'Here, in a literary context, is the public versus private funding debate that resonates through the academic world'

April 6, 2007

The London Magazine has been going since 1732 and now finds itself at the centre of a contemporary funding row.

The story so far: On February 23, The Times Literary Supplement reports that Arts Council England might not continue the magazine's £30,650 annual grant beyond April 2008. Two weeks later, a petition appears in The TLS expressing dismay and alarm that without the subsidy the magazine might not survive, "delivering a major blow to the cause of new writing, which has always been the greatest strength of this admirable publication". The list of signatories is distinguished, among them Andrew Motion, Harold Pinter and Melvyn Bragg.

Then comes the Arts Council England's response. They had been advised by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport "to consider a range of funding scenarios from plus inflation to minus 5 per cent". All such scenarios "remain entirely hypothetical", but there are no guarantees beyond the end of the new tax year. Finally, there is an embattled plea from the council for "positive messages about the impact of government investment in the arts", or less strident complaint. At this, a TLS reader writes in to ask why the distinguished signatories, who made lots of money from writing, didn't fund the magazine themselves.

Here, in a literary context, is the same public versus private funding debate that resonates throughout the academic world, raising questions about the future of departments and disciplines. As ever, nothing is clarified by pointing out that public money is limited. Nor could identifying potential private donors suffice to end the debate. The wider questions are: should there be public support for the arts? And, if yes, is The London Magazine a deserving recipient?

I think it is. Alongside its lustrous claims to fame - its longevity and its roll call of famous writers - the magazine provides a more pedestrian service that Arts Council England must value. It functions as a stepping stone for writers who want to graduate from student to adult publications.

This is a big step in terms of confidence and opportunity. University campuses offer a wealth of publishing opportunities for aspiring writers and journalists, regardless of the degree course they have chosen. Science and arts students alike flourish as poets or critics alongside their formal studies, but then their course ends and so, too often, does their creative writing.

In every generation there are a few - the prodigiously talented or exceptionally lucky - who pass straight from student days into the pages of Granta or The New Yorker . Everyone else needs to work their way up gradually, publishing a poem, a short story or a book review, learning on the job. The London Magazine is perfect for this purpose: small enough to take a risk on someone unknown but grand enough to publish them alongside famous names.

I owe my career as a literary critic to Alan Ross who edited the magazine from 1961 to 2001. I wrote to him when I was a doctoral student, feeling too old to be publishing in student magazines and wanting the thrill of being paid for words on a page. I asked to review Seamus Deane's novel Reading in the Dark , because a friend had been taught by him and thought it would be good. When Ross sent me a proof of my review, I was so delighted I pinned it on my bedroom wall, delaying publication for several months because I didn't realise I was meant to send it back with any changes. He overlooked my mistake and commissioned me again.

Ross was one in the great tradition of London Magazine editors. In 1821, the same year that the magazine published De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium-Eater , the then editor, John Scott, died at Chalk Farm after a literary duel. Scott was defending his own and his contributors' honour - Keats among them - in a vicious spat with Blackwood's Magazine . He was only 37 when he died.

The current editor, Sebastian Barker, mentions this bloody episode in the magazine's history on the website. He comments: "If nothing else, this teaches us the value of moderation." Quite right, though it is hard not to feel a touch of nostalgia for the days when literature inspired such passion.

This is by no means the first time that The London Magazine has faced an uncertain future. But, so far as I know, none of its current defenders, however passionate we might be, is about to summon Arts Council England to a duel. Instead, there is still hope that the council will be swayed by words and sentiments best expressed years ago by Anthony Powell: "If The London Magazine shuts down, nothing else whatever of that sort will ever take its place."

Ruth Scurr is affiliated lecturer in the politics department, Cambridge University, and fellow of and director of studies at Gonville and Caius College.

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