Managing to take the Great out of Britain
The BBC is in a terrible state. It's a form of professional suicide for me to say so. I'll probably stop being invited on to any of those radio programmes where they let you research a script, write it and deliver it on air for only slightly less in total than a plumber would charge to pop round and tell you he'd left his tools in the van. But it's true. It has fallen into the hands of "management" to the extent that, in a recent fatuous questionnaire circulated by the people who run the canteen, the only occupation box you could tick if you were actually involved in some way in making programmes was the one marked "Other ..."
The cult of management is profoundly mystifying. The discipline itself seems utterly fraudulent, based on illusion and incomprehension. The illusion is that the world can be made safe if you reduce everything to numbers. Incomprehension lies at the heart of the thing: if you don't understand, either intuitively or objectively, the culture or process which you are trying to "manage", then you try and remove the bits you can't grasp and replace them with bits you can. It's like watching an improperly trained surgeon trying to cure a patient by removing the liver, spleen, kidneys and lungs, and replacing them with boils and cysts - the things he does know about - from a gunny sack on the floor at his feet.
But they are everywhere, the managers. Outside the Middlesex Hospital a man in a fancy waistcoat was wobbling back and forth on a tall circus unicycle, clutching a giant cheque, while another man took pictures and three managerial sorts hovered in the background. The Middlesex used to be a dignified institution where you went to get better, or, in the case of my daughter, to be born, or, in the case of my Daddy, to learn how to be a doctor. Now it is primarily a vehicle for management. Now everything is a vehicle for management, unless it is also a vehicle for publicity; which is all very nice for the man on the unicycle, probably a decent chap and glad of the work, but not so good for the doctors, the nurses and the sick.
Management is about surface and the short term, which is why the Imagination building is so big and so glossy. They sell surface, there, including the biggest surface of all, Mandelson's Millennium Dome, a grotesque reeking midden of posturing and political contempt which we must all pray will also become Mandelson's charnel-house. The Great Exhibition of 1851 had a clear purpose: to display our astounding power to a world come to our doors to buy. The Festival of Britain, too, had a purpose: to celebrate the centenary of Prince Albert's vision, and to cheer up a nation exhausted by having masterminded one of the greatest and most improbable victories in the history of warfare.
But the Millennium Dome? It is nothing more than a trick cyclist on a unicycle, prolonged to its logical extreme. We have nothing to celebrate except Tony Blair's proleptic vapourings, and they can be dealt with in a little rhyme: Tony Blair/ Spouts Hot Air;/ Tony Blair/Doesn't Care. We can't even celebrate our national identity because we no longer have one, and those whose existence helped to provide us with one are dying like flies.
A few weeks ago, it was John Wells's turn. Wells was a huge influence on British political life; his spoof political spouses in Private Eye were more real than their real counterparts, so much so that Dennis Thatcher arguably turned into Wells's version of him, and his very existence served as a faux-naif reproach to Mrs Thatcher's political barbarism. Wells is dead now, and Larkin is dead, and Michael Tippet and Robert Morley, and each time one of them goes, it becomes harder to see what we are meant to be any more.
Even London itself is shedding its resonances one by one. The streets around the British Library, with their warren of antiquarian bookstores and slightly mousey bachelor chambers, have been doomed ever since the politicians showed what they thought of intellectuals by slinging the buggers out to the slag-haunted, smack-ridden grit and sleaze of King's Cross. Now the bookshops are starting to close, the rents will rise soon, and the nonsense will move in. There has until now been no trace of the Management Culture there, but it can't last. In will come the sans-serif typefaces, the business plans, the consultancies and gadget shops and tourist paraphernalia, and out will go ... what? Us? Is it us for whom New Britain has no room?
The novelist and biographer Peter Ackroyd wrote an article recently, explaining why he wouldn't be standing for Mayor. That the King of Surface, the Miraculous Self-Inventing Man, the Dome Made Flesh himself, Jeffrey Archer, should be so irredeemably held in thrall by such wild self-regard that he is himself standing for Mayor is an irony so intense that the only response is a sharp pull on the cocking-lever of a semi-automatic followed by a hail of bullets and public approbation. We do not need Archer to exactly the same degree that we do need Ackroyd, a man who has spent his artistic and professional life trying to recapture and anatomise the underlying myths of Englishness and of London itself, without which our identity cannot survive. We need his Hawksmoor, his Dickens, his Doctor Dee, his Dan Leno, his William Blake; we need them to come again and to walk the streets. They are our Wenceslas, our King Stephen.
Without them, what do we have? Archer. Mandelson. Management culture. Men on unicycles, and the glossy, patronising emptiness of the Millennium Dome. We should rise up now, drive Archer into the Thames, push over any unicyclists we see, reclaim the British Library, stuff the seats of the Royal Opera House with reeking proles in dirty singlets, and, every time we see a Manager, tweak his nose, twiddle his tie, and blow raspberries in his blank, uncomprehending face. Thrrrrrrrrrrp! Yarooo! Aux armes, citoyens!
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