HOW I survived Christmas without watching television I shall perhaps never know.
Faced with more "specials" than your normal goggle-box addict can possibly cope with and more channels than ever Bruce Springsteen envisaged, I found nothing, including even Channel 5's hour-long, prime-time offering, Eddie Stobart's Christmas Delivery ("in which the company's truckers battle winter conditions to deliver Christmas trees and salt"), to tempt me to reach for the remote control.
Television has reached that stage in its evolution which suggests it has as much of a future as the corner shop. For every series like The Wire or The Sopranos there are thousands of Big Fat Christmas Stand-ups Who Can't Tell a Joke to Save Their Lives. For this I blame Lord Reith, the Stonehaven-born misanthrope, who knew what an abomination he was letting loose on us but did nothing to stop it.
At this grievous hour what is needed is a 21st-century Clive James, the supreme critic of TV, to bang the last few rusty nails into the box's coffin. In his heyday at the Observer, James had the wherewithal to blitzkrieg dire programmes into oblivion with the sheer force of his wit. What distinguished him from the ruck was his humour. He it was, I recall, who once compared the ice skaters Torvill and Dean, dressed as they were in gold costumes, to two packets of Benson & Hedges cigarettes dancing in a refrigerator.
James elevated TV criticism to a level it had never previously achieved and to which has never since aspired. As it happens, he receives an honourable mention in a new book I've been reading, James Wolcott's Lucking Out, in which the author relives the 1970s in New York when he made his living as a critic. For Woolcott, James's merciless lampooning of V was on a par with Kenneth Tynan's theatre criticism in the 1960s, which sorted the whisky from the chasers.
In those far-off days critics and criticism mattered. The great ones, such as Robert Hughes, V S Pritchett, Anthony Burgess, Arlene Croce, Pauline Kael, Bernard Levin and others were polymorphic, passionate and dispassionate, fearless, and compulsive. Though many artists will deny it they need critics as much as the critics need them. The two are as umbilically attached as are the Tories and Labour. Neither could exist without the other.
What we have seen of late, however, is the downgrading and marginalisation of criticism until it has become anodyne and, in some regards, irrelevant. Everyone, so we're constantly told, in the era of the blogosphere, is a critic now. Critics who suggest otherwise, citing their lifelong dedication to the profession, are howled down like despots who ask of those on whom their lives now depend: "What did I ever do to you?"
In Scotland at this juncture this is particularly troubling. With the possibility of independence only a few years hence, we need critics and critical publications as never before, be they in print or online, whose raison d'etre is to hold to account our cultural avatars and apparatchiks. Where, for instance, can you find insightful, intelligent and extended critiques of Scottish art, music, dance, drama and films? When last did you read anything about an artist that made you want to call the Samaritans on their behalf? By the way, I exempt broadsheet newspapers from criticism, for without them we really would be wallowing in a swamp of self-congratulation.
If this sounds cruel then, as Pauline Kael was wont to say, tough. Culture is so important to a country such as ours that sometimes it ought to be cruel. I've also been reading about Hugh MacDiarmid. He was an artist and a critic who realised that in this backslapping, inwardly-inclined, conservative, wet and generally philistine, would-be nation it was important not to swallow hype and promote tripe. In lieu of anyone else offering to put himself in the firing line, MacDiarmid volunteered. And much good it did him personally. But he didn't care. True critics don't. Occasionally, it may make walking into a West End or New Town soirée uncomfortable but it is a price worth paying.
Now where did I put that remote?
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