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Eric Pickles plays to the (closed) gallery

In revealing hidden depths of philistinism, the Communities Secretary riled leftie intellectuals and aped a populist suspicion of the arts

Tuesday's parliamentary spat between Eric Pickles and Tristram Hunt, the distinguished historian who doubles up as Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central, was perhaps a shade under-reported, but all long-term observers of the Community Secretary's antics will have relished a bravura performance. Armed with the statistic that 201 libraries have shut their doors in the UK over the past year, Mr Hunt wondered why a government that could find £250m to ensure that the nation's bins were emptied on time couldn't have kept open a few more museums.

Did Mr Pickles sympathise with this suggestion that his department favoured sound utilitarian principle, the swept-up cabbage-stalk and the recycled compost mulch, over cultural responsibility. No he did not. The bureaucrats who made these distinctions, he tersely informed Mr Hunt, "are people who care about the general services provided to the electorate". As for the member for Stoke-on-Trent Central's role as spokesman for the growing number of voters opposed to cuts in municipal arts budgets, "frankly he is just lining up a bunch of luvvies".

There is something rather breathtaking in the effrontery of a man who can write off anyone who values the free provision of books over the punctiliously emptied refuse sack as a "luvvie". Even a glance at some of the agitation going on in Tyneside, confirms that most of the opposition to looted library shelves comes from ordinary book-borrowers alarmed that a vital part of the cultural fabric that surrounds their lives is being summarily torn away. Your initial assumption is that Mr Pickles is merely a sort of futile half-wit, who would probably not recognise a book if it fell onto his head from a lamppost. But this, all the evidence insists, is to do him an injustice. Nobody, clearly, could actually believe some of the things that the Communities Secretary says about "culture", which exhibit a degree of philistinism not seen since Henry Ford declared that history is bunk. Consequently there has to be another explanation.

Mr Pickles, I reasoned, was having a little fun, playing up the highbrow-baiting side of his nature with the aim of antagonising all those dreadful lefties for whom the idea of a genuinely popular culture, detached from the shopping mall and the multiplex, is still precariously alive.

Needless to say, it takes courage to be openly such a pariah as this, and Eric undoubtedly deserves some sort of award for demonstrating just what depths the populist Tory from the provinces is capable of plumbing when roused. For the moment he has made Lord Prescott look like a silver-tongued cavalier of the dispatch box. This is quite an achievement.


To watch the first instalment of Peter Jackson's film of The Hobbit – good in parts, my children insisted, but rather unharmonised in tone – was to be given a crash-course in what might be called the morality of sound. Tolkien himself was keen on the idea that words have moral underpinnings over and above their precise meanings and that cellar door has an ethical salubrity that torture chamber plainly doesn't. It is the same with the books themselves: one just knows, for example, that Gwaihir the Windlord and Galadriel the elven queen, are goodies and Azog the pale orc a baddy long before one sees any of them in the flesh.

From time to time ingenious writers have tried to subvert this template. The Georgian poet Sir John Squire for instance, once produced a verse-travelogue whose place-names were borrowed from the medical dictionary ("How long ago upon the fabulous shores/Of far Lumbago, all a summer's day/He and the maid Neuralgia, they twain/Lay in a flower-crowned mead, and garlands wove/Of gout and yellow hydrocephaly"). But Squire, you note, is simply using technical but relatively mellifluous words out of their usual context. There is something about electric chair, say, that alerts even the reader who doesn't speak English to the horror of what lies beneath. In literature, of course, the morality of sound has the habit of robbing the characters thereby defined of very much in the way of nuance. It would be nice, just once, if Azog the pale orc, not to mention the dear old Witch-king of Angmar, could be on the side of the angels. Or called Lucifer.


Great excitement was evinced by the media in the Cabinet's gift to Her Majesty the Queen to mark the occasion of her Diamond Jubilee. If the present itself – a set of 60 place-mats showing views of Buckingham Palace – was thought to be a trifle uninspired, then much more interest attached itself to the question of who did the choosing. A collective Cabinet decision? The Prime Minister making his presence felt? Were there, you wondered, other proposals which never made the cut?

It was all uncannily reminiscent of the discussions which took place back in 1977, when James Callaghan's Labour cabinet agonised over a suitable Silver Jubilee present. Shirley Williams made the bright suggestion of a saddle. Tony Benn then suggested a vase cut out of coal, whereupon the Lord Chancellor, Elwyn Jones, deposed that the artefact in question should be a clock. In the end Callaghan, out on a limb, declared that Her Majesty wanted a silver coffee pot (£380), sent his wife Audrey out to collect it, and billed his cabinet colleagues for the princely sum of £15 each