Public opinion polling, which has spread like a rash across this troubled century, is erupting with perfervid vigour as the era draws to a close.
The purpose of the latest burst of research – if all this foolish questioning, analysis, codification, and tabulation could be credited with anything so rational as either purpose or research – is to compile popularity polls pertaining to the past century, or in some cases, millennium.
Thus the clipboard fraternity has been lying in wait in high street and shopping centre, as is its sullen wont, watching the sluggardly, passing stream of the undead, ready to pounce on one in three and prise from their lips the names of the greatest songwriters/singers/composers/ authors/actors/sports personalities/or simply men and women (icons) since 1900 or possibly 1000 AD.
Given that most people’s memories stretch back to last Thursday, and that their knowledge of the subjects about which they are being questioned is itself questionable, these inquiries amount to no more than the anatomising of flatus.
Sometimes the findings are downright weird. What, for instance, is to be made of a poll of subscribers to the magazine Erotic Review, which concluded that Margaret Thatcher is the fourth most erotic personality of the past 1,000 years? Assuming that Erotic Review circulates mainly outside the precincts of rest homes for the bewildered, the Thatcher finding yet again raises serious questions about the wisdom of care in the community.
Admittedly, and predictably, Marilyn Monroe is first, and the list of 50 contains others who have successfully aroused the masses – Sophia Loren, Greta Garbo, Ava Gardner, Cary Grant, Brigitte Bardot, Clark Gable, Sean Connery – but only in recent history. True, Joan of Arc came in at 36, but only, one suspects, because transvestites burnt at the stake are, no doubt to the dismay of those who should be housed in secure institutions, all too few in modern times.
The survey adds weight to the view of those of us who maintain that TV has little to do with the communication of ideas, or at any rate not the kind of ideas it might set out to convey. On the evidence of this survey the mission to explain comes crashing down into a sea of dark and lustful sofa-borne thoughts, strange longings, and nameless fantasies. Why else should Jeremy Paxman be voted the 20th most erotic person since the Norman Invasion? Or Anna Ford – stern critic of “body fascism” – the 32nd?
At least Sir Walter Raleigh, who sneaks in at 50, earned his place. According to that magnificent old gossip John Aubrey, “he loved a wench well; and one time getting up one of the maids of honour up against a tree in a wood…she cried ‘Nay sweet Sir Walter! Sweet Sir Walter! Sir Walter! At last as the danger and the pleasure at the same time grew higher, she cried in the ecstasy ‘Swisser Swatter Swisser Swatter.’ She proved with child…” How older readers of the Erotic Review must mourn the pre-feminist days when a maid knew how to address a gentleman.
All this daft polling would be less of an irritant if what we were seeing at this turning point in the tides of time was the frantic, twitching death throes of the questions industry. But of course it will not go away.
Even the Daily Mail, which with every issue asks more questions than a curious five-year-old – Is your home making you ill? Do those cellulite cures ever work? Is your bra bad for your health? What colour foods are best for you? Are you caught in the parent trap? – is now itself to be subjected to daily questioning at the hand of the faintly ridiculous Gerald Kaufman.
With the full authority of New Labour’s Millbank communications machine – a sleek, eco-friendly model that runs on bio-degradable soundbites and recycled on-message matter – Kaufman is to run a Daily Mail monitor to “expose the reality behind the alleged myths in the paper’s news coverage”.
Translated, that means that Blair and his hired thug Alastair Campbell are exasperated that the Mail, beloved of the middle classes, is becoming stridently critical of this administration.
Blair long ago discounted the “Daily Telegraphs of this world” (are there Daily Telegraphs in the next world, where snoozing buffers with all eternity at their disposal fitfully attempt the crossword in the fusty corner of a celestial saloon bar?) but he had hoped to keep the Mail onside. That he should have appointed Kaufman as some kind of Myth Finder General is both typical of this control-freaked government and wonderfully encouraging for a part of the Fourth Estate that, mercifully, will not be browbeaten.
It is said that Blair, on a journey north, encountered a car-washing vision called Sierra Man – a stout middle class fellow and former Thatcherite who, when seduced by the blandishments of New Labour, would ensure the continuation of Blairism for 1000 years.
Perhaps Blair, and more to the point his deputy Prescott, should be reminded that Sierra Man has ambitions. He is not content merely to wash his car, sensuously pleasurable though its suds-soaked bodywork may be. Every now and then he would like to get inside the damn thing and drive it. (See Mail Myth No 2: “Even the AA believes the British driver is getting the worst deal in Europe.”)