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Virginia Woolf would never win the Booker

Lily-livered publishers have become obsessed with an endless round of prize ceremonies.

At 6.30am there's a bit of excitement in the green room at BBC TV's Breakfast. Roger Moore and Michael Parkinson are there - "Two knights in one morning!" - but I manage to avoid the elaborate dance of the croissants and go straight into make-up. There's no getting away from the pastries, however. My eyes are like two currants in a round of dough, and everyone else in the studio has that desperate perkiness you often find in the serial early riser.

The presenter Sian Williams is running the sofa with the same firm hand as Lieutenant Uhura once deployed to keep things steady on the Starship Enterprise. "Isn't it better to be safe than sorry with terrorist suspects?" she asks. We're talking about the legislation on holding terrorism suspects for 42 days without charge. I remind Sian that the government doubled detention to 28 days as recently as 2005. "The vote will go against the government in the Lords tonight anyhow," I said. "And so it should. You can't go about protecting liberty by undermining it in advance." Sian sniffs and blinks as if I was stating the obvious, which I was.

I catch the train to Manchester to do a reading and book signing at the university. The event is run by the creative writing throng and the audience is full of young people with dishevelled haircuts. My co-reader is Colm Tóibín, who has lots to say about how hated staff are who choose to live off-campus. We went to dinner later with the faculty - Marianne Moore said she had to be paid $500 for a reading and $700 for dinner with the faculty - but this dinner isn't like that, and we spend a couple of hours laughing under these huge Brobdingnagian lightshades.

Professor Martin Amis made a big argument against plays. He thinks it all went downhill after Shakespeare. His colleague M J Hyland, the novelist, was having none of it . But there's a reliable way to decommission all weaponry nowadays, even when it comes to the most minor skirmishes in the culture wars: all you have to do is mention Sarah Palin. It's virtually impossible to find anybody who doesn't think she's toxic. Just mentioning her name causes an instant thrum of camaraderie. Maybe she's the best thing to happen to international diplomacy since the heady days of Henry Kissinger.

British publishing is suffering from a very bad and very collective case of vertigo at the moment. They ruined their own head for heights a number of years ago by ditching the Net Book Agreement, so nowadays they exist constantly at the mercy of the book chains and the supermarkets, which wish to sell books in the way that they sell cornflakes. There's no story in identifying greed and philistinism in the business community, though there is a story in the way a number of publishers and editors themselves have become so lily-livered.

All they ever talk about is prizes and reviews. At the Man Booker Prize ceremony on Tuesday, it was the turn of the Tory tyro Michael Portillo, on the way to giving the prize to The White Tiger, a lovely book, to tell several generations of British publishers what they should be thinking about. Did anyone say: "Naff off"? Did anyone say: "Who do you think you're talking to"? Of course not. Some of the smartest people in the country drank in the wisdom like it was cold Chardonnay. We heard that novels should be readable and not pretentious. Thank you, Michael Portillo. And thank God you weren't marking people's jotters the year Virginia Woolf published To the Lighthouse.

When one has become too ugly for nightclubs, there's a lot to be said for the lecture scene. Autumn evenings in London are especially good for a spot of lively thinking, and I made for the British Museum to attend a discussion about the legacy of walls in history and politics. Neal Ascherson gave a perfectly brilliant account of the Berlin Wall, touching on the smell that East Berlin used to have, of "Chinese tobacco and a certain kind of cleaning fluid", and Dr Eyal Weizman seemed to bring the news into focus in much of what he said. Various people, including me, are apt to talk about the dumbing down of everything, but some organisations are finding new forms of intellectual nobility in the here and now. I think the British Museum has become a place of perfect oppositions, as if Blake's road to excess and palace of wisdom were in fact sited in the same place at the same time. Where else, of an evening, could you hear people talking about the walls of the Roman empire next to the smells of Cold War Berlin, and the complications around the deep space of the Israeli wall in Palestine? If it doesn't watch out, such excellence could be the cause of more peace and harmony than a dozen conversations about Sarah Palin.

Andrew O'Hagan's book of essays "The Atlantic Ocean" was published recently by Faber & Faber (£20)


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This article first appeared in the 27 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The death of Gucci capitalism