"So what does Libby Purves know about the theatre" was one of the kinder responses to the news that the Radio 4 presenter and columnist for The Times, was to become that newspaper's chief theatre critic when the current holder of the post retires this spring. Similar condescension, punctuated with indignation, greeted the simultaneous appointment of Kate Muir, another Times writer and novelist, to be the paper's film critic.
The tenor of all the remarks was "who do they think they are: these novices, these amateurs, these women...?" One commentator, whom I have always regarded as having a generally enlightened attitude to women, complimented the eminent critics of recent years (all male, by the way, the ones he named), as being "much more than fizzy wordsmiths", before asking whether "a crisp turn of non-expert phrase deserves a seat in the stalls"?
Another writer, also male, questioned whether any benefit would accrue from opening up "specialist posts", as he called them, to "outsiders". Is this a good thing, he asked, and answered his own question as you might expect. "I can't rid myself of this awkward conviction that a proven record of knowing what one's talking about is of some objective worth..."
Well, there you are, Kate and Libby! All those years spent diligently meeting your deadlines, only to be dismissed as fluffy little dears unworthy to pronounce on serious culture from the seats that the "specialists" have occupied with such distinction for so long. Steel yourselves for being booed before curtain-up.
It seems to me there are two points here, unfortunately conflated. The first relates to the charmed, and mostly male, circle to which arts critics belong – indeed, to which holders of any job where it seems to foolish "outsiders" that the pleasure quotient is at least equal to the work element. These jobs are not limited to journalism, they are rarely advertised, and when appointments are made, it is not immediately apparent that actual qualifications have played much part.
I wonder, for instance, how the "professionals" who have been contrasted with Purves and Muir started out. And what qualifies them to do their job other than the knowledge acquired through years of experience? That is worth something, of course, but everyone has to start somewhere. And if there are to be more female critics, could the criteria for what constitutes excellence in a film or a play start to change?
The second point concerns what is wanted from an arts critic today. Do you read a review to know about the background to a particular piece, the history of the stars and/or the artistic references? Or do you read it to find out whether the film or play is something you "ought" to see, or might enjoy?
And, if the latter, might not the judgement of someone with broad experience and a gift for communicating – that "crisp turn of phrase" – be at least as useful as the view of someone privileged to have spent 20 years with a guaranteed front-row seat? I'm not talking about recruiting the "citizen" critics who cram the blogosphere with vitriol, but people whose expectations mirror yours; people who have more recently had to buy their own tickets.
Like it or not, a time comes when the revolution must stop
It's five years since Yulia Tymoshenko was the female firebrand who rallied the crowds in Kiev's Independence Square and helped secure the re-run of Ukraine's "stolen" election. With her signature blond braid and ferocious rhetoric, she became the face and the voice of the Orange Revolution.
But there comes a time, after any revolution, when the megaphones must be laid aside and the serious governing has to start. Since those thrilling days, Tymoshenko has had periods as Prime Minister. She acquired a more diplomatic manner and repaired some frayed relationships without sacrificing her burning ambition to become president.
Last Sunday she fought the second round of Ukraine's first post-Orange Revolution election – and she lost. Not by much; the margin was a little more than three per cent. It was quipped that her rival, Viktor Yanukovych, "won without gaining a victory, while she lost without suffering a defeat". But defeated she was, in an election pronounced free and fair. And, like it or not, this is how democracy works. Even a narrow loss at the ballot box is still a loss.
The pity is that Tymoshenko remains at heart the rebel and revolutionary she was five years ago. Still Prime Minister, she chaired yesterday's regular Cabinet meeting without saying a word about the election. But these are different times. In refusing to concede, she calls into question her own democratic credentials and risks forfeiting her chances of winning the top job next time around.
Elegy for the country churchyard
A bouquet, or perhaps a bunch of dry twigs would be more acceptable, for Davender Ghai of Newcastle, who has won the right to a funeral in the Hindu tradition. When he appealed against the city council's denial of his request to be cremated on a funeral pyre when the time came, I was all for the council.
Not only was there the slight cultural issue – if you want to go out in so exotic a fashion, why not arrange to end your days somewhere where funeral pyres are the norm – but, more to the point, there were the practicalities. You can't have everyone lighting vast fires all over the place, just because their relatives fancy a final send-off in the grand style of Indira Gandhi.
But now Ghai has won his appeal and I've changed my mind. It's not only that he does not insist on his pyre being built in the grand outdoors. It's that modes of passing from dust to dust have become more various of late, and a funeral pyre doesn't seem that bad an option.
I learned recently that a friend's elderly mother had stipulated a "green" funeral, with a bio-degradable coffin in the woods. You hear of ashes scattered – with or without authorisation – on hillside, forest or sea. I haven't noted anyone yet demanding to be left on a mountain for the vultures, but there's still time. We used to be warned that plots in churchyards and cemeteries would run short. Are cultural diversity and human ingenuity together producing a new balance of demand and supply?