Magazine article The Spectator

Are We Crazy to Rank a Minor Cabinet Minister above the Donkey Nappies of Great Yarmouth?

Magazine article The Spectator

Are We Crazy to Rank a Minor Cabinet Minister above the Donkey Nappies of Great Yarmouth?

Article excerpt

When I served on the Broadcasting Standards Commission, the others were always talking about something called `news-values'. Apparently, the topic occupies a good deal of attention at the BBC wherever a few are gathered together to discuss public-service broadcasting.

I used to be unsure what news-values means, but Thursday morning last week helped me make up my mind. Just after 8 a.m., BBC Radio Four's Today programme broadcast two live interviews consecutively. For the first, the Rt Hon. Dr Jack Cunningham MP, Cabinet 'Enforcer', was in the studio to talk about the Prime Minister's recent Cabinet reshuffle. The second, on the telephone, was with a Mr Peter England, carriageman, and concerned the Great Yarmouth Town Council's decision to make horses in Great Yarmouth wear nappies.

The discussion on horse dung was infinitely more important and interesting. Whatever news-values might be, there can be no doubt that manure in Great Yarmouth has more of them than Dr Cunningham. This is not meant unkindly to Dr Cunningham. Nobody could have given a worthwhile interview about a minor Cabinet reshuffle in late July. Yet in this strange country we persist in identifying high-minded seriousness with an eagerness to talk about such trifling, gossipy nonsense. Why? No adult person with a mind and a life of his own, a garden to cultivate and a vast, mysterious, beautiful and endlessly absorbing universe wheeling about his ears to marvel at, could possibly want to exhaust four precious minutes of his too short life listening to a radio interviewer and a minor member of the unremarkable Cabinet of a workaday government at a time of peace and economic stability talking ill-temperedly about things which had not happened after a prime minister's summer review of the allocation of administrative posts. Are we crazy in Britain?

Peter England was altogether another thing. Sue MacGregor conducted the interview with her habitual, delightful, wry frostiness. She began by explaining that the carriage drivers of Yarmouth were taking their council to court over its impending new requirement that horses wear a kind of nappy. Representing the council during this interview was Mr Chris Skinner, its solicitor. Miss MacGregor turned to Mr England and asked what exactly this nappy for horses was.

`That's jus' una'visable,' he said. `That's su'ffin' they never 'ad to 'ave on, and that's jus' su'ffin' you can't pu' on 'em.' He was as mystified as Miss MacGregor about what the nappy would look like: 'Noo-body have sin it.'

His interviewer reminded us that these nappies have been accepted in other parts of the world. Mr England was having none of it. `They keep sayin' what they got abroad, but abroad is abroad and we're in Great Yarmouth and things are different.' To this incontestable truth Miss MacGregor had no reply.

She turned to Mr Skinner, the town solicitor. Could he please explain? Taking unconscious retreat in the mis-emphasis of prepositions (always a sign of a secretly human individual obliged by his job to recite official pap) Mr Skinner said that licences to operate carriages would be withdrawn unless the drivers used 'a device fitted behind the horse's tail to collect the dung'. There would, he explained, be `bins at each end of the seafront' to tip it in. …

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