I have never thought of myself as an intellectual snob; indeed I have never considered myself an intellectual or a snob. A very long time ago, when I was a young teacher I attended a school Christmas dance with my lovely female flatmate. My then boss, Robin Morgan, always a charmer, invited her to dance at some point in the evening, on the grounds that she wouldn’t want to spend ‘the entire night with a boring intellectual like Cammy’; that, I believe was the only time ever anyone described me as an intellectual. Snob, more often, but not very often, if you don’t count getting off the bus in school uniform in Kirkliston in 1967.
Anyway, I used to like the Guardian on a Saturday. I liked that wee book review section I could put in my bag to read on the bus. Now they have incorporated all their supplements together into one vast ‘Saturday’ magazine, which I cannot help but drop in the bath. Much of it is dross, emanating, it seems, from a planet on which I do not live. I get through it all in less time than it used to take to read the slender book bit, and mainly I am sighing.
Yesterday was no exception. There was barely a thing I wanted to read in it but I was particularly dismayed by an article in which someone explained how they had done badly on ‘Mastermind’. Now, basically, they had failed (8 points in total) because they hadn’t realised how scary it would be to appear on an actual television programme. This did not strike me as rocket science; and the article wasn’t even funny. But what amazed me most about it was that she had, in the first instance, asked if her specialist subject could be The Kardashians. Yes, yes, I know, but it gets worse – she was not allowed to do so [I breathed a sigh of relief]…because someone else had done that recently…aaargh.
It is not for me to comment on the Kardashians about whom I know almost nothing except that one of them has a very big bum and one of them is now a woman, having previously been assigned as a man. But, my goodness, Mastermind! I haven’t watched it in decades, but I remember the days of Magnus Magnusson, when everyone had specialist subjects like ‘The Victorian Novel’ and ‘Spain in the 16thCentury’. It was about watching clever people who knew stuff in a fairly friendly competition, mainly very odd people, but still. Now, one gathers, it’s about people who know stuff about watching other silly television programmes and can memorise lots of crap about them, then get into The Guardian and moan about not being allowed to answer questions about shite and how they thus embarrassed themselves. (She eventually chose ‘The Character of Dr Doug Ross in E.R.’ as her specialist subject, incidentally, which is not a lot better, and I speak as someone who has watched every episode).
Something quite weird has happened to culture. I know that ‘I know what I like’ is a completely acceptable way to approach anything in your life – food; books; movies; TV; art; sexual practices etc etc but there did used to be a bit of a consensus that some things were more worth talking about than others. In some ways, I regretted studying English at university because it made it very difficult to read ‘popular fiction’ which, previous to my undergraduate years, I had often enjoyed a great deal. I’ve said this before, but it seems to me now that there are a lot of books being very much admired by critics which simply aren’t very well written. I am currently reading Jon McGregor’s ‘Reservoir 13’ which is a great book, not least because it has many beautiful sentences in it. I’m sure it’s age, but somewhere I have been left behind in the journey of determining what constitutes a good book. I confess I am also frequently perplexed by film critics but again I accept that we are all entitled to our opinions (but please watch ‘Boiling Point’. Fabulous.)
I’ve always said that everybody should be allowed to get away with one ‘low’ cultural taste and in my case, it’s music; I have no interest whatsoever in classical music and it’s fair to say that I have reached the point in my life where I will never again go to an opera (unless, of course, I know someone performing in it – that’s different). Ballet? Nah? Dance of any sort? Nah, not really. Dolly Parton tribute concert: try and stop me. Ironically, given where this started, my specialist subject on ‘Mastermind’ would be ‘British and American pop music: 1965 -1975’ because that’s the thing about which I probably know the most. That said, if I got through (and believe me, I know I wouldn’t) I would move on to ‘The Novels of Dickens’.
Getting older is a curious journey into a land of unknowns, all of which surround you: gadgets, bitcoin, pandemics. Lots of things you took for granted change or disappear and I’m not just talking about Jenners. But give me a well-written book and bespectacled old academics on ‘Mastermind’ please.