At the end of November, we lost three very well-known people virtually on the same day -  Sir Jonathan Miller, Clive James and Gary Rhodes. They all had obituaries in the newspapers, and in the case of the first two, each had a two page spread in the Times. Gary Rhodes had only one page devoted to him. So which is the greater loss – Sir Jonathan Miller (aged 85) and Clive James CBE (aged 80) on the one hand or Gary Rhodes OBE (59) on the other? Miller and James brought their undoubted considerable contributions to our artistic and cultural lives, where Gary Rhodes brought us his skills as a chef. It is clear that we depend upon food to live, but although we may enjoy what the likes of Miller and James provide for us, we can go through life without the sort of culture which they provided. So then, it would seem that the answer to my question ought to be Gary Rhodes. I suspect though that it may be a somewhat simplistic answer.

Clive James and Jonathan Miller entertained us through a variety of media, inviting us to think about things in different ways. They were part of our cultural life. Rhodes cultivated an image as a top class chef, but with an ability to talk to a television audience about his dishes without talking down to the viewers, encouraging us to eat good food prepared in different ways to the normal. But making television programmes and publishing books is a part of our culture, so surely the dishes which are their subject should also be regarded as part of our culture, as much a part of “culture” as are poetry, opera, the theatre and literature.  This therefore means that we should in principle be able to judge them on their respective contributions to the matrix of our culture. But how on earth can we actually do that? To coin a phrase, surely we cannot make a comparison between fish and fowl. And this is something which I welcome as I wouldn’t like to encourage cultural snobbery.  Obviously the Times, in its obits section and with the approbation of a majority of its readers, will always give more prominence to literary figures such as Miller and James, but I suspect that for the majority of our fellow citizens the death of Gary Rhodes will be of more significance.  Culture is multi-layered.

I think that the more important question is: what on earth is the point of culture? After all, we can get by without posh food or anything which the literati would consider to be worthy of the description ‘culture’. But lots of money is in fact made from culture – people pay high prices for tickets to go to not only to the opera, but even more for pop concerts. Many people will pay to go to the serious theatre, but far more people to go to musicals and other shows of all sorts and descriptions.  Amazon started the building of its empire on the sale of books. So then, clearly we value it highly. What, though, does it actually give us, the consumers?

I suppose that the obvious thing to say is that it gives us enjoyment, sometimes very great enjoyment and, at the least, it stops us being bored - the Romans' bread and circuses, perhaps?. But does it go further than that? After all, for it to play such a prominent part in our lives, there must be some evolutionary benefit from culture. Otherwise, why would its progress have been driven from virtual non-existence amongst the lower orders of animals, to what we find in our species. To the extent that culture invites us to think differently, then it seems reasonable to posit that it must contribute to our creativity. And of course our creativity has allowed human progress, something which has taken us to places and to heights which would, literally, be unimaginable to other species. And so it points to imagination, encouraged by culture at all levels, combined with intelligence, as being the joint keys to our success, as the sine qua non of our remarkable identity.

Paul Buckingham

2 December 2019

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