Nostalgia tends to conceal hypocrisy

A small lesson in the way history smooths the sharper edges and corners of the past is being played out at the Cannes Film Festival with the help of that much-loved father figure of the alternative establishment, Sir Mick Jagger.


A soon-to-be released documentary on the making of the Rolling Stones 1971 album Exile on Main Street is clearly going to be one of the great critical hits of the year. It tells the story of how the boys, having run out of cash in 1971, left these shores to spend six months in Keith Richards’ villa in the south of France. There, in an atmosphere of dope, sex and fun, they recorded one of the great rock albums of the time.


It is a story which has played well in Cannes. Over the years, the Stones have become the acceptable face of contemporary decadence. Not only have they have survived but they have continued working. Mick is now a knight of the realm. Keith Richards, full of gnomic, battered wisdom, has been writing his memoirs.


History is doing its work. A rock group which blew millions and then went abroad to avoid paying tax is now presented as a band of heroic exiles who produced great music out of meltdown and confusion.


Only a fool would take a prudish view. There is almost always a link between moral superiority and lack of opportunity – people disapprove out of jealousy. Which of us can seriously say that, if offered easy sex and stimulants as part of everyday life, we would not grab them with both trembling hands?


All the same, it is worth reflecting what the people who lionise the Rolling Stones would think and write if it was all happening now and it was, say, Pete Doherty who was out in France shagging, shooting up and avoiding tax.


Nostalgia tends to conceal double standards. The late Sixties and early Seventies, to take an obvious example, were a golden age of under-age sex. The notorious School Kids issue of Oz magazine, published in 1970, reflected a form of personal rebellion that was widely accepted – indeed demanded – in some alternative circles. A considerable perk for some, distinctly unpleasant for others, it required young girls to prove their commitment to the cause of freedom by going to bed with goatish old hippies.


The Stones were part of that scene. A highlight of their concerts was a toe-tapping celebration of paedophilia called “Stray Cat Blues”. “I can see that you’re 13 years old, I don’t want your ID,” Mick would sing. “I bet your mama don’t know that you scratch like that/ I bet she don’t know you can bite like that.” (In a spirit of social responsibility, Jagger and Richards changed the age to 15 when the song was recorded).


Give a song a beat, make it a hit and eventually any trace of ugliness will be smoothed away. These days dads and granddads sing “Stray Cat Blues” at old-fart birthday parties. The message for today’s generation from Sir Mick and Keith is a minor reworking of another of their great songs. You can always get what you want.


This really will be a bonfire of the vanities


When this week the Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt announced that a new approach to arts funding was required – he wanted to tap up the rich as well as the public purse – his plan sounded sensible enough. It was difficult to argue with his proposal that a “bonfire of red tape” should be lit within arts organisations.


But what a bonfire that will be. Since Hunt’s predecessor Chris Smith began talking up “creative industries” as part of Britain’s “cool economy” in 1998, a mighty industry of publicly-funded intermediaries has grown up offering a cornucopia of impressive-sounding jobs – arts administrators, creative facilitators, workshop co-ordinators, outreach officers, participation directors and so on. These jobs, which offered the perfect opportunity for arty types who did not actually create anything themselves, were based around the idea that state-provided access to creativity and culture would make people happier and more fulfilled.


Whether or not it did, there will be hundreds of culturecrats, not to mention thousands of students studying for some ill-defined career “in the arts” who will be awaiting Mr Hunt’s future pronouncements, fearful that their hopes and ambitions will also be thrown on to the bonfire.


Another PR coup for our beloved Octomum


That powerful and bloody-minded organisation People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (better known as Peta) has rarely been known for its sense of humour. As a general rule, the laughter it has caused in the past has usually been of the unintentional kind.


That may now be changing. In a publicity coup of some brilliance, Peta has enlisted the famous mother of octuplets Nadya Suleman (better known as The Octomum) to its cause. In return for $5,000, a sign will hang on the front door of the Suleman home bearing the message “Don’t Let Your Dog or Cat Become an Octomom. Always Spay or Neuter.”


It is a startlingly sensible and worthy campaign and enrolling the support of a woman who represents human reproduction on a near-industrial scale – before the eight came along, she had already had six children – is a stroke of counter-intuitive cunning.


Both Peta and Octomum have endured moments of controversy in the past but their coalition marks the perfect symbiotic relationship for our PR-led times. They should, however, be careful not to overplay the zaniness. The decision to dress the Peta representative hanging the sign on the Octomum door in a dog costume was pushing the joke a little too far.

 Independent, Friday, 21 May 2010