DJ Taylor: Beach fatties strain the limits of liberalism

As does the sight of our libraries minister exposing his feebleness in public. And can no one stop poets fighting?
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The Independent Online

One of the strangest things about the present government is the way in which your opinion of individual ministers changes almost from one week to the next.

Kenneth Clarke, the Justice Secretary, seems to oscillate from beacon of sweet reasonableness and enlightenment to gaffe-prone dilettante in successive radio appearances. Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, runs into trouble with his free schools and then bounces back with a terrific plan to mark down exam candidates for defective punctuation, spelling and grammar. David Willetts, the universities minister, alternates A-grade braininess with the whimsicality of a man driven mad by the demands of his own logic.

There is one frontbencher, on the other hand, whose performance in this first 14 months of Liberal-Conservatism, or Conservative-Liberalism, has been unremittingly feeble. I refer, of course, to the libraries minister, Ed Vaizey. Now, occupants of this post are not generally known for their pertinacity or intellectual pizzazz. One of the worst ministerial appearances I ever saw – against some pretty stiff competition – involved a previous incumbent, David Lammy, addressing the Royal Society of Literature, where he persisted in referring to readers as "customers". Margaret Drabble has left an amusing account of dining at the Savoy with one of Margaret Thatcher's first appointments, and remarking that Arnold Bennett (died 1931) had loved the restaurant and had one of its omelettes named after him. "And is Arnold Bennett here tonight?" this titan of the arts suavely replied.

Mr Vaizey's failings would be easy to forgive if he were your average Tory philistine, but he patently is not. In opposition, no one was more assiduous in complaining about the last Government's indifference to the fate of the libraries. Now, invited to use his statutory powers to intervene over closures, as the libraries of Leicester, Gloucester, Brent, Suffolk and the Isle of Wight prepare to close their doors and news breaks of a plan to charge the public for access, he murmurs only that it is "too early" to resort to this "nuclear option". The Bookseller recently described this Government as an "anti-books regime". It is worse than that. It is anti-cultural.

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According to a survey conducted by LA Fitness, the sight that the beach-going holidaymaker most fears is a fat man in a tight pair of swimming trunks. Of the 2,000 people questioned, 60 per cent alleged that it was the summer's most unflattering spectacle. The second most feared sight was a man with a beer-gut removing his shirt, while 42 per cent of those asked did not want to see "man boobs".

All this seemed to offer an interesting little parable of the idea of a liberal society. Obviously, as long as the laws relating to public decency are observed, no one can stop the calorifically challenged sun-bather exposing 80 or 90 per cent of his surface area. On the other hand, if a majority of the public is disgusted by the acreage on display, shouldn't he be encouraged not to cause offence?

A further twist to this elemental stand-off was provided by the news that police in Newquay – binge-drinking capital of the West – have announced a clampdown on "offensive clothing" and "sexually explicit" inflatables. And hats off to the Newquay police, you might think, given that 80 per cent of the populace would probably prefer not to see a polyurethane penis waving at them as they set off down the esplanade. To counter this is the thought that a truly liberal society would be able to tolerate this kind of behaviour.

Then rises the sneaking suspicion that the best society of all – that Utopian never-never land in which people thought about the consequences of their actions – would be one whose citizens refrained from brandishing inflatable sex organs (or showing off their man boobs) because they knew they were giving offence to most of those looking on. If Malcolm Bradbury, the late 20th-century novelist most interested in the idea of the "liberal dilemma", were still alive, he would be off to Newquay by the next train.

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Arts world story of the week came from Denver, Colorado, where at "Brian Lebel's 22nd Annual Old and West Show & Auction" the only surviving photograph of Billy the Kid was knocked down for a whopping $2.3m (£1.4m). The "tintype" portrait, an early photographic process using metal plates, is believed to have been taken in 1879 or 1880 at Fort Sumner, New Mexico.

No sooner had I read this than I found myself searching for an envelope sent to me by the novelist JL Carr sometime in the late 1980s. I have no idea of the technical term for the item inside – it is more like a piece of plastic than a conventional photograph – but the image on it depicts a stern-looking character posed behind a moribund grizzly: General George Custer, no less, snapped in 1876, shortly before his defeat and slaughter by the Sioux at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Carr, who had twice been on teaching exchanges in South Dakota, had apparently acquired it from an elderly penfriend who had once known Custer's widow, Libby. The Billy the Kid tintype was bought by "Florida billionaire and private collector" William Koch, who remarked "I love the old West ... This is a part of American history." I love the old West too, but Mr Koch is welcome to make me an offer.

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Meanwhile, at the Poetry Society a string of resignations is thought to be jeopardising the organisation's financial security. The president, Jo Shapcott, has taken her leave, with the director, Judith Palmer, and financial officer Paul Ranford not far behind. No explanation has been vouchsafed, and with the final funding agreement with the Arts Council of England yet to be ratified, some members are demanding that the society's board be called to account.

Similar controversies have racked the society in the past. There was a memorable row in the 1980s when a gang of concrete poets and left-field experimentalists mounted an anti-establishment putsch, which was then bloodily repulsed. As to why this branch of the arts should be so prone to violent conflagration, the answer probably lies in the very small number of people involved, and proximity's habit of inflaming the traditional egotism of the artist. The Independent recently printed a review in which one distinguished poet accused an even more distinguished practitioner of writing "twaddle". Asking the literary editor how this came about, I was told: "Oh, those poets are like rats in a sack. Sometimes you just have to let them get on with it."

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