Delivering this year's Orwell Memorial Lecture to a packed house at Birkbeck College, Hilary Mantel understandably chose to talk about Thomas Crom-well, the hero of her Man Booker-winning novel Wolf Hall.
Though full of arresting details about Cromwell's professional life, his winning of some papal favour by offering an appreciative pontiff a plate of jelly and so on, the lecture ended up as an exercise in what might be called subjunctive history, the "what-if?" school that veers away from the path of what really happened to the more abstruse and problematic byways of the possible outcome. Ms Mantel was particularly beguiled by what she termed the "nascent welfare state" pioneered by Cromwell and his associates, and invited us to consider what a very different entity mid-Tudor England would have been had our man not gone to the block in 1540.
A certain kind of novelist – not Hilary Mantel, it must be said – has always been profoundly attracted by the idea of subjunctive history. Kingsley Amis's The Alteration (1976) imagines an England in which the Protestant Reformation has been kept at bay; Robert Harris's Fatherland (1992) takes in the aftermath of a Nazi invasion. There is a terrific novel waiting to be written about the reign of a Mrs Simpson-less King Edward VIII.
Looking at some of the great "what if?" questions of recent British politics, alternatively, you always feel that, whatever the outcome, some kind of continuity, some compromised variant on what really took place, would eventually have prevailed.
Most modern historians, for example, maintain that even had Churchill won the 1945 general election – as most commentators expected him to do – a version of the National Health Service would still have come into existence. Similarly, if James Callaghan had scraped home in the election that never was, in autumn 1978, there would still have been some attempt to rein in the aggrandising powers of the trade union leaders, whom even Labour Cabinet ministers were getting heartily sick off, not to mention a fistful of hard-line economic policies. British monetarism, after all, began with Denis Healey and the IMF crisis of 1976.
But one of the most fascinating "what ifs?" must be the Labour Party's leadership election of 1980. What if Healey had beaten Michael Foot instead of losing by 10 votes? Would the SDP have come about? Would Mrs Thatcher have won a second term? Surveying the wreckage of the next 10 years from the vantage point of 1990, the handful of vengeful right-wing Labour MPs who supposedly voted for Foot as a means of splitting the party must have been kicking themselves.
Calling in at the Soho offices of the Literary Review the other day – premises so antique that it wouldn't be wonderful to find Hazlitt asleep in the corner with his head on a pile of galley proofs – I discovered its staff hard at work devising the shortlist for this year's Bad Sex award, inaugurated by the late Auberon Waugh to highlight risible and taste-free depictions of the sexual act. The list, unveiled the following morning, was full of good stuff, with Philip Roth, Nick Cave and the ever-reliable Paul Theroux looking strong contenders. I had pressed for the late John Updike's inclusion (the prize can be awarded posthumously) only to be reminded that he had been given a lifetime achievement award only the other year.
Even more fascinating than the list itself, though, are the reactions of those selected. Some writers covet the prize; others are outraged. Some turn up on the night; others angrily decline. Philip Kerr accepted the award, but made a speech disparaging the judges and was hooted by the audience. In the year Sebastian Faulks turned the honour down flat, a substitute was found in Alan Titchmarsh who, clearly delighted by this unlooked-for recognition, made a gracious and witty speech.
All this raises an interesting question, one whose boundaries extend far beyond polite literature: what is the best response to the prospect of public humiliation? Rage, passive acceptance and bleak indifference all have their supporters, but nothing really beats an attempt to carry the battle into the enemy's camp. There is a rather telling scene in Anthony Powell's wartime novel The Valley of Bones (1964) in which a gang of subalterns decide to rag an incompetent fellow-officer named Bithel by placing an effigy in his bed. Instead of taking offence, Bithel presses the figure to his chest and dances grotesquely around the room with it. Rather than cooking Bithel's goose for all time, the incident enables him to establish what Powell's narrator Nick Jenkins calls "a certain undoubted prestige". Whoever steps up to the rostrum to collect the Bad Sex Award should bear this lesson in mind.
Forty years old this week, The Sun has been regaling its readers with a selection of memorable front pages, chosen by some of the world's most influential figures. Tuesday's selection, I discovered, was made by Bono, Lady Thatcher, Dizzee Rascal and Simon Cowell: a philanthropic rock musician; a retired prime minister; an R&B star of whom no one over the age of 40 has probably heard, and a somewhat overbearing TV impresario. So who, one wondered, as Mr Rascal offered his recollections of the cover announcing the death of Michael Jackson, really are the world's most influential figures these days? The obvious answer is one of the techno-gurus – Bill Gates or Steve Jobs – busy plotting the future of electronic communication.
My own guess is that they are obscure and faintly mundane people whose activities are seldom reported in the newspapers: Chinese businessmen, say, planning some strategic assault on the markets of the West; hedge fund executives hunkered down in their Midwestern silos.
It is the same with literature. Some years ago the late Martin Seymour-Smith produced a compendium of the world's most influential books, a defiantly highbrow affair in which Tolstoy, Kant and Wittgenstein grandly predominated. I remember thinking that the two most influential books published in Britain in the 20th century – "influential" being defined as having a measurable, long-term effect on ordinary people – were probably the bound volume of the Beveridge Report and the Second World War infantry training manual.
The publication of Zadie Smith's essay collection Changing My Mind, and the deluge of photos of Ms Smith looking anguished and soulful, reminded me of a neat little demonstration I once witnessed of the way in which the literary world works – or rather the way in which the media works when it decides to take an interest in books. This was the award of the 2001 John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. The judges, of whom I was one, unconvinced by the merits of White Teeth, which had already sold several hundred thousand copies, eventually succumbed to pressure and put the novel on the shortlist. Come the prize-giving, a flock of photographers descended on the Reform Club to photograph Ms Smith, but showed no interest at all in Edward Platt, the winner of the prize, while the judges were denounced by A N Wilson in the pages of The Daily Telegraph. To do Zadie Smith justice, she always seems faintly embarrassed about the media storm that swirls around her, and commendably unimpressed by the people who try to crack her up as a titan. Among other things, Changing My Mind contains no-nonsense critiques of her own three novels which are quite startling in their modesty. It would be mischievous of me to suggest that one or two of Ms Smith's senior contemporaries would profit by reading them.
As the first decade of the 21st century falters to a close, culture sections and music papers have been aflame with "best of" lists. These have not lacked controversy. The New Musical Express's choice of its top 50 albums, in particular, has been criticised for an incorrigible white-guitar-pop bias, which saw the Strokes, the Libertines, Primal Scream and the Arctic Monkeys shunted into the top four spots. On the other hand, the NME can hardly be blamed for appeasing the prejudices of its readers. As a devotee of the magazine in its late 1970's heyday, I can vividly remember my own attitude to the "black" music continually pressed upon me: soul – marvellous, uplifting, fab; funk – interesting up to a point; reggae – world's most boring music; how can anyone be interested in Bob Marley?; disco – oh please!
As for contemporary "urban" music, it is impossible to look at one of those R&B videos full of proudly lofted bling and foxily gyrating babes without wanting to giggle. But this is a taste issue, not a racial one. If it comes to that, I don't much like Primal Scream and the Libertines, but I can quite see why they appeal to readers of the NME, while Dizzee Rascal doesn't.