Don't be silly, get thee to a monastery

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The Independent Culture
Shan't mention my illness. Not a word. You'll just have to imagine the coughing, the aching ribs, the red eyes, the unshaven chin, the stoop, the greyness, the sheer awful awfulness of it all. Last week I couldn't speak at all, which may turn out to have been one of the nation's most significant bouts of laryngitis.

Here's why. Last week I mentioned an idea I'd had about a sort of University for people of riper years. Not your free-access Open University notion, where people have to watch appalling television programmes about fish- packing technology, presented in the dead of night by haunted men talking in monotones, like revenants. I hold no brief for the Open University, although I like the idea of the summer schools; all these nice ladies from the suburbs turning up for a fortnight's Saturnalia, away from their husband Geoffrey.

My idea is more ... exclusive, and if that makes your gorge rise, you need a year at my University to learn why exclusivity and elitism are essential to a civilised world. We need to face the truth - you may well have faced it already - that we are run by silly people. Not stupid people; not evil people; but silly people. Silliness is the curse of our age: silly journalism, silly advertising, silly television; silly businessmen, silly politicians, silly, silly, silly academics, silly spin-doctors, churchmen, pundits and publicists.

Silliness is not in itself a danger, but the combination of silliness and greed (ambition being merely a specialised form of greed) is lethal. The trouble is that the rewards are so great. Silly, greedy people can and do rise to power and riches in almost every arena of our public and commercial life, and if you don't believe me, watch the news, tonight or any other night.

This is what my University will exist to counteract. No good dealing with the top bananas; they are too deeply mired in their own self-regard to be susceptible to anything except a bullet smack between the eyes. No; what we must do is promote a grand trahison des clercs, an intellectual and cultural revolution among the second ranks - the people not quite at the top but headed there - and how we do it is simple.

What we want, ideally, is a monastery. I haven't looked into it, but I have noticed that monks are pretty thin on the ground these days. I assume monasteries come up for grabs now and then, and it should be a simple matter to gazump some bank or business school to the freehold deeds. In this monastery, we then install our core staff. Most important of all is a Head Porter, preferably a retired Regimental Sergeant-Major, who knows everything that goes on, regards everyone with equal amiable contempt ("You're an arsehole, Sir") and won't stand for any bullshit. Next in importance come the Chef, the Butler, the Head Gardener and the Director of Music, because unless the environment is right, my University will founder: it must be a place of resort against the horrors of life, a safe haven, the place we all dream of when we walk about ancient towns wishing that there were no Tourist Authorities and that the founder of McDonald's had been fried at birth.

Into this environment, we then introduce our students, who will have in common the fact that they are all successful, all over the age of 40, and have all, due to the exigencies of their respective trades, become hopelessly silly. People who wished to be statesmen but have become politicians; liberal humanitarians now seduced by the spittle-flecked nastiness of management theory; deputy chief executives who don't know how to work their computers; senior lawyers who don't know how evolution works; churchmen who have so devoted themselves to marketing that they have forgotten the rigours of theological argument; entertainment executives who can't tell what's good or bad. A hundred of them, who will remain with us for a year, to learn (or re-learn) how to stop being silly and start thinking.

Their fees will be modest. Their families will doubtless flourish in their absence. All mobile phones, laptop computers, pagers and other "business" impedimenta "essential in the fast-moving world of today" will be left at the door, as will absurd, Club-class status symbols like Rolex watches and Mont Blanc pens. (Our own tailor will measure them for two simple suits of charcoal grey flannel on arrival.)

As for their academic studies, the simplest way of explaining them is this: think of what you learn at business school. This will be the opposite. Anyone attempting to reduce human enterprise to numbers will have his rations cut. Anyone speaking of "efficiency" or "cost-benefit analysis" will have his face smashed in. Students will learn how natural selection works, what quarks are, how to sight-read an 18th-century Mexican missionary building, what the objective correlative is, what tensors look like, the difference between ethics and morals, how to detect tautology and question- begging, the Classical orders, the fundamentals of anatomy, the principles of counterpoint and the science of celestial navigation. They will absorb, inter alia, the art of conversation, table-manners, flirtation, the cultivation of sensibility and how to dress well. We'll send them back with their silliness scrubbed away, glistening with new integrity of mind. Instead of yearning for viewing figures, votes or share options, they'll have self-respect, and so be inclined to respect others; and when they come into their power will spread the light of civilisation instead of the darkness of exigency and greed.

There was a party last week at which two of the world's richest men were present. I was to have gone; I would have dropped this idea casually, in conversation; one, or possibly both, would have said "Why not? Go find a monastery." But this bug; this cough. Couldn't speak. Couldn't go. Stayed in bed. How ironic. How sad. How ... silly. !