Last month, Mark Thompson, the new chief executive of the New York Times Co. and former director-general of the BBC, gave a short series of lectures in Oxford. In between jobs, he warned that words were losing their democratic heft. The lectures were little noticed because they largely did not touch on the Jimmy Savile sexual abuse scandal, which had just been revealed. Thompson denied all knowledge of the scandal, so no articles ‑ as far as I have seen ‑ were written.
The British love form. Not for nothing the phrases “good form” and “bad form” were, until recently, compliments, or severe criticism, of behavior. Four and a half centuries of internal peace in England have allowed the country’s traditional roles and offices to remain intact for outward show, their “forms” undisturbed. The monarch, the Lords and Ladies of the upper chamber of Parliament, the Church of England, the hundreds of orders given for public service each year ‑ all are more or less devoid of substance, there for the gorgeousness of their mere existence. All these forms — and yet more that will go unmentioned ‑ still attract formal obeisance, remain envied and, where possible, are sought after.