Magazine article The Spectator

Bring Back Ideas and Argument

Magazine article The Spectator

Bring Back Ideas and Argument

Article excerpt

Something deep down inside me revolted when I first heard employees of British Rail referring to passengers as 'customers'. It wasn't just conservatism about language. I felt, without knowing quite why, very suspicious of the implicit change in relationship. Henceforth, travellers on trains were no longer citizens who had gained access to a familiar system of travel, a distinct world and culture (with its own gritty slightly antiquated romance) which was a communally owned and conveniently extensive public service. Instead, we were consumers of a travel facility, soon-to-be-provided-for customers by a heavily subsidised private firm at a phoney market price.

Consumerism is a term of abuse. But the change of attitude, represented by the transformation of the travelling public from passengers to customers, is not just a factor of a new (no doubt more efficient and in that sense healthier) business ethos within the railway system. It runs through everything, and has affected fundamentally the area of journalism in which I have worked since the age of 25: arts journalism. And along with the consumerisation of arts journalism has gone growing editorial uninterest in (if not contempt for) the performing arts. And that has been matched by an ever-increasing precariousness of existence for performers, for companies engaged in the performing arts, for the whole extravagant culture associated with the entertainment of `it'll be all right on the night'.

But aren't the arts in Britain a great national success story with everything blooming in the garden? Isn't Lord LloydWebber the King of Broadway? Journalism may be in decline - newspapers have changed for the worse. But, in fact, there are more pages about the arts and culture in newspapers now and bigger pictures which are a sort of culture in themselves. Who wants to read dreary so-called authorities banging on about what we ought to think? And anyway you can't exactly complain when the poor bloody taxpayer has voluntarily forked out 78 million for the new Royal Opera House to provide for wealthy patrons, most of whom will never buy a Lottery ticket as long as they live.

Let me start at the beginning. I got into journalism because I was asked to write a promotional piece about a concert of Monteverdi etc. that I was organising for a group called Musica Reservata at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. It was 30 years ago, and I had gone to the editors of Music and Musicians magazine to see if they could carry something about what Musica Reservata was trying to do. Those were pioneering days in the early music business. As a countertenor I was pretty pioneering myself. They said, if you write it, we'll print it. So I did. And they did. It was a puff disguised as information. We sold out the QEH after I'd done a lot of legwork, placing posters in shop windows in South Kensington and so on.

Well, not many people read Music and Musicians, but I was leaving no stone unturned in my publicity campaign. A year or so later I was selling space for M&M, one of the Seven Arts group which disappeared 15 years ago when its bankrupt publisher committed suicide. When I became editor in 1970, I found out that the 15,000 circulation figure I had been quoting was really about 7,000.

Fast forward 30 years, and where are the little arts magazines on which tomorrow's critics can sharpen their teeth? No Scrutiny. No Score. No Criterion. No reviewing in the New Statesman of performing arts. Laura Cumming, the arts editor, decided that there might be articles about concerts and opera performances in advance of the event but there wouldn't be any reviews to let the reader know whether it had been worth paying any attention to the intelligent puffery to which the magazine had lent its authority. Who, indeed, are today's critics? The Observer, the paper for which William Glock wrote with distinction in the 1940s, found that it simply couldn't accommodate Andrew Porter, who in his days on the New Yorker was regularly referred to (with Anglo-Saxon blinkered hyperbole) as the best music critic in the world. …

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