Like much else in the cultural firmament, the British Council has been hard at work over the past few years to recalibrate its activities to the demands of a modern age. A friend of mine who served as its UK literature director in the 1980s used to recall that one of her chief duties was to arrange overseas excursions for Sir William Golding and his wife. "We rather fancy Germany next year," Sir William would confide, and my friend would diligently find some conference which the great man could attend under the Council's auspices or some celebrity lecture to which his presence might be thought to add associative lustre.
A quarter of a century later, all this seems to have changed. Rather than acting as a high-class travel agent, the Council's antennae are finely tuned to the aspirations of its international audience. Just now its literature department is rolling out a programme for the coming Dickens bicentenary. Yours truly is in Galle, Sri Lanka, shaping up to deliver a lecture on Reinventing the Victorians. The roadshow then moves on to Berlin, where A S Byatt and Philip Hensher, among others, will discuss what Dickens might or might not have written had he still been with us today.
Beneath the surface of this Herculean endeavour lurks the faint scent of cultural patronage. Among other remits, I am booked to address several hundred Sri Lankan schoolteachers on the ways in which Dickens's novels can be taught to teenagers, a subject on which, as Anthony Powell might have put it, one is not outstandingly hot. What do the citizens of a developing nation think about some Westerner come to lecture them on the work of what a left-leaning US cultural theorist would undoubtedly stigmatise as an old, dead white man?
A Sri Lankan Council employee soon reassures me on this point. The English, she maintains, have gone all trendily multicultural over literature. It takes a former colony 65 years out from under the imperial yoke to appreciate the true value of the giants of Western Literature. On a more mundane note, surveying the file of festival passengers lined up at Heathrow for the outward flight, I can't help noticing that whereas Professor Richard Dawkins is travelling business class, D B C Pierre and myself are lodged in economy. But these are proud scars.
by D J Taylor for The Independant (UK)