Diary

Frank Kermode

Roy Shaw will not have expected an easy passage as Secretary-General of the Arts Council, but the weather worsened steadily during his tenure, and the discomfort exceeded all rational apprehensions. His book explains why this was so.[*] The directorate of the Council exists primarily to make judgments of value; it is required, having taken the best advice available, to decide which enterprises deserve public support, and to what extent. The directors must therefore be confident that they can tell the bad from the good and the good from the best; and their criteria, which they cannot be expected to scrutinise from day to day, are those of standardly-educated middle-class people with an interest in the arts. Shaw has no quarrel with them on this score, and spends quite a lot of time in this book defending establishment valuations. However, he also thinks that the best should be made available to sections of the population denied the education to enjoy it. His earlier career had been in adult education, and he brought to the Council a conviction that it had a duty to make its high-class products accessible to the lower classes. Nobody else wanted this: it wasn’t the job they’d signed on for, and in any case it was undesirable and perhaps impossible to bring off. So Shaw had to deal with a mutinous directorate as well as with a difficult chairman, Sir William Rees-Mogg, and a series of unsympathetic ministers. He has lost no time in his retirement in giving an account of what went on.

Apart from the business of deciding what is culturally valuable and what isn’t, the Council’s main concern is of course with cash. Out of office, Norman St John-Stevas would say that government provision for the arts was wholly inadequate: in office, he reduced that provision. Lord Gowrie, better attuned to his party’s mood, was so far from thinking the grant inadequate that he cut it again and encouraged the privatisation of subsidies. It is not without interest that the accomplished Lord Gowrie, who used to be employed as a teacher of literature, now declares that literature cannot be taught. It was a good idea to make him arts minister, with a responsibility to oversee subsidies of which he disapproved. He now moves in an art world which favours a much simpler relationship between art and money, and expresses value in terms of dollars. If the other arts were equally marketable, the Arts Council could be abolished, doubtless to the satisfaction of its chairman as well as to that of the Government.

A certain rancour colours Shaw’s remarks on Gowrie, but it doesn’t prevent his talking sense about public support for the arts. It can easily be made to seem absurd or unjust; the unemployed can hardly be gratified to learn that anybody who buys a ticket at the Royal Opera House is receiving a public subsidy of £19. Yet the argument that subsidy in general is ridiculously small is stronger than its opposite. Shaw argues that the arts ‘pay their way’; the Government gets back – in VAT, income tax, National Insurance contributions and negative unemployment benefit – at least as much as it puts in, and if you add the contribution to tourism it makes a good profit. Yet Lord Gowrie said that if people made tax-exempt charitable contributions to the arts under the 1986 Finance Act he would recoup the lost tax by reducing the Council grant. He preferred sponsorship, not mentioning that half the costs of sponsorship come from the public purse, since they are set against corporation tax. Indeed the arguments against sponsorship are overwhelming: sponsors are timid in choosing their beneficiaries, rapacious in their demands, quick to withdraw if they think the money can be better spent on other forms of advertising – in short, wholly self-interested. No sponsor backs adventurousness, with the risk of failure: a good Arts Council is one that is willing to do exactly that.

However, Rees-Mogg, who insists that he is not political, believes that subsidy ‘weakens the sinews of self-help’, especially if it is provided by the Treasury. The Council over which he presides is described by Shaw as ‘supine’, and it must have been to give its imprimatur to the policy document strangely entitled The Glory of the Garden. It was perhaps never a boisterous body, but there was a time when it would not have deserved to be called ‘supine’. No wonder the atmosphere at 105 Piccadilly is said to have changed since the days when Lord Goodman was chairman and Jennie Lee Minister for the Arts.

Among the cuts advertised in The Glory of the Garden, and later implemented, was a reduction of 50 per cent in the allocation to literature, accompanied by the abolition of the Literature Department. Fifteen or so years ago we were still managing to get for literature about 1per cent of the total grant. My guess is that this figure is now about 0.3 per cent. Why has this happened? The Glory offers these bizarre reasons:

If there were no public subsidy for opera it is very unlikely that large-scale opera performances would take place at all outside a limited season at the Royal Opera House. English literature, on the other hand, is sustained by a large and profitable commercial publishing industry. It is a basic ingredient of the school curriculum. It is available to the public through the public library system.

Nobody seems to have asked why the large and profitable music industry isn’t expected to sustain opera, or why opera shouldn’t take its chance in the market like literature (of course neither should). Has anybody noticed how expensive books have become? Before the war a Penguin cost 6d; now it can be £3.95, 79 times as much; a bottle of Scotch costs 11 times as much. The first figure is far higher, the second far lower, than the rate of increase in the general cost of living; whisky is subsidised by restraint in duty increases, literature is thought hardy enough to fend for itself. It is said that there is little evidence of public concern for the primary producers of literature, namely writers; and there would certainly be an outcry, and a great loss of votes, if the price of whisky suddenly doubled, even though it might do us all good. However, whisky is not quite to the point. It is more relevant to ask whether halving, say, the allocation of funds to opera (or orchestras, or the state theatres) would produce mass rallies in Hyde Park. The appeal to popular sentiment is used only when it seems convenient. The failure of the Council’s literature policies cannot be attributed to popular opinion.

Since Charles Osborne was for a long time the director of the Literature Department, we might expect to find the true explanation of its demise in his memoirs, the first fruits of his leisure in early retirement.[†] There is an odd devil in Mr Osborne which is always urging him to make those of us who like him consider whether we should not, and much of this book is dedicated to that end. He tells us he is ‘reclusive and secretive’, and then offers many examples of his immodesty, assurances that he has a lot to be immodest about, and modest qualifications of that position (he would not figure in a list of the world’s greatest poets; he was hardly an actor of major importance – though pretty and with nice legs – and he never quite made it as a singer). All of this is enjoyable in its way, and the book may well be read more for what it says about the author (amused by his own narcissism) and about his enemies (‘talentless louts’ etc) than for what is to be discovered concerning the Arts Council and especially the defunct Literature Department. It would be wrong not to admit that I myself am treated very graciously, and very wrong not to add that Osborne is a lively and generous man, who may well, in his more reclusive moments, wonder what impels him to prevent people knowing this.

Although he controlled so meagre a share of the Council’s expenditure, Osborne, as he here recalls, was much more in the public eye than the other officers, who would never describe themselves as uncivil servants (or indeed civil servants, for though they look like that class of person they don’t technically belong to it). Anxious though we may be to find out how this maverick got amongst them, we must first wait until Osborne has finished telling us about his Australian childhood and youth (sexual initiation in Brisbane, mystical experience in Melbourne), his arrival in England (actor, editor on the London Magazine and much, much more) and his first steps as a writer. Even then we don’t really find out how it happened – just a whim, it seems, of the late Eric Walter White. But Osborne had an important qualification for the job: his certainty that he knew the best when he saw it and, even more important, could smell the worst – indispensable qualities in an arts administrator. He rarely sees any need for argument: anybody who disagrees with him is ‘talking bullshit’ or ‘rabbiting on’. Possibly because they often like to argue, he has a special contempt for academics; ‘expect bitchy behaviour from envious academics,’ he says, though without explaining what they are envious of. He takes a swing at Edward Mendelson, the academic who is Auden’s executor, even though he found Mendelson helpful when writing his biography of the poet. The professor did not much like Osborne’s book when it appeared, and his judgment could only be attributed to envy. This is a wholly implausible argument.

When he eventually gets down to writing about the Council, Osborne does not fail to be interesting. Some of his assertions surprise me: but then I have had nothing to do with the Council for many years, and he naturally remembers the recent past more clearly than those distant days. He says, quite rightly, that the panels are purely advisory, so that literature policy was a matter for him and the Council. Yet he seems to blame the literature panel for everything that went wrong. He says he was always opposed to the award of bursaries to writers and that he preached endlessly against them: I don’t remember these sermons. He claims always to have thought the literature funds should go into a state publishing house, having, I suppose, forgotten that we did have discussions about this, but were discouraged by the opposition of the Publishers’ Association, which we might well have predicted. He complains of sentimental handouts to authors down on their luck: my recollection is that we were rather puritanical about this, always leaving such cases to the Royal Literary Fund.

I agree that the award of bursaries and prizes is a difficult and invidious matter; and that the best policy, had it been possible, would have been to insert the cash towards the end, rather than at the beginning, of the literary process. Indeed we did start making grants to publishers as guarantees to cover loss on important books that would be expensive or could hope for small sales at best. But other attempts to give help in the last stages were met with every kind of objection. We once had a conference of publishers and journalists (another Saturday lost) at which it was agreed that novels, especially first novels, were seriously under-reviewed: but the remedy proposed – subsidy to the literary pages of dailies and weeklies – was indignantly rejected as an interference with press freedom. This is simply one example of the frustrations encountered.

The work of the Literature Department was not entirely confined to dishing out small doles. It has given indispensable support to literary journals, including the London Review of Books, and Osborne is well justified in taking credit for that. Much of the early work on Public Lending Right was done there, and other virtuous non-financial efforts included participation in a study of the law relating to obscenity. But one panel chairman after another left without feeling he or she had done much good (and remembered that the job took up much more time than Osborne’s readers will suppose). Now Osborne has gone, and with him his department. It is hard not to think that this collapse might, with more skill and patience, have been avoided. Now that the money is so much less, the problems of literature subsidy become more, not less urgent: but it seems doubtful whether anybody at the Council or in the Ministry will think so. We learn from Shaw that he would probably have fired Osborne if he could have done so without legal reprisals, and from Osborne that he took part in an unsuccessful plot to get rid of Shaw. It doesn’t sound as if 105 Piccadilly houses a happy family – or anybody who believes that the flowers of literature should be given a chance to bloom in that glorious but shrinking garden.

[*] The Arts and the People by Roy Shaw. Cape, 144 pp., £9.95, 13 November, 0 224 02356 X.

[†] Giving it away: Memoirs of an Uncivil Servant by Charles Osborne. Macmillan, 324 pp., £19.95, 9 October, 0 436 35401 2. The second fruits appear to be crystallised in his anthology, The Collins Book of Best-Loved Verse (Collins, 222 pp., £9.95, 3 November, 0 00 223028 0). Best loved by whom is not explained. It is a collection of Golden Treasury-type lollipops with a dash of Auden, Betjeman, Eliot etc, designed, no doubt skilfully, for Aunt Edna’s Christmas stocking. It has wood engravings by Reynolds Stone.