17 DECEMBER 1977, Page 25

Dinner guests and tax-payers

Geoffrey Wheatcroft

Last year 'The Arts in Hard Times'; this year 'Value for Money': the Arts Council's annual reports have nowadays a defensive, diffident tone. There is no mistaking the nervousness of Kenneth Robinson the Council's Chairman and of Roy Shaw, its Seeretary-General, shaking under what Lord Goodman calls 'irresponsible assaults'. The nervousness has been lately aggravated by the Fuller Affair.

Taking Roy Fuller's lead, the controversy has centred round 'community arts', subsidised lewdness (in Fuller's view) and the excesses of fringe avant-garde theatre companies. Certainly anyone might be forgiven a smile on learning that the Belt and Braces Roadshow Company has picked up £40,000 of public money, the Broadside Mobile Workers Theatre £20,000 and the Gay Sweatshop £14,557. But no doubt Richard Hoggart and his colleagues on the Drama Panel know what they are doing. Expenditure under the head of Drama was more than £1.5 million in 1976-77. By comparison literature took only £461,666, just 1.23 per cent of the council's expenditure. Mr Fuller concentrated his wrath elsewhere than on the activities of the Literature Panel of which he was Chairman. Still, the subsidy of literature involves different issues than the subsidy of the performing arts, and this branch of the Council's activities deserves separate examination.

The Literature Panel disburses its money to associations, e.g. the New Fiction Society and the much-troubled Poetry Society; to literary magazines; to little presses; and to Individual authors by means of awards and writing fellowships. The awards to authors totalled £85,400 (unless otherwise qualified, figures refer to 1976-77). Forty-nine authors shared this money, though we are not told in what proportions: Lettice Cooper, Kevin Crossley-Holland, David Hol brook, Joseph Hone; Ian McEwan, Jean Rhys, Martin Seymour-Smith, Tom Sharpe and John Warrack are some random names from the list. Making these awards clearly places the Literature Panel in an invidious position. Charles Osborne, the Arts Council's Literature Director, has replied to charges of favouritism thus; 'I am reassured, rather than perturbed. . .that some members of our Literature Advisory Panel have "friends and dinner party guests" in the literary world'. But the question is one of possible lack of objectivity rather than impropriety; and it is worth noting that at least six awards in recent years have been made to writers who at other times served on the Panel.

The grants to publishers total £50,055. Once, entrepreneurial publishing was thought to be a speculative, rough-with-smooth trade: successful books paid for those which lost mosey. No longer, it seems. Hutchinson Ltd, a large and profitable company, received £1,000 to publish New Poems. Andre Deutsch Ltd received £2000 to reprint five novels by V.S. Naipaul — not an obscure author. That excellent novel The Real Charlotte by Somerville and Ross is reissued by Quartet Books Ltd, at a cost to the public of £2,650. Tucked away in the .figures for the Scottish Arts Council we find that Hamish Hamilton Ltd received £600 for publishing Robert Nye's Falstaff and that Martin Brian and O'Keeffe Ltd get £10,000 for the Complete Poems of Hitgh MaeDiarmid.

Little presses do rather badly, with only £33,250, by comparison with the big publishers; and by comparison with the £78,150 to literary magazines. Which brings us inexorably to the New Review, the British Leyland of little magazines. There was once the Review, published in Oxford under the distinguished editorship of Ian Hamilton. When it was relaunched in London as the New Review its public subsidy rose from £400 p.a. to £2,200. Since then the figures have been: 1973-4 £12,000; 1974-5 £19,000; 1975-622,000. In March 1976 it was announced that the New Review's subsidy would continue 'subject to close scrutiny of its finances and performance'. However close the scrutiny may have been, the facts are that the subsidy was increased to £25,200 in 1976-7; and that last spring, to help clear an accumulated deficit of nearly £25,000, a further £10,000 was granted. This total of £35,200 is more than forty-five per cent of the grant to magazines (eleven in all). The New Review's monthly circulation is said to be around 3,500. It is not necessary to discuss the New Review's editorial quality to suggest that it would have to be very good indeed to justify a taxpayers' subsidy of dearly £1 a copy.

The Literature Panel's own affairs have been in disarray. When Mr Fuller resigned, Elizabeth Thomas, the Deputy Chairman, became his acting successor. Some wanted her to become Chairman; some clearly didn't. Some time after Fuller's departure members of the Panel asked when an appointment would be made. They were told by Mr Osborne that a short-list had been sent to Mr Shaw and to Lord Donaldson, the Minister for the Arts. The names mentioned were to be of Brigid Brophy, Michael Holroyd (who is already Chairman of the National Book League), Iris Murdoch and Angus Wilson, a former Chairman. It seems that members of the panel were not allowed to express their preferences or to propose other candidates. In the event the position went to Melvyn Bragg, who has outlined his views— though not with any great clarity — in an interview in the New Review.

The foregoing is written without enthusiasm. I am not effectively insulated — in Mr Osborne's phrase — from the literary world. I am (perhaps was) on terms of friendly acquaintance with several members of the Panel, recipients of Council monies and employees of the New Review, and it may seem curmudgeonly to interrupt their fun and games.

But literature is not a game, and nor is the spending of public money, even if a Swiftian observer of modern England might think it was. There is a variety of things which the Government could do to 'help literature.' It could introduce the Public Lending Right, not as act of charity but as a simple matter of justice; it could call off the dogs of the Inland Revenue who are trying to establish that literary prize money is taxable; it could even, to think the unthinkable, reform trade union law so as to end the overmanning and low productivity which is nowhere more grievous than in the printing trade with inevitable consequences on book prices. Ref(); any duty to help letters, or any other art, however, the Government's duty is to the citizens who involuntarily supply its money: a duty to see that those who spend the money do so with responsibility and caution. It is not a duty which seems to be observed much at the Arts Council.