Arts funding – what it does, and why it matters

Will Gompertz raised vital issues in his "Today" programme coverage, but the reality is more complicated than it seems

It set the twittersphere alight – or at least that tiny corner of it concerned with the arts. Will Gompertz proposed on Tuesday’s Today programme that subsidising the arts doesn’t work because only 8 per cent of people in this country go to opera, ballet and classical concerts, and because they’re all sewn-up inside imposing London buildings. All nice and easy – a provocative headline and a stinging statistic in one fell swoop. But the truth is a little more complicated than that – and marginally more positive, too.

Two points to begin. If Gompertz’s interview subject speaking for London youth Fady Elsayed has "never seen one advert" for theatre or opera in the city, he either doesn’t use public transport or he should have gone to Specsavers. Adverts from Covent Garden, English National Opera, the Barbican et al might have varying degrees of communicative nous, but they exist –they’re commonplace and they’re big.

Secondly, the figures are skewed. Far more than 8 per cent of people in this country experience live opera, ballet and classical music. Many experience the arts as "a living element…[in] their upbringing" as John Maynard Keynes said they should when he founded the Arts Council. But their details don’t show up on box office receipts because they’re given free tickets or they are single, anonymous elements in large group bookings made by schools and colleges. After school, thousands of higher education students from varied backgrounds attend orchestral concerts; they’re contacted, welcomed, encouraged, talked-to and offered discounted tickets by marketing staff working for state-subsidised orchestras.

Theatre companies, opera companies and orchestras in this country present numerous performances for schools, families and community groups, some of them for free. That was consolidated in 2007 when the non-BBC symphony orchestras in the UK collectively promised to offer every schoolchild the chance to hear a live performance. However that bold promise is shaping up – it’s been dented but not extinguished by the most recent round of funding cuts – the very fact it was made underlines the single and most salient difference between subsidised and commercial art.

It’s interesting that Gompertz and Elsayed homed-in on buildings and the creatures who inhabit them as being the main sources of intimidation for people attending opera – I agree with the latter element wholeheartedly, as I’ve argued before. But it’s hard to play the architecture card when you consider that there are only three purpose-built opera houses in the United Kingdom operating as such, and one of them receives no subsidy. 

I spent the last week in Plymouth, watching operas and plays at the Theatre Royal where the concurrent visit from Glyndebourne On Tour and Flemish theatre collective Ontroerend Goed came between Marti Pellow in Blood Brothers and Christopher Biggins in the Christmas pantomime. The latter shows sold/will sell well; nobody can argue about architecture putting people off there. It’s not that the building isn’t beautiful – it is, and it’s about to get even more so (and more welcoming) thanks to an Arts Council redevelopment grant.  You might say it’s intimidating in its creative peacefulness, but that doesn’t stop people coming through the door to musicals, pantomime and comedy.

Opera North, English Touring Opera, Welsh National Opera and Glyndebourne spend much of the year travelling to theatres (not opera houses) like these to deliver first-class performances of great works old and new. The Glyndebourne offerings are sometimes even more focused and slick than they are at the summer festival. Top-price tickets are only marginally more expensive than those for the blockbuster shows, but government subsidy means there are hundreds of seats available for less than twenty quid.

And who’s sat in them? On Thursday night’s Le nozze di Figaro in Plymouth there were dozens of schoolchildren, plenty of pensioners and a good deal who would fall in between – a far more diverse audience than your average pop gig attracts. We’d all like to see a broader cross section of our society watching plays, operas and concerts, and we’re making progress on that front. But I’m a Plymothian, and I felt as though my home city was probably better represented in those performances at the Theatre Royal than my "residing" city (London) is at Covent Garden. On Friday afternoon in Plymouth, the company performed Rusalka for an audience of schoolchildren and families.

Without arts subsidy Glyndebourne wouldn’t even have been in Plymouth. The schoolchildren – who mostly sat interested and surprised by Glyndebourne’s relevant, vivid and beautifully played Figaro – would probably have been engaging in something a good deal less wonderful and mind-expanding. That means nobody to develop an interest in the art form, grow up, earn a living, become a ticket-buyer and help increase that percentage figure Gompertz was touting. Which in turn means further exclusion, further intimidation and considerable embarrassment in the face of our European counterparts who are proving that increased subsidy of the arts aids society and contributes to the exchequer.

Figaro (Vito Priarte) and Susanna (Lydia Teuscher) star in Glyndebourne's 'Le Nozze di Figaro' (Photo credit: Alastair Muir)
Photo: Getty
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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear