David Lister: In defence of a supposedly philistine Prime Minister

The Week in Arts
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Could there be a more black and white case, a more amusing story, a more comforting tale for the cultured than this week's report of the Booker Prize winner Yann Martel sending a hundred books to the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to encourage a man not known for reading to extend his imaginative powers with a novel or two, or even a hundred? It would help him, said Mr Martel, "understand life, people, the world" and not have "limited, impoverished dreams".

The philistine PM never even replied to Martel's many gifts, each one accompanied by some words of wisdom. Culture and generosity vs rudeness and philistinism. And Harper a leader of the Conservative Party too. It's not hard to guess who we should be siding with here.

Well, sorry, but I find myself in some sympathy with the philistine on this one. I don't know whether it's true that he reads very few books or not, but I have discovered that he is writing one. Yes, you left out that little fact, Mr Martel. It's not a novel, so the Life of Pi author might not think it counts, but I think it's worth a mention. It's a book about Mr Harper's passion, ice hockey. Ah, yes, sport – that's something that still, sadly, too many people in the arts feel is an irrelevance. But it is a passion; it does give an individual a hinterland; it does give insights into the human spirit.

Passion comes in many guises. Mr Harper has a large vinyl collection, not the usual hobby of a blinkered politician. He has joined cellist Yo-Yo Ma on stage, accompanying him on piano.

And that touches on another problem with these novels. Mr Martel is a novelist, and naturally he looks upon that art-form to give Mr Harper the powers of imagination and empathy that a good leader needs. But in my experience every advocate of every art-form believes that their passion is the one true light, and the one true way to give a politician soul. I would like Mr Harper (and Mr Cameron, come to that) to go to the theatre more often. I would say each visit to a great play is as uplifting and enlightening as a good novel. Others would cite classical music as the busy politician's salvation, others jazz, others rock, others dance.

Perhaps Mr Harper couldn't get round to those hundred novels because he was being given so many tickets to dance, opera and concerts by other well-wishers.

And perhaps he didn't want to because he felt the whole thing was a little patronising on Mr Martel's part. Perhaps he didn't like being publicly ridiculed. No, these weren't exactly private gifts and letters from Mr Martel. He devoted a website to the project and a lengthy account of the affair was published. I suspect it was all as much for the greater glory of Mr Martel as the education and literary enrichment of Mr Harper.

A gimmick that never thrilled

I can't say I feel particularly devastated that the BBC has decided to axe the Electric Proms because of financial cuts at the corporation. The short-lived series of pop and rock concerts at the Roundhouse was a trifle gimmicky in borrowing the name of the biggest musical festival in the world to showcase artists, most of whom would have been appearing on the circuit anyway. There was little of the thrill of world-renowned orchestras, soloists and conductors making rare visits to Britain that you get in the actual Proms. Nor was there the special atmosphere engendered by the real Proms.

The pop stars that the BBC would have used the licence fee to put on stage will be playing anyway, either at the same London venue or nearby. And they won't be short of television exposure, even without the artificial and unconvincing title of Electric Proms.

Something for the weekend, Señor?

Everyone knows that if they go to see a stand-up comic and sit near the front, they are likely to be the butt of the joke for most of the evening. You have to take care, too, at Cirque du Soleil, where the clowns won't take no for an answer when it comes to audience involvement. But the one place that I thought was safe was the Royal Opera House. Not so.

The other day I was sitting on the end of the row at the back of the stalls to see Rossini's The Barber of Seville. It turned out that in this production the aforementioned barber enters from the back of the auditorium, brandishing his scissors and comb. As he did so the lights went on him, and the unfortunate bloke to whom he attempted to give a quick haircut en route – namely, me.

Seeing that he didn't have a huge amount of material, follically speaking, to work with, he gave a shrug of resignation and continued on to the stage. It was one of the bigger laughs of the evening.