrities seem to be remembered for just one thing, two at best. Glendenning, a sports commentator, had to do a radio commentary during the war of a football match that was almost invisible due to fog, but he couldn't mention that because, allegedly, it would help the German bombers. Dimbleby did that April Fool report about spaghetti growing on trees. Day had John Nott walking out, Margaret Thatcher "forgetting" to call him Sir Robin, and some grainy footage from the 1950s that apparently seemed important at the time. Day was also famous for being imitated by Mike Yarwood, and now nobody even remembers Yarwood.

It's a subject worthy of Larkin, but will only get E J Thribb, and there's something sadly appropriate about that, too.

This article first appeared in The New Statesman Essay - What are we doing to our children?

2000-08-21