Who's Who & Who Isn't

The latest edition of Who's Who was published yesterday. But this relic of a bygone era is no guide to who really matters in today's Britain, argues Paul Vallely
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What a hoot! Lenny Henry is in the 1996 edition of Who's Who, which came out yesterday. Of course it doesn't say Lenny Henry. It says "Henry, Lenworth (Lenny)" as if he was trying to mollify one of those stuffed shirt Anglican vicars who ban diminutives on the gravestones in their churchyards.

It's not just what Who's Who rather archly refers to as a "stand-up comedian" who makes his debut. The new edition also includes Gary Lineker, though as a writer and broadcaster, since the pounds 95 tennis-elbow inducing volume omitted to include him when he was one of Britain's top goal scorers. And there is the weatherman Bill Giles and author Ken Follett whom it has also just discovered.

"It all reflects the changing face of modern Britain," said a spokeswoman for A&C Black, who has published the annual directory of the great and the good for the past 148 years. "Sportsmen, entertainers and the media - you wouldn't have found many of those in Who's Who in 1945. But with the advent of the cult of celebrity, professionalism in sport and the mushrooming of the technology of mass communications it's all changing now."

Well, up to a point. Terry Venables, Sally Gunnell and Tom Jones (the popular singing artiste, aged 55) may all have found themselves gracing the pages of this testament to distinction and influence for the first time this year but don't be fooled. They are merely there to draw your attention away from the seraphim and cherubim who continue as the first and second order powers of the established British firmament.

Turn the pages and what you will find are the usual suspects: lords-lieutenant, MPs, QCs, judges, civil servants (those above Grade 3 in the Whitehall pecking order), the higher echelons of the armed forces and those members of the established church of the rank of archdeacon and above - all these get in automatically. So do professors, but only those from Oxford and Cambridge - redbrick and glass-facade profs have to fight their way in by virtue of "their academic achievement or influence on public policy". At Oxbridge, of course, you can take that as read.

And how about those who don't get in by droit de seigneur? Names are put forward by a team of editors who scour the newspapers every day and, aided by a number of advisers in the various professions, make recommendations to a selection panel who report to the editor.

So who is the editor? "It's one of our state secrets," said the spokeswoman, explaining they were fearful of relentless lobbying. Well, how many people are there on the editorial team? "Another of our secrets, I'm afraid." As is the size of the selection panel that vets the editorial suggestions. As is the number of advisers. As is, even, the number of copies sold each year.

How discreet. But then discretion has long been one of the hallmarks of the behavioural patterns of those in Britain who are close to the centre of things. So is continuity. The questionnaire which is sent to the elect is largely unchanged from the one devised by Adam Black in the 1890s (hence its unnatural preoccupation with its subjects' clubs - which unless otherwise stated can be assumed to be in St James's).

The discretion extends to the fact that the entries are autobiographical. Thus it is possible for a subject to exclude all reference to, say, his first wife if he has now come to feel coy about her existence. Margaret Thatcher managed for some reason to name her father but omit any reference to her mother, which prompted commentators to all manner of Freudian supposition. Mrs T was hot in her denials, though her mother is once again excluded from the 1996 edition.

Our own Miles Kington, in decidedly post-modernist mood, selects as his recreation for 1996 "falsifying personal records to mystify potential biographers." Others have been more minimalist. For many years Tony Benn's entry shrank repeatedly in size. And Ken Livingstone refused to submit an entry for many years (though this year he is in).

Some hold out still. The secretive Barclay Brothers (owners of Ellerman shipping lines and the European newspaper) and Tiny Rowland of Lonrho fame continue to refuse to return their questionnaires.

The length of entries, therefore, is not so much an index of the importance of the individual concerned as a reflection of their sense of self-importance. Barbara Cartland insists on listing her 600-odd titles of romantic fiction - and then submits a claim for the longest Who's Who entry to the Guinness Book of Records. The literary agent Giles Gordon, meanwhile, contents himself with pointing out that, measured in inches, his entry is the exact same length as his penis. (Two and a half inches with, worryingly, a column break in the middle).

Power is more private than such self-publicising. The latest edition may be more detailed than the list of peers, bishops, British envoys abroad and directors of the East India Company which made up the first Who's Who in 1849. But it is still as reliable a map as it ever was of what Andrew Neil - who in his time as editor of the Sunday Times always fancied himself as the scourge of the Establishment - used to call Old Britain.

It is a world in which rank counts for more than perspicacity - why otherwise is that amiable lightweight Cristina Odone (editor of the Catholic Herald) included when the formidable Clifford Longley, the second most perceptive of Britain's religious commentators, is excluded. And in which the palimpsest of the past is preferred to the innovative frontiers of the present - why otherwise is the aforesaid editor (with her circulation of 19,000) favoured over, say, Andy Redfern, editor of the computer weekly PC Magazine (circulation 122,000)?

Surely a volume which sets out to reflect "people of influence and interest in all fields" should include entries for the icons who define the cutting edge of our cultural life. Where, for example, are the names like Paul Weller, Kate Moss, Charlie Parsons or Waheed Alli?

But then a Who's Who that reflected the vitality and variety of contemporary Britain would be a different creature entirely. The present volume is used chiefly by civil servants, the legal profession, the army - and the media who report upon them. It reflects the needs of its users who do not need to know what is exciting about modern Britain, but where power in its traditional forms is located.

The answer it reveals is that Who's Who still believes that power is located where it always has been. It supposes that - though the epiphenomena of contemporary culture may be different - underneath, everything remains the same. Hence Who's Who sees itself primarily still as a book about the powerful rather than the merely famous whom it sprinkles through only as a form of window dressing. This explains why A&C Black consistently refuses to alter its policy that once a person enters its lists they remain in the publication for the rest of their lives, even if their career is subsequently undistinguished.

The sub-text of Who's Who tells us something about the abiding nature of the British Establishment. Once in, never out. Which is why they make it so hard to get in in the first place.