'It is lack of confidence, more than anything else, that kills a civilisation," wrote Kenneth Clark, who devoted much of his life to a famous study of the subject. "We can destroy ourselves by cynicism and disillusion, just as effectively as by bombs." Or, he might have said, by wilful neglect of what our civilisation has given us, which is a form of cynicism; the most deadly form of all.
Clark's observation came to mind this week as I sat in Amsterdam's Concertgebouw, and heard Bernard Haitink conduct the superb orchestra that takes its name from that hall in a pair of Mahler symphonies, to celebrate his 50-year association with them. It was a grand night, not least because Dutch television carried the concert live (well, almost: it was a delayed transmission) and generally made a fuss of Haitink. He is one of the great musicians of our age, and nobody doubted that his "golden anniversary" was a significant cultural event. There's confidence for you.
As everybody in the hall showered the conductor with love (without a trace of the sentimentality one sometimes sees on these occasions), the question arose: how would we have marked such an important anniversary in this country? It didn't take long to get an unequivocal answer. Next February sees the centenary of the birth of one of our greatest poets, Wystan Auden, and the BBC confessed this week that it had made no plans to honour him.
(KEEP GOING, ITS WORTH IT, ED)
Auden was not some jobbing scribbler. He was, and remains, a towering literary figure, in a way that this year's centenary boy, John Betjeman, despite his many virtues, never was. The world (and Auden, though English, belonged to the wider world: he lived in New York for three decades, spent his summers in Ischia, and was buried in Austria) understands that distinction, even if it is lost on the team of "creative directors" at White City who pick up whacking salaries for telling one another how "innovative" and "cutting edge" they all are.
If the BBC is dismayed to receive another pounding from this quarter, then hard cheese. Its negligence in this matter, as in so many others, shames a national broadcasting organisation that is supposedly committed to making programmes of high quality. What does Alan Yentob, the head honcho in the arts department and a chap who seems to have filled every post at the corporation except chief bottle-washer, actually do for his money? Perhaps he should fetch from the library a tape of Robert Robinson's tribute to Auden that went out in September 1983, on the 10th anniversary of the poet's death, to see the sort of thing that established the BBC's reputation as an educator as well as a provider of popular entertainment.
Turn on BBC2 at 7.30pm tonight, and you will see how far we have slipped, and how little confidence we have in our inheritance: that is, in a culture that owes nothing to the fashions of the day. The ill-conceived Culture Show, one of those noisy playgrounds for trendy metropolitans who like to mooch around in leather jackets and adopt bogus proletarian accents, will announce a shortlist of candidates ("voted by you, the public!") for the honour of being the "greatest living British cultural icon".
(NOT LONG TO GO NOW BEFORE IT GETS PERTINENT TO LIVERPOOL'S CULTURAL PLANS, ED)
Culture, as in the very best of human endeavour, has precious little to do with it. You will look in vain for Harold Pinter or V. S. Naipaul, Nobel laureates both, and there will be no trace of a painter such as Frank Auerbach, though Simon Rattle might be trotted out, as he usually is, to show that "we're not scared of high art". As for "icon", a word used as frequently, and erroneously, as "legend", there is no more foolproof indicator of vulgarity. Expect the list to include Kate Moss, David Beckham, a pop star or two, and a ropey comedian: in other words, the members of the usual freak show.
(HERE WE GO! ED)
Alas, it gets worse. This was also the week when Liverpool, the designated European City of Culture for 2008, unveiled some of the events that visitors can expect to enjoy. There will be street festivals throughout the year (aren't there street festivals every year?), an exhibition devoted to local pop history and a celebration of black music. There is also (no word of a lie) a footballers' wives "fashion show". Are they determined to make themselves a laughing-stock, these tribunes of the people, or do they really know no better?
Silly question. Culture, a spokesman admitted during preparations for the European bid, means anything "bar throwing up on a Saturday night".
Ah, that famous Scouse humour! How much poorer our lives would be without it. As if on cue, a chap from the Tate piped up that the Gustav Klimt exhibition at the heart of the year's roistering would be about "bling, because Liverpool is very bling, and Klimt is very bling", a statement so preposterous that it deserves a prize for buffoonery beyond the call of duty.
For the benefit of those who are unfamiliar with the term, and there must be a few, bling is the ostentatious display of jewellery by the kind of aggressive young men and women whom most sensible folk would cross the road to avoid. It is intended to denote spending power and status, and radiate that least appealing of modern traits, "attitude'", which may be translated as "behaving like a twerp". Yet, in the eyes of Liverpool's cultural ambassadors, the decorative painter of Viennese jugendstil offers a lifestyle accessory for the feckless crackheads of Merseyside, and we should all have a jolly good laff because isn't that what life is all about, our kid, having a laff?
How depressing it all is. Consider how much this country has given to European civilisation, and how greatly European civilisation has enriched the world, and then consider how so many people, in positions of trust and influence, trivialise it, apologise for it, and often hold it in contempt.
The Auden insult, the BBC's youth-obsessed iconography and Liverpool's all-too-predictable inability to organise a cultural event that has any real meaning flow from the same source, the lack of confidence that Lord Clark identified as a form of corruption. No wonder that some people, who come here from different cultures, observe how little use the modern British appear to have for the institutions and values that made this country great, and conclude that they are not obliged to play their part in civic life because there is not much that is worth celebrating, or even preserving.
If you undermine the people whose achievements have helped to shape our history (in the case of Auden, a writer who helped to add a glorious chapter to English literature, which is this country's greatest gift to the world), and if instead you exalt the here-and-now because it is easier to digest, and because — in that horrible modern phrase — it "ticks all the right boxes", then in effect you disinherit every generation that follows. And, as another great poet wrote, that path leads towards oblivion: "Our children will not know it is a different country. All we can hope to leave them now is money."