Mr George Walden, the retiring MP and chairman of this year's Booker judges, is not a man to muck about. His Guildhall speech on Tuesday said little about the prizewinning book, but launched a swingeing attack on the state of British culture. "A vegetating catastrophe... The tyranny of ordinariness... Stakhanovites of mediocrity" - the condemnatory phrases flew. Radio Three, the Bankside Tate gallery, the House of Commons as a "thought-free zone"... And his view of literary success was positively Swiftian. "If you write a bad enough book," he declared, "you earn millions, you are read by the Prime Minister and you end up in the House of Lords" (who could he be thinking of?) "If you write a brilliant novel, you get a modest cheque, a free meal and a grumbling speech from a retiring backbencher."

Among the targets of Mr Walden's spleen, one was all too familiar. Why, he enquired, did so few of the Booker entries tackle modern England? "Are our writers, by their silence, making a point? Is there something wrong with England? Why do they shy away from us? Do we give off a bad smell, like old vegetation?". If the past (as L.P. Hartley said) is another country, Walden concluded, "then we are facing a sort of mass emigration. Nostalgia is becoming our heavy industry".

Yes, the search for the condition-of-England novel is on again - for that hoary old chimera whose non-appearance is regularly bemoaned every five years or so. Where is our modern Dickens? Where ditto Trollope, Thackeray, George Eliot, Gissing, Mrs Gaskell, Priestley and the others who could write about characters from more than one class and with an at least implicitly serious moral intent? Why is nobody writing about modern Britain, its multifarious scams and corruptions and weird, tribal nightlife? Where is the British Grapes of Wrath, the London Bonfire of the Vanities? When, five years ago, Tom Wolfe was asking why fiction writers had failed to capitalise on the social mulch he had ploughed up in his journalism, the answer became clear, or clearer: because of journalism. Because in a nation so chronically devoted to self-analysis as ours, where such a variety of sociological features, style features, psychological, psephological, polycultural, cross-cultural and consumerist features clutch each new item of Modern-Englishness and wrestle it to the ground for its "meaning", there is little left for the novelist to chew over with any conviction that it will be still be "novel" by publication day. Rather than hang a plot on rollerblading or the Internet, the modern novelist must do what novelists have always done - look for a confluence of time, place, person, dilemma, crisis and transformation that will most tellingly inspire drama. If that requires the coincidence of the Great War and psychoanalysis, the yoking together of Ancient Rome and cosmology, or of the Dark Ages and amateur dramatics, then so be it. Looking to the past is not, pace Mr Walden, nostalgia, except in the pages of Catherine Cookson. It's a search for meaning beyond the everyday. It's what fiction is for.

John Walsh

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