‘Ballet,’ grumbled Albert Steptoe when seeking to quash son Harold’s attempts at bettering himself, ‘that’s just poofs’ football!’ Harold expanding his interests beyond his father’s limited horizons represented a threat to the senior Steptoe, so junior’s aspirational efforts had to be shot down, lest the old man be left behind. There was always more to the generational conflict on Oil Drum Lane than a simple source of laughter, and this particular clash could be viewed as a metaphor for the demarcation lines between the differing interests of the middle and working classes.
On one level, these demarcation lines have become a little more blurred since the heyday of arguably the finest sitcom ever produced; the so-called ‘prawn cocktail set’, for example, have legitimised a middle-class and somewhat fair-weather following of the national sport, and the astronomical cost of a season ticket at your average Premier League ground has served to push the traditional fan-base down into the unfashionable environs of the lower leagues. But snobbery still exists on both sides. Even today, it takes a brave boy on a council estate to express a nascent interest in opera, ballet or the theatre. These remain regarded as the province of the privately educated – elite and expensive; maintaining this ludicrous concept that culture is class-bound is one reason why a government preaching austerity is not prepared to subsidise the arts beyond small token donations that keep them within the reach of only the privileged and the converted.
Mocked as they often are, the reforming Victorians – however patrician and patronising their motivations can be retrospectively perceived by some – at least ensured public libraries were there to cater for and encourage the growth of widespread literacy in the second half of the nineteenth century. A library was no longer exclusively reserved solely for academics or equating with a room in a country house; it became a liberating repository of knowledge for all, regardless of ‘breeding’. The 1850 Public Libraries Act was the first piece of legislation in British parliamentary history to break down the artistic barriers between rich and poor.
Joining a library as a child is the first out-of-school passport to intellectual expansion; for one humble ticket, a trio of books can be borrowed for a fortnight before being returned and replaced by three more. As a child, I would hand my ticket over to my mother whilst at school and ask her to pick something up for me from the local library with no real idea of what she would select. I didn’t really care what she’d choose, for I knew when I arrived home there’d be a book I’d never seen before waiting for me. Often, it would be about a subject I’d never had the slightest interest in or something I’d been largely ignorant of; but I’d read it, nonetheless, so unquenchable was my appetite for reading. After around five years, I moved from the children’s library into the big library, the one that contained more books than I had ever seen in my life, the pages of which weren’t likely to feature any pictures. Gradually, I’d progress onto novels and biographies, the growth of my reading interests tracked over a period of twenty years’ membership of the one library – from ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ to ‘A Clockwork Orange’.
Perhaps tellingly in an age of prevailing philistinism, one of the first coalition cuts casualties was the public library. Set against those dependable old standbys of government emotional blackmail, schools and hospitals, funding for establishments that merely encourage reading was not very high on the list of preservation priorities. Everyone’s online now, so why do they need to borrow books? What an antiquated notion! The fact that the online access of many was restricted to the computers in the public library wouldn’t be something one would expect a group of ex-public schoolboys raised in environments festooned with the written word to understand.
As each local oasis of knowledge was threatened with closure, many patrons clubbed together and volunteered to run them as a community enterprise; admirable, yes, and certainly preferable to nothing at all; indeed, how could a largely Tory Government not approve of ‘library interns’ doing the job of qualified librarians without requiring payment? Perfect Big Society values! The dismissive contempt with which such vital services have been regarded by the powers-that-be speaks volumes as to their condescending attitudes towards what is good for the lower orders. When Alan Bennett described widespread library closures as tantamount to child abuse, he was quickly shouted down by a government spokesman; but what else would anyone expect a government spokesman to say? Stroll down your average provincial high street, count the number of pound shops, money shops, charity shops, bookies, fast-food outlets and amusement arcades – surely ‘they’ have everything they need to satisfy the interests we’ve sanctioned for them? After all, Gideon showed he had his finger on the pleb pulse with the Lottery parody promoting last year’s budget. Why prise open a window to all the worlds housed within the pages of a thousand books? That would only give them ideas above their allocated station.
Many of our greatest writers and artists who didn’t emanate from culturally enriched backgrounds found salvation from the paths they had been assigned in public libraries, art galleries and museums; to say their eyes were opened by being able to access the arts for free is something of an understatement. I wouldn’t anticipate any member of this or any government of recent years to see the arts as a tree whose roots they are thoughtlessly hacking away at. Until relatively recently, the arts – particularly music – formed one of the traditional working-class escape routes along with football, boxing and crime; today, the majority of new rock bands constitute posh boys whose parents can subsidise their dilettante dabbling; many of them are academy graduates taught how to be rock stars, whose oeuvre doesn’t come from the gut and an intense desire to transcend the limitations of their origins, but sticks to a set of approved guidelines. This is why they haven’t got a single original idea in their heads and their music is varnished in a soulless sheen of vacuous blandness.
Ironically, whilst the government are keen to discourage interest in the arts by people not born into a social demographic taught to value them – Culture Minister is the kind of ministerial post occupied by politicians who view it as a stepping stone to a more high-profile position – those involved in the arts are acutely aware that they cannot rely on the moneyed classes to keep them afloat. Many of the less celebrated concerts during the Proms season can be watched for as little as a fiver; when the English National Ballet goes on the road, tickets can be as low as £12. Principal Ballerina with the latter, the ethereally graceful Tamara Rojo, bemoans the fact that the arts are seen by some as a trivial luxury undeserving of all but the most paltry subsidy and best enjoyed by those who ‘appreciate’ them rather than those who dwell in ignorance of their magic.
But as small as the cost of access to certain art-forms, those that come free are the true Utopian gateway, as the late sci-fi author Isaac Asimov knew only too well. ‘For an impoverished child whose family could not afford to buy books,’ he wrote, ‘the (public) library was the open door to wonder and achievement…now, when I read constantly about the way in which library funds are being cut and cut, I can only think that door is closing and that American society has found one more way to destroy itself.’