It is perhaps as well for The Daily Telegraph that the apoplectic retired colonels of Tunbridge Wells and Budleigh Salterton are all but extinct, and that those few who survive are too enfeebled to take up their pens and dip them in bubbling vitriol.
For what would these crusty veterans have made of a recent article, sufficiently important to be flagged on page one, headed “Why the ladies who lunch are giving up fizzy water”. Its author, Belinda Edwards, warns that “the restaurant chic police are on the rampage again and the greatest faux pax is choosing fizzy”.
Much is quickly explained: “Leading the anti-bubble brigade is society fixer Liz Brewer, who would like to free every social occasion of any fizz that isn’t in a champagne bottle. ‘I am passionately against any water bubbles entering my system,’ she says.”
Apparently, the distaste for bubbles originated in New York “where Ann Piccirillo (an exercise guru and miracle worker on fashionable thighs) decreed that carbonated drinks, including water, caused cellulite”. Laura Patten, health and beauty assistant at Harpers & Queen, says: “You look around the office and everybody has a half-finished bottle of Evian on their desk, with the lid off…the Evian bottle is lighter to carry, environmentally friendly and people like to look at the mountains on the label.”
Reading that, it is not surprising that the disgusteds of the shires have fallen silent. They are a vanquished lot, a spent force overwhelmed by cliché, sloppy English, solecism, and, above all, mind-numbing trivia. For sheer otiose vacuity the water article takes some beating. As absurdity tumbles over fatuity, from restaurant chic police to society fixer, from miracle worker on fashionable thighs to people looking at the mountains on the label, the only sane response is one of resigned, sobbing despair. How could a serious newspaper print such stuff?
To be serious is not to be pompous or dull. Still less is it to eschew diversion or wit. But there is a huge gulf separating the light-hearted from the downright empty-headed. Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, columnist and former editor of The Sunday Telegraph, is fond of the expression “homme serieux”, by which he means a person who applies intelligent thought to the world about him, is interested in the currency of ideas, and who wants to learn more. Dr Johnson meant much the same thing when he talked of a woman who had a “bottom of good sense”, an expression which caused his listeners, including Boswell, to giggle. “Where’s the merriment?”, snapped Johnson. “I say the woman was fundamentally sensible.”
Not so long ago the readership of serious newspapers was drawn from people who were fundamentally sensible and who could readily distinguish substance from froth. Now, like it or not, they are served up both, with the emphasis on the latter.
In an article published earlier this year, Richard Gott, a former features editor of The Guardian, wrote eloquently of this phenomenon. “Some of the most important battles within and between newspapers, over recent years, have been not so much between right and left as between seriousness and trivialisation, between politics and lifestyle. The trivialisers have been in the ascendant.”
He describes the process as “tabloidisation”. Sex, crime, drugs, serial killers, sport, youth culture, royalty, pop music, gossip, fashion, Hollywood, rock stars, the media itself, escaped from the corners where they had been confined and were boldy moved on to the front page.
“You could find serious things in the broadsheets – Westminster politics, the warp and woof of foreign affairs – but you would have to wade through a lot of crap first.”
He blames commercial pressures brought about by the collapse of the old printing order after the flight to Wapping. Newspapers, he says, have turned into consumer products that are no longer purveyors of serious information. “Their public image is no longer projected by the quality of the writing of their journalists but by their marketing departments and their advertising pitch.”
Columnist Auberon Waugh has come to the same conclusion. He, too, accuses marketing of trivialising what were once serious journals of opinion. It is disturbing to think that out there, among the readers of Marketing Week, there may be the empty-headed peddlers of frivolity who have debauched the quality press.
I think Gott is nearer the mark when he says that, by and large, people are getting the newspapers they want, and perhaps deserve. The abolition of the grammar schools, the spread of semi-literacy, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the baleful influence of television, the second-rate mediocrity of today’s politicians, all have conspired to make an outcast of the homme serieux.
Above all, prosperity is at the root of trivialisation. A preoccupation with lifestyle is the luxury of a society that is materially well off. When poverty, inequality and injustice, the fertile seedbeds of ideas and debate, lie fallow, a nation may dwell on such matters as the desirability or otherwise of bubbles in its table water and pay heed to the views of those whose brains comprise but a single cell.
That leaves those who care not for fashionable thighs stranded in a hinterland, hapless dinosaurs alone in their concern for grammar, syntax, and intellectual sustenance, and up to their unfashionable knees in, to use Mr Gott’s pleasantry, crap.