Reading the best commentary I have seen on the Tate Modern and the new museum culture the other day (it was, of course, written by an American, Jed Perl, writing in the New Republic) reminded me of how few Brits can write about modernity unselfconsciously, within a historical frame of reference and without the indiscriminate gush towards anything young or new characteristic of the anxious middle-aged, or the puerperal fevers of the born-yesterday style writer. One is Bryan Appleyard of the Sunday Times, another Stephen Bayley. Reading Bayley is an exercise in freedom from cant and condescension and in verbal stylishness.
For Bayley is what is known as a style guru, which means he can animadvert on anything and he duly does, from Coke bottles to Mme de Pompadour and car design to high-flying sex (to judge from Bayley's description of her self-withholding ways, a modern Ms Pompadour would not have been on for that).
His book is an artful compilation of his writings over 25 years - artful because they are grouped not chronologically but by subject, so giving thematic coherence to his pronunciamentoes. Some themes recur, but this is mass modernity and, like Warhol multiples, there can be attraction in repetition.
For the general reader of General Knowledge, which includes me, things you did not know will far outnumber those you did. Bayley's discussion of taste and of the nature of kitsch are among the highlights, but the gems are widely scattered.
There is something about style and fashion that encourages absolutes, and Bayley is not a man for havering judgments. Many of us wince at television, but for him it must often be painful simply to walk down the street. Sporting gear on the pot-bellied, the horror of the trainer, or the abomination of the baseball cap on well-to-do English heads, are passing targets.
But his criticisms are no mere self-indulgence. Just as good design is never superficial (so he tells us), so the stylish barbarisms of the age betray something deeper about ourselves. If the style is the man, agglomerated it must also be the society.
Bayley is brilliant on John Betjeman, that smirking avatar of cosy complacency, whose influence persists: 'His legatees have done him proud, surpassing in reactionary viciousness and malice what they cannot match in wit and style.' My only complaint is that Bayley doesn't point to Alan Bennett as our new guru of provincial self-satisfaction and cultivated quirkiness.
At the heart of the book lies a paradox that Bayley half recognises. On the one hand, he describes London as the modern Mecca for artists and designers; on the other, his pieces are replete with lamentations on their fate. It is fitting that his collection should end with his comments on the Dome, which he suggests should be preserved as 'a deadly accurate portrait of Britain 2000'. If it is accurate, how come London is a Mecca?
The more cosmopolitan Bayley sounds (the French government had the nous to decorate him), the more he insists how British he is. This does not and should not matter, for just as BMW now finds it better to speak of a car with BMW engineering rather than one 'made in Germany', so the components in Bayley's work stem from many sources, and his appeal transcends his nationality, like the Australian art historian Robert Hughes, he is not a national type but a one-off. And, in common with Hughes, Bayley is not always appreciated in his own country, where such grossly protuberant poppies exist mainly for the pleasure to be had in slashing them down.
Part of the freshness of this book is that for the modern-minded Bayley, the question of whether you are for or against popular culture has no meaning. The relief of escaping from the usual class neurosis to an independent mind, like talking to the smartest Americans, is enormous. Much of it has to do with his prose. In one sense, Bayley is an improvement on Monet. 'He was only an eye,' said Cezanne of his compatriot, 'but what an eye!' Bayley not only sees, but has a writing eye as well.
ON THE BEDSIDE TABLE OF... LORD HASKINS
'I'm reading Paul Routledge's Life of John Hume, a vivid and credible picture of the man and the history of the Northern Ireland troubles from the perspective of a Derry man, and Peter Hennessy's latest book The Prime Minister - The Office and its Holders since 1945'
Lord Haskins is chairman of Northern Foods and of the Better Regulation Task Force
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