Christina Patterson: Nothing poetic in our sad world of jargon

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The Independent Online

Last weekend, Gordon Brown made a public confession. He told a packed hall at the Cheltenham literary festival that he likes reading poetry. As political gaffes go, it was up there with Boris Johnson's pronouncements on Liverpool. First, the Chancellor admits that he's more interested in the Arctic circle than the Arctic Monkeys, and now he goes the whole - humiliating - hog. His future is surely in the balance.

What he's done, of course, is commit the cardinal sin of veering from the man-of-the-people script so carefully constructed in that long-ago New Labour Eden. It was a script that ensured that a bunch of Oxbridge-educated public-school boys, who were a dab hand at translating The Aeneid and rattling off great chunks of Keats, could admit only to liking football, Big Brother and whichever bunch of lanky-haired druggies was currently top of the charts. It's a script that has been painstakingly copied by the Cameroonian Etonians, so desperate to obliterate the stench of their élite roots that they erect as cultural monuments not the Brandenburg concertos or The Magic Flute but Ernie, the Fastest Milkman in the West.

Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that our arts funding is in a mess. Part of a Utopian post-war vision whose most lasting legacy is the NHS, the Arts Council was founded under John Maynard Keynes to "assure to our people full access to the great heritage of culture in this nation". Under the chairmanship of Kenneth Clark (best remembered, perhaps, for an epic TV series on the arts which would now warrant instant relegation to some digital backwater), it was a key force behind the 1951 Festival of Britain, that mid-century explosion of crowd-pleasing cultural energy that has remained a model of what an arts funder would call excellence, innovation and access. Since then, it has had highs and lows, and more restructurings than the average Brit has had fruit or veg.

Most art, unlike football or Les Miserables, doesn't pay for itself. In the 60-odd years of its history, the Arts Council, funded by the Government to support the arts on the "arm's length" principle, has offered large numbers of people tasty pickings at a full smorgasbord of artistic activity. It has also indulged in a great deal of navel-gazing: devolving to "regional arts boards", for example, and then grabbing them back - and announcing such radical changes in identity as that from "The Arts Council of England" to "Arts Council England".

Perhaps the best-funded artform in its portfolio is a new kind of choreography, that of creating hoops. In my previous incarnation as a director of an arts organisation, I have experienced more than my fair share of these. I have filled in vast forms of semi-fictional statistics about black faces and gammy legs (not the phrases used in the questionnaires) and have colluded in the art of presenting random anecdotal evidence as something quasi-scientific. I have constructed entire projects around the current buzzwords and sat through incomprehensible presentations on "one-stop shops", "delivery of targets" and "social exclusion".

Throughout this time, there was one voice of sanity amongst a growing crew of bloodless apparatchiks, a man who persisted in speaking English when all around were turning to the robotic, jargon-ridden nonsense of New Labour, New Language. As director of literature for the past 10 years, Gary McKeone, an extremely gifted writer as well as administrator, has guided literary organisations, and writers, through a bewildering bureaucratic maze. He has enabled good work to flourish and done it with sensitivity, intelligence and humour. So, of course, in the latest round of restructuring, he is one of a number of art-form directors to get the boot. His job has been replaced with one called "director, literature strategy".

The comma, you can't help thinking, says it all. The new posts will be paid for by your taxes - and mine.

Off the field and on the couch

Millionaire footballers may not be top contenders for our carefully rationed compassion, but even I felt a flicker of sympathy for Paul Robinson after his Croatian cock-up. It's not great to forget to reply to an e-mail, or misspell the name of the boss's wife, but it's not in the same league as wrecking your country's chances in front of millions. Steve McLaren has yet to announce if he will offer his team the new resource laid on for England's cricketers: a 24-hour counselling helpline. "We are trying to prevent players from getting into problems of substance abuse and marital issues" said David Raines from Performance Healthcare. Sounds excellent. Time to roll it out to MPs. It might save them from the Kimberly Quinns or the Carole Caplins.

* In the old days, your second life was the one in which you spent eternity hurling golden crowns at the Lamb of God, or beating off the flames of the devil who doesn't wear Prada. Then it was your new incarnation as a butterfly, a pig or Jordan. And now it's a "massively multi-player on-line role-playing game" which is developing an economy larger than some small countries.

Second Life is just one of a range of online worlds offering an alternative reality for the lonely and the bored. Here a 25-stone shelf-stacker can become a svelte Nobel prize winner. You can buy, you can fly and you can pull, of course. But how exactly do you have online sex? One colleague suggested stiffly it was probably "through the usual mechanisms of pornography". Another announced sagely that there were "things you could attach to your computer". Yuck! Call me old-fashioned, but I think I'll stick to my first life.

c.patterson@independent.co.uk

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