Simon Raven's novel The Judas Boy (1968) contains a pointed scene in which Tom Llewellyn, a BBC documentary-maker enjoys a brisk exchange of views with a Cambridge college provost on the subject of power.
This, Llewellyn argues, "is a random affair", impossible to imagine concentrated in a single individual or group "because the world has long since become too complicated for even the most determined and intelligent individual to exert his will, except in very limited areas". For all the dozens of dons and college servants supposedly at his beck and call, even Provost Constable is only a kind of diplomat, dependent on quiet words and committee management to carry his point.
The continuing relevance of this discussion was borne out by two of last week's most striking images: the picture of a gaunt-looking Steve Jobs prior to his temporary departure from Apple on health grounds, and the photograph of President Obama welcoming his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao to the White House. Which of the three is most powerful?
Obama heads the most powerful democracy in the world, and yet neither the US Senate nor the House of Representatives is wholly his to command. The smart money, consequently, would be on President Hu, possibly in cahoots with his foxy accomplice, Premier Wen Jiabao. But even these practised old human-rights suppressors have state councils vigilantly checking their moves, not to mention a country so large and capriciously administered that you suspect some of its farther-flung satrapies are almost beyond the reach of governance.
Steve Jobs? Well, technocrat power is a frail and teetering edifice: whenever Mr Jobs has a health scare the Apple share price tumbles. The same plunge will accompany Rupert Murdoch's departure. Each, like Simon Raven's provost, has an authority that extends "only as far as you yourself are seen". Most of today's real movers and shakers, you fancy, are conspicuously not seen, hunkered down in their Midwestern silos, staring out from the skyscrapers of the Gulf. It would be nice to know who they were.
As public agitation over the future of the library service mounts – 400 individual libraries are thought to be in jeopardy – it is interesting to compare the reactions of the local authorities charged with pruning their culture budgets. Here in Norfolk, although savings of £1.5m are planned for the library and information service over the next three years, the county council says nothing will actually be shut. The cuts, severe though they are, will mean reductions in opening hours, fewer staff and fewer new books.
Across the border in Suffolk, on the other hand, meltdown is in prospect, with two-thirds of libraries apparently under threat. Judy Terry, the council cabinet member responsible, has urged communities to "come forward and tell us how they want their libraries to be run". It seems pretty clear from the public's reaction that what the inhabitants of Bungay, Framlingham and Southwold want is for their libraries to carry on existing under council direction – but this clearly isn't what Ms Terry has in mind. It has also been pointed out that if the council's 250 top-earning employees, including its chief executive Anthea Hill (who takes home a startling £218,000 a year), took a 10 per cent pay decrease there would be no need for any cuts at all.
It was a rather mixed week for that time-honoured transatlantic adventurer, the Englishman at large in American media-land. The former Daily Mirror editor and reality show judge Piers Morgan, who began his new CNN show by interviewing Oprah Winfrey, was thought to have received what one newspaper described as "rather ho-hum" notices. Mr Morgan, whom his guest found "surprising" was preceded on US television by Ricky Gervais's sprightly performance hosting the Golden Globes. This included an absence from the podium that was so prolonged that it was thought he was being reprimanded for the tastelessness of some of his jokes.
This is not the place to comment on the suitability of either Morgan or Gervais for the role of cultural ambassadors. But in the smaller matter of working out how to pitch yourself to the exacting US audience, one felt nothing but sympathy. Essentially, the Stateside English media man has two choices. They can play up their Englishness, in the manner of the journalist Beverley Nichols, who turned up to edit the American Sketch in 1928 in the company of furniture and manservant, or they can try the trick in reverse. Each approach carries grave risks. Appearing at the Chicago Humanities Festival some years back, I decided to go for option one. Fine for social parlayings ("Oh my Gad, Eugene, will you just come here and get a load of this guy?" etc) this strategy was less effective for public events. One couple assured me that, while enjoying my lecture, they had been unable to understand large parts on the grounds that "your accent is too English".
The most annoying advertisement of the week was the no-words-wasted car promotion that assured potential purchasers that we're busy, you're busy, so let's get on with it. There are few enough indicators of moral worth, in this relativist age of ours, but, for some reason, to be constantly engaged in some endless and allegedly high-powered activity is one of them: a smokescreen of fake purpose, capable of drenching the mildest style-preference in its rapt, utilitarian scent.
The immense pride that certain people take in overburdening their lives with procedural clutter was brought home to me by a Christmas round robin received by some friends. The senders had been "so busy" that it was done in bullet points. Point one contained the information that one of their parents had died. Point two gave the cause of death as heart failure. Well, I know just the car for them.Reuse content