Several commentators in the past week or so have detected a rise in the nation's spiritual temperature. One piece of evidence could be found in our response to the request made by Fabrice Muamba's family that we should "pray for him" and the approving references within the footballing community to Muamba's status as "a man of faith". But another apparently lay in the great interest expressed in possible contenders for the newly vacant archbishopric of Canterbury.
A more prosaic view of the excitement surrounding Archbishop Sentamu's chances of holding off the Bishop of Bradford insists that it stems merely from the British public's relish of a contest. Still, working from the premise that the Church of England needs all the advertising it can get, the canvassing of likely runners for the Canterbury Stakes can only be a good thing. And yet, if you wanted an example of the deeply secretive, if not downright oligarchal, manner in which large parts of the British Establishment continue to operate, it would be hard to find anything quite as archaic as the process by which Croziered Cantuar steps forward to kiss Her Majesty's hand.
The appointment will be made by the Queen, on the advice of the Prime Minister, after David Cameron has consulted with a wonderfully antediluvian old body called the Crown Nominations Commission. This consists of the Archbishop of York and an episcopal colleague, three members of the General Synod's House of Laity, three members of the same body's House of Clergy and another six members of the Vacancy-in-See Committee, chosen by the committee itself. Fourteen insiders, in other words, with scarcely a nod in the direction of my local church congregation, who last Sunday were wondering so animatedly whether Bishop Graham (of Norwich) was worth an outside bet.
Clearly, what is needed in this inclusive and transparent age of ours, is the brisk sweep of a democratising broom. Why not let the Crown Nominations Committee come up with a shortlist of six and then submit them to a televised hustings, followed by, if not a public vote, then at least some kind of church-wide plebiscite? Not only would this give whoever gets the job something resembling a mandate for the disagreeable decisions that lie ahead; it would also drag the institution he represents just slightly nearer to the 21st century.
The book I most enjoyed last week was an advance copy of Dominic Sandbrook's Seasons in the Sun, an outsize history of 1974-79 and rather ominously subtitled The Battle for Britain. No one could accuse Sandbrook of failing to range widely in his quest for sources – he is particularly good, for example, on some of the minor television programmes of the period. At the same time, even admirers of the country's two most celebrated armchair politicians of the right may think that he has dwelt too long between the covers of Zachary Leader's edition of the Letters of Kingsley Amis and Anthony Thwaite's Selected Letters of Philip Larkin.
Amis and Larkin are everywhere, moaning about Harold Wilson, excoriating the unions and saluting the Queen on the occasion of her Silver Jubilee. No blame attaches to Mr Sandbrook for this strategy, for almost every recent historian of the post-war era has tended to follow it. The index of David Kynaston's Family Britain 1951-1957 contains 20 references to Amis and 15 to Larkin. For some reason two of the most regular witnesses to the tumult of our age turn out to be a misanthropic provincial librarian and a womanising proto-Thatcherite. Surely there must be a left-wing diarist or two, with the exception of the ever-present Tony Benn and Barbara Castle, to redress this imbalance? Or perhaps, as with a great deal of post-war British literature, it is merely that the right has all the best tunes.
One of Sandbrook's funniest anecdotes finds Wilson's successor as prime minister, James Callaghan, telephoning the Post Office accounts department to enquire about his telephone bill. "I didn't say who I was, didn't give my name, and I was treated disgracefully," Callaghan informed his Cabinet colleagues. "I was told that they couldn't answer over the phone. I had better write in, and finally they just rang off."
A third of a century later, the cost of a first-class stamp to facilitate this writing in is about to rise to 60p. The privatisation of the Post Office is thought to be as inevitable as this week's hosepipe bans, but its architects might stop for a moment to consider the fate of certain other privatised industries over the past 20 years. On the one hand, standards of customer service have risen: a train journey, for instance, is much more pleasurable than it was in the 1970s, when, timidly asking a conductor when we might be moving from the siding in which the train had been becalmed for the past two hours, you could expect to be told that you were lucky not to be charged for heat and light.
On the other, the average water company is a profiteering monopoly that never seems very interested in the conservation of its product, while even the Government quietly despairs of the aggrandising cartels that fix the provision of gas and electricity. It shouldn't, surely, be beyond the Business Secretary's ingenuity to sort out the Post Office? But then the same was said of the problem of university admissions, which Ucas last week confessed itself unable to solve. No doubt in both cases the public servants involved have a perfectly convincing explanation.
The unveiling in Soho of a plaque commemorating the 40th anniversary of the photoshoot for David Bowie's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars produced some affecting memoirs from middle-aged journalists who, in their hot youth, had aspired to emulate this iconic figure: John Walsh's account in The Independent of his silver leotard, worn until a fellow party-goer remarked "Who's come as Widow Twankey?", almost moved me to tears. It also brought back memories of my own efforts, c1979-81, to look like the Jam's Paul Weller, which involved wearing a striped mod jacket (my father's old boating blazer) and a silk scarf, parting my hair in the middle and keeping a cigarette clamped to my lower lip.
Given the protean, post-modern gloss of so many contemporary pop stars, you wonder if this kind of remorseless imitation goes on in 2012. Rather in the manner of the hero of the Talking Heads song "Life During Wartime", who has changed his hairstyle so many times that he doesn't know what he looks like, keeping up with Lady Gaga's serial re-inventions must be a full-time job.
- More about:
- Labour Party
- Philip Larkin
- Tony Benn