Recently, I met a self-proclaimed bibliophile who, having hit his forties, had decided to "reread Dickens". I feigned admiration, but my real emotion was closer to bafflement. Sensing this, my companion justified his decision. He'd got to the age, he said, where he realised what was good and what wasn't. He was going to stick with the classics, thank you very much.
I've heard people say this kind of thing before, and it always amazes me. No matter how well-read you are, there will always be thousands of good books that have escaped your notice. What sort of complacency does it take to enter a bookshop and proclaim, "All this can be dismissed: give me Dickens again"? To consider yourself a book lover because you're never without David Copperfield is like calling yourself a gourmet because you have eaten the same cut of steak for 150 consecutive dinners.
This kind of mentality drives a lot of people, in their middle age, to stop taking an interest in new music ("No one will ever beat the Beatles") or new comedy ("There's nothing like Morecambe and Wise"). It is the symptom of advancing age I'm most keen to avoid - alongside hair loss, memory loss and an insidious slide towards right-wing opinion. The fact is, the arts are always advancing. To say that TV "isn't as good as it used to be" makes no more sense than saying people aren't as good-looking as they used to be. People have been pining for cultural "golden ages" since well before Dickens: Jonathan Swift wasn't fit to compare to Shakespeare, Shakespeare lacked the wit of Chaucer, and Chaucer was no match for the ancients, if you believe their peers. No doubt there were a couple of people in the back row of the Garden of Eden muttering, "I'm sure I've seen this done better before" as Adam and Eve appeared.
In our postmodern age, there's less point than ever in making out that cultural history is organised along a timeline running from "great" to "worthless". The golden age is now; it is always now. I wish I had made this speech to the Dickens worshipper, but by the time I'd marshalled these thoughts, he had moved on, perhaps to stamp out a poem that was in danger of being written.
I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I was desperately cramming for an appearance on Celebrity Mastermind. I recorded the show this week and it'll be broadcast soon, so if you don't want to know the result, look away now.
I did pretty well. Eighteen out of 20 on my specialist subject and 15 on general knowledge. Overall, 33, which might have won me the trophy, had a certain comedienne not trumped me. My downfall was not knowing the name given to a male ferret. And that is a sentence I never expected to write.