How dare you call me an intellectual

Is Gordon Brown really an intellectual? I thought he was Chancellor of the Exchequer
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The Independent Online

Deeply embittered and envious as I am not to find myself on Prospect magazine's list of the 100 leading intellectuals in Britain, I can't help remembering an exchange I had in Paris, a few years ago. I was giving a reading there, and afterwards, a question from the audience began "As an English intellectual, would you say that -" What the questioner wanted to know, I never found out; because my automatic, visceral response was to interrupt him and say "Heavens to Betsy, I'm not an intellectual."

Deeply embittered and envious as I am not to find myself on Prospect magazine's list of the 100 leading intellectuals in Britain, I can't help remembering an exchange I had in Paris, a few years ago. I was giving a reading there, and afterwards, a question from the audience began "As an English intellectual, would you say that -" What the questioner wanted to know, I never found out; because my automatic, visceral response was to interrupt him and say "Heavens to Betsy, I'm not an intellectual."

My Parisian questioner was astonished, and might have been more so if I hadn't stopped myself from saying "How dare you say so." The truth is that Prospect is being very brave in even proposing such a list: because the whole idea of an "intellectual" is a terribly un-English one, and here, you can be as opinionated and intelligent as you like, without ever wanting to lay claim to be called one.

The English view of intellectuals as a class might be summed up in the story of Ivy Compton-Burnett's trip to the theatre with her friends Elizabeth Taylor and Herman Schrijver, to see Samuel Beckett's Happy Days. The story is told by Elizabeth Taylor:

"It was a sparse audience and Ivy took a great interest in it. 'Would you call it an intellectual audience, Herman?' (Too distinct voice in too empty auditorium). 'One or two look that way inclined,' he whispered. 'Do you think they are staring at us, because they think we are intellectuals?' 'Of course they don't think that,' she said scornfully. 'We are far too well dressed.'"

Prospect has bravely nominated some very well-dressed people as leading intellectuals, and I wonder whether some of them are really what we mean by "intellectuals". Jonathan Miller, Will Hutton and George Steiner are certainly intellectuals in a recognisably European mould, but some of the others seem very curious choices. Is Gordon Brown really an intellectual? I thought he was Chancellor of the Exchequer. Sir Peter Maxwell Davies? Seamus Heaney? And - someone who certainly, in my view, falls into the category of being far too well-dressed - VS Naipaul?

There are two reasons why the English mistrust and doubt the idea of an "intellectual", one well-founded, the other one very much not. A good reason to shrink from the notion is an awareness of what an intellectual looks like in continental Europe. The most conspicuous example in France nowadays, I suppose, is M. Bernard-Henri Levy. I had been aware, in general, of the man's celebrity for some time; he is a startlingly glamorous figure with impossibly glossy hair, constantly in demand on French television for his fluent bien-pensant paradoxes. Only recently, however, with his gigantic biography of Sartre, did I come across his work at any length. It is a fine example of why the English so dislike intellectuals, a quite incredible piece of ill-researched, insubstantial speculation, largely devoted to preening enjoyment of the author's impenetrable cleverness, barely organised or systematic at all.

By contrast, the English have always rather admired cleverness if it expends itself in a lifetime devoted to a single pursuit: the study of Yoruba verbs, the practice of painting, or Tudor foreign policy. That, on its own, does not constitute a claim to be considered an intellectual, as is apparent from Prospect's list. Bridget Riley or Lucian Freud do not count as intellectuals, because they are interested almost entirely in pictorial expertise; Michael Craig-Martin, whose work is coupled with a bold general theory, does.

The English mistrust of wide-ranging comment is sometimes justified - Martin Amis is an excellent novelist, but his claim to be considered an intellectual can only rest on some polemics on public matters which very few people can praise. But on the whole I think I rather admire Prospect for trying so unapologetically to introduce a little bit of continental punditry into our stubbornly empirical culture.

There is altogether a little too much trust of the professional expert, and the discounting of the informed amateur opinion. What the wide-ranging confidence of the continental intellectual can achieve is a challenge to that idea whereby ethical debates are the property of churchmen and philosophers; foreign policy and economics can only be discussed by people with a suitable qualification; the quality and value of the arts are only apparent to people with the right scrap of paper.

In fact, all of these things are of importance to all of us, and though the culture of the intellectual does entail a certain amateur quality in the debate which tends to follow, it at least maintains that an intelligent person can have something to contribute. David Hare's interventions on matters of government policy; Richard Dawkins's comments on religion; Noel Malcolm's writings on music: these are all unqualified, but highly valuable contributions to debates which shouldn't be left to specialists.

In many ways, I know, the "intellectual" is a comic figure in this country. But we would be right to try to drop our native scepticism. In the current climate of small orthodoxies and closed-shop debates, the rambling intellectual on a late-night television programme has at worst one important virtue; he convinces the viewer that, at any rate, his contribution would be just as valuable.

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