Diary

Karl Miller

The Arts Council is weeding its garden. It is taking steps, as many institutions have had to do over the last few years, to effect economies and redundancies. Operas, orchestras, spectacles for the wealthy, as they might sourly be described, are unlikely to be much affected. But there are small papers, including this one, for which the small steps in question will seem like giant steps, for which they may spell the end of the road. We have been very grateful for the Arts Council’s encouragement. Together with the tremendous support which we have received from publishers, it has enabled us to build up a satisfactory circulation in the course of our five years’ existence, and to look forward to a further two-year period by the end of which we hoped to be in profit. If this public funding is to stop, we shall have to see whether we must do the same. This money is not all there is to our existence even as a commercial concern, but it matters.

The Arts Council’s pensioners are given to feeling that the Government has laid on it, not just an injunction to save, but the principle that those cultural pursuits which do not bring immediate financial rewards should be deemed to have failed, and be denied support. But then it is clear that this principle has been honoured both in the observance and the breach. Opera, which is costly, does not appear to recover its costs: but it is pretty sure to be reprieved in any foreseeable economies. I don’t know whether the present Chairman of the Arts Council, William Rees-Mogg, believes that market principles should rule the Garden, in this sense. He is a former, and more than former, journalist: I notice that he is to serve as advisory editor of the new, the re-animated Time and Tide, staffed by refugees from the Spectator of recent years, ‘Young Fogeys’ and others, who used to produce a very sprightly paper. They could well find that even sprightly papers may need to be supported financially, as the Spectator has often had to be. But I don’t anticipate any application to the Arts Council from their advisory editor.

Part of the point of weeklies, fortnightlies and little magazines is that they may do the work of ‘discovering’ and encouraging new writers. It is the most enjoyable work they do, and it is work from which newspapers and television programmes regularly and ungratefully benefit. Part of our point is to look on, decades later, as the writers in question – long since written-out, as it may prove – are chased by producers and features editors. Small papers are prepared to publish and examine their writings long before any laureateship is conferred, long before any Booker Prize is won and wined and dined. It is work that would be missed if there were no one, and no place, to do it.

Little magazines helped Ted Hughes, who is now a welcome Poet Laureate. Poets Laureate pre-date the world of Public Lending Right; they are a survival from a remote past, where poetry was publicity in a sense which has largely disappeared; those were the days when poets hyped, and the City of London once employed one to compose annual panegyrics on the Lord Mayor. Ted Hughes will not be writing poems which will be easy to recognise as panegyrics or birthday presents. But there is an aptness about this choice which only a huge impatience with his fierce birds and beasts, his tribal England – predicted in an early poem about a pensioned-off predator, imperator colonel – could cause anyone to overlook. I remember what may have been the first poem he ever published: it was submitted to the Cambridge undergraduate magazine Granta under the pseudonym Daniel Hearing. Having published this, and then a number of other poems by him, I was taken to task by one of the best of the English dons and told with a smile that Ted was a delightful chap but that this stuff of his would never do. Well, I don’t doubt he will do fine as Poet Laureate. Tony Harrison would do fine, too, in this dodgy capacity, which need not, perhaps, be thought altogether obsolete, and comic. Both poets, in their own inward and intractable way, are patriots – and hardly less so than John Betjeman.

1984 was rightly reckoned, in its newspaper obituaries, to have lived up to its name. It was another bad year, in which the world went on under its current cloud or curse. It was the year in which the Belgrano was salvaged from the bottom of the South Atlantic and sunk all over again in the course of a prolonged argument as to whether or not the decision to attack it was justified, whether or not the decision was meant to terminate or to prevent negotiations for a settlement. 1984 was the year of the Dalyell – of the MP who, in the London Review among other places, instigated this argument. Now he is claiming that an old woman, a nuclear disarmer, may have been killed by Intelligence agents, British or American, perhaps on the hunt for material relating to the sinking. Whatever the outcome here, it seems obvious to me that he was right to ask his questions. But this will not seem obvious to those journalists who have been claiming that Dalyell is a busybody who should keep his questions to himself. There is something very nasty about copious opinion-formers who fill their columns with the suggestion that other people should be silent on matters of principle and honour.

1984 was a year in which such matters arose only to be ignored. It was a year in which a young British soldier, who had only lately arrived in Ulster, and who had been ordered by his corporal to ‘get’ someone seen escaping from a disturbance, was sent to prison for life for shooting the escaper dead. This is a sentence of which those responsible for what there is of government policy in Northern Ireland, and for the failure to challenge and improve it in the House of Commons, should be ashamed, and of which everyone should be ashamed. The state sends a man to keep the peace and jails him for life for making a mistake in the heat of the action. Our self-important and ineffectual MPs have let this matter lie. Apart from a case argued on BBC Television in favour of the creation of lesser penalties to meet such occasions, the only protest on the subject that I have heard has come from a spokesman in Ulster who is rocking with indignation that the soldier has been allowed to serve his life-sentence on English soil, from which, according to this spokesman, IRA prisoners should be repatriated to jails in Northern Ireland. I trust the spokesman does not think that justice requires that the IRA should have access to the soldier in those jails.

Put out on television in instalments over Christmas, Nicholas Nickleby – sponsored by the Arts Council, as it happens – and Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander must have made a deep impression. Each, at a dark time, may have exercised a special appeal. Each is dedicated to misfortune, and has the ring of an authorial self-pity. As such, each can be called conventional – items in the great tradition of the outcast’s ordeal. The Bergman I found beautiful and interesting to look at: but it has its doldrums; it is a study of theatricality which is itself theatrical – and Seventh Seal pretentious. It is not unworthy to be the last word of a master, but I didn’t feel that it really held a candle to the extraordinary Dickens show, where many a candle is held as the characters hurtle from disaster to disaster. As a collective display of acting talent, it shows that in the matter of theatricality the British have as much as ever to be patriotic about. Both films are texts for the time, or so I supposed, and Nicholas Nickleby – the adventures of ‘a well-behaved gentleman reduced to such necessities’, and of poor Smike and a cast of unfortunates – could at moments seem to have more than a resonance of the country we now inhabit, where youth is on the dole and dolefulness contrasts with a bliss secured for the wealthy few. Pauperism and a magic monetarism, brimstone and counting-house – all this had a smack of the Dotheboys Britain which quite a few, and not least that lad from Ulster, will experience in 1985.

Another Christmas benefit, for this diarist, was a reading of Milan Kundera’s novel, The Joke.[*] A human face from the ordeal of Central Europe, and a novel in which a recoil from the Communist system is imagined in generosity of heart. Ludvik is expelled from the Party and from the University, for a light iconoclastic joke, by a lecture hall crowded with people he knows. Raised hands, a democratic consensus, deliver their reproof to laughter. ‘Since then, whenever I make new acquaintances, men or women with the potential of becoming friends or lovers, I project them back into that time, that place, and ask myself whether they would have raised their hands; no one has ever passed the test: every one of them has raised his hand in the same way my friends and colleagues (willingly or not, out of conviction or fear) raised theirs. You must admit: it’s not easy to live with people willing to send you to exile or death, it’s not easy to become intimate with them, it’s not easy to love them.’ Later still, Ludvik suffers a didactic change of heart; he feels less vengeful. But it’s not easy to forget these reflections of his.

[*] Penguin, 267 pp., £2.95, 1984, 0 14 006 415 X.