Boyd Tonkin: Our awfully big adventure

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Taking his cue from Ford Madox Brown's much-parodied Pre-Raphaelite favourite, the late Peter Porter entitled one of his finest collections The Last of England. Yet the Australian immigrant concluded that "You cannot leave England, it turns/ A planet majestically in the mind". Before his death in April, Porter – whose magnificent Selected Poems we will review here next week – had published 19 volumes of utterly distinctive and accomplished poetry. What a sad, strange coincidence that Beryl Bainbridge (who died last week) should leave with her 19th, no doubt equally idiosyncratic novel - The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress – just a few pages away from completion. Both their unplanned, unplannable careers made "England" proud. But could they, in their incomparable styles, represent two separate notes in the same swansong?

Against the odds, literature in Britain has found myriad ways to renew itself since the end of total war, 65 years ago. However, every new dawn arrived to the scoffs of doom-mongers branding it as twilight. Among the worst enemies of this renovated promise were the snobbish arbiters of the literary world itself. Cyril Connolly spoke for many when in 1949, a year after the creation of the National Health Service, he struck the fashionable note of wry apocalypse to pronounce that "It is closing time in the gardens of the West and from now on an artist will be judged only by the resonance of his solitude or the quality of his despair."

Total tosh. The ramshackle contraptions of the British welfare state, with their flawed but genuine efforts to widen access to education and the arts, had as profoundly invigorating an effect on culture as on the health and housing of the nation. A scruffily mixed economy of the mind took shape. More, and more open, universities combined with far-sighted patronage from the BBC and (for a while) ITV companies such as Granada, substantial growth in spending on libraries and arts, enlightened innovation in publishing and a quality press which – if not exactly profound in its scrutiny – at least kept up a voracious appetite for cultural novelty. This adventure without maps moulded a post-war landscape in which a Porter or a Bainbridge (once a Coronation Street actress, remember) could build a career without betraying a singular, even maverick talent.

Such a course would never make them, or any comparable author, rich. Yet the mixed-thread patchwork of the freelance life allowed voices from the former margins to prosper at the metropolitan centre: Porter from Brisbane; Bainbridge from Liverpool. The obstacles that gifted newcomers from beyond the old elites still had to surmount to win a hearing remained too high. All the same, barriers did come down during the era in which Connolly and his like read art's last rites.

For aspirational creators from provinces, colonies or sticks, it wasn't closing time at all, but a first opening of the gate. And neither Porter nor Bainbridge ever went to a university. In their day, very few bright people did. "Much have I travelled in the realms of gold," run Porter's well-quoted lines, "for which I thank the Paddington and Westminster/ Public Libraries".

Could the delicate ecology of culture that allowed them both to thrive now be on the verge of breakdown? State funding for the arts will plummet fast. The financial fence that still keeps many poorer students out of higher education, above all in non-vocational subjects, will rise. The intern racket opens unpaid apprenticeships in arts and media to the offspring of the rich. Serious broadcasting, or the serious press, catch their near-death of cold from digital technology, rival media and fragmenting audiences.

Yet the prophets of decline were proven absolutely wrong before. That could happen again. We simply don't yet understand enough about how new platforms for culture will co-exist or converge to offer opportunities for the outsider artists of tomorrow. Last gasps might well morph into breaths of fresh air. But I do know that any literary planet without the atmosphere to support a Porter or a Bainbridge would be a barren rock indeed.

African glory – with no foul hands

Here's one African achievement no Uruguayan soccer cheat can steal. On Monday, Olufemi Terry – born in Sierra Leone, based in Cape Town – won the Caine Prize for African Writing. Open only to short stories, the Caine Prize has supplied a near-infallible early-warning system for new African talent with the legs to conquer other continents. The roll-call of both winners and shortlisted authors proves the point: Chimamanda Adichie , Uwem Akpan, Brian Chikwava, Helon Habila, Laila Lalami, Segun Afolabi, Leila Aboulela. If the prize ever has the funds, it should consider sending a squad of its stars on a Latin American tour. Starting in Montevideo.

When in Rome, tell home truths

Quite a few distinguished writers have served as ambassadors: Octavio Paz (for Mexico), George Seferis (Greece), Saint-John Perse (France). Former MP Ann Widdecombe may not quite rank in their company, but she has written four novels that pleased readers and even a few critics. Now it seems that the Catholic convert will become the next UK ambassador to the Vatican. For inspiration, I suggest she turn to another novelist-diplomat: Jean-Christophe Rufin. A doctor who helped to found Médecins Sans Frontières, he writes historical fiction such as the Goncourt Prize-winning Brazil Red. Rufin served for three years as French envoy to Senegal – a key posting in la Francophonie. This week, he resigned, after repeated run-ins with the country's president, Abdoulaye Wade, over elite corruption and human-rights abuse. Given the Vatican's recent record, might it benefit from the presence of a plain-speaking candid friend prepared to expose cover-ups and advocate long-overdue reforms? Is the Pope...?

b.tonkin@independent.co.uk

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