John Walsh on Monday: Literary bantamweight hits below the belt

THERE WAS a big conference in Hammersmith last weekend, on falling standards in British arts and education. It was called "Culture Wars: Dumbing Down or Wising Up?" I was asked to take part in a discussion of the Western canon, that vast shelf of literary texts that have become accepted as "classics" because they're still taught on the English syllabus or because the reading public has kept them in print down the years from sheer enthusiasm, helped by the odd TV dramatisation with screenplay by Andrew Davies and frocks by the Acme Plunge-Line Drawstring Bodice Ltd.

Four of us (two academics, a novelist-lecturer and I) pondered whether the Parnassian Premier League of book titles was still the best object of literary study for modern youth. It's been a bone of contention for 20 years that most of the authors deemed worthy of study, from Chaucer to Chekhov, are dead, white European males, or Dwems, as they've been sarcastically christened by academics who would like to see other voices - black writing, women's writings - represented, to give a clearer world picture of creative literature rather the standard hierarchies.

When it was my turn, I banged on about the tentative canonisation of novels and poetry collections in the books pages of the British press, and how the evaluation of the better and the best was a natural human response. I talked about how great writers, from Coleridge to Solzhenitsyn, still found audiences who crammed debating halls from Edinburgh to Hay- on-Wye, keen to learn more about their lives, and to be steered towards a fresh look at their finest works...

A question from the floor. A Professor of English at Manchester Metropolitan University said how nice to have a literary journalist around, in this academic galere, and to hear his exciting views. (Uh-oh). Fascinating, he went on, to learn there were people alive who considered there were still such things as "masterpieces" and "classics". He grew eloquent about the sighting of a dinosaur such as I, who actually bought this elderly stuff about novels being flowerings of the human imagination, when, since 1971, he'd been teaching The Death of the Grand Narrative. "Where," he concluded, "has Mr Walsh been for the last 30 years?" It was something of a poser on a quiet Sunday afternoon. How had I missed these exciting developments in literary theory, that had comprehensively trashed Middlemarch and Tom Jones, remaindered Ulysses and Madame Bovary and sent The Idiot to the great skip in the sky? There's not much you can do when told you've missed the boat, critically speaking, for most of your working life. "How on earth," I responded crossly, "have you missed the culture of appreciation over the last 15 years - the explosion of literary festivals, the rise of readers' groups, the flood of new prizes, sponsored by commercial firms who smell an exploitable public interest, the popular academic reviewers who assume that some books and their authors are `great' and will remain so?" It seemed odd, I snarled, that the popular response to literature seemed to be less susceptible to changes of fashion than that of university departments. "Would you call 30 years a fashion?" said the professor sleekly. Then everyone else piled in.

Was I right? It's been bothering me all week. Once, in the mid-19th century, studying literature at university was considered a freakish and idle pursuit, like doing a PhD on Australasian Soap Opera these days. Now there's talk of joining Literature courses to Cultural Studies courses as a joint discipline, and the business of reading and responding to the best books ever written is to be downgraded all over again. What a mercy one doesn't have to be an English student now (and certainly not at Manchester Metropolitan University). Better, perhaps, to be out in the real world, where you can pick holes in Anna Karenina, or cry up the virtues of Confessions of a Justified Sinner without being told you're wasting your time worrying about the "quality" of either. One goes to Aristotle (below) at these trying moments. "The many judge better, about both music and poetry," he wrote in the Politics, "The crowd judges much better than any individual, whoever he may be." Even a university professor.

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AT 4AM yesterday morning, I listened as a brace of ponderous black boxers slugged it out together for the edification of a mass audience avid for some British glory. I refer of course to Frank Bruno and Chris Eubank, both of whom featured on Talk Radio's exclusive coverage of the big fight in Madison Square Garden.

It was quite an experience. Once we'd got past round seven, all pretence at

objectivity from the British

commentators hit the canvas. "Holyfield is getting slaughtered here," said Eubank excitedly. "It's absolutely fabulous. I've never seen Lewis box so well." "There's a swelling to Holyfield's right brow," reported Jim Rosenthal with glee. "He came into the ring singing; the only singing now is in his right ear." He chuckled. "Lewis is set to become the first undisputed British boxing world champion of the century."

Eubank went all dreamy. "I've never seen him so poised. He's like a ballet dancer up there. It's all about poise. The first one to lose his poise loses the fight." There were a number of sibilants in this outburst. My radio was drenched in saliva.

Over to Frank Bruno at Talk Radio HQ in Oxford Street, London. "'E's punishin' 'Ollyfield," said Frank. "Doin' a wickid number on 'im. It's beau'iful to watch. Just as long as Lennox don't get lackydaysical."

By now we were at round nine. "A good left hook there from Holyfield," said Rosenthal, reminding us there was still some boxing going on, "but I make it six rounds to two to Lewis." Eubank's ad hominem approach to the noble art continued. "Lewis just getting better looking as he goes along," he breathed. "If you could see Holyfield's face, he just looks bludgeoned." General agreement among the Brits. "This is going to be an historic moment."

In the tenth, someone noticed a cut on Lewis's nose, but nobody worried about that. Not when "Holyfield is only punching in spurts. His right eye is closing." (Rosenthal) and "What a beautiful fight. He's doin' a brilliant job, know what I mean?" (Bruno). The commentary had shrunk from being a description of a bout, to a simple reiteration: "He's going to win, he's going to win, Oh look a jab, he's going to win."

By the 11th, they were

virtually breaking out the

champagne. "I think

Lennox has got this wrapped up," said Eubank. "It's a wonderful performance." Round 12, the last round, and "Chris Eubank is on his feet, so are hundreds of British fans. There are Union jacks flying everywhere."

It was surprising, on the whole, to hear that Evander was still in the ring, or indeed the building, "I'm not worried about Holyfield now," said Chris. "He's a spent force."

The match ended. All agreed it was a privilege to have been at such a notable victory. "Nobody's ever done it, all century," said Rosenthal in amazement, though nothing had actually been done yet. "Lewis," said Bruno in London, "'E made it all look so easy. 'E did a wickid job." "There's only one decision possible here," said Eubank.

Then the referee announced the decision. It was a draw. Three judges, three different marks. The British judge, Larry O'Connell, made it 115- 115. "This is the most disgraceful thing," said Frank Bruno, sounding suddenly like a circuit judge. "It's daylight robbery. They should be ashamed of themselves."

Eubank went further. "This is a travesty against justice. Larry O'Connell scored a draw and his paymasters are going to have to answer," he fumed. It was surprising they didn't produce an instant conspiracy theory about the perfidious Irish rigging the votes. Bruno and Eubank went off sounding as if they'd like to bash up somebody. There's nothing worse than a foregone conclusion which isn't.

WHEN I confessed last week to my unhealthy passion for the new Fantastic Plastic Elastic chair by Ron Arad, I didn't realise dozens of you would demand to know where to get one. This is not a consumer column, thank you very much, but a display case of cutting-edge transmedial analysis. I am a surfer of the Zeitgeist, ears attuned to the charivari of modern life. I am not here to flog furniture. But if you must know, they cost pounds 125 and come in numerous colours from Artworks, 21-22 Upper St, Islington London N1 (0171-359 4778). And they really are gorgeous.

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