The year of the spat

Ben Coren looks back at the various rows and spats that characterised the UK arts and culture scene

As 2008 looms, the arts media has been busying itself reviewing the cultural highs and lows of the past year.

Despite gloomy news of drastic cuts in arts funding and continued predictions of the death of the book, the general consensus is that 2007 has seen a lot of interesting work produced (although some of it, as our film critic Ryan Gilbey observes, has been hard to find).

But aside from praising or damning individual work, and without meaning to be unduly reductive, what were the trends that summed up 2007?

In the UK, celebrity meltdowns and popular environmentalism were both high on the agenda and we’ve also seen an above average number of spats tangentially linked to issues surrounding freedom of speech and the limits of acceptability.

The year kicked off with a ratings grabbing race row in Celebrity Big Brother (more of the same was to follow in the summer series) and since then new cultural brouhahas have been arriving very regularly. This week the BBC was criticised for editing the word ‘faggot’ out of The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York” and in recent months we’ve had both Mozgate and the Amis/Eagleton controversy to keep us suitably outraged, whichever side we’re on.

Of course, the arts have always been an area where debates over what is permissible are played out and a good cultural/political ruckus certainly makes for attention-grabbing headlines. But an argument could be made that the prevalence of these kinds of stories in 2007 paint a picture of a country with a worryingly uncertain set of attitudes towards what can reasonably be said and what can’t.

Perhaps the spats at least brought such issues to wider attention, but did they generate more heat than light? In the case of several of the controversies most of the debate was conducted not by specialists, or by members of the respective minority communities under discussion, but by white, predominantly male celebrities, which is surely somewhat amiss…

Related
Our comprehensive review of the year in arts and politics.

Critiquing the Critics

One response to all this would be to criticise the media for covering these sensationalised quarrels at the expense of more reflective content. Cultural journalism has itself been at the centre of a diverse range of rows this year, with the critics especially under attack. Nicholas Hytner, Artistic Director of the National Theatre, took a swipe at the “dead white men” of theatre criticism and Philip Roth allowed one of his characters a ferocious diatribe against the “ideological simplification and biographical reductionism” of all literary journalism in his latest novel, Exit Ghost.

Meanwhile, the Booker Prize Chair Howard Davies infamously railed against the failings of book reviewers and the Observer’s pop critic Kitty Empire has recently come over all self-flagellating and lamented that most critics’ tips for bands to watch in 2008 represent an “effort to funnel listeners into pens of the industry's making.”

It is debatable if these events constitute a telling trend of some kind or are just a series of essentially self-contained, unrelated incidents. Comments on this, and on whether interventions like those of Hytner and Davies really do serve to make journalists more self aware, are welcome below.

In any case, despite the criticism, no one’s denying that there is still a lot of very good arts writing around: at the risk of seeming immodest, our own Arts & Books pages currently include interesting pieces by David Hare and Toby Litt and we will endeavour to go on providing the best in arts coverage in 2008.

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A recent blog on literary reviews.

News Round Up

This week reality TV, the Golden Globes shortlist, an art heist in Brazil and Amy Winehouse’slatest misdemeanours all generated a lot of coverage, but the most remarkable story must be the news that the planned loan of Russian owned paintings to the Royal Academy may not go ahead, possibly for politically motivated reasons.

Meanwhile, Tory about town & one time NS Theatre Critic Michael Portillo was revealed as the Chair of next year’s Booker panel, and, as the TV networks tried to whip up excitement over their Christmas schedules, The Guardian was keeping things resolutely high-brow, offering blogs on academic obfuscation, neglected Central Asian writers and the death of the cultural elite.

For those of a more spiritual bent, a debate was going on over whether Christmas in the West has become overly secular, while the web hosted an amusing dispatch from the “Mind, Body and Soul Expo” and Franco Zeffirelli announced that he is keen to give the Pope a makeover. Happy holidays.

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When do you step in when a stranger is in distress?

Methodically, he lined up four cans of beer, spirit miniatures and a glass of wine, and got to work on them. In a very British way, I pretended to ignore it.

A little while ago I was on a commuter train during rush hour – on my way to a show somewhere in the Home Counties – when a man got on and sat next to me. In appearance he was just like the sort of businessman you’d expect on these trains: a middlingly expensive suit; short, neat hair; an iPad on which he was surely planning to open a spreadsheet, close it again, and catch up on Game of Thrones instead.

But when the drinks trolley came round it became obvious that all was not well. My new companion – whom I’d barely glanced at – ordered enough booze to kill an elephant. Methodically, he lined up four cans of beer, a couple of spirit miniatures and one of those depressing glasses of wine with a foil lid that you have to peel back. He began drinking them, one at a time, with absolute joylessness. He was clearly trying to usher himself into something as close to oblivion as possible. Plenty of people have felt like this on the outskirts of Stevenage before. Yet I couldn’t help worrying – and all the more so when I noticed he was red-eyed and seemingly on the point of tears.

Everybody else was studiously, Britishly ignoring his behaviour, but I’m a citizen of the world and so I took the more moral approach: pretending to ignore it while sneakily checking out the texts he was sending. They painted a bleak picture. He’d split up with his girlfriend. I don’t like to come across as some sort of voyeur, but her name was Becky, she lived in Guildford, and she had broken his heart. The tone of his texts was somewhat apocalyptic.

I was faced with a classic human dilemma: how much should we poke our nose into each other’s lives? I responded with a classic human decision: to do nothing until he stumbled off the train at Knebworth, and then exchange wry glances with everyone around.

A few months later I glanced at a newspaper and saw that recently a man had jumped on to train tracks, killing himself, very close to where we’d been. My heart froze for what felt like a few seconds. I made myself look at the picture.

It wasn’t the same man. It was a mere coincidence. It felt like a happy ending, in fact, until I reminded myself that it was still a very sad one.

How would I have felt, though, if it had been the same man? Appallingly guilty, I think. Even though I probably had no chance of changing the way things were for him, it would have felt as if I’d shirked my duty to another human being. Yet if I see another distressed commuter on today’s train (to Sheffield) will I make the effort to overcome personal diffidence and social taboos, and utter the question: “Are you all right?” I want to believe that I will. But a part of me suspects I’ll do the same as last time: observe from afar, let the situation take care of itself and hope that one day there might be a column in it.

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster