At any one time, there will usually be a controversial right-wing historian near the centre of Britain's cultural life. Part thinker, part court jester, he will tickle up debate and provoke occasional outrage in the cosier corners of the liberal media. Hugh Trevor-Roper and Max Beloff once played the part. In recent years, the hilariously huffy David Starkey has kept the traditional alive.
Given the tendency towards safe, centralist views, these aggressively conservative thinkers can provide a useful corrective to conventional wisdom but, just now and then, argument morphs into something altogether nastier.
Professor Niall Ferguson, very much the right-wing academic of the moment, has told the press that he is considering whether he should sue the London Review of Books over a review of his book Civilization by the writer Pankaj Mishra. He claims that Mishra's long essay was "libellous and dishonest" in that it contained "a vile allegation of racism".
The normal way these writerly spats are conducted is in the form of a series of long and infuriated correspondence in the letters page of the magazine. Amusing as it is to see intelligent people insulting one another in public, readers soon lose interest and the row peters out.
On this occasion, Ferguson has not been content to make his point in print. Every time Mishra has seemed to concede some ground, he has spoilt the effect with another disrespectful joke. The professor has had enough. "I spoke to the [LRB] editor Mary-Kay Wilmers and said: 'Don't force my hand by forcing me to put it in the hands of lawyers.' All I have had back is weasel words," he told The Observer.
At this point, neutral readers will find themselves moving sharply towards Pankaj Mishra. There may be something nigglingly smug about the comfortably liberal worldview of the LRB, but threatening it with a libel suit is the behaviour of a bullying businessman of the James Goldsmith or Robert Maxwell type, not a writer or an academic.
Perhaps one should blame Ferguson's defection to America for this unseemly response. Whereas in this country, literary disputes are resolved by lengthy sulks and bitchy backchat, American writers are rather more proactive in their approach. Norman Mailer decked Gore Vidal during a TV interview. Richard Ford responded to a bad review from a fellow writer by sending her one of her own books with a bullet-hole shot through it.
In recent months, Ferguson seems to have been in a particularly bad mood. He has appeared on cable television to say that protesters' tents outside St Paul's were empty, although that story had been entirely discredited. In a newspaper interview, he sneered at some length at the country he has left. "Britain is in the grip of a strange mania in which 95 per cent of the public wants to watch the other five per cent making fools of themselves."
Even our celebrities were people of whom he had never heard, unlike the "proper stars" of America, Brad and Angelina. As for his own persona, "The real point of me isn't that I'm good-looking. It's that I'm clever."
Frankly, these remarks are not worthy of a Harvard professor of history. From his vantage point across the Atlantic, Prof Ferguson has recently pronounced that "social and cultural decay, the decline of civilisation, is pretty advanced in western Europe". He may be right, but he might also ask himself whether a senior academic using his position of power to sue a literary magazine for a bad review does not contribute in a small but significant way to the process.
Let's welcome energy from beyond the grave
One of the more surprising items of information in the week's news has been that up to 16 per cent of the mercury currently emitted in Britain comes from the fillings of human teeth being burnt in the furnaces of our crematoria. Even when we are dead, it seems, we are harming the environment.
Sensibly, new furnaces are being introduced. Not only will the new models emit less harmful gas but, rather satisfyingly, they will also provide the living with power. Durham crematorium, a pioneer in this unconventional form of new energy, will soon be selling electricity to the National Grid.
"We don't want to become known as a power station rather than a crematorium," its manager has said, before pointing out that selling energy will allow them to keep fees down. The electricity generated could power 1,500 television sets.
What an excellent plan this is. It must surely make sense to bring environmental awareness into death as well as life. Those who are buried contribute to the cycle of nature; now the cremated will soon be able to play their part, too.