3 JUNE 1995, Page 28


Looking forward to the day when Londoners ask 'Who's spouting tonight?'


Last Thursday evening, my wife and I and about 200 other people traipsed to the Tate Gallery to hear Professor Roger Scu- ton give the Peter Fuller Memorial Lecture on The Artistic Venture Today'. Since Scruton was demolishing the claims of much of the painting and sculpture fea- tured in the Tate, its director, Nicholas Serota, the monstre sacre of London's mod- ern art establishment, found it convenient to be in New York.

However, that is not my point. What struck me, glancing round the audience of personalities and high-fliers, was that so many people should turn out to hear a lec- ture at all. And the same thing is now hap- pening all over London, at the National Theatre, the National Gallery, the Royal Geographical Society, the French Institute, the Accademia Italiana and many other venues. Television is dead: the public lec- ture has returned.

I say 'returned' because in the 18th and 19th centuries the London public flocked to lectures, often paying handsomely for the privilege. To attend a lecture was regarded as public-spirited, civilised and highly respectable. It was the secular equiv- alent of going to church. Indeed, Tom Paine always referred to God as the Great Lecturer. On a typical June evening in Regency London, the enthusiast had a choice between, say, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Sir Humphry Davy, William Hazlitt and Michael Faraday. Places like the Royal Institution in Mayfair and the Surrey Institution on the South Bank were crammed.

A generation later, Thackeray was pack- ing them in with his famous series on 'The Four Georges' and `The English Humorists'. These could be lengthy perfor- mances: two hours, even more, was not unusual. In due course, Dickens drew audi- ences of thousands, in great cities all over Britain, so that the largest halls available were required to house the multitudes who flocked to hear him. But these were 'read- ings', not lectures: already a symptom of decline, with the focus shifting from self- improvement to entertainment.

Meanwhile, the torch had been taken up in America, where the Lyceum Movement was founded in 1829, precisely to make the public lecture the beacon of enlightenment of an expanding society. Lyceums were opened not only on the developed East Coast, but in Cincinnati (1830), Cleveland (1832), Columbus (1835) and then through- out the Midwest and the Mississippi Valley. Ralph Waldo Emerson's famous Boston lecture of 1837, `The American Scholar', was later termed, by Oliver Wendell Holmes, as `our intellectual Declaration of Independence' — the cutting of the cultur- al umbilical cord with England. All the same, once the Lyceums were available, English celebrities, such as Thackeray and Dickens, were soon being paid enormous sums by Yankee impresarios to work the American lecture circuit.

The process has been going on ever since. Indeed, it amazes me how many Americans are still prepared to turn out of an evening to hear someone expound. Last autumn, when I gave a course of lectures on the history of the United States at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, the hall, which held, I think, about 200, was filled to capacity by a ticket-only audience, and we had to accommodate an overflow. This was a tribute not so much to my appeal as to the sheer intellectual appetite of the Big Apple's culture-vultures. At Denver, in the Rockies, I found myself holding forth in a sports stadium to 2,000 people or more — an eerie experience. There is a lot of money to be made by lec- turing in the United States, and not just by the ultra-celebrities in the Kissinger class who can command fees of $50,000 a time. Americans will pay top movie-house prices to hear all kinds of people, and audiotapes are mass-marketed; $27.95 for three hours (three lectures) on tape is typical.

Europe, normally eager to imitate Amer- 'It's the wolf:' ican cultural patterns, has been slow to recover the lecture habit. The last great spasm of lecture-going occurred during the war, when both the British and the Ger- mans enthusiastically attended, especially at lunchtime. Those organised by Sir Ken- neth Clark at the National Gallery — there were wonderful concerts too — were the most famous and best remembered. Of course Clark was an outstanding lecturer himself. The courses he gave not long after the war, at the Ashmolean in Oxford, on Rembrandt and Tintoretto, were the best I have ever heard — and there was some stiff competition in those days, not least from C.S. Lewis, A.J.P. Taylor, C.M. Bowra and Lord David Cecil.

In France, too, there was a wartime revival of lecturing which continued for a while into the peace. Jean-Paul Sartre first became a celebrity with a course on the novel he gave in the Rue St Jacques in the autumn of 1944. Then, on 29 October 1945, he launched the European phenomenon of existentialism by a famous or notorious lec- ture he delivered in the Salle des Centraux at 8 Rue Jean Goujon, `Existentialism is a Humanism'. The lecture was so popular that there were people fighting in the streets outside to get in, chairs were smashed, women fainted, and proceedings started an hour late. The next day virtually every word was printed in all the main Paris papers. Those were the days!

Unfortunately, radio and television, while keeping people at home, and thus killing the evening lecture, have so far failed to develop an electronic version of the traditional lecture style. The only man who succeeded in doing it, entirely by his own efforts, was A.J.P. Taylor (Clark's great Civilisation series was a filmed docu- mentary, something quite different). It has always seemed to me a great pity that BBC Reith Lecturers are picked exclusively for their subjects irrespective of whether they can deliver a lecture or not — the last one, an architect, was literally a turn-off. But now that television is in headlong decline, especially among the chattering classes, and people are coming back to the lecture room, we have a new chance to develop the lecture as the ideal audio-visual art-form for the elite.

I look forward to the day when le tout Londres goes to a lecture once a week as a matter of course, and the right question to ask is: `Who's spouting tonight?'