Charles Osborne

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.’

It is nearly twenty years since I was invited to join the Arts Council (it would never have occurred to me to apply for a job there), and I still remember W. H. Auden warning me against accepting the invitation: ‘You’ll go mad, having to deal with boring cultural bureaucrats.’ ‘Worse than that, my dear Wystan. I shall become one.’ And if I did not become one, at least I can now give a reasonably good imitation of a faceless bureaucrat when required to do so. I think that what kept me going was my determination to continue to practise the art form I was required by the Arts Council to preach: literature. Arts Council definitions of literature have varied and veered this way and that over the years. I like to think that good, non-technical writing on any subject can aspire to the condition of literature: the current official view narrows the definition to include little beyond poetry and fiction. Since I first slipped into print as a poet in 1941, my career has embraced biography, musical and literary criticism, journalism and writing for the theatre. (I used also to translate from French, German and Italian, but gave that up some time ago as a mug’s game. I once insisted on a royalty arrangement, instead of a fee, for a book I translated from German: after some years I received a cheque for about £4.)

I was surprised, a few days ago, to read somewhere a description of myself as ‘a heavily subsidised author’. Don’t almost all authors subsidise their writing by doing other jobs? Actually (and I don’t care if it sounds like boasting), I no longer have to subsidise my writing, which does very well, thank you. I’ve continued to work for the Arts Council, not only because I have had there a strong feeling of Après moi, le déluge, but also because the subject of state subsidy for literature still fascinates me. And there’s another reason: like most writers, I can’t write for more than a couple of hours a day, and I don’t like being idle.

In one sense, of course, the less the state has to do with the arts the better. (The less the state has to do with anything the better: surely we all want minimal interference in our lives. Those of us who like being dictated to have presumably already buggered off to some Fascist or Communist country.) We are not prepared to be told by our rulers what music to listen to, what paintings to admire, what plays, novels or poems to enjoy. If we could be provided with all the music, theatre, art and literature we require without paying for it twice, once as consumers and once as taxpayers, clearly we would all prefer the Government to keep its hands off the arts. However, the need for subsidy has been demonstrated fairly conclusively. Without it there would be virtually no music (other than the pop rubbish the teenagers buy), much less theatre, less visual art, and perhaps a little less literature. What would be at risk in the case of literature? Those who claim that the answer is ‘nothing’ point to this country’s vast commercial publishing industry, but I think they overstate their case. I would concede that perhaps 95 per cent of our literature is provided by commercial publishers (whereas in the theatre probably not more than 25 per cent of our drama is provided by commercial managements). But the remaining 5 per cent of literature is important. Much contemporary poetry and some (not much) new fiction will remain unpublished if there are no subsidised non-profit-distributing publishing houses to introduce it. Publishers such as Carcanet, Anvil and Calder. And even such publishers, to say nothing of the commercial houses, will find new writers of quality more difficult to identify without such literary magazines as PN Review, the London Magazine, Granta or Stand, the majority of which could not exist without subsidy.

So there remains a public need for the Arts Council and Regional Arts Associations to continue to subsidise a few publishers and literary magazines. I imagine that, for the for-seeable future, they will continue to do so. What there does not appear to be any public need for is a greater state involvement in the subsidising of writing or writers. If there is, I for one haven’t heard the public crying out for it. The voices I hear are those of writers and publishers, not those of readers.

The voices, especially, of poets. It is they who, with even less justification than novelists, clamour for more public money to be spent on grants and bursaries to enable them to buy time to write. A novelist, admittedly, does need to carve large and regular segments of time out of his life to devote to his craft. But poetry is both a way of life and a part-time occupation. What a poet needs is not time but dedication, and that’s something that can’t be bought – not even with public money (as Lane did not say to his employer Algernon Moncrieff). Once upon a time, a poet needed talent for poetry as well, but I shan’t pursue that line for fear of being accused of’talentism’.

After so many years of grants to poets, we are in danger of breeding a race of idle versifiers unable or unwilling to put pen to paper unless bribed by a public bursary. Even if this were to be acceptable for other reasons, it would still be wrong for the state or one of its agencies to decide which poets should be thus encouraged and which not. I do not want ever to be in the position of deciding which of my fellow poets should be supported, nor would I be willing to allow a civil servant to make that kind of decision. Editors of magazines and of publishing firms should choose whom they wish to publish, just as theatre impresarios choose their playwrights and music impresarios their composers. Subsidies are much better directed to institutions – the orchestras, opera and theatre companies, galleries, publishers and magazines – than to individuals.

There are those, prose writers as well as poets, who for reasons of amour propre insist on ‘being a writer’ and nothing else. And, as long as they’re prepared to accept a wide definition of the writer’s craft, they are able to do so. They accept all kinds of hack-work provided that it involves writing. Any writer of talent can live like this, if he has the temperament for it. I have not. I refuse more commissions to write books than I accept, I am not available to ghost the memoirs of this or that actor or opera singer, and I would never agree to work in advertising. On the other hand, I am perfectly prepared to do a full-time job which does not utilise my skills as a writer, and to get on with my writing in my spare time. I have a gift for organising my time intelligently. But then, if the Editor will allow a bilingual pun, one man’s gift is another man’s Gift, and I would not dream of imposing my methods of work upon others.

There are no horses wild enough to have dragged me to the recent Albert Hall nostalgia night, at which the Americans Ginsberg, Corso, Ferlinghetti, and our own less charismatic survivors of the Sixties’ Beat generation, all read examples of their sloppy, mindless ersatz poetry. I have been content merely to enjoy the differing views of the event offered by the gullible Michael Horowitz in the Guardian and by the wittily ungulled Peter Kemp in the Sunday Times. But these are the kind of ‘poets’ – amiable enough non-talents who have never even understood that poetry is made of words – who clamour most vociferously for more public money. Cui bono? Certainly not pro bono publico.

In general, the better the poet, the more private he will wish to keep his art. Poetry is, after all, essentially reclusive in a way that fiction is not. Indeed, one of the finest living poets, Philip Larkin, has remarked that novels are about other people while poems are about oneself. But then Larkin has talked sense on so many aspects of literature. He is a real poet in that he writes poems only when he has to. It is those who fear (only too rightly) that they may not be real poets who keep up a large and uneven output. ‘Of course I’m a poet, haven’t I written a poem a day for the last ten years?’

Larkin has on more than one occasion voiced his fears about poetry becoming ‘official and subsidised’. In Required Writing he says: ‘I think we got much better poetry when it was all regarded as sinful or subversive, and you had to hide it under the cushion when somebody came in. What I don’t like about subsidies and official support is that they destroy the essential nexus between the writer and the reader. If the writer is being paid to write and the reader is being paid to read, the element of compulsive contact vanishes.’ I’m sure that even Philip Larkin would agree there is no harm in subsidising the magazines in which poets are published, as long as the subsidising bodies do not interfere with the functions of the editors. I am equally sure that he is right to decry some poets’ obsessive insistence on unnecessary and, in the long run, damaging hand-outs.

For the time being, however, the poets and writers have ceased clamouring for more money. They’re calling, instead, for my resignation from the Arts Council. I am not, by nature, a resigner, but time is on their side. Their yelling has brought much of the structure down already, and I imagine that, in due course, the rest will come tumbling after. Then we can all go home and get on with our writing. I shall have given my final interview to whichever trade paper, and shall have quoted to an interviewer for the last time the concluding two lines of Auden’s ‘Song of the Devil’.