Boyd Tonkin: The green ideals behind the hedge

The week in books

Click to follow

John Burnside has won the TS Eliot Prize for Black Cat Bone. In these pages, Fiona Sampson hailed its author as "simply one of the finest poets writing today". Yet the award on Monday of this country's most resonant honour for verse took place under a black cloud of dissent. Two of the shortlisted poets, Alice Oswald and John Kinsella, had withdrawn from the contest because they objected to the support of the prize's admin costs by the Aurum Funds group – outside subsidy that the organisers, the Poetry Book Society, had to seek when the Arts Council axed its grant. Aurum is not a hedge fund itself, to be exact (as poets should), but a "fund of funds" that invests its clients' cash into such vehicles. In protest at its involvement, Kinsella has proclaimed his "full-on" anti-capitalism, while Oswald has denounced "a system that puts profit before ethics".

I wrote a few weeks ago about the folly of pretending that the modern muse has held itself apart from finance capitalism when the young TS Eliot owed his survival to a job at Lloyds Bank – and later became an entrepreneurial director of Faber & Faber. On further investigation, this case looks even more complicated – and intriguing – than I thought. Both this year's winner and the two angry absentees count in different ways as "green" poets: not just fashioners of pretty ditties about lovely landscapes, but writers who express an integrated ecological vision in which human and non-human nature must either coexist in harmony, or else perish in conflict. In these times, that outlook makes them mourners, prophets and even doomsayers, committed to sound what Kinsella in his new collection Armour calls "endnotes/ of an elegiac/ pastoral".

Now turn to Aurum, his and Oswald's bugbear; about the firm, the latter poet wrote that "It doesn't... have an ethical policy". That's not the whole story, so far as I can see. Created by Adam Sweidan in 1994 (he now serves as chief investment officer), the Bermuda-based company not only makes the sort of industry-standard charitable donations you might expect – to the ARK initiative for vulnerable kids, to the PATA project for African families affected by HIV/Aids, or now to the Poetry Book Society. It also runs something called the Synchronicity Foundation, linked to a dedicated investment fund that finances its goals. And, ironically enough, Synchronicity turns out to be driven by just those high-minded, holistic and slightly mystical ecological ideals that you find so eloquently voiced in poems by Alice Oswald or John Kinsella.

Regretting that global problems arise from "disparities in wealth, power and opportunity", the Synchronicity Foundation manifesto depicts the planet, Gaia-style, as "an all-inclusive system" that "works best when its innumerable parts are integrated and balanced". It believes in "local wisdom" as the best way to forge the pieces of "a mosaic of human striving for sustainable worldwide equilibrium". And it aims to divert the profits wrung from "market capitalism" to remedy the harm done by globalisation, applauding "the efforts of those who protest" against injustice and the "dangerous imbalance between rich and poor". "We don't need to save the earth," Sweidan said in a speech. "She will be just fine without us. We need to save ourselves from ourselves".

Cynical window-dressing? Flagrant self-delusion? I suspect not. The hedge-fund and "alternative investment" side of modern finance attracts more than its fair share of gifted mavericks who think of themselves as anything but corporate suits. Of course, the net results of their pursuit of "absolute returns" across the markets may still lead to as much damage to societies and ecologies as their harshest political – and poetical – critics fear. Still, the sector hosts some weirdly interesting minds. Sweidan's official biography refers to his fascination for the "alchemical properties of the hedge fund industry", and his urge to bind it together with "a deep concern for the state of the planet" in (you guessed it) a "holistic way".

I have no wish to whitewash the hippy-dippy millionaires. But authors who fastidiously flee the scene of any engagement with them have effectively chosen to limit their perspective and close down their curiosity. Two millennia ago, the farmer-poet Horace called his plutocratic patron – and friend - Maecenas "the shield and glory of my life". Today's Maecenases need, at least, dialogue not disdain.

Seeing red in the Pink City

"We should respect the sentiments of minorities," says Ashok Gehlot, chief minister of Rajasthan – more or less telling Salman Rushdie to stay away from the seventh Jaipur literary festival. In India, such statements by politicians often mean: give in to the bullies. As I write, Rushdie's invitation to the Pink City still stands, despite wobbling by the organisers (who removed his event from their website). A march against him is planned for today. In India, and across Asia, festivals now boom. Yet, without a solid commitment to free speech, such jamborees bring nothing but cocktail-circuit chit-chat for a smug upper crust. Jaipur must stick by Sir Salman.

Whitehall dips into our treasure

Sometimes you can judge a government by its approach to the marginal detail as well as to the big picture. Along with the public-library system itself, the Public Lending Right legislation that has since 1979 granted authors a tiny payment for each library loan counts as a national treasure. Since the amount seems so small (just over sixpence per withdrawal) and the annual pot so modest (around £7m.), it's easy to assume that the benefit to writers is purely notional. Not so. In 2009, 232 authors qualified for the maximum payment of £6,600. For popular but non-celebrity children's authors or genre writers, that's not pocket money. Now the PLR rate per issue has dropped, from 6.25 to 6.05 pence, as the size of the yearly fund slips from £7.22m. down to £6.96m. Piddling sums, by Whitehall standards. Yet they matter: in practical terms for some writers; in symbolic terms for all. And the squeeze reveals a default position of carping meanness towards culture, even as an extra £40m. funds the Olympic ceremonies.

b.tonkin@independent.co.uk

Comments