Tuesday 23 February 2010

Whistling to keep my spirits up

What will be the theme song of the 2010 General Election campaign? The tune that will bring it all back, like Proust’s madeleine, as “Things can only get better” encapsulates the crazed and, as it turned out, hopelessly misplaced optimism of 1997?

With my usual taste for the obvious, I am quite drawn to Noel Coward’s “There are bad times just around the corner”, but I fear that The Master’s cut glass tones would not be acceptable to any party in this demotic age. Like Sir Nicholas Winterton’s spirited defence of first class travel, even those of us who quietly agree with him must concede that it is a lost cause.

So how about “Smile, though your heart is aching”, a huge hit for Nat King Cole in the year I was born, 1954. Not only does Nat tick all the right ethnic boxes, but the tune was actually written by Charlie Chaplin as the theme music for his 1936 classic Modern Times, a silent film bravely released nine years after The Jazz Singer had ushered in the age of the talkie.

This is surely a movie for today not only because of its theme of the awfulness of modern industrial society, but also because Chaplin unfailingly reminds me of the present generation of politicians: always getting things hopelessly wrong, rarely if ever raising a laugh, yet ultimately proving maddeningly indestructible.

What could be more appropriate than “Smile” playing gently in the background as the candidates emote before hard-hitting interviewers like Piers Morgan or Fern Britton about the private tragedies they never like to talk about? At least the nation’s greengrocers must be getting a bonus from soaring sales of onions to help deliver their tears on cue.

I am sure I am not alone in being so sick of the present, and the three months of blindingly insincere electioneering still to come, that I find myself increasingly retreating to live in the past.

Which is no doubt why the other tune that has been running through my head since the sad death of Ian Carmichael is “What would I do without you, Jeeves?” The theme song of The World of Wooster, televised from 1965-67, this transports me back to an enchantingly batty black-and-white world of silly asses, dippy girls, fearsome aunts, silver cow creamers and the valet with a mighty, fish-fed brain.

From the moment I watched the first episode, and began devouring the books, I wanted to be Bertie Wooster. A drone who did nothing but sip cocktails, smoke gaspers and drive his two-seater to country house parties where something always went horribly wrong.

Sadly it proved not to be a career option without a formidable private income, so I decided that I wanted to be his creator P.G. Wodehouse instead, until I realised that I lacked not only his comic inspiration but also his formidable self-discipline as a writer.

What would Wodehouse have made of this bizarre world in which Calvinist Scots political obsessives try to pretend that they are warm, normal human beings while throwback upper-crust Tories flaunt their “change” credentials by assiduously offending their natural supporters?

Just thinking about it is enough to make anyone wish that they were back in the world of the menacing Roderick Spode and his Blackshorts, preparing to transform Britain in their swish uniform of black “footer bags”.

Yes, the outlook for the coming months is singularly depressing. But keep humming “Smile” to yourself, because it’s set to get an awful lot worse when whoever it is finally parks himself behind the Prime Ministerial desk in May or June, and feels able to come clean about the depths of the mess we are really in. Then we might all start thinking of another popular song from the last great depression of the 1930s, Leslie Sarony’s “Ain’t it grand to be blooming well dead.”

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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