Like David Stubbs, I’m of course delighted to have been shopped to the commissars of commonsense who compile Private Eye’s Pseud’s Corner. It’s always bracing to be middlebrow-beaten; a pleasure I can expect to enjoy fairly regularly from now on, since, if the section from the Mark Stewart feature that they selected is considered fair game, then they might as well open up a permanent spot for me.
It’s difficult to know what the alleged problem is: the conjoining of politics and music? Well, it’s hardly stretching a point to argue that a record such as For How Much Do We Tolerate Mass Murder?might, y’know, have had some connection with geopolitical developments at the end of the 70s. Would the same objection be made to linkages between politics and other areas of culture? But of course what is objected to is as much a question of tone as of content. The default expectation in British media is that writers perform a homely matiness: writing must be light, upbeat and irreverent, never taking itself or anything else too seriously.
The function of Pseud’s Corner – to punish writing that in some way overreaches itself, that gets ideas above its station or gets carried away – has now been taken up by online discussion boards and comments facilities everywhere. The effect on any writer who internalises the critique is to be intimidated into colourless mediocrity. But the problem with most published writing today is not that it is ‘pretentious’, it is that is unreflective PR hackwork. David Stubbs is right to invoke a certain Orwell as the patron of bluff, plain speaking John Bull prose – but the Orwell of “Politics And The English Language” also attacked the mechanical circulation of dull, dead language. If only that Orwell were more heeded. “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print,” he demanded, optimistically hoping that “if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase — some jackboot, Achilles’ heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno, or other lump of verbal refuse — into the dustbin where it belongs.” Over sixty years later, such “verbal refuse” continues to circulate with impunity, and is supplemented by a whole inventory of PR commonplaces and consumer-affect babble (journeys, rollercoaster rides). Surely any amount of ‘pretentiousness’ is preferable to these soporific linguistic screensavers?