Forget poetry - Britain needs a novel approach

It is not the jazzy riffs of verse that should lead us into the 21st century, but the insights of prose
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The Independent Culture
AS IF they had not enough to worry about, what with eminent-Welshman- stalking Rastafarians on Clapham Common, the marketing team of the Downing Street Policy Unit is now faced with the tricky problem of finding a new Poet Laureate.

Media analysts will be comparing the celebrity profiles of UA Fanthorpe and Andrew Motion. The views of Carol Ann Duffy and Wendy Cope will be scrutinised for political acceptability. Focus groups will be quizzed about their attitudes towards iambic pentameters, syllabics and the sonnet form.

There may be a Cabinet split, with the populists, headed by Chris Smith, arguing for Ray "Waterloo Sunset" Davies and Frank Dobson supporting the old-fashioned plonking rhyme form, while Peter Mandelson presses the claims of his fellow Martian, Craig Raine. At this point, the experts will study the popularity ratings of the last two laureates, John Betjeman and Ted Hughes. Neither the teddy-loving would-be toff, nor the ferocious genius who supported stag-hunting, they will decide, were exactly the sort of personality to set the telephone lines humming on a TV celebrity phone- in on Richard and Judy's This Morning show. Like much else, the laureateship needs modernising. They will look about for someone in touch with the spirit of the age - classless, sensitive, tearful, family-minded and ever so slightly sanctimonious - in the hope that somewhere they will find the people's poet.

What a shock they are in for. Most poets are, by their very nature, moral inadequates. Apart from a handful of middle-class careerists who drive to readings in smart hatchback saloons, wear Armani suits, and sip tequilas at the Groucho Club before talking pretentious nonsense on Radio 3's Nightwaves, most contemporary versifiers have been disastrously influenced by the rumour that, of late, poetry has become "the new rock'n'roll".

Of course, poets have always had something of a reputation as the alley cats of the literary scene. Mysteriously, the mere fact of a person having produced a few lines of published verse, be it the lamest haiku reproduced in the saddest little magazine, seems to have a powerful aphrodisiac effect, no matter how scrofulous and ugly its creator. Although it is widely known that poets are notoriously unsatisfactory lovers - self-absorbed yet over-enthusiastic, much given to lengthy, introspective pauses at just the wrong moment - pub readings have recently become popular pick- up joints.

But we live in volatile, dangerous times. An urgent fin-de-siecle craving for cutting-edge experience grips the more vulnerable members of the community. The parks and pubs and clubs are thronging with people looking for a brief, headily irresponsible escape from the dullness of their lives. Presenters of Blue Peter and Live and Kicking are doing coke, or being beaten up by their girlfriends. At this moment, the country needs a writer who can explain the meaning of it all in a mature, calming fashion, not some randy poet sounding off in blank verse as he staggers from one orgy to another.

It is, in other words, time for the Government to think the unthinkable. Poetry has become decadent, corrupted by fame, advertising and hedonism. It is not the jazzy, bouncing riffs of verse that should lead us into the 21st century, but the subtle, grown-up insights of prose. It is time for a Novelist Laureate.

Suddenly, the job would no longer be a question of throwing out a few lazy lines to mark the 18th birthday of Prince William. The Novelist Laureate would provide a moral subtext to everyday events in the rapidly changing society in which we live.

Take, for example, the Ron Davies affair, which has caused such confusion and controversy on a broad range of contemporary issues, from public morality to the policing of parks, from gender politics, to the future of Welsh nationalism. How useful it would be to be able to turn for guidance one of our great and wise novelists. David Lodge might recount a short story in which the lives of the two men who met on Clapham Common are revealed in telling counterpoint. Fay Weldon would reveal how pressures on the modern family man contributed to the problem. Howard Jacobson would pitilessly explore the male mid-life crisis. Martin Amis could take us behind the scenes into the crack-houses of Brixton for one of his famously witty low-life scenes.

Those nostalgic for lofty-sounding sentiments, declaimed in fluting, self- important tones, can take their chance among the gropers and boozers at the nearest poetry pub reading. The literary mouthpiece of the nation should speak the language of fiction.