A cell of one's own

A week IN BOOKS

It's still deadlock at the Arts Council, where the chairman, the Earl of Gowrie, recently took over the chair of the Literature Panel in the wake of Michael Holroyd's departure. The prospect of having a man notoriously suspicious of subsidising literature at their head has understandably appalled other panel members like David Lodge and Marina Warner.

To his credit, Lord Gowrie has greeted his own appointment with suspicion ("This is not my doing. I disapprove of me being literature chairman'') but I fear it may not be enough to pacify Warner and Lodge. For his Lordship is a famous joker. Once, in a review, he described Heathcote Williams's litany of krill-drenched bollocks, Whale Nation, as "the finest long poem in English since The Waste Land''. When Booker chairman, he breezily suggested that Vikram Seth, author of A Suitable Boy, should have popped round to Gowrie's study for a spot of tuition in syntax, construction and, I dare say, spelling too. Only the other day, his talent for whimsical asides could be seen was evident as he explained, in The Author, that writing was an activity which could profitably be pursued anywhere - on holiday, in hotel rooms, even (he amusingly concluded) in prison.

This is heartening news for those of us who have struggled with a tricky paragraph in the comparative luxury of our own kitchens and studies. Prison might indeed be the perfect environment for that lyric poem, that scorching satire on suburban culture. . . But just as I was preparing to mock Lord G, my eye fell on the news about Mr Charles Bronson, a long-stay inmate at Frankland Prison, Durham, whose first work - Living Legends, a series of vignettes of prison life - has currently got four literary agents fighting over it. Mr Bronson (he changed his name by deed poll) has a reputation as a connoisseur of violence and armed robbery with a penchant for kidnapping prison governors and demanding, in return for their release, a helicopter, a machine gun, a pot of tea and an inflatable woman. He was certified insane some time ago.

He is clearly a lesson to us all about the way that creativity transcends social conditions. And should the Literature Advisory Panel need any further persuasion that writers need no more subsidy than an HB pencil and a shirtcuff, the canny Lord G could bring Mr Bronson round to their Smith Square meetings to put them straight.

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