Books: Raising a glass to the awkward squad

A Week in Books: Writers enjoy the odd drink on the state, but belong in opposition

NO SANE person wants dissenting writers to endure the sort of persecution that overtook a Lorca, a Pasternak, a Rushdie or a Wole Soyinka, who this week returned to Nigeria after four years in exile from the Abacha dictatorship. Indeed, the fatuous line comfy pundits often spin - that hardship and terror can breed masterpieces - merits at least a few weeks' log-chopping in the nearest Arctic labour camp. What is true is that the cosy embrace of the state has done precious little for great literature since the days of the Emperor Augustus. And a writer invited to an imperial shindig generally turns up with a long spoon.

That distrust seemed suspended for a few champagne-fuelled hours on Thursday. In the gilded, even slightly tacky splendour of Lancaster House, the government threw a party for a vast horde of bookbiz dignitaries to celebrate 30 years of the Booker Prize. Our cool commanders, one surmises, felt the need for such a gesture after months of media sniping to the effect that they prefer Oasis to Ondaatje, Cocker to Coetzee. As if in silent reproof, arts minister Alan Howarth managed to quote Gibbon, Nietzsche, Max Weber and Saul Bellow (none of them, as it happens, remotely eligible for the Booker).

Still, after all this slightly clammy goodwill, I jumped back with relief into a fine new compendium of grumblers, mischief-makers, malcontents, subversives and general anti-social elements. Shrewdly edited by Brian MacArthur, The Penguin Book of Twentieth-Century Protest (Viking, pounds 20) rounds up scores of incendiary extracts from the sort of authors and activists who would probably disgrace any state bash with an impromptu harangue. It starts, wonderfully, with the slave-born black journalist Ida Wells excoriating the lynch-mobs of 1900 and closes, this year, with Tony Benn's assault on plans for another "computer-game" war against Iraq. In between come all the prophets and pot-stirrers you might expect, from Shaw, Russell and Gandhi early in the century to Havel, Mandela, Germaine Greer and Dennis Potter closer to our time.

As always in anthologies, a few of the choices make sense now but will begin to look a trifle odd in future editions: Earl Spencer's eulogy for Diana, say, may lose its lustre pretty fast. But it is good see between hard covers Robert Harris's diagnosis of Mrs T during her we-are-a-grandmother phase: "It is a sobering thought to realise that one is living in a country in which the prime minister is mad".

My single howl of protest has a very specific beef behind it. MacArthur reprints Reagan's "evil empire" speech: a cunning, inflammatory pretext for the military-spending boom that nearly bankrupted America. Yet he has nothing - either in anti-nuke mode, or on any other theme - from E P Thompson, one of the greatest ever writers of English polemical prose. As oversights go, that deserves a picket - if not a barricade.

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