Thursday, 31 October 2013

Small rant about money

A new arts/money story broke today: spending on the arts is £69 per person in London, £4.58 in the regions. The Guardian report comes with a photo of some dancers on trapezes slung from the Millennium Bridge. I don’t think most people care, except to think it’s too much. I don’t think the people giving out the money care, except to worry that this could be, and will be, seen as unfair.

Stendhal in 1835: ‘To give any attention to money matters was deemed supremely low and contemptible in my family. To talk about money was somehow infra dig, money was a sad necessity, as it were, and its role alas indispensable, like that of the privy, but it was never to be spoken of.’ It’s the kind of attitude you can afford if there’s some of it around, and a privy too, and jobs to be had. Stendhal got a clerking job in the war office in Paris, coming in from the provinces, then some other jobs. At one point, when he was a sort of junior consul in Italy, sending reports back in code to his employers, he managed to include the key to the code in the same envelope, so I don’t expect he was very good at investments or even filing his tax returns. He didn’t make much of an income from his writing (he claimed that On Love sold 17 copies in its first 11 years in print, or maybe vice versa). But he went to the opera and could continue to affect an indifference: ‘The sight of a large sum of gold awakens no other thought in me than the bother of keeping it safe from thieves.’ I do warm to him.

‘Don’t put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington. / Don’t put your daughter on the stage. / The profession is overcrowded, / And the struggle’s pretty tough, / And admitting the fact / She’s burning to act, / That isn’t quite enough.’ Noel Coward. This is basically what my Uncle Bill told my mother (I was there, I heard it) when she told him I was going to study English at university: ‘And where’s that going to get him?’ Doubtless there are many other uncles saying the same thing when they hear that their nephews and nieces are are signing up to Creative Writing courses. The uncles have a point; the nephews and nieces used to have the advantage of being young, but I doubt that’s any longer an advantage, given the course fees and the debts incurred. It used to be that you weren’t locked into debt until you bought your home; the bar has now been moved back, earlier.

Writing and money are always on-off, and mostly off.

Recently I engaged (not sure why; but everyone has something to say about money or sex) in an online discussion with David Rose, who after various entanglements with the Arts Council had concluded that there is no argument at all – rational, moral, whatever – to be made for state support of the arts. If take-away chicken outlets or manufacturers of window blinds are not eligible for state support, why should poets be? Seriously. Literature makes no one a better person, nor is that its aim. It doesn’t have an aim; a goal neither, no measurable outcome at all. (An output, maybe; unless I’ve got my jargon mixed up.) It doesn’t, in any way beyond the individual that anyone wants to measure these things, make the slightest difference. For the vast majority of tax-payers the arts are simply not on the score card. Cut the funding entirely and people will still write, still publish. ACE (Arts Council England) has recently been pushing (again) the economic argument, trumpeting income against investment, but really this applies only to theatre, opera, the big players. ACE’s money is chanelled through the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Investment-to-income profit I can see the point of, but if that’s how they want to play it the investment should come from a tourism ministry, not a culture ministry. (‘Media’ is so undefinable as to be unarguable with. ‘Sport’ is not exactly poor. The whole department is a random catch-all; you might as well add in the arms industry, in which bow-and-arrow manufacturers may be finding it tough, despite their maintenance of traditional skills. Accuracy, for one.)

Within ACE, the funding allocated to literature (as compared to the other arts) is chickenfeed, is disposal of the petty cash. The disposal of that petty cash appears (though it is argued about by competent people who are paid and well qualified to argue each case) pretty random. (See here for the most recent listing of Grants for the Arts literature grants; click on artform, move to the literature tab, you do have to work for this). ACE operates from within the government, which in turn operates from within the given financial structure, which is largely based on locking people into debt. (Yesterday afternoon I waited at a bus stop that displayed a bank’s mortgage ad: the banks have been making hay for generations from the fact that the UK is a property owning rather renting little island, and they wanted yet more hay and they fucked up, us too, and it’s still going on.)

When I said above that the public funders don’t care, I don’t mean they don’t care about diversity and the regions and disability and access, I mean they don’t care about literature. What’s in place at present is just lip-service. It’s to get the Guardian constituency on board. Does any career politician seriously aspire to the status of arts minister? It’s like being on probation, we’ll see how you do in a position where you can’t do any damage. If any political party took literature seriously, it would have a return to the the National Book Agreement as part of its manifesto. (A return to the NBA, or a revised version, would restrict discounting; enable more independent booksellers to survive; benefit small presses; have a more rooted and lasting effect on what is written, published and read than any tossing of a few thousand pounds to this writer, that publisher). France does this, Germany does this. It hardly wins votes, it won’t happen. Just as they don’t care, really, about education: deal with the charity status of the so-called ‘public’ schools for a start (for non-UK readers: for public read private; it was genius marketing to get those words switched). Or housing: that the average asking price for a house in London is £544,000, and the adult minimum wage is £6.31 per hour (£2.65 is the apprentice rate), and ‘One in five workers in the UK is paid less than required for a basic standard of living’ (BBC reporting research for KPMG, 29 October: one in five), is madness. Of a kind that appears to be normalised, but it’s still madness.

The bus I was waiting for yesterday afternoon was to take me home after reading to the ex-bookseller I’ve written about previously, the one who ran a tiny shop in Notting Hill for 44 years and then had a stroke. I read two chapters of a book she’d been given by a friend, a book first published in the late 1940s and recently re-issued and that was finely written, I enjoyed reading it, but which seemed to be about the servant problem – all the maids have scarpered – and we agreed that next time a different book. To pay for her continued care, her deceased husband’s book collection is coming up for sale at Christie’s on 15 November. The lots include ‘Booth, Charles (1840-1916). Life and Labour of the People in London. London: Macmillan, 1902-1910. 19 volumes, 8° (209 x 135mm). Map volume containing 5 folding maps in two pockets. (A little foxing.) Contemporary parchment, gilt spines (soiled).’ And a first edition of Marx’s Das Kapital, estimated at £10–15,000.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

There was an attempt to get a petition together to bring back the Net (I think you mean) Book Agreement, but it had no publicity:

Maybe you and your contacts could build up more of a head of steam behind a petition?