Boyd Tonkin: If we won't fund arts, at least stop the state from disrupting the cultural traffic

The Week in Books
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A few years' ago, I took a tiny part in a review of national arts policy headed by Sir Brian McMaster, former director of the Edinburgh Festival. After two decades of grim utilitarianism, in which culture won state approval only thanks to its role in civic regeneration, McMaster went back to basics. His first-class report stressed "supporting excellence" in arts rather than ticking demographic boxes or lending a fractional lift to cash-flow in the inner cities.

Sadly, we were wasting our breath over the civil-service tea and biccies. The latest culture secretary has decreed once more that the arts should pay their way. Of course, as every Broadway smash that began on a subsidised stage proves, the sector delivers a massive return on very modest public investment. A new study commissioned by Arts Council England shows that the cultural industries, with an annual value today of £12.4bn., provide one British job in every 200 while receiving only one pound in every thousand that the government spends.

These figures include book publishing, a business which - according to statistics from the Publishers Association - grew by 4 per cent in 2012. That counts as a spanking result in a downturn, however many shades of mummy porn might have helped swell the numbers. Although literature takes hardly any direct state subsidy beyond the minuscule (but precious) sums channelled into it by the Arts and British Councils, the zero-rating of printed books for VAT does represent a big annual boon.

Books turned over £3.3bn. last year, with £411m. coming from digital sales. Of the £2.9bn. print revenues, exports accounted for over 40 per cent - around £1.2bn. So - Maria Miller please note - UK publishing is a billion-pound export business with a long record of overseas earnings that leaves many flagship industries in dry dock.

In this hard-headed age of austerity, what might state agencies do to make the job of such a globe-spanning, cash-spinning enterprise easier? I have a simple suggestion. Stop treating creative people who merely hope to trade with, or perform in, Britain as potential criminals. Across the cultural sector, an ever-more paranoid visa regime is denying short-term entry to non-EU professionals who no more wish to become illegal immigrants than Nigel Farage yearns to apply for Belgian citizenship.

Last month, Turkey was the "market focus" - corporate-speak for "guest of honour" - at the London Book Fair. Now, any recent observer of Turkish literature and its fortunes abroad will know that the nation's authors and publishers owe a vast debt to the remarkable work of the Kalem literary agency and its dynamic founder, Nermin Mollaoglu. Kalem must be worth about a dozen ambassadors to the Turkish state.

Naturally, Mollaoglu wanted to bring some of her staff to the Fair: keen agents who will not only sell Turkish books to Britain but, in future, buy British books for Turkey too. Yet, in a typical stroke of bureaucratic idiocy, one young agent was heartbroken to have her visa application refused. She had supplied an employer's letter. It seems that's not enough now for a panic-stricken system that detects a cunning benefits scrounger in every well-intentioned visitor.

For years, I have heard similar stories from figures in the arts. Britain slams its doors on the best and brightest who, far from plotting to settle here, merely wish to share skills and do deals for a spell. Worse than the appeasement of populist prejudice, this is the route to national suicide. Irrational visa-denial sends out a simple message about Britain: closed for talent; closed for business. Stay away. If our cultural industries can't rely on official help, so be it. In that case, the state should get off their backs and stop disrupting the cross-border flows of people and ideas that make friends, make art - and make money too.

Henrik Ibsen: a commentary on the Ukip surge?

Every vital new version of an Ibsen masterpiece ends up sounding as up-to-date - and sharper - than the headlines. I relished much about David Harrower's scintillating take on Public Enemy (aka An Enemy of the People), now on at the Young Vic. Not least, the moment when Aslaksen argues that radicals should only attack national government. "National politicians don't care. But overthrow the local authorities and you get idiots - anyone with half an opinion - suddenly taking control." After last week's council results, we shall see.

May’s the month for global stories

For those who like to read around the world, this will be the sweetest month. On 20 May, we will know the winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, with outstanding novels by Enrique Vila- Matas, Andrés Neuman, Ismail Kadare, Dasa Drndic, Chris Barnard and Gerbrand Bakker in contention. On 15 May, the British Library hosts European Literature Night: a stellar lineup this year offers Catalonia’s Jordi Punti, the Czech Jachym Topol and Turkey’s Ece Temelkuran (

Asia House’s Festival of Asian Literature continues, with appearances by two giants of Chinese fiction, Ma Jian and Yan Lianke, on the 21 and Man Asian prize-winner Tan Twan Eng on 22 May ( That’s assuming our eminent non-EU visitors can persuade the UK visa authorities that they don’t secretly plan to go underground and clear tables in a coffee-shop…