Invasion of the culture boffins

Iain Sinclair grapples with a tour d'horizon of post-war Britain, an epic edition of all our yesterdays; Culture and Consensus: England, art and politics since 1940 by Robert Hewison, Methuen, pounds 20
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It is a truth universally acknowledged - call it the general contract - that the title "Cultural Commentator" appearing across the waistcoat of some pundit causes the viewer to grab the remote-control and surf for alternative entertainment: weather philippics, party politicals, reruns of the reruns of Last of the Summer Wine, anything - the assumption being that we are all now so divorced from any notion of culture that we require a mediator, an explainer, a mouth-for-hire. The fate of the cultural commentator is inextricably bound up with the fate of the politically appointed accountant: put them together and you have the anti-culture known as television. That incestuous eyewash of video picking up on radio, picking up on broadsheet, picking up on some filler in the London Review of Books. The consensus being that only that which has been written about before is worth writing about again. A cultural biosphere with about as much flavour as pre-chewed bubble gum.

So it's brave of Robert Hewison's publicists to come right out with it and announce him as "one of Britain's acutest cultural commentators". We can see from his credits that he has dedicated years to shoving his hand into the nightsoil of history, truffling for significant nuggets. Fitzrovia to Canary Wharf, Maclaren-Ross to Malcolm McLaren: he's pegged them out to dry. The lad's even got the bottle to acknowledge, as major conduits of information, David Mellor MP, and David Mills, editor of "The Culture" section of the Sunday Times. (The Sunday Times having an off- cut called "The Culture" is as brazenly ironic as giving George Graham, the pragmatic ex-Arsenal manager, the nickname "Stroller".) This time, Hewison is really going for it, "England, art and politics", the entire package. Explaining and analysing that lot in less than 400 pages is like feeding a leaking water-bed through a tight keyhole.

Culture and Consensus is thoroughly researched, nicely paced and convincingly argued. Hewison depicts a cultural consensus enforced from above: from the spoon-fed days of the post-war settlement, through the snobbery and placemanship of the Fifties, the anything-goes (as long as the Arts Council is underwriting it) Sixties, to the Thatcherite closedown of market-led, know-nothing barbarism.

Which is where we find ourselves now. Hewison demonstrates how literature departments in universities, based around close study of the text -FR Leavis and TS Eliot, all those stern initials - were first infiltrated and then replaced by social scientists, culture boffins with an agenda. The Birmingham Centre for Cultural Studies stole the heat from Oxbridge. Media studies and cultural history modules mushroomed, inspired by Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart, by the structuralists and the deconstructors. A vast machinery for the rigorous discussion of culture came into being at the very moment when there was no culture left beyond untrustworthy signs in the sand, scraps of forgotten doctrine, quotations, atomisations, parodies and thefts. Certain books - Hoggart's Uses of Literacy, Marshall McLuhan's Understanding Media - announced themselves only to feature as elements on a Sussex University reading list. There is a lost generation of ex-Liberal Studies bullshitters who still get the shakes at the memory of peddling this stuff to stupefied day-release motor mechanics.

Robert Hewison guides us across the heavily-mined terrain, through all the great debates, the petty corruptions. But it's hard not to see his project as an epic edition of All Our Yesterdays - with erudite voice- over and gesticulating arms. Culture is represented by key images, icons for each era: Lord Clark of Civilisation, tailored to within an inch of his life, sniffling next to the Queen Mum, while Dame Myra Hess tinkles away on the ivories in the National Gallery. Schoolboys carrying small suitcases as they dutifully read the bumph about the Skylon at the Festival of Britain. Union Jack bikinis in Carnaby Street. Lady Thatcher, bandaged like Lawrence of Arabia, in a Challenger tank.

Such an approach inevitably declines into a frantic essay in cataloguing, lists of names that precis a period. "In the hands of writers like Julian Barnes, Peter Ackroyd and Martin Amis, the narrative assurance of the novel was broken up... The conventional naturalism... was further disrupted by more cosmopolitan voices: Salman Rushdie, Timothy Mo, Kazuo Ishiguro..." It isn't even the choice of names that makes me uneasy, it's the bureaucratic tone. Like one of those Arts Council reports or Booker speeches that try to include all the plucky losers. Hewison practises consensus prose, committee language with no freaks or flaws. "Culture will not only celebrate, it should also question." Unobjectionable sentiments, unobjectionably expressed.

In the end I'm left grazing the Index; these names are all culture and no cult. I wouldn't insist on another version entirely, but a book that prefers not to deal with any aspect of what the late Eric Mottram called "the English Poetry revival", or with the upsurge of small-press publishing activity that evolved into the only language-sets sharp enough and crazy enough to deal with where we now find ourselves, is inadequate. The energy of urban lowlife narrative - Gerald Kersh, Jack Trevor Story, James Curtis, Alexander Baron - has also been left under the carpet. For me, this rich mix of high and low, equally demented, equally estranged, is what forges a culture worthy of the name. And that's the only consensus that matters, the consensus of one.