The arts counsel

How Much Do You Think a Writer Needs to Live On? - Creative Britain
June 12, 1998

Many of those who voted Labour on May 1 last year were concerned at the somewhat evasive posture of the party as set out, or rather not set out, in the manifesto regarding the arts. Consequently when Chris Smith was appointed as arts minister, there was considerable relief. Here was a civilised and cultivated man with a PhD in English literature from Cambridge who clearly enjoyed the arts rather than having desperately to grope in his memory for a book, film or play he had recently seen. Within the Blair honeymoon entourage Smith represented a kind of bridal suite.

By publishing Creative Britain, he is bravely - to convolute metaphors - setting out his stall and giving us a massive hostage to fortune. It is therefore somewhat disappointing that, as with so many other, less well-educated politicians, the bulk of the book consists of speeches made to various appropriate, small audiences. Which is not to say that they do not make interesting reading.

In his Shaw lecture, Smith quotes G. B. S. with approval: "The statesmen should, I maintain, rank fine art with, if not above, religion, science, education and fighting power as a political agency.'' He also admits that, "almost by definition, the creative spirit cannot be pinned down into bureaucratic formats''. He further points out, soundly, that "we should reject the flawed phrase 'Cool Britannia', but recognise and assist the modern world of music, not because it might win votes or make a government look good, but because it is vitally important for our economy and for the achievement of musical excellence".

Smith waxes eloquent about our achievements in literature, theatre, cinema and the visual arts. All of these deserve to be trumpeted; all are well known; hardly any owe their success solely to government support; and nearly all represent a triumph of the cultural spirit of these islands, despite successive governments with arts policies that have veered between lip-service and public indifference.

The good intentions on libraries are stirringly set out. They sound wonderful. Yet my admirable local library is now open for only four days a week, which does rather vitiate the grandiosity of the proposed IT network. What is the point of making information gathering ever more sophisticated if you cannot gain access to the equipment? Our libraries, from the high academic to the municipal, were once one of this country's greatest glories, but those glories, because of progressive cuts at national and local level by both parties, are much dimmed.

In his piece on "Access to intellectual property", Smith is properly tough on intellectual property crime, ie, copyright theft, without being tough on the causes of intellectual crime, namely that the theft is too easy to perpetrate and finance and may be carried out with great impertinence and total impunity.

The essay on the British music industry, given as a speech to the Recording Industry Association of America at the Sony Club in New York, is rousing stuff. I do not know, since the minister does not tell us, what proportion of the annual $4 billion earned by the UK comes from the London Symphony Orchestra or the works of Benjamin Britten as opposed to the joys of Oasis and Pink Floyd, but I suspect it is not very high. One cannot help wondering whether the much-hyped presence of pop idols at 10 Downing Street is not simply a reflection of market forces and vote-getting. Although I take a somewhat Disraelian view of statistics, it is nonetheless chilling to read in this book that British music's "net export earnings are bigger than those of our steel industry and that our Musicians' Union is now bigger than our Miners' Union''. Still, you do not need to be a fan of Arthur Scargill to be glad that more young men can strum a guitar for a living rather than breaking their backs and ruining their lungs underground. That truly is the progress of civilisation.

The book ends with a most useful appendix entitled "A summary map of the creative industries". It constitutes the ammunition for a government election manifesto that supports culture in all its forms. So what are we waiting for? Gordon Brown? Jenny Lee was, once upon a time, as the personification of Old Labour, a wonderfully energising arts minister. No one else since, whether from Tory or Labour, has had a similar impact - until the advent of the first New Labour arts minister. For all the handicaps of writing with the aid of civil servants and striving to remain at all times "on message'', he has here produced a civilised and civilising essay on what a good government can do for the arts if it wants to. One can only hope that Tony Blair will leave him in office for a decent period and avoid the musical chairs with which arts ministers have been afflicted for the past 20 years. One also prays that the Treasury, whose senior inhabitants can all afford to pay for the best seats at Covent Garden themselves, will prove less philistine than they have always been in the past and, for once, unlock the cheque book both with and without lottery funding.

In the September 1946 issue of that nonpareil of literary journals, Horizon, its editor Cyril Connolly printed some 21 answers to a six-point questionnaire he had sent to various eminent writers of the day. They included "How much do you think a writer needs to live on?" and "Do you think a serious writer can earn this sum by his writing and if so, how?" Alain de Botton and Waterstone's are to be congratulated on producing a 1998 version with the same questions fully, frankly and sometimes quirkily answered by 42 contemporary writers. At only Pounds 2.00, the volume offers formidable value. But then it is, with full acknowledgement, also subsidised by the Arts Council. Indirectly therefore it gives a complementary gloss to Smith's book, which in fact devotes, as most governments do, far too little attention to literature - always the Arts Council's poor relation in terms of cash and prestige.

In 1946, when state subsidies to writers were unknown, George Orwell thought Pounds 1,000 a year would free him from "the necessity to do hackwork, without having the feeling that he had definitely moved into the privileged class.'' Elizabeth Bowen clearly believed - perhaps rightly - that she was part of the privileged class. Her answer was Pounds 3,500 a year net (of tax). De Botton uses an inflationary factor of 20 to convert it to Pounds 70,000. Allowing for tax, and my personally observed inflation factor of 30, Bowen would now be seeking the equivalent of Pounds 120,000 a year gross. But then she was something of a grande dame and that is only about the same as the salary of one of those Treasury mandarins with an indexed pension at 60 who will not unlock the coffers for writers in the first place.

Today's responses to the title question vary from Alasdair Gray's "as much as anyone else'' to Sebastian Faulks's "slightly more than most people. He (the writer) apparently needs to drink more alcohol." But it is not all about money. One of the other questions is "Do you think literature suffers from the diversion of energy into other employments or is enriched by it?" Michael Ignatieff replies to that: "A distant relative of mine - then the editor of a newspaper - once asked Tolstoy for a contribution and was told, in reply, that journalism was a brothel which it was easy to enter but impossible to escape." The respondents are as varied as their oeuvre. Michael Holroyd is comprehensive and magisterial. Lucy Ellmann cuts to the heart of the matter: "Perhaps a writer can live too well to write well? What really happens to a writer given infinite access to SMOKED SALMON?" Creative Britain is necessary reading for all who care about the arts in this country. De Botton's delightful symposium is essential reading for arts administrators in general and Smith's departmental staff in particular; writers are not all that different from painters, sculptors, composers and the rest of our vital artistic population.

Tom Rosenthal is chairman, Institute for Contemporary Arts, which will host a conference on government and the arts in early October.

How Much Do You Think a Writer Needs to Live On?: The Cost of Letters

Editor - Andrew Holgate and Honor Wilson-Fletcher
ISBN - 0 95405 9 1
Publisher - Waterstone's
Price - £2.00
Pages - 208

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