A few weeks ago, in New York, I accompanied a friend on a shopping expedition. While we were in a novelty gift shop on Columbus Avenue, she bought me a rubber stamp which she said I’d find useful when I got back to my Arts Council office in London. I know what she means, though, in fact, I’ve found myself using it, not on office memos (strong at times though the temptation has been), but on press clippings relating to the Arts Council. The stamp reads ‘BULLSHIT’ and it has recently been slapped on articles in the Sunday Times, Publishing News and the Times Educational Supplement. As the 1940 Deanna Durbin song says, ‘it’s foolish but it’s fun.’
Vol. 6 No. 13 · 19 July 1984
SIR: Having pushed through so many rubber-stamping operations at the Arts Council, Charles Osborne (LRB, 7 June) should know how useful a stamp reading ‘BULLSHIT’ might be. But why, instead of slapping it over articles which exposed his encouragement of the halving of the budget for literature, does he not re-examine his ‘foolish but it’s fun’ modes of dispensing and withholding public funds? Osborne claims ‘we are not prepared to be told … what music to listen to’ or ‘poems to enjoy’, yet dumps ‘the pop rubbish the teenagers buy’ out of court, telling ‘us’ what music not to listen to. In his summary rejection of countless ACGB applications (often without telling his so-called Advisory Panels) he’s similarly told many of us who might have produced and read the dumped publications, or organised and listened to the rubbished readings, what poems not to enjoy.
He claims such publishers as Carcanet ‘will find new writers of quality more difficult to identify without … PN Review’ or ‘the London Magazine … which could not exist without subsidy’. But these are by now, courtesy of yonks of grant-aid, sufficiently well established to survive – if they really wanted to – without further hand-outs. Most of their contributors are pillars of the establishment, and even these authors (certainly the less well-known) were more often first introduced by genuinely ‘little’ presses and mags, most of which have received no subsidy, but nevertheless continued to exist. For 1983/4 the London Magazine got £39,000 via the Literature Dept, and PN Review £16,850. PNR has been an ACGB client since 1974, the London Magazine since 1966, the year Osborne – then a regular LM writer – joined the Council. Given this annual fix, such state-registered junkie imprints don’t need readers or sales. Whereas Interzone, which got £3000 last year, New Departures, which was refused the £2000 I applied for, the Association of Little Presses, and others with relatively humble sights on public monies, would be utterly defunct, not just endangered species, did they not actually bring their new writers to a public which chooses to pay.
Considering the nature of the greedy sharks that gobble his magazine allowance, Osborne’s notions of what is pro bono publico were bound to be called into question. Considering how predictably the contributors and areas of interest represented in the publications most flamboyantly supported – by the largely unwitting public – duplicate one another, the raison d’être of their unfailing reappearances cannot but be their apparently pre-ordained grant renewals. Osborne must know PN Review is the house magzine to Carcanet (£52,000 from tax in 83/4): the alleged ‘writers of quality’ he says Carcanet wouldn’t identify without PNR are largely the selfsame names the press had been rolling before the magazine. Donald Davie has volunteered in an editorial to PNR (40 issues in ten years) that he sometimes thinks ‘no one reads us except those who either write for us or plan to’ – us and them indeed. Yet it’s this avowedly and mutually self-appointed, self-regarding and self-propagating élite on whose behalf, by whose lights, ‘our’ Literature Director presumes the ‘public need … to continue to subsidise’. Despite his allegedly ‘highest priority … to increase the audience’ (Guardian, 24 November 1983), only four of the 11 magazines sharing last year’s total of £164,150 have even occasionally published anyone non-Caucasian, working-class or under thirty; New Deps (16 issues in 25 years) and its consistently rejected peers have done so with each issue we’ve somehow managed.
It’s typically irrational and prejudiced of Osborne to have stayed away from the Albert Hall reading at Easter, yet smugly to cast his judgment on what was done by whom: ‘Ginsburg, Corso, Ferlinghetti and our own … survivors of the Sixties’ Beat generation, all read … sloppy, mindless ersatz poetry.’ For your readers’ information Ferlinghetti wasn’t there, and none of the British poets who were are definable as survivors of the Beat generation, which was the Fifties. Liz Lochhead, Tom Pickard and the Liverpool poets were going strong in their respective styles and dialects before they’d heard (of heard of) the Beats, whilst Basil Bunting, Bob Cobbing, Roy Fisher and Adrian Mitchell (though invariably open and internationalist) are unimpeachably their own men as poets.
It’s hypocritical, self-persuasive and patronising of the Director to boast his abhorrence ‘of deciding which of my fellow poets should be supported’, and then to insult makers of the above-mentioned’s calibre as ‘poets’ in quote-marks only – ‘amiable enough non-talents who have never even understood that poetry is made of words’. Anyone who knows contemporary oral verse in English knows that Bunting, Corso, Fisher, Ginsberg, Patten and Pickard are among the most fastidious word-musicians alive. One deduces from his ‘less-means-better’ touchstone that it’s Osborne’s fearless conviction that he is ‘a real poet’ which has made him publish an output of verse incomparably more banal in quality, as well as laughably more sparse in volume, than any of these. But surely even he can’t pretend that his administration of the Compton Fund and of the Poetry Book Society, as well as the nation’s Literature, has been other than enormously supportive to the poets and publications favoured?
It’s not that many poets and writers are ‘clamouring for more money’ (shades of Alice re the Mad Hatter’s tea), nor for the Director’s resignation (‘No man was writ down but by himself’). We’re looking way beyond these prerequisites: back-stabbing, like face-saving, is a distraction from what does need saving – the body and soul of the living word in Britain today and tomorrow. Osborne’s Little Englandism, as flaunted in his LRB Diary, has served to protect and promote a narrow uniformity of transactions by and for the ruling classes, mentality, race, age-group and gender, and to keep down almost every aspiration to the original, the heterodox, the adventuresome, the radical, experimental and imaginative. As Breytenbach said at the ICA/Index conference, censorship ‘keeps people apart; it promotes ignorance; but primarily it works to preserve the monopoly of power.’
New Departures, Bisley, Stroud, Gloucestershire