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This item is taken from PN Review 129, Volume 26 Number 1, September - October 1999.

Ian McMillan, celebrated Laureate of the recrudescent Barnsley Football Club, Radio host, Poet in Schools, raconteur and much else, has been appointed Poet in Residence on a railway. Passengers innocently commuting, or looking for one of those Yorkshire nowheres that loneliness clarifies, risk being buttonholed by the vigorous and irresistible bard, like one of the three wedding guests by the Ancient Mariner. Will McMillan's long grey beard and glittering eye haunt a whole railway line or just a few carriages? Is he let loose on First Class and Pullman or are some passengers at least exempted from the salaried Muse?

The proliferation of salaried residencies for writers and artists - News & Notes outlines yet another immense initiative, for the Millennium - suggests that those in charge of funding believe the living artist has a value over and above whatever value his or her artifacts might have, and that public access to the maker is as important as access to (and an informed understanding of) the thing made. In old-fashioned criticism this bias towards the author and the author's reading of a poem was referred to as a fallacy - a pathetic fallacy, no less - and readers were counselled against trusting the teller. Those who invent and subsidise residencies do not have readers as such in mind. They target the generality of people whose relations with the written word are irreducibly diverse. They believe that everyone ought to 'have access to poetry', for example, and that proper access will inevitably breed enthusiasm for the art. In time we will become a nation of poets - or doggerel-writers. Having access to poetry doesn't necessarily mean having access to the poetry of Geoffrey Hill, or even to a resident poet who has access to Geoffrey Hill. The approach is 'democratic' in the reductive sense in which 'general provision' was made in Eastern Europe in the bad old days.

If Ian McMillan sells collections of verse on the 6:45 from Doncaster to somewhere else - his books or those of other writers - and discusses the contents with reader-travellers, that might be construed as a useful, if not necessarily a very popular activity. On the other hand, if he's writing poems about train travel, or encouraging others to do so, is that activity so useful? When Larkin wrote 'The Whitsun Weddings' or 'I Remember, I Remember', did anyone hold his hand? For 'Night Mail' was Auden assisted by a professional verse technician?

Underlying the proliferation of well-subsidised residencies not only in schools, colleges, universities and libraries, but in prisons and department stores, parking-lots and supermarkets, law offices and railway trains, is an ideology peculiar to the closing years of the twentieth century. When Jenny Lee was Minister for the Arts several decades ago her view was that the best should be made available to all: the RSC should perform in the work-place; uncompromisedly good classical music concerts should be available to people on low income; new creative work should take its place alongside the classics. When PN Review was in its infancy, subsidies were given in order to keep the price affordable; bulk subscriptions were taken out for 500 participating libraries. Subsidy was intended to benefit the end user, and by so doing to benefit the primary producer (the writer) and the publisher.

It could be argued that the residency scheme has a similar objective, to benefit the end user and the primary producer, but (efficiently) to cut out the middle man who makes books or magazines or records. The end user, in the case of a resident artist, seldom has to pay a subsidised price; he or she pays nothing at all and has open access to an unprotected practitioner, often too exposed to practise very much. The resident gets good money, relatively speaking, but is required to devote considerable time and energy to generating or improving the creative work of Joe and Josephine Public.

For Jenny Lee 'The Best' was an unarguable and unproblematic artistic category and target audiences were similarly defined. They were the men (and women) who used the great old Trade Union and other industrial libraries; who engaged in music and the arts as readers, singers, instrumentalists; who knew their Dickens and some Shakespeare, the Hymnal and Bible and Prayer Book, and knew who Milton, Spenser and Marx were. She imagined common values to exist, and they did exist, vestigial though they have become. She sought less to shore up a collapsing culture than to enrich a living one. To participate in cultural activity did not involve competing with Milton, Keats, Auden or John Hegley but reading, performing, hearing and discussing their work as mature people with developed aural and intellectual faculties, and even discriminating between them.

'Doing' an art is best done in the wake of understanding the art, not in place of understanding it. 'You learn by doing only if you know what you are trying to do,' said a famous sportswoman in an interview. Obviously, you might have thought. Within an academic institution or a library, where a writer can create relationships with a group of readers and would-be writers, help direct their reading and writing and accompany them for a year or two, the benefit of a good resident is unarguable: he or she is like a good English teacher. Indeed, he or she probably is a good English teacher. The provision of residencies in ephemeral environments, on the other hand, may benefit the writer with emoluments but will have little or no impact on the culture of those who pass through the environment and collide, briefly, with the hired Imagination. On a train, it is probably better to be reading a book than to be compelled into conversation with a strange writer - unless, of course, that writer is the beguiling Barnsley Laureate. And even then, perhaps, as with chaplain visits in hospital, a few short sharp sentences will be adequate.

But Ian McMillan is and will always be a wonderful exception.

This item is taken from PN Review 129, Volume 26 Number 1, September - October 1999.

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