A week in books

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Last year, I interviewed Lord Puttnam and - in the published article - went in for a little mild teasing about his preference for Wallace and Gromit over late Jean-Luc Godard. Bad move. An incandescent four-page personal letter promptly buried me in a lava-like tide of more-in-sorrow- than-in-anger recriminations.

New Labour thinks of arts policy as its own private manor. So it tends to react with an aggrieved landlord's ire when unruly visitors arrive to snip the blooms or trample the lawns. What these tetchy connoisseurs can often miss is the plain truth that the mockers would rather crawl a mile over burning coals to vote for them again than confront another government whose idea of hip stopped with the second Earl of Gowrie. So lighten up, lads.

That hurt tone recurs in Creative Britain (Faber, pounds 7.99), Chris Smith's compilation of official speeches, bookended by a couple of synoptic essays. (Indeed, John Newbigin, now Smith's special adviser, worked for years as Puttnam's chief strategist.) If Tony Blair invites the Gallagher freres to Number 10, critics carp at his neglect of traditional high art. Hold on, says Smith: "the charge is not correct". Only a few days later, the PM had been "deeply moved by Richard Eyre's production of King Lear". Thank you for sharing that with us.

Since this magazine goes to bed early, I have no idea if Smith has yet been reshuffled out of Culture, Media and Sport. On the basis of this indolent piece of publishing, he could use a change. Yes, the persuasive arguments about access, education and the pounds 50bn strength of Britain's "cultural economy" make more sense in one page than Tory arts ministers managed in a decade. (Even if the belief in culture as a motor for municipal renewal comes straight from the despised city-hall left of the 1980s). What truly sticks in the craw is Smith's dismaying readiness to pack a book covered in two of Damien Hirst's swirly-rainbow paintings with a soporific set of bland formal addresses.

"Coming here this morning, I could not help but feel that the Royal Horticultural Halls were a good place to hold this timely conference ..." And so on, ad infinitum, with the same figures and same examples echoing redundantly from speech to speech. I heard so often about how the tough Hartcliffe Estate boys of Bristol discovered the beauty of the ballet that I ended up wanting to smother them in the nearest available tutu.

"In a very real way," (a choice Smithism, that, which makes him sound like an Alan Bennett vicar) this book is an insult to its readers. Politicians may now rub designer shoulders with Ozwald Boateng or John Galliano. Yet their prose and performance remains trussed in the laced-up, buttoned-down garb of the Ancient British state. "It is no good having Conran (Terence or Jasper) design your restaurant if the menu is cheese sandwiches," remarks Smith. And it's no good having Hirst design your jacket if the fare within features far too much old flannel and hot air.

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