As the saga of the eviction of Andy Gray and Richard Keys from the Sky Sports broadcasting team unwound, one became increasingly intrigued by the part in the affair played by Karren Brady, vice-chair of West Ham United Football Club.
Ms Brady's name featured in the original off-mic repartee ("The game's gone mad. Did you hear charming Karren Brady this morning complaining about sexism? Do me a favour, love," etc). She later returned to exclaim over fresh evidence of the sinister male conspiracy to keep women as far from the touchline as possible.
Ms Brady knows a great deal about sexism. Most obviously, she has for many years been employed by the pornography tycoon David Sullivan, first in his magazine empire, then, prior to the move to West Ham, as managing director of another Sullivan satrapy, Birmingham City. When you come to think about it, Ms Brady has, directly or indirectly, spent the best part of her business career labouring ceaselessly in the cause of women's exploitation by men. Set against this, whatever Messrs Gray and Keys may have said or done, off-mic or on it, can seem pretty small beer.
That tenacious old meritocrat Andrew Neil sashayed on to BBC2 on Wednesday to front a programme about the insidious influence exerted on modern British society by public schools. Quite why Mr Neil needed a whole hour for this, only his commissioning editor knew, for explanation can be stated in a sentence. If you separate a group of intelligent middle-class children from their peers by way of competitive examination and educate them together with other representatives of the species in a school whose first-class facilities and high-grade teaching staff are guaranteed by their parents' money, then it is hardly surprising that many of them will march on to Oxbridge and a slightly smaller number end up governing the country.
You had the feeling, though, that Mr Neil might have made more of that crucial abstract, the public school manner. Occasionally confused with the Oxford manner (first brought home to me by the sight of Hugh Trevor-Roper haranguing a couple of girls who had made a gown-free appearance at one his lectures) and a very remote cousin of the Bloomsbury manner (exemplified by the critic Raymond Mortimer, who, given the manuscript of Michael Holroyd's biography of Lytton Strachey to read, first remarked that surely you couldn't talk about "a small, neatly set out bridge table" as all bridge tables were the same size), the public school manner may be defined as the ability to instantly take command of and effortlessly dominate any situation that comes to hand.
The finest example of it I ever saw came at a meeting of the college history society when, as I nervously approached the buffet, a boy called Tony Pralle greeted a stratospherically distinguished middle-aged historian with the words: "Hello, Keith. Can I get you a drink?" As the product of a direct-grant school that had recently joined the private sector, I could not have done this. For the punctilious Old Etonian at my side, it was clearly all part of the day's work. I have no idea what happened to Tony Pralle, but he is probably chairman of Lazards by now.
In the midst of threatened economic meltdowns and housing crises, the Government continues to talk up its plans to speed up and localise the planning process, and in particular its scheme to give people more of a say in what happens to their local environment. However admirable this decentralising urge may appear, its practical consequences were brought home to me the other day by a letter in the local paper about a proposal to erect wind turbines next to the picturesque Norfolk village of Hempnall. An original scheme for seven turbines was thrown out by the planning inspectors two years ago. Now the energy company has returned with a revised proposal for four, in more or less the same spot and even larger than their predecessors. The company is "in consultation" with residents and has declared that it will "take on board people's comments". Given that most residents are opposed to the scheme, and that these comments are likely to be hostile, does this mean they will eventually withdraw? You rather think not, although – rather like my sons' school, which asked its parents what they thought about co-education, got a "no" vote and yet went ahead anyway – they will now be able to impress the inspectors by reporting that they have "consulted" the local community. The wider implications of giving people a stake in the planning process have yet to be addressed. After all, if the decision were left to local residents, no young offenders' institution, bail hostel or travellers' encampment would ever be built anywhere, and the plan for the high-speed Birmingham to London rail link would gather dust on the surveyors' desktop.
The Guardian produced a fascinating account of the attempt by several distinguished poets to compose a "civic liturgy" bent on exploring concepts of "Englishness" in a much-changed England. Those signed up include the former poet laureate, Sir Andrew Motion, and this year's Costa Prize-winner, Jo Shapcott. The project's joint director is Professor Ewan Fernie of the University of Birmingham's Shakespeare Institute. Professor Fernie noted that "Englishness is an embarrassed thing in all sorts of ways. But a bold, imaginative reclamation is necessary, particularly in the face of far-right appropriation of symbols of Englishness."
Well-intentioned as this effort to "reclaim St George from the BNP" may be, there comes a point which national (as opposed to nationalist) sentiment cannot cross before it becomes merely anodyne. No doubt we are all better off for not hearing the second verse of the national anthem sung in public these days (the one that calls upon God to "frustrate the knavish tricks" of our enemies). On the other hand, as a true-born Englishman, however enlightened and liberal, I rather want my enemy's knavish tricks to be frustrated, and in any contest – sporting, economic or political – involving ourselves and France or Germany, I naturally want England to win on the grounds that I happen to be English. This is not xenophobia: it is simply voting for your party.
The great danger, as Sir Andrew and his friends set about their excellent work – the new liturgy will debut at St George's Chapel, Windsor on 17 March – is that by the time they put down their pens there will be very little Englishness left.Reuse content