Saturday, July 08, 2006

Books v sport

The sixth form fights back

William Rees-Mogg

The Times 26 June 2006

As long as ministers prefer Wayne Rooney to Isaac Newton, Britain's literary heritage will never be safe

IN THE SECOND half of the 19th century, English public schools fell under the spell of athletic prestige. Both masters and boys were encouraged to admire the “muddied oafs” of the first XV or the first XI. Correspondingly they tended to look down on the scholars of the sixth form. This anti- intellectualism is well described in the memoirs of those scholars, such as Robert Graves’s brilliant account of pre-1914 Charterhouse, Goodbye To All That.
I feel sure that Graves’s description was accurate; my father was at the school at the same time, and experienced the same exaggerated worship of games players. The effect was to infantilise the school, with senior masters joining in the athletic hero-worship which may be natural for 14-year-olds but is not for grown-ups.
By the time I went to Charterhouse, in the early 1940s, two reforming headmasters, Frank Fletcher and Robert Birley, had counterattacked this cult of games. We enjoyed the successes of our school teams, and Charterhouse had in Peter May one of the greatest batsmen of all time, but there was no tendency to worship even the best players, or to rate success in games above the pursuit of knowledge. The Victorian cult of games was no more than a rather disagreeable memory. That remained the case until the present day.
Modern England seems to have reacquired some of the characteristics of the late Victorian public schools. The Prime Minister, with his breezy manner, has an easy charm when talking to the boys; he is like one of the clerical headmasters of the 1890s. His best speeches resemble little sermons. He exhorts us all to pull up our socks, show house spirit, obey the rules and demonstrate what the Victorians believed to be the Christian virtues of keenness and industry. He admires athletes, but is inclined to think that sixth-form boys should get out of their stuffy libraries and breathe some good fresh air. He encourages his house masters, some of whom are pretty dim, to impose endless petty restrictions.
This has never been a congenial atmosphere for those who do not share late Victorian attitudes. Sooner or later a reaction was bound to follow. Last weekend saw the sixth form answer back. Protest was written by the right person for the right journal.
Nicolas Barker is the hero of bookmen everywhere. He has worked in serious publishing; he has held a senior position at the British Library; he is an expert in the conservation of books; he has written his own excellent books; he has protected and edited The Book Collector for more than a generation; and he is respected as a fine scholar.
His article appeared in Friday’s Times Literary Supplement. The TLS is a radical publication. It has always devoted itself simply to English literature and to maintaining the highest possible standards of literary criticism and scholarship. It is a journal to be wondered at and admired.
Mr Barker was writing about the preservation of the literary heritage. As he observes, “the English language and its literature are all pervasive, and, as our largest and most successful export, might seem to need no defence”. Unfortunately, when it comes to the most important collections which illustrate our literary or scientific heritage, this is far from being the case.
Mr Barker was one of those who approached the complex heritage bureaucracy to help to save two extremely important collections, the Macclesfield Library of Scientific Books, which goes back before Isaac Newton, and the John Murray archive, with its amazing 19th-century collections. Macclesfield is being dispersed; Murray seems almost to have been saved for the National Library of Scotland. In fighting these battles, Mr Barker had to negotiate with the Treasury, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), the Heritage Lottery Fund and Resource (or the Council for Museums, Archives and Libraries, now MLA).
Some of the reasons given for the failure to help were bizarre. In the case of the Macclesfield Library, a unique collection that should have been held together, one problem was Lord Macclesfield’s tax position. It was not that Lord Macclesfield owed too much tax, but that he did not owe any at all. The purchase of collections or works of art or scholarship for the nation is based on the remission of tax. Apparently when there is no tax to remit, there are no funds for purchase. Another excuse was given in 2004 by Lord McIntosh of Haringey, the Minister for the Media and Heritage. He wrote a letter which effectively ended the hopes of saving the Macclesfield Library. He wrote that it was not for Resource to approach private owners “as auction houses would take great exception to this”.
It would be hard to think of a less plausible excuse. No auction house is known to have objected to Resource or the department approaching private owners. On the contrary, auction houses often helped to initiate such negotiations. If they did object, their objections would have no standing.
Mr Barker was, however, told a real truth by one civil servant with whom he negotiated. “When it comes to priorities you have to read DCMS backwards: Sport before Media, Media before Culture.” That is proved by the statistics of funding. “Between 2001 and 2006, the DCMS will have increased funding for sport by 91 per cent, the arts by 63 per cent, and museums, libraries and archives by 26 per cent.” A report by the London School of Economics suggests that museums, libraries and archives have nothing less to do but “prepare for an orderly management of decline”.
But the digital age offers infinitely better access to museums, libraries and archives. Far from being a period of decline, it opens up an unprecedented opportunity. This opportunity will not be taken so long as ministers believe that David Beckham and Wayne Rooney matter far more than John Murray and Isaac Newton.


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