A very peculiar practice

Decca Aitkenhead on a GP who gives pounds 50,000 a year to the arts
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There was a story doing the tabloid rounds last week about a "mystery man" claiming to be a lottery winner. "Kevin" was reported to be travelling the country, thrusting wads of pounds 50 notes into the hands of passing strangers. "I'll give you more money than you could imagine!" he would beam, before bounding off to give away some more. Unhappily for "Kevin", most of his beneficiaries politely handed it back.

Philanthropy is out of fashion these days. Most great prizes belong to bygone noteworthies, or faceless corporate giants - think of the Nobel prize for literature, awarded last Thursday, or the Booker prize, whose shortlist was published last week. Yet the patron of the David Cohen British Literature Prize, to be presented in the New Year, is neither dead, nor of the we're-only-here-for-the-premiere variety, but is a mild- mannered, middle-aged GP from London.

Dr Cohen, 65, gives away about pounds 50,000 each year, from a family trust he set up in 1980 to support the arts.

"I would have loved," he says simply, "to have been a creative person. But since I'm not, it was the next best thing."

It is from this fund that the literature prize of pounds 40,000 is presented, in recognition of a British writer's lifetime achievement. It is the only such honour in British literature - "a kind of Nobel for our writers," he offers - and has been awarded only twice, to VS Naipaul and Harold Pinter. Its third recipient is currently under consideration by a panel of 13 judges. No shortlist is ever published; candidates this year are thought to include Ted Hughes, Iris Murdoch and Beryl Bainbridge.

Literature awards have come in for much criticism in recent years. The qualifications of certain judges have been queried (the cake baker Jane Asher, on the last Whitbread Book of the Year panel, for example), and the failure of shortlisted candidates has at times overshadowed the winners. Salman Rushdie commanded an avalanche of column inches for not winning the last Booker or Whitbread. These awards, fashionable opinion seems to be suggesting, often signify no more than the ill-considered whim of arbitrary judges, and quite possibly do as much harm as good.

"We hammered out the parameters of this prize very carefully from the start," David Cohen explains. Judges are selected not as individuals, but by virtue of the position they occupy, thus the panel includes the chair of the Society of Authors, the chair of the Arts Council literature panel, and so on. "We don't want people saying, `What are those judges doing there?'."

Similarly, "we don't publish a shortlist because it's so invidious. The Booker gets lots of mileage out of people walking out, falling out and all that. We don't have any of that." His only personal involvement is to sit in on judging sessions - "the best literature tutorials I've ever had". Who would be his choice for next year's prize? "Do you know, I haven't even thought of it."

Like lots of metropolitan arts lovers, David Cohen is a wealthy man. His Regents Park Nash house, a three-storey cream splendour, is decorated with the exquisite attention of the cultured and the monied. He and his wife are out at the opera, or theatre, or art gallery, at least six nights a week ("We would love to live in the country - but what would one do ?"); he sits on the board of the English National Opera, and chairs the English Touring Opera. Unlike lots of metropolitan lovers of the arts, however, he finds nothing remarkable in handing over vast sums of money to support them.

"I know I cut a slightly odd figure among patrons of the arts these day. But I grew up with the notion of serving people. Some people would look down on that. Think, you know, just a GP.

"But I would hate to be one of those people you read about in the pages of Hello!, with yachts and Caribbean islands. Just living their lives for themselves. I think if I was one of those," he pauses, slightly embarrassed, "I would be feeling a terrible sense of worthlessness."

There was, he recalls, a radio programme at the height of the city boom. Yuppies earning vast amounts of money were asked whether they gave any of their money away.

"And do you know? Only a tiny minority, maybe one in 20, said yes. The others couldn't see the point of the question. `What? Give money away? You must be mad.'"

David Cohen looks as confused by the yuppies' response as one imagines they were by the question. It is perhaps a measure of our time that I find myself as amazed by the scale and simplicity of this working doctor's philanthropy, as he is by the notion that it might be amazing.

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