If William Rees-Mogg had a fan club, I would be its president. I would lick envelopes for him and update his website, which would no doubt be full of his latest geopolitical prognostications. I would arrange coach parties of the faithful so that we could travel down to Somerset and glimpse him as he paced his grounds. I would organise seminars in which various 'Mogg experts' could unveil their latest theories about his work. There is virtually nothing I would not do for him.
Almost my first act on a Monday morning is to read his column in the Times. It is invariably a pleasure. William Rees-Mogg is an old-fashioned essayist who can turn to almost any subject under the sun, and write with knowledge and authority. This Monday, however, I was stopped in my tracks. His entire column was devoted to David Beckham. But it was not an ironic or a critical piece. Lord Rees-Mogg was disturbed by the prospect that Beckham might be leaving our shores for Real Madrid. It was 'the great topic of the day'. Beckham had 'exceptional gifts of being able to personify the Zeitgeist'. He drew a picture of a house in Cornwall in which various members of his family had passed the weekend discussing the possible consequences of Beckham going. He even compared Sir Alex Ferguson, Beckham's manager, to Claudius, and Beckham to Hamlet, though the comparison did not entirely work since Sir Alex has not married Beckham's mother. His conclusion was that if Beckham does go, England 'will lose a much-loved hero'.
All this was written in Lord Rees-Mogg's customary lapidary prose. My first thought was that it was a thin day for news, and that forgivably he had seized the only ball he could see and had run with it with plausible competence. Columnists have to write columns whatever the circumstances. I sometimes awake with a start in the middle of the night recollecting a column I once wrote about Germaine Greer's poodles. But, as I reflected, it began to dawn on me that this was not a cynical exercise. Lord Rees-Mogg really had convinced himself that David Beckham not only is a proper subject for his consideration but also is deservedly an important part of our culture. And it occurred to me that this was a point in the development – one might say the decline – of modern Britain, a crossing of some important boundary which should be marked.
Some readers may remember a previous occasion on which William Rees-Mogg memorably dilated on popular culture. In June 1967 Mick Jagger and Keith Richards received prison sentences and fines for the possession for cannabis. The Rolling Stones were then feared by respectable people rather as the wilder 'rappers' may be today. William Rees-Mogg, only recently installed as editor of the Times, devoted a leading article to the case, using Pope's 'Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?' as the headline. It argued that Mick Jagger, whatever his shortcomings, had 'received a more severe sentence than would have been thought proper for any purely anonymous young man'. Subsequently Lord Stow Hill, a former Labour home secretary, Father Thomas Corbishly, a leading English Jesuit, Dr John Robinson, suffragan Bishop of Woolwich, and William Rees-Mogg interviewed Jagger for Granada Television in the garden of the Lord Lieutenant of Essex. You may say, plus ’a change. But although Lord Rees-Mogg had interested himself in the affairs of a figure of popular culture, as he has with Beckham, he did not descend to his level. He certainly did not suggest that Mick Jagger was a person of cultural importance. I suppose that, if he had, he would have been closer to the truth than he is today.
My point is not that intelligent people and intellectuals should not care about football. Albert Camus was a professional goalkeeper. In the 1950s the philosopher A.J. Ayer and the musicologist Hans Keller used to write about football for newspapers. It would be perfectly natural, if Lord Rees-Mogg were interested in football, for him to devote an occasional column to the subject. But he appears not to know anything about the game. He does not care about football. What attracts him (and this is the dreadful part) is celebrity. Even William Rees-Mogg – pride of Balliol, bibliophile, author and Olympian editor – feels shut out from the clamour of celebrity culture, and wants to get in. If he thought carefully, he would say to himself that David Beckham is a very good footballer but nothing more. He is not Mick Jagger. He is a vain, inarticulate, media-manipulating young man who has nothing to say or to contribute to our culture beyond his prowess as a footballer. He is what sells newspapers, what young girls (or boys) may dream of in the dark passages of the night. To say that England would lose a hero if David Beckham left is a piece of madness; and to see the thought issue from the magnificent brain of William Rees-Mogg makes me want to cry out in pain.
Of course, I largely blame the Times. Little more than a decade ago, which was long after Murdoch acquired the newspaper, it was still a celebrity-free zone. Then the slime spread from the tabloids. It slithered into the feature pages and then the home pages. It crept into the leaders. But still William Rees-Mogg, and the other great columnists who occupy that space, remained behind their ramparts, concerning themselves by and large with subjects that matter, and giving us the benefit of their wisdom. Now Lord Rees-Mogg is being smothered. Give me a newspaper which does not have 'Posh and Becks' above its masthead and on its front page and all over page three. Give me a newspaper which confines David Beckham to the sports pages. Give me back the old William Rees-Mogg.
An enterprising new company called Intelligence Squared has been organising debates at the Royal Geographical Society. Last Thursday the motion was, 'The trouble with this country is the Daily Mail'. Somewhat to my surprise (though, alas, I could not be present), it was passed by 318 votes to 201. Peter Oborne and Tom Bower spoke against the motion. By all reports, they and the proposers, Francis Wheen and Mary Ann Sieghart, were highly amusing.
Mary Ann reportedly made much of the propensity of the Daily Mail to stir up women's fears with pieces about ageing, cellulite, getting fat, and so forth. There is some truth in this. But isn't what Mary Ann says about the Mail true of other titles, including her own, the Times? On the morning after the debate, this was the strap-line above the newspaper's masthead: 'Dieting can damage your baby'.