One of the depressing things about the free society we supposedly inhabit is its tendency to allow coercion in by the back door – that fatal inability to forestall the moment when a community in pursuit of its democratic rights finds its way barred by a man with a big stick just itching to enforce lawfully constituted authority. To a certain extent this kind of situation is inevitable, given the number of checks and balances that free societies need to make them function – it was George Orwell who pointed out that civilisations which imagine they can get by without policemen are deluding themselves – but its consequences are always that much more injurious when some sort of genuinely popular opinion is being offended.
Take, for example, the Government's proposals for a high-speed rail-link between London and Birmingham (HS2), the latest legal challenge against which came to court last week. As far as one can make out, this much-touted infrastructure project is supported by the Treasury, the Transport Secretary, some Midlands businessmen and opposed by practically everyone else – the "Heathrow Hub", Aylesbury Golf Club, the councils whose territory lies in HS2's path and, one imagines, the 43,000 house-owners at risk from property blight. The latter figure may rise even further as the HS2 Action Alliance calculates there are 172,000 properties within a kilometre of the route.
Exactly the same sounds of righteous indignation have been coming from the concerned citizens of Ampthill, Bedfordshire, who, despite a long campaign of protest, involving a 2,000 signature petition and a 700-strong mass-picket of the offending premises, have still not persuaded Mid-Bedfordshire Council to refuse a licence for a lap-dancing club. A local councillor remarked that "our hands are tied by the licensing regulations".
What are the citizens of Ampthill, not to mention the 172,000 home-owners on the HS2 line, to do, given that the democratic process is so conspicuously failing them? What is needed, clearly, is some good old-fashioned civil disobedience. If 200 outraged residents lie down in front of a bulldozer, then eventually that bulldozer is going to have to stop. Similarly, if a dozen Ampthillites take it into their heads to stroll past the establishment in Church Street with a tin of paint every morning, who can blame them? Identifying the licensing committee members who did them wrong and voting them out can come later.
With the arrival of Zoe Heller's justly celebrated hatchet-job on Joseph Anton: A Memoir in the New York Review of Books it was suddenly open season on Salman Rushdie. A large amount of retrospective venom was cheerfully unleashed, and there was a general feeling that Mr Rushdie had got off pretty lightly at the hands of the critics these past few years. Ms Heller, in letting him have it with both barrels with some remarks about "shuddering hauteur" and the author's "egregious" lack of charity towards his ex-wives, had begun to redress a grievous imbalance.
I was particularly struck by a letter in this month's Literary Review, courtesy of a Trevor Freeman, which echoed the critic James Wood's complaint that Rushdie's prose was "without exception flat and unoriginal" and that his novels have a "showy liveliness that almost succeeds in hiding the fact that they are without life". How many readers, Mr Freeman wondered, "do not enjoy or admire Rushdie's novels anything like as much as they have been told to and are grateful to James Wood for telling them they may be right?"
The idea that literary culture is essentially a construct has been going the rounds for well over a century. As formulated by F R Leavis, it consists of an age-old middlebrow conspiracy designed to hoodwink the general reader into accepting second-rate work, while the great masterpieces of world literature lie neglected in the trough. To Mr Freeman the whole thing is a high-brow plot in which people in positions of cultural authority "tell" impressionable readers what to believe. At bottom, all this really means is that the literary world, by virtue of its tiny size, is unusually susceptible to influence. Judging by last week's spat, Mr Rushdie's is seriously on the wane.
No doubt the BBC's incoming director-general Tony Hall has enough on his plate, with the detonations made by the Jimmy Savile inquiry still resounding in his ears, but when he has had the time to look about a bit he might want to consider the extraordinarily unimaginative policies being pursued by the Corporation's Arts and Drama departments. Last week's Imagine, for example, featured Alan Yentob trawling the back streets of Accrington with Jeanette Winterson, a route that has been followed so many times that you wonder the local council doesn't set up a heritage trail.
Then came the news that BBC1 is to dramatise J K Rowling's The Casual Vacancy, published with such success earlier this autumn. No offence to Ms Rowling, but couldn't the commissioning editors have come up with something a little less predictable? Ms R, it is fair to say, has been chosen because of her name. If one wanted a novel about small-town society thrown into peril, then why not choose, say, Philip Hensher's King of the Badgers, which has the additional advantage of being twice as good? Potatoes can be very tasty, but sometimes one gets tired of good plain food.