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FROM THE PULPIT

DJT AYLOR Literature and Leviathan

How, in other words, is the tiny fraction of the Culture Department’s budget set aside for the promotion of literature being spent? Last month I spent several days reading the entries for the annual Northern Rock Writer’s Award, an extraordinary philanthropic scheme – privately funded,

I FONEWANTED a neat little illustration of the present government’s attitude towards literature it could be found in Downing Street’s reaction, some years back, to the news that V S Naipaul had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Did a telegram wing its way out of Number Ten to convey the Prime Minister’s congratulations? Was Cabinet business momentarily suspended so that our legislators could pay tribute to a man of genius, whose international standing had now been confirmed by the Stockholm curia? Not a bit of it. Downing Street responded to the solicitations of telephoning arts journalists with such diffident bewilderment as to betray immediately the fact that no one in the building knew who the author of A House for Mr Biswaswas. The gap between government and that part of the governed which makes its living from writing has not always been an abyss. Victorian Cabinets came thronged with clever men immersed in the life of the mind. Gladstone was the author of Homeric studies; his Tory opponent the Earl of Derby occupied his leisure time in translating the Iliadinto blank verse. A generation later the Liberal politician John Morley estimated that at least three leading members of the Conservative administration of 1887 could have earned their livings as authors. However debased by falling educational standards, this interest was kept up through the twentieth century. Harold Macmillan was a publisher; Stanley Baldwin almost single-handedly responsible for the revival of public interest in the novels of Mary Webb. Even Mrs Thatcher, written off by every progressive newspaper as a hopeless philistine, knew enough of Larkin’s poetry to be able to quote lines from it to their author when they met and was heard informing a dinner-table audience that most of Western society’s problems had been foreseen by Dostoevsky. Twenty years on from Mrs T’s occasional dinner parties for ‘intellectuals’ (see the amusing accounts in Anthony Powell’s Journals), not the tiniest fragment of this tradition survives. The Prime Minister’s idea of ‘culture’ is hobnobbing with the Gallagher brothers. The Secretary of State for Culture’s pet scheme of the last two years has been the licensing of US-style ‘mega-casinos’. Searching for a solitary Cabinet minister who had performed the not terribly difficult act of writing a book I could only come up with the name of Gordon Brown, who, two decades ago, in another world, produced a rather good biography of the ILP leader James Maxton. The single faint exception to this rule is the Libraries Minister, David Lammy, who, despite a reluctance to use the powers invested in him by legislation, does at least seem to realise that public libraries are not intended to be a subsidised version of HMV. But if the government’s attitude to ‘books’ and their authors veers somewhere between puzzled incomprehension and mild hostility, what about policy on the ground?

of course – which pays its laureate a salary of £20,000 for three years to get on with his or her work. The really curious feature of this exercise, at any rate when it came to the submissions by poets, was the similarity of the supporting statements. ‘Unfortunately publication of this collection has had to be delayed, owing to my publishers losing their grant…’; ‘As funding has recently been cut, I am afraid that…’. This kind of thing, it should instantly be said, is not confined to the North East, and any liberalminded sponsor who attempted to replicate the Northern Rock scheme in other parts of the country would meet with an identical response. Regional arts funding has changed dramatically since the turn of the decade. Long-term support for such vital parts of the local cultural fabric as the modestly attended literary festival and the high-minded small press has mostly gone out of the window, to be replaced by an insistence on glamorous-sounding ‘projects’, often involving the importation of metropolitan talent, which look splendid on the CVs of the people who organise them. Here in Norwich, for example, an organisation called the New Writing Partnership, lavishly supported by East England Arts, together with the local council and the University of East Anglia, stages an annual series of discussions, readings and workshops. No expense is spared: at the inaugural event I bumped into a man from the Sunday Timeswho remarked – words I had never previously heard spoken by an arts journalist – ‘Wow! This is a bit over-funded, isn’t it?’ It was. Meanwhile, forty miles up the road, the King’s Lynn Fiction Festival, a beacon for the literary-minded folk of North-West Norfolk, had just had its grant taken away and was being forced to look for private sponsorship. Naturally, public money spent on literature is not merely there to subsidise events and businesses that would make a loss without it. We had enough of that in the 1970s, with the thousands of pounds squandered on the New Review and the short-lived New Fiction Society, a scheme designed to encourage the reading of new novels which racked up such astronomical costs that critics maintained it would have been cheaper to hand out the books gratis on the pavement outside the Arts Council’s Piccadilly HQ. On the other hand, there are dozens of good literary cases crying out for funding that is currently denied them. While nobody can do anything about the philistines around the Cabinet table, the literature budget is something in which we can all take an interest. If every reader of the Literary Reviewwrote to ask his or her local arts-funding body exactly how their money is laid out, it would be a start.

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LITERARY REVIEW April 2006

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