It takes an event like the final day of the football season – the Premier League's 20 clubs complete their fixture list this afternoon – to remind you just how tightly the commercial noose is pulled around the nation's institutional throat.
This was particularly evident in the front-page jamboree orchestrated by my local paper last week to mark Norwich City's thumping 4-0 victory over West Bromwich Albion and the guarantee of continued top-flight status in 2013/14.
Did it begin by remarking the fact that thousands of Norwich fans have managed to keep their sporting dreams intact over the close season? No, the headline merely noted that "Big win gives £100 million boost to the region" – this being the sum that experts calculate will now irrigate the topsoil of the local economy. The chief executive of Norfolk's Chamber of Commerce was reliably on hand to declare that Premier League survival "helps our exporters when they are travelling the world and will increase the overall profile of the area which is so important to the business community".
From the angle of one who wants Norfolk, its people and its industries to prosper, you can't really complain about this largesse. On the other hand, the idea that the only thing that matters about any human endeavour is the amount of money it can generate for public or private gain – mostly private, you suspect – is so common these days as to make the average citizen feel slightly sick.
Maria Miller, the Culture Secretary, has already endeared herself to the arts world by defining her ministerial brief in almost exclusively fiscal terms. Education, alas, has gone more or less the same way, and the vice-chancellor asked to comment on the function of his university nearly always starts by emphasising the economic benefits of all those free-spending students.
Going back to the £100m now fitfully descending over the Norfolk landscape like so much confetti, it is worth pointing out that in the last resort sport is still – just about – a romantic activity, a matter of its supporters projecting on to the sacred turf all manner of private myths and behavioural assumptions of which the moneybags who now control the game can have only the faintest conception.
The Manchester United fans who booed Wayne Rooney when he appeared on the celebratory march-past last week for his want of loyalty have all the dogged self-righteousness of a Georgian poet of the 1920s, still gamely composing sonnets in the age of Eliot and Pound.
Easy to miss these things, of course, but in case you hadn't noticed the almost sempiternal war between highbrows and lowbrows has broken out again in the pages of our national newspapers.
James Patterson protested that, if thousands of people disliked his books, then millions of people admired them, Dan Brown's new one is being disdainfully reviewed, while the Education Secretary Michael Gove's suggestion that teenagers might be better off reading Middlemarch than the vampire novels of Stephenie Meyer was met with the usual ritualised abuse, the implication being that Mr Gove was at best ill-advised and at worse a cultural snob.
It is no disparagement either of Mr Patterson or of Mr Gove's detractors to suggest that these debates are entirely futile. Popular entertainers have been complaining that the critics hate them since books first came to be written; the only real judge of a book's merits is posterity, and posterity, alas, has a trick of siding with the brainy stuff. On the other hand, the fact that Marie Corelli, whose novels sold in the hundreds of thousands in the 1890s, is forgotten while George Gissing, whose novels sold in the hundreds, is not, is scant consolation to Gissing.
The row about Middlemarch has been particularly dreary, with people writing to the news- papers to lament that the novel is so full of obsolete words and arcane references as to baffle the inexperienced reader. Like quite a lot of educational debate these days, this merely patronises most of the children being educated. Are they really as dim as we suppose them to be? Our house cleaner some years ago used to enjoy reading Zadie Smith. Clearly she should have stuck to Martina Cole.
At an event held last Tuesday night at London Zoo, the poet Jo Shapcott could be heard talking about the loris – a small furry animal native to Sri Lanka – about which she has written a poem. The series of six discussions, chaired by Ruth Padel, also includes Mark Haddon on Galapagos tortoises and Andrew O'Hagan on the Malaysian tapir, each accompanied by a conservation scientist and the animal itself.
This led me to wonder what might be the most recherché specimen to which a poet has ever addressed a poem. Obviously there is Burns on mice ('Wee sleekit, cowrin,' tim'rous beastie'). The Georgian rhymers had a thing about parrots, although one of their number, Sir John Squire, wrote some affecting verses to a cabbage white butterfly he once saw fluttering along the Strand.
The Beat Poets have their moments, although Ed Sanders' "Sheep Fuck Poem" is probably not much anthologised. But the last word was probably spoken by Dickens, in the shape of Mrs Leo Hunter's "Ode to an Expiring Frog" in Pickwick ("Can I unmoved see thee dying/on a log/Expiring frog?"). You can keep your lorises.Reuse content