Philip Hensher: So sharp they've cut themselves

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Tragic news from the coalface. Arts administrators for Arts Council England (ACE) are facing a grim future as their traditional occupations have been declared to be no longer economic.

The workforce is to be immediately slashed by 24 per cent, its staff reduced from 622 to 473. That quarter of the former organisation face an uncertain future in the once-proud, now beleaguered and uneconomic industry of arts administration. Their children creep tearful to bed; their spouses mount protests asking passers-by to Dig Deep For The Arts Administrators. They themselves look forward to a future without strategy meetings, without the bandying of jargon, without coffee and biscuits and the ability to be desperately patronising to their supplicants. I'm sure our sympathies are deeply involved.

Who am I kidding? The news that 24 per cent of the Arts Council staff are out on their ears is frankly brilliant news. If, for once, a public body is choosing to implement demands for £6.5m in cuts not by slashing away at support for creative economic endeavour, but by getting rid of a quarter of its own drones, that can only be good news. Employment in the public sector generally seems to have increased by between 600,000 and 1.3 million, depending on your definition of "public", since 1997. Can anyone think that the economy couldn't get along perfectly well or much better without 24 per cent of all of these?

These cuts in the Arts Council itself are well overdue, and indeed could go rather further. Astonishingly, until now the Council has maintained two completely separate offices in London: one national office, in Westminster, and one purely for London, in Clerkenwell. Nine completely separate regional offices have been deemed necessary, meaning, according to my calculations, that you only have to drive a mime company 80 miles before its grants become the subject of a completely different office full of patronising berks.

Whom shall we start by sacking? Perhaps the people who funded the renovation of the Northcott Theatre in Exeter with £100,000 from Arts Council Funds, then told the theatre, days before it reopened, that the grant was being withdrawn forthwith. Or possibly the ACE people who told the theatre company Queer Up North, after it had doubled the number of events and increased ticket sales by a third from one year to the next, that its grant was slashed because improvement was not fast enough? How had the administrators come to this conclusion? They had only looked at figures from an antediluvian period which supported his conclusion. Brilliantly, they had also denigrated the competence of the company's board, though the ACE office had never troubled to send anyone along for two whole years. Yes, sack these idiots.

Or the woman from the press office who, the last time I wrote about Arts Council matters, had the effrontery to phone up and dictate the article I should have written about their wonderfulness? I do hope she's gone. Christopher Frayling, the former head, has now departed, so, unfortunately, he can't be sacked for outrageously suggesting that Nicholas Hytner shouldn't have criticised Arts Council decision-making since his company was amply funded.

Or perhaps the Treasury should merely sack everybody, from top to bottom, who decided to withdraw hundreds of grants with immediate effect in December 2008 and then changed their minds a month or two later. That might be a great improvement. A year ago, I wrote that "of course, nobody from the Arts Council is ever going to lose their livelihood because somebody in charge changes their mind." I'm delighted to see I've been proved wrong. What do you call the cull of 149 Arts Council bureaucrats? A very good start.

Just what is this woman for, exactly?

For six years, or just under one-eighth of her life, Sarah Ferguson was married to one of the Queen's younger sons, before separating from him and divorcing four years later. For some reason, she still goes around calling herself "Sarah, Duchess of York" when, as still occasionally happens, a newspaper takes a kindly interest in her. On this occasion, she took the opportunity to liken her husband's ancestors Queen Victoria and Prince Albert to her mother and the man she bolted with, an Argentinian polo player called Barrantes. Prince Albert "brought [Victoria] wild flowers every day," she said. "In fact, my mother and stepfather were like that." And as for her romantic prospects – "I don't want to sound desperate, but I'd like someone to come and join me on Planet Sarah." May I suggest something? Might it not be that expressions like "join me on Planet Sarah" are less a diagnosis of a situation, and more the reptilian source of the problem? The blood positively runs cold at the prospect of reading another interview with her. What must it be like to receive an invitation out to dinner with her?

Play up and play the game, Corpus

The final of University Challenge last week was one of the most exciting contests I ever saw on television, with the wonderful Gail Trimble and her team pulling everything out of the hat just when everything seemed to be lost. It's a great shame, then, that one of the team had, it has just been revealed, finished his degree before the contest was broadcast. This is against the rules.

Clearly, Miss Trimble would have trounced the opposition on her own, without anyone's aid. Clearly, too, if only Corpus had the wit to persuade the team member to stay on and start an M.Litt of some sort for appearance's sake, the rules would have been maintained. Still, if we are going to turn knowledge into a sporting contest, we must accept that sporting contests have rules, however arbitrary in final effect, and they can't be bent without spoiling everyone's fun. It is a great shame, and I am massively pro-Corpus by instinct and loyalty, but there it is. The trophy, unfortunately, does appear to be Manchester's.

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