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This item is taken from PN Review 174, Volume 33 Number 4, March - April 2007.

On 9 February 2007, a week short of six years since the death of Alan Ross, editor of The London Magazine for many years, a meeting took place between the Arts Council of England and the magazine's current editor and owner. They were told that Arts Council funding would cease on 1 April 2008. I understand that no reason was offered, but they were advised that nothing they had done in the last five years could have prevented the decision and nothing they might undertake to do in coming months would reverse it. A number of other organisations within the literature 'portfolio' would be similarly affected, they declared. Such clients are evidently no longer 'fit for purpose'.

What purpose? When Alan Ross died the Arts Council went out of its way to ensure that the journal did not die with him. A publisher was found, Sebastian Barker was recruited as editor, and for five years the magazine has prospered artistically, retaining and building its readership, discovering new writers and insistently visiting neglected corners of literature and art. It has kept a kind of faith with Ross's, as Ross kept a kind of faith with John Lehmann's legacy; it honoured, too, what have hitherto been the objectives of the Arts Council.

Funding priorities change, though who can say quite what vision of literature and the arts is currently catalysing these changes? First the structure of the Arts Council was altered to give greater flexibility to the regions. The role of head office needed redefining. What did the abrupt departure of the popular, long-serving Literature Director Gary McKeone signify? As he departed, another sign: a large grant was made to Salt Publishing, to develop its enormous print-on-demand operation and its excellent web base. Was this a harbinger of change in the culture of independent publishing?

Given Arts Council investment in recent years in social inclusion, it might seem that changes have more to do with social than with literature policies. And if to suggest that the two are not congruent is to step out on thin ice, how delicate matters have become! Some old-fashioned questions offend against current nostrums. Yet the risk must be taken, or we avert our eyes from a revolution that gradually but radically may be altering the relations between the funded arts and the state that provides the funding.

The received image of the Arts Council, jealously guarding an 'arm's length' relationship with government and a comradely independence from the educational sector, may become, if it is not already, out of date, and those Jeremiahs who foretold that state support ultimately led to state control may believe they have been proven right. If the arts want to earn their keep, they must be useful in programmes of inclusion, play an integrating role in education. No more funding arty-farty experimental stuff. Performability, the character and provenance of the artist and an always affirmative 'message' will matter. Readership? Huh. The mention of encouraging 'circus skills' in a literature policy document is another straw in the wind. Such skills make for entertainment, for busking in school or in the street; juggling, not dependent on language, is accessible to everyone, almost.

The Arts Council is not the only institution affected, against its traditions and perhaps against its collective will, by these real but hard-to-define adjustments to central policy, whose effect undermines some of the very enterprises public funding has helped to develop. The crisis at the British Library (see 'News & Notes') is another sign.

How germane to this is the continued presence of David Lammy, M.P. for Tottenham, as Culture Minister in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport? A more natural habitat for this controversial figure might be thought to be the Ministry of Education, where his vision of 'an encounter culture', of inclusion and enfranchisement (and, paradoxically, his strong support for university top-up fees) has a proper home. In his present post, he is an outspoken advocate of the Library Service, calmly presiding over the steady diminution of the sector; a spokesman for the arts for whom the sole constituency is 'youth', and whose sense of British youth is based on the seriously deprived youth of his own borough. His is a sincere but treacherous metonymy.

In a speech at the Cultural Hubs National Networking Event on 9 November 2006, he said that good books 'let young people escape from their own immediate and familiar world and use their imaginations'. He went on, 'For me, at its very best, that's what Arts and Culture does [sic]. It fires imaginations, excites minds and gives young people the power to think beyond their immediate surroundings. As the Secretary of State wrote in her own essay on this subject, Culture can help us slay one of the biggest giants of our time, "the poverty of aspiration".' Incidentally, Lammy strongly backs the Iraq war and opposes investigation into its causes. Literature which gives young people the power to think into their immediate surroundings is not on the agenda. The Arts and Culture is [sic] for entertainment, distraction, escape.

We can believe him when he says, 'As somebody who grew up in, and now represents, one of the most deprived constituencies in the country almost nothing frustrates me more than seeing this colossal waste of talent.' He has in mind an important constituency; but it is not the only one, any more than there is a single art to address it. Lammy, a choral scholar himself, knows better than to despise or patronise 'high' culture or the community of writers. Knows better, but expediency makes him talk like this (because it is easy to do so): 'Anybody who believes in the Arts has to believe that this is far too important to be the preserve of a select few. We need to make sure that everybody, no matter where they live or what their background, has the chance to get involved.' The fundamental confusion between participation in arts-based activity and the creation and dissemination of significant works of art is now a commonplace. The word 'excellence' is anathema, the language of critical discrimination forbidden discrimination of the kind that singled out the young Lammy for a scholarship because he was exceptional.

This is the nub: 'It's about making sure that we aren't super-serving some communities at the expense of others who are getting nothing. But it's also about more than making sure that where resources go in we work together [to] use them more effectively. In short, it's about joining up.' Can we begin to draw a faltering line between the dots? Arts Council restructuring, additional priorities becoming the priorities, staff associated with old policies disappearing, libraries gradually starved of oxygen, clients discontinued, and a literary performance culture 'joined up' with educational priorities to serve the real needs of inner city children. But are those needs best served by the arts, in particular the arts as he conceives them?

And, given the Olympics, Lammy's Department of Culture, Media and Sport is thought by many to be 'super' the community of Sport at the expense of Culture. If it is, then The London Magazine is a tiny sacrificial lamb on the altar of Sport.

Lammy's notion that the arts should 'serve' communities is based on his experience as a chorister and his love of music. He sees popular music bringing kids of all sorts together in fun and exciting projects. How much this has to do with the writing, publishing and reading of literature, I cannot say; but with the privileging of an 'encounter culture', the triumph of performance poetry is clearly at hand.

This item is taken from PN Review 174, Volume 33 Number 4, March - April 2007.

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