In the same week that the Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, unveiled the Government's plans for commemorating next August's centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, the former defence secretary, Michael Portillo, took to the airwaves with a series about the year 1913. Mr Portillo's theme, it turns out, is continuity, and the conflict's role not as a stimulus to social and political change but as a kind of ghastly brake applied to developments that were already in train and would resume with even greater speed once hostilities were over.
Naturally this theory was applied to the arena of military technology. Here, as Mr Portillo pointed out, the end of the cavalry charge and the rise of the tank and the bombing plane could be glimpsed across the horizon long before the archducal assassination at Sarajevo. All this reminded me of an immensely prophetic but comparatively little-known essay that George Orwell produced for Tribune a couple of months after the close of the Second World War, entitled "You and the Atom Bomb", in which he examines the connection between international power politics and military hardware.
According to Orwell, a single general rule applies: "Ages in which the dominant weapon is expensive or difficult to make will tend to be ages of despotism, whereas when the dominant weapon is cheap or simple, the common people have a chance." By this reasoning, tanks and battleships are inherently weapons of tyranny. On the other hand, the musket – the symbolic accessory of the American War of Independence – was democratic.
Here, in 1945, the effect of the invention of the nuclear bomb was to concentrate power in a tiny number of hands and (this is where Orwell was being prophetic) preserve a status quo in which two or three super-states would maintain their supremacy by way of a tacit agreement never to use the bombs against each other.
How does this theory shape up in 2013, when military technology has advanced to the point where a single Afghan tribesman can blow a helicopter out of the sky with a hand-held rocket-launcher or a suicide bomber destroy a roomful of people with a rucksack full of Semtex? The answer would seem to be that, once again, the technology is thoroughly undemocratic, there not to succour the rebel army and the common cause but to help the solitary barbarian and the majority-hating fanatic.
The BBC Woman's Hour presenter Jenni Murray could be found in last week's Radio Times complaining about the "sexualisation" of female classical musicians. "The women who seem to be most welcome are the ones who are prepared to go along with the old idea that sex sells," she lamented. "Look at the way the violinist Nicola Benedetti and the trumpeter Alison Balsom are marketed." Ms Benedetti declined to comment, but has previously noted that "I don't think dressing provocatively should be part of what I do".
Welcome as all this is, it is a pity Ms Murray didn't go further and address the sexualisation of culture per se. This is noticeable even in the staid old world of light literature. I remember getting into terrible trouble some years ago for suggesting that Zadie Smith's career had only been helped by someone's decision to reinvent her as one of the Pointer Sisters. A sexist jibe no doubt, but it is
a fact that Ms Smith's early publicity photos showed a rather homely looking girl wearing a kind of cotton-square bonnet. This is not a complaint about Zadie Smith, whose talent would enable her to prosper if she looked like a dustbin, merely to note that she is a victim of a wider cultural process, and that if there is space for only one picture in the Saturday books supplement Ms Smith invariably gets the nod.
There is nothing that anyone can do about this, for beyond a limited circle of genuine aficionados, most cultural engagements are entered into for non-cultural reasons. As that highly effective book-publiciser the late Anthony Blond once remarked, the fact that an author lost a leg at Anzio is frequently much more important than the quality of the book he writes. The same is true of musicians with short skirts and come-hither expressions.
It was a particularly bad few days for the concept of live TV. As several commentators noted, BBC coverage of Usain Bolt's first major appearance of the season was a terrific let-down: not only did he lose the race, but the eventual winner, Justin Gatlin, declined to face the cameras. Worse was to come, however, in the live reports from the London hospital in which the Duke of Edinburgh is recovering from abdominal surgery and the Pretoria hospital in which Nelson Mandela is being treated for a lung infection.
Had there been a bulletin on the Duke's health, someone enquired of the poor girl camped out on the pavement? No, there hadn't. Had anyone visited him? Ditto.
Meanwhile in Pretoria, our correspondent was reduced to reading out a get-well-soon message that had just arrived from the ANC. What is the point of these communications? It is almost as bad as the vox pop interviews conducted in the wake of some Government proposal or other, in which, for the sake of balance, the first person has to agree, the second dissent, and the third sit on the fence.Reuse content