Boyd Tonkin: How to make Scrooge repent

The week in books

In a slow news week, the story offered a heart-warming coda to any version of A Christmas Carol that flickered across festive screens. Education secretary Michael "Scrooge" Gove removes £13m in funding from the BookTrust charity. Thus he snatches away the free books distributed to babies and young children under the Bookstart, Booktime and Booked Up gifting schemes. Jointly playing Marley's Ghost, Philip Pullman, Michael Rosen and Carol Ann Duffy whisk Ebenezer Gove out of his cold Surrey bed. They drag him shrieking through the snowy night to a lonely graveyard where a neglected headstone records the accursed miser who robbed a generation of kids of their inspiration and enlightenment.

Archetypal narratives can make for fabulously effective politics. Of course, Gove relented. The Department and BookTrust now promise to plan "a new programme which will ensure that every child can enjoy the gift of books at crucial moments in their lives". Turkey and trimmings all round. And Tiny Tim – who did not die – devours his free books in peace again. God bless us, every one!

Very much a personal mission of Gordon Brown, the Bookstart programme and its successors have in fact attracted far from wholehearted support among professionals. Its direct impact proved hard to measure, especially after such a short time. As a universal benefit, it gives a bonus to rich as well as poor. It also involves the state, Soviet-style, in the bulk purchase and distribution of a few favoured titles - always an unpopular move for the retail market. Nonetheless, the shaming symbolism of its extinction would have cost the Coalition far more than the modest price of a fix.

Sadly, other tales of Cuts Present, and Cuts Future, will not have such a cheering outcome in 2011. Hundred of local libraries remain at risk of closure. Most will have to depend for their survival on neighbourhood defences with little or no celebrity firepower. According to library campaigners, the current number of branches under threat stands (with mobile services included) at just under 400. Estimates of the total liable to fall under the axe as local authorities struggle to enforce spending limits rise to 1000 and beyond. A country-wide "read-in" in February will bring national visibility to the hundreds of piecemeal initiatives.

What's so fascinating is that local action for libraries has given the "Big Society" rhetoric its first major reality-check. Users of the service will not be content to enlist as passive volunteers who meekly substitute for sacked professional staff. If they accept duties, they will demand rights. The Coalition will learn that a culture of voluntarism breeds troublesome active citizens, not just do-gooding drones.

Still, the road will be hard, and the setbacks many. We enjoyed a short period, during the Noughties boom, when the language of economic utility and social benefit withdrew from the field of official culture. Briefly, "excellence" held sway. I was one of the many professionals convened by Sir Brian McMaster in 2007 to consult on a report into state support for the arts. The final document emerged almost miraculously free of the utilitarian calculus that had governed the language of subsidy and investment over two decades.

How long ago that feels. Boom gave way to bust. Now the arts must again prove their bottom-line credentials. And their advocates need smarter ways to make the case beyond celebrity tantrums (which will bring fast-diminishing returns) or shroud-waving prophecies of doom. We could begin with the most profitable British cultural industries of all. What social forces, for example, lay behind the creation of JK Rowling's multi-billion-dollar Harry Potter franchise?

Ask that question and you have to consider all manner of intangible public goods. They range from school library services and low-cost university arts degrees to – a crucial factor, this – a benefits system that let a graduate single mother scribble away in a warm café rather than forced her to take the first job.

Kneejerk outrage fades. The arts require sharper arguments. And, for this winter-hearted Coalition, accounting for the rich may cut more ice than pitying the poor. For 2011 will bring no more political free gifts of the sort Gove has handed to BookTrust and its friends.

Sign up for a night to remember

Never far from the headlines, Jamie Byng of Canongate (right) popped up over the holidays as the future British publisher of a memoir by Julian Assange of WikiLeaks. Less controversial is his ongoing role as prime mover of the inaugural World Book Night. On 5 March, as part of its million-volume giveaway, WBN will see 20,000 volunteers distribute 48 gratis copies each of a favourite book chosen from the list of 25. Thousands have already applied for this intriguing job, but any would-be WBN champions still have the chance to take part. Registration ends on 4 January, with forms and details available at the project's website, www.worldbooknight.org.

Botched job by an apprentice

I don't like bullshitters. I don't like time-wasters. Get used to it. So, Alan Sugar, your memoir What You See Is What You Get became Britain's bestselling autobiography in the week before Christmas. It had sales of 53,689 in that period. Well done. As I pointed out before (smug self-quotation becomes a bit of a habit), you do have a story to tell. You did rise from (almost) rags to riches. You met lots of colourful characters along the way. You argued savagely and fell out with many of them. And you ended up, bizarrely, as the world's biggest fan of Gordon Brown. None of which changes what I have to say. Your book is the most absurdly under-edited, over-indulgent, repetitive and narcissistic slab of self-advertisement ever to drop into the festive stockings of an army of avaricious wannabes. It bullshits; it time-wastes; it flannels; it whines. I don't like its arrogance, or its attitude. I don't care about your prime-time ratings or famous mates. You sold us a crock. Get off my shelf and back to the House (of Lords).

b.tonkin@independent.co.uk

Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project