Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Article excerpt

For the nth time in my life I'm up at the Edinburgh Festival, primarily to review opera for the Daily Telegraph. The weather is filthy, the city staggeringly beautiful, and the shows run the gamut from magnificent to atrocious; in some aspects, the experience never changes. But this year there's a nip in the air for us lot, emanating from a chill wind called Critical Condition, a Channel 4 documentary series which aired its fourth and final episode earlier this week. The truth is out We have been rumbled. No misguided high court judge, no pontificating politician caught with his pants down has ever been more humiliated. In four subtle and killingly funny programmes, narrated by the deceptively fey and amiable Jon Ronson, the profession of critic has been mocked and vilified, leaving us wretched practitioners of the art of cultural judgment exposed as pompous, petty-minded frauds, consumed by vanity and spite. After our dismal performance, how can we ever presume to point the finger at the ineptitude of others again?

Well, perhaps I exaggerate slightly, but the mood is certainly fractious. Edinburgh has traditionally been our busman's holiday, a time for camaraderie and an opportunity for light-hearted, late-night boozing and gossip, but this year we have been eyeing each other suspiciously from a distance or forming little pro- and anticabals which feed into the general paranoia. A long essay on the series by one of our own number, Peter Conrad, in the Observer has further raised the emotional temperature with its vicious ad hominem attacks and score-settling. I feel a bit smug about all this. Last autumn, Jon Ronson's research assistant asked me to appear in one of the films. Of course I was immediately flattered into agreement, and spent several pleasant hours daydreaming about my speech to camera. A booming, Leavislike jeremiad about the bankruptcy of modern culture took mental shape. Having delivered it to great reclame, I fantasised, long overdue invitations to air my views on Newsnight and Start the Week would follow, culminating in a contract for my own latenight chat-show. Fortunately, I never heard from Ronson again: his people must have decided I was second-league, small fry, or just not very interesting, and transferred their attentions to more flamboyant characters who went on to strut their stuff and fall flat on their faces. Thank God I was spared: the only moment I feature in Critical Condition is when somebody mutters my name, to which the response is a sceptical 'oh'. In the circumstances, my amour propre finds this perfectly satisfying.

The great fascination of the Fringe is that it operates as a free market for the arts, unsupported and unhampered by dogooding public subsidy or Arts Council pieties, and therefore serves as a perfect laboratory in which to observe the real, raw trends in our culture. What encourages me this year is the distinct sense that the era of the foul-mouthed stand-up comic, rattling an hour of smart-ass obscenities into a microphone, is finally waning. I suppose all the taboos have now been broken, and short of someone defecating in public (it just might happen) there is no longer any frisson to be drawn from sexual or scatological subject matter.

Instead the last couple of years have seen a welcome return to whimsical narratives, word-play and character observation: among this year's most popular acts is the distinctly U-certificate Ben Moor, whose gentle, literate fooling and shaggy-dog stories wouldn't have been out of place on Stephen Potter's Third Programme. …

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