A suspicion that the Leveson inquiry is a gigantic waste of public money, whose purpose is to tell us what we already know, was confirmed by Sir John Major's appearance before that august tribunal last Tuesday. Sir John was at his most humble, and also his most lethal – like a Dickensian clerk arriving diffidently before his employer's fraud trial with the modest aim of getting some of his own back for years of abuse. The highlight of his testimony came in an account of a dinner at which Rupert Murdoch is alleged to have said that if the party didn't change its European policies his papers "could not, would not, support our Conservative government".
It was a good story, impressively told, but at this stage in the proceedings evidence of Mr Murdoch's titanic interference is approximately as controversial as the idea that Katie Price might not have written the books to which she cheerfully signs her name. In fact, a painstaking exposé of the pressure Mr Murdoch was able to exert on British prime ministers was provided as long ago as 2000 with the publication of the third volume of the journals kept by Mr Murdoch's fixer-cum-facilitator, the late Woodrow Wyatt.
Take, for example, an extract from spring 1994 in which Wyatt mentions to the then Mr Major that "I thought I had got Rupert under more control, and that he would be more reasonable". Or a conversation between Wyatt and Mr Murdoch from three months later, in which Wyatt inquires: "I am seeing him [Major] tonight. Have you got any different message from the one I gave him last time?" Mr Murdoch rings back half an hour later opining that "a reshuffle would be a very good idea in the summer, to get rid of [Douglas] Hurd ..."
A meeting carefully brokered by Wyatt in May 1994 finds Mr Murdoch complaining about Brussels and again asking for a reshuffle. This proposal is then gravely discussed by a triumvirate consisting of Her Majesty's First Lord of the Treasury, a foreign media baron and a self-appointed backstairs intriguer. As the proof of Mr Murdoch's sinister influence on British politics is available on every library shelf, it seems a shame that retired prime ministers should be dragged from the comfort of their hearths to authenticate it.
Michael Gove's suggestion that all children of primary-school age should be compelled to learn poems by heart has, like most of his ideas in the field of education, been met with a combination of faint patronage and reminiscent curiosity. The Guardian went so far as to print a dozen or so stanzas of well-known poems (Byron, Kipling, etc) which its readers were invited to complete.
This task proved so embarrassing ("If you can keep your head when, um ... When all around you, er ...") that I straightaway sat down to compile a list of what exactly I could recite.
There emerged an eclectic and fragmentary anthology including some lines from Macaulay's Lays of Ancient Rome ("Lars Porsena of Clusium, by the Nine Gods he swore..."), a smattering of Eliot, "The General" by Siegfried Sassoon, quite a lot of Lewis Carroll, assorted Larkin and a whole heap of scraps from everyone from Masefield to the American arch-modernist Hart Crane ("... it's half-past six she said – if/you don't like my gate why did you/swing on it, why didja/swing on it/anyhow ...")
The wider question of whether it is a good idea to induce children already exhausted by the demands made on them by the national curriculum to learn poems by heart hangs in the air. The dinner tables of my youth fairly buzzed with the spectacle of elderly relatives fondly declaiming verses recalled from Palgrave's Golden Treasury but it always seemed to me that such feats of memory came without comprehension, and that the effect was of listening to a series of cracker mottoes.
On the other hand, Mr Gove's scheme flies so flagrantly in the face of every modern educational orthodoxy that this alone ought to be a reason for backing it to the hilt.
Faced with the job of reviewing Martin Amis's new novel, Lionel Asbo, several critics grew understandably nervous in the presence of what was generally agreed to be a "satire" of working-class dress-styles and modes of speech.
As with TV comedy programmes featuring characters with names such as Waynetta Slob, there are at least three arguments to be advanced in Amis's favour. The first is that the novel's real target is not so much its cast as the tabloid/celebrity miasma that, arguments about free will notwithstanding, helps to make them what they are. The second is that this is a free country where writers can presumably crack jokes about anything they like.
The third is that social or class-based differences are such a staple of British humour, let alone British comic novels, that, without them, both these organisms would more or less cease to exist. A novel set in a society that had achieved genuine social equality would have to rely on straightforward slapstick for its effects, if only because the usual distinctions of speech, background, dress and demeanour would no longer apply. Oddly enough, it is possible to be a critic of the British class system and sympathetic to the people at its lower end while still finding Lionel Asbo's pronunciation of his name as Loyonel extremely funny. But perhaps this is Amis's point.