Philip Hensher: Some things should stay in the hinterland

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The Independent Online

My old friend Michael Gove was speaking at the Cheltenham festival of literature about John Buchan, the great pre-war thriller writer. He said that more politicians nowadays should embody the values proposed and exemplified by Buchan's work. Buchan, he said, proved that public service was an end in itself; that one did not need to reach the highest offices to live a valuable life. "It is not being there for the glory of it all," said Michael, "so much as to serve in public office."

Well, I don't know about that: Buchan ended his life as Lord Tweedsmuir and Governor General of Canada, which doesn't seem to place him among the mute inglorious Miltons. (If Michael, once in power, wants to revive the tradition of appointing writers to Governor-Generalships, I can tell him the post of Governor General of St Kitts and Nevis has always held a particular interest for me).

But it's true that Buchan's career as a politician-writer now seems exemplary to the point of being impossible to emulate. In a busy public career, he wrote 30 novels, half-a-dozen collections of short stories, and dozens of volumes of non-fiction. Half-a-dozen of the novels are masterpieces – for me, Greenmantle takes the prize.

Has any other politician or busy public servant done so much, or of such quality? Going back a long way, Disraeli's novels are wonderful. Churchill's writing was just an adjunct to his political life. Denis Healey's famous remark that politicians should have a hinterland has persuaded a lot of politicians to read Trollope in their spare time. Could many of them write a novel like Trollope? Some of them try, with occasional good-ish results, like Ann Widdecombe's, and many more total stinkers, like Edwina Currie's.

Perhaps a disinclination to spill out your intimate thoughts for publication is discouraging any modern Buchan. God knows what fun a political interviewer would have with the plotlines of a contemporary Thirty-Nine Steps, if it turned out to be written by a practising politician. And just what danger lies in the written word has just been demonstrated by the French minister for culture, M. Frederic Mitterrand.

Four years ago, Mitterrand published a memoir, The Bad Life, in which he said that "I got into the habit of paying for boys" and that "The abundance of very attractive and immediately available young boys put me in a state of desire". When, subsequently, Nicolas Sarkozy proposed appointing Mitterrand to his government, the nervous author raised the question of the book. According to Mitterrand, Sarkozy said the book would be no problem – "I've read it. It's a very good book."

That may be so, but on this side of the channel, we may think that Mitterrand's reported habits represent rather too much in the way of hinterland. So, in fact, does Mitterrand, since in recent days he has described his partners in joy not as "immediately available young boys" but "40-year-old boxers".

Mitterrand, like John Buchan, mostly wrote before the high points of his political career. That, nowadays, seems a mistake. It is all too easy for your opponents to drag up unfortunate passages from your literary career at the height of some political storm. In Mitterrand's case, his expressed sympathy for Roman Polanski encouraged his enemies to start rifling through his oeuvre. Politicians seem to have concluded that it's best to wait until the career is over before setting pen to paper; others don't seem capable of writing at all.

John Buchan wrote 10 books while Governor-General. Impossible to imagine anyone doing that nowadays; the invisible interviewer would always be peering over the shoulder, saying "But Minister, when, five years ago, you wrote in your novel that..."

Dannii Minogue – a new barometer of cultural enlightenment?

Dannii Minogue, on The X Factor, outed a contestant who had, apparently, half-outed himself. After he had sung a song written for a woman, Minogue coyly said: "If we're to believe everything we read in the papers, then you didn't need to change the gender reference in it." A few days ago, a moronic dancer on the BBC's Strictly Come Dancing was reported to have used a racist expression to his partner, then apologised. "I am not a racist and that I do not use racist language," he said, partially accurately.

All very rum. Do we now measure our collective attitudes to social groups by the behaviour of the stars of light entertainment programmes? Dannii Minogue's sister is immensely popular among gay men. Considering that, it seems bizarre that she couldn't just say in an ordinary way: "I liked the way you turned that song into a gay love song." Still odder was the way that Simon Cowell immediately leapt on her, as if in this personality-based show, mention of his sexuality would always be irrelevant.

What seems irrelevant are these shows' organisers, trying to second-guess the prevailing prejudice of their audience. At the end, Danyl Johnson, the highly talented contestant, could be heard saying: "I'm not ashamed." That seems much more to the point in 2009.

Inward-looking, bitchy but still the place to be

Off down the Man Booker dinner, and a very entertaining evening it was, too. I much enjoy these parish-pump occasions, when half of literary London gathers in one room for the first half of the evening, and then decamps to Soho for the late-night post-mortem. Enjoyable, anyway, if you don't have a direct stake in the result.

It's evenings like this that make you realise the advantages of a metropolitan literary culture. Whereas in America or most other countries of the world, cultural centres compete with each other, in England there is not much choice for a writer who wants to live in the action. You pretty well have to live in London. (Of course, if you are a writer who wants to live out of the action, that is another matter).

The disadvantage is that English literary culture neglects the rural and the provincial; the advantage, I would say, is that most writers in England tend to know each other personally in a way that isn't true in America, Italy or Germany. And, as Tuesday night showed very thoroughly, it is a literary culture which likes to get dressed up; Hilary Mantel looking gorgeous in a real winner's dress.

Competitive, no doubt; somewhat bitchy round the edges, perhaps; but on a good night this little world is as stylish and full of vim as it ever has been.