Culture and consensus

Ben Bradshaw, Jeremy Hunt and Don Foster struggle to disagree about the future of arts funding.

Last night, I went to listen to a debate, hosted at Kings Place in London by the Cultural Leadership Programme, between the Culture Secretary, Ben Bradshaw, and his Tory and Lib Dem shadows, Jeremy Hunt and Don Foster. The question the speakers had been invited to address was: "What lies ahead for the cultural and creative industries?"

They were introduced by Liz Forgan, chair of the Arts Council, who acknowledged that "black recessionary clouds are looming". Arts funding bodies had better "prepare for tough times", she warned.

Although there was an invitation contained in Forgan's remarks to each of the speakers to be explicit about what they thought would happen to arts funding in what Bradshaw acknowledged was a "challenging" economic climate, the debate was, in truth, mostly blandly consensual.

Bradshaw, Hunt and Foster all eulogised the contribution that the arts make to the nation's "well-being", as well as to the economy. And each reiterated his party's commitment to the "arm's-length" principle for arts funding (according to which funds should be disbursed by bodies such as the Arts Council without government interference).

The closest they came to disagreement was over their understanding of what is meant by what Bradshaw called the "mixed economy" in the arts -- the combination of government funding and philanthropic largesse that distinguishes the British model from its American and European counterparts. Hunt agreed that ensuring a "multiplicity of funding sources" was essential in straitened economic circumstances, but made a point of saying that the Conservatives would "boost philanthropy" and argued that we shouldn't allow the financial crisis to obscure the contribution made by endowments.

And while he genuflected towards the arm's-length principle, Hunt also argued that all arts "quangos" should "bear down on their admin costs as much as possible" -- a nod to the "bonfire of the quangos" that David Cameron promised last year. Admin costs, Hunt insisted, were out of control, and argued that these should not exceed 5 per cent of each funding body's overall budget -- a claim to which Foster, in particular, gave short shrift, describing the 5 per cent figure as "mythical".

That was as heated as it got. Hunt then had to leave early for another engagement, before anyone could ask him the really important question about Tory cultural policy: to what extent are the Conservatives' positions on the media dictated by BSkyB? Jonathan Freedland, writing in the Guardian a couple of days ago, noticed an alarming pattern:

[T]he Murdochs constantly demand a cut in the licence fee. Last year Cameron nodded dutifully, and called for an immediate freeze in the licence fee. That would have marked an unprecedented break in the multi-year financial settlement that is so integral to the BBC's independence -- preventing it from constantly having to make nice to the politicians to keep the money coming in.

Second only to their loathing of the BBC is the Murdochs' hatred of Ofcom, the regulator that stands between them and monopolistic domination of the entire UK media landscape. They particularly dislike Ofcom snooping into pay-TV, an area that makes billions for Sky. How odd, then, that a matter of days after the regulator published a proposal that would have forced Sky to charge less for its sport and movie channels, Cameron, in a speech on quangos, suddenly singled out Ofcom, suggesting it would be cut "by a huge amount", possibly even replaced altogether.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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There are only two rules for an evening drink: it must be bitter, and it must be cold

A Negroni is the aperitif of choice in bars everywhere from London to Palermo - and no wonder.

The aperitif has the odd distinction of being the only alcohol that can always rely on a sober audience: it is the opener, the stimulant, a spur to the appetite for good food and good conversation. This preparatory beverage is considered the height of sophistication, and certainly nobody labouring in field or factory ever required a pep to their evening appetite. Still, to take a drink before one starts drinking is hardly clever behaviour. So why do it?

One reason is surely the wish to separate the working day from the evening’s leisure, an increasingly pressing matter as we lose the ability to switch off. This may change the nature of the aperitif, which was generally supposed to be light, in alcohol and character. Once, one was expected to quaff a pre-dinner drink and go in to dine with faculties and taste buds intact; now, it might be more important for those who want an uninterrupted meal to get preprandially plastered. That way, your colleagues may contact you but they won’t get much sense out of you, and pretty soon they’ll give up and bother someone else.

The nicest thing about the aperitif, and the most dangerous, is that it doesn’t follow rules. It’s meant to be low in alcohol, but nobody ever accused a gin and tonic or a Negroni (Campari, gin and vermouth in equal portions) of that failing; and sherry, which is a fabulous aperitif (not least because you can keep drinking it until the meal or the bottle ends), has more degrees of alcohol than most wines. An aperitif should not be heavily perfumed or flavoured, for fear of spoiling your palate, yet some people love pastis, the French aniseed drink that goes cloudy in water, and that you can practically smell across the Channel. They say the scent actually enhances appetite.

Really only two rules apply. An aperitif should be bitter – or, at any rate, it shouldn’t be sweet, whatever the fans of red vermouth may tell you. And it must be cold. Warm drinks such as Cognac and port are for after dinner. Not for nothing did Édith Piaf warble, in “Mon apéro”, about drowning her amorous disappointments in aperitifs: fail to cool your passions before sharing a table, and you belong with the barbarians.

On the other hand, conversing with your nearest over a small snack and an appropriate beverage, beyond the office and before the courtesies and complications of the dinner table, is the essence of cultured behaviour. If, as is sometimes thought, civilisation has a pinnacle, surely it has a chilled apéro carefully balanced on top.

The received wisdom is that the French and Italians, with their apéritifs and aperitivos, are the experts in these kinds of drinks. Certainly the latter are partial to their Aperol spritzes, and the former to such horrid, wine-based tipples as Lillet and Dubonnet. But the English are good at gin and the Americans invented the Martini. As for Spain, tapas were originally snacks atop a covering that kept the flies out of one’s pre-dinner drink: tapa means lid.

Everywhere, it seems, as evening approaches, people crave a drink that in turn will make them salivate: bitterness, the experts tell us, prepares the mouth to welcome food. The word “bitter” may come from “bite”, in which case the aperitif’s place before dinner is assured.

I like to think that a good one enables the drinker to drown all sour feelings, and go in to dinner cleansed and purified. Fanciful, perhaps. But what better lure to fancy than a beverage that exists only to bring on the evening’s pleasures?

Nina Caplan is the Louis Roederer Pio Cesare Food and Wine Writer of the Year

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times