Passionate politicians at the Ministry of Fun, and none more so than the Arts Minister, a Zorro of the boudoir

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What a hotbed of passion the new-look Heritage department is, to be sure. Now that the awful prospect has passed of Jack Cunningham becoming Heritage Secretary, one regards with a kind of awe the hormonal monster that the Ministry of Fun has become. Of the incoming Secretary, Chris Smith, let me just quote three consecutive entries from Andrew Roth's Parliamentary Profiles: "often goes into flights of poetry and academic resonance"; "gay; rock climber" and mountaineer and "the first MP to [climb all] the Munros, the 280 Scottish peaks over 3,000 feet". Soldier, scholar, horseman he ... But if there were any imputation of effeteness about the appointment of the Commons' only self-declared homosexual to the department, Tony Banks's appointment as Minister for Sport should scotch it. His ambition to be Mayor of London temporarily thwarted, he now comes on like a prospective editor of When Saturday Comes magazine, swilling Rolling Rock, being photographed in the Sports Cafe and saying "innit". But the knave in this testosterone- enriched pack is Mark Fisher, the new Arts Minister. Mr Fisher's importance dans cette galere is not his contribution to Labour's "Create the Future" arts policy document, nor his interesting views on library funding or urban strategy, nor even his status as the only Old Etonian in the Government, but as an unlikely Lothario. Though portly, bald and, by his own admission, "a Humpty Dumpty figure", he has, almost unnoticedly, mutated into a Zorro of the boudoir. Just one week after David Mellor's affair with Antonia de Sancha was all over the papers, Fisher astounded literary London by appearing on holiday in France with Ursula Owen, the deeply gorgeous co- founder of Virago Books and current director of Index on Censorship. Though Fisher had just ceased to be Mellor's opposite number, the press were weirdly silent on this exciting turn of events. Then last autumn, rumours flew that Candia McWilliam, the talented and statuesque novelist, has left her Parsee Oxford-don husband, Fram Dimshaw, for ... Mark Fisher. The couple are still happily together. No condemnations in the press, no gossip in the columns, no raised eyebrows in the literary salons and no cries of "shock" in the tabloids have ever disturbed the twirl and flourish of Mr Fisher's romantic swordplay. How does he do it?

"Book prize judge attacks `smug' English novelists", yelled the headlines yesterday. Not again. Does a month now go by without a "book prize judge" - that curious new mode of employment which, like the Internet surfer and the image consultant, didn't exist 30 years ago - or a resting author making windy and foolish generalisations about British writers? This time last year, it was a couple of the Orange Prize judges saying too many novels were whiningly domestic or boringly brutal; then Carmen Callil at the Booker, then VS Naipaul grumpily declared the English novel as dead as the madrigal, then Salman Rushdie denying it in The New Yorker, then l'affaire Graham Swift; now we're back with the one about English novelists being "smug and parochial" and unconcerned about appealing to the world market. The attack came from Lisa Jardine, the reclusive and little-seen professor of English at Queen Mary and Westfield College, and chairman of the Orange Prize judges; she nominated Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Graham Swift and Pat Barker as typical culprits of our narrow- minded culture. "English writers should look further afield, look at world- wide issues for their subjects," she concludes ringingly.

Does everyone connected with the Orange Prize have to sign an undertaking to drum up some bogus controversy? Has Professor Jardine read Barker's The Ghost Road, with its not-very-parochial theme of civilisation and barbarism, from the Great War to the Polynesian jungle? Or Amis's not- especially-homely Time's Arrow, about the making and unweaving of a Nazi? Or Barnes's not-terribly-Home-Counties The Porcupine, about the trial of an Eastern bloc dictator? And as for Graham Swift's Last Orders, whose bereaved London pilgrims she calls "parochial" and "meaningless" - do I need to remind a professor of English of Patrick Kavanagh's poem, Epic, in which the poet wonders if he can write about his backyard: "I inclined/To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin/Till Homer's ghost came whispering to my mind. He said: I made the Iliad from such/A local row. Gods make their own importance."

Modern art grows up this year when the Tate Gallery hits its centenary in October. All kinds of razzy celebrations are promised at the Millbank Mausoleum, among which will be a tribute to George Frederic Watts, the greatest of Victorian portrait painters and a co-founder of the illustrious gallery. I hightailed it down the A3 at the weekend to a little village outside Guildford, to look at the Watts Gallery, which features a permanent record of his work. What a revelation! First, that his portraits are exactly those images you carry around in your head of Matthew Arnold and Robert Browning and Lily Langtry ... You know the portrait of Ellen Terry with her cheek pressed to a rose? Yup, that's one of Mr Watts's. Second, that he was a terrible impressionist painter - his attempts in his seventies to have a bash at this new-fangled French symbolist malarkey, in Turner- meets-Monet works like Chaos, were laughably inept but reveal a lot about what happens when the stalwart Victorian character confronts the numinous. What really impressed me, though, was the sculpture he embarked on at the end of his life - especially the 13-foot memorial statue of Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Clad in a voluminous ulster and accompanied by a faithful long-nosed hound, the shaggy ex-Poet Laureate stands like a colossal epitome of melancholy, one hand disconsolately holding a wide-brimmed hat, the other holding ... But you can't see what it's holding, only that he's staring at it with a rapt fascination, somewhere between horror and wisdom. Imagine a 13-foot figure of Neil Hamilton inspecting the leaked results of the Tatton vote. Imagine a lottery entrant realising that he's got a 14, but sadly not a 41. Imagine the recipient of a note from the bailiffs ("Dear sir, We are on our way over with the removals lorry ..."). What could have been the occasion of such misery? Had the hand once held something which had dropped off? Enthralled, I spent the day trying to find out. A smaller maquette of the statue in another room revealed the hand to have tiny squiggles on it, like the alphabet of an unknown civilisation; but a passing curator said it was only the carving technique. Someone swore that the bronze version of the memorial in Lincoln Cathedral has a book in Tennyson's hand (but what? King Lear? Candide? The Collected McGonagall?). Finally I rang the curator, Richard Jeffries. "It's a little bunch of flowers," he told me, "The statue's based on the poem, `The flower in the crannied wall', about the time Tennyson was staying at Waggoners Wells and picked a sprig of toadflax and saw therein the key to the mysteries of the universe." Toadflax, eh? Can we bung some round to the Heritage department straight away?

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