One of the best skits on the idea of polymathy, its all-purpose intensity and unrelenting omniscience – comes in the coda to Martin Amis's famous 1980 interview with Anthony Burgess.
Forty-eight hours after this long, voluble and alcoholic encounter with the "omnilingual" author of A Clockwork Orange, Amis was still sitting in an armchair murmuring the words "Dear oh dear oh dear", whereas his subject, Amis was certain, "went home, did the kitchen, spring-cleaned the flat, wrote two book reviews, a flute concerto and a film treatment, knocked off his gardening column for Pravda, phoned in his surfing page to the Sydney Morning Herald, and then test-drove a kidney-machine for El Pais, before settling down to some serious work".
I remembered this the other day when reading an obituary of the Oxford philosopher Anthony Quinton, author of The Nature of Things (1973) and compere of the BBC's Round Britain Quiz. If not quite "omnilingual", Lord Quinton's many talents seem to have placed him squarely in the Burgess class: a bona fide intellectual heavyweight, who appeared to have read every Victorian novel ever published, while retaining an in-depth knowledge of television soap-operas. There are so few genuine polymaths these days that their rarity leads to an understandable tendency to regard anyone with more than one interest in life as a kind of all-round genius: see, for example, the fuss made about Stephen Fry – an exceptionally intelligent and culturally attuned man whose distinction is that he operates in a world of mediocrity.
On the other hand, admirable as all this disaggregated knowledge and inexhaustible enthusiasm may be, there are advantages in specialisation. My old Oxford history tutor spent most of his professional life mapping out the contours of late-medieval Gascony, and while he never ventured a remark about the previous night's episode of Coronation Street any advice he cared to offer on French provincial society in the 15th century was generally worth having. Being taught by Lord Quinton, alternatively, sounds as if it might have been just the tiniest bit exhausting.
Arts story of the week was the news that the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool is mounting a stage version of Robert Tressell's novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, at the close of whose three-week run the production will head south for a six-week stint at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester. In the 96 years of its existence – it was first published in bowdlerised form in spring 1914 – vast claims have been made for this account of a gang of downtrodden Edwardian house-painters and their exploitation at the hands of the local capitalist junta. Alan Sillitoe remembered being told by an RAF colleague that it was the book which "won the 1945 general election for Labour", while most literary critics are agreed that it is one of the first novels in English Literature that pulls off the notoriously difficult trick of managing to see working-class life from the inside.
All this may well be true, and yet The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists' lasting achievement, it might be argued, is to answer the eternal question of why no genuinely effective working-class political movement has ever existed in this country, and why, even in the cash-strapped 1930s, with three million out of work, large parts of the working-class electorate persisted in voting Conservative. The distinguishing mark of Tressell's characters, alas, is their lack of solidarity: several of them vaguely sympathise with their employers' point of view, and are keen on preserving the petty distinctions that exist within their own social class. In some ways the character of Frank Owen, who preaches socialism to them during snatched lunch breaks, is an even less effective vehicle for political change: Owen, it turns out, is an example of the "superior", self-educated workman who, by virtue of his book-learning, looks down on his benighted colleagues and shakes his head over their lack of gumption. Curiously enough, the novel which best anatomises the condition of the Edwardian working class is also the one which exposes that class's fatal inability to do anything to improve its lot.
Looking through press reports of the memorial service for Dick Francis, who died in February at the age of 89, I had a pretty good idea of what I might find, and there it was in the shape of an address by his friend and fellow-author Frederick Forsyth. According to Mr Forsyth, once he had retired as a champion jockey, Francis "discovered he had a second mystery talent. He could tell a cracking good story. There were snobs who said perhaps there was a lack of polished prose. So what? ... it was entertainment of the purest form". Although Mr Forsyth didn't say as much, you got the feeling that lurking at the back of his mind was the thought that other "snobs" may possibly have made the same complaints about his own books.
The note of peevishness struck by best-selling commercial novelists when they come to reflect on what the critics say about them would be even funnier if it didn't involve quite so much linguistic sleight-of-hand. Thackeray's definition of "snob", taken from his immortal compendium The Snobs of England is "he who meanly admires mean things". A modern definition might be "the assumption of a false superiority", believing, let us say, that a duke's opinion on some great issue of the day is worth having because he is a duke. To go back to Dick Francis, while there is no cast-iron formula by which to prove that Trial Run is aesthetically superior to a novel by AS Byatt, most objective commentators would probably contend that Francis's prose is a bit on the workmanlike side and his characters fairly stereotyped, none of which, of course, retards his ability to entertain millions of people. The problem about the Forsyth stance, however, is its wider implication, that marvellously democratic idea, common to nearly all popular newspapers, that to express any kind of judgement about anything is instantly to declare yourself as a modern Lady Catherine de Bourgh.
Sir Tom Stoppard's lament for the retreat of the printed page at the expense of the moving image drew many respectful articles in the press. Extrapolating from Sir Tom's thesis about the baleful effect of all these lap-tops, The Daily Telegraph's Harry Mount produced a brilliant jeremiad about what he called the decline of the British mind, borne away on an endless tide of celebritified rubbish. Sympathetic as one naturally is to this kind of thing, it is worth pointing out that the printed page's former hegemony over the public consciousness can be over-stated. Social historians often suggest that the dominance of print media in our national life was comparatively short-lived – from 1875 to 1925, say. Before then, the majority of the population was illiterate. After it, radio and cinema had begun to intrude into the leisure hours previously spent reading books. Literary culture of the kind whose passing Sir Tom regrets has always had a fairly limited take-up in this country. As a veteran of early Eighties recruitment seminars where the question asked was not "What future has the book?" but "Does the book have a future?" I sometimes feel that the printed page has survived a great deal better than many of us had a right to expect.
For sheer unadulterated amusement there has been nothing to beat the BBC's World Cup coverage. The age of the cross-talk comedian is always supposed to have died with the closure of the variety halls, but Mark Lawrenson and Guy Mowbray are doing their best to keep the tradition going. "He's got a little tap" Mowbray suggested when a Slovenian defender went down injured on Wednesday afternoon. "Should have been a plumber" Lawrenson lobbed back. Next the camera dwelt on a group of England fans kitted out in crusader hauberks and chain-mail. "They're having a nice night" Lawrenson gamely quipped, before observing that "supporting England is a cure for constipation".
Yet even the bright star of Lawrenson's repartee seemed to flicker a little in the presence of gruff-voiced Mick McCarthy, who clearly awaits a transfer to one of BBC2's late-night comedy shows. "They have a lot to offer and every chance of getting back into the game" he suggested when North Korea went a goal down to Portugal. Half an hour later, with the score at 4-0, he sagely opined that "we might get 25 minutes of keep ball, which would be a shame". Portugal duly won 7-0. Apart from these two heroic figures, dull male inarticulacy has been the order of the day. What is needed is a clever, sports-fixated woman to helm the coverage. Is Mariella Frostrup interested in football? Can she be tempted across from Radio 4? Or am I – see the item above – merely being snobbish?