Against a backdrop of severe cuts to public arts funding in Britain, Matthew Sperling considers the corresponding groundswell of Oxford protest.

The Romanes lecture, delivered annually in the Sheldonian Theatre, has seen many distinguished instalments since Gladstone’s inaugural effort in 1892, and this year’s lecture, to be given by Professor Sir Andrew Motion (Univ, 1971) on 2 June, promises to be another memorable occasion. Motion concluded a decade’s service as Poet Laureate in 2009, during which he established himself as a powerful public advocate for poetry and the arts. In between writing Laureate poems on topics as diverse as the invasion of Iraq, bullying, the Paddington rail crash, and the wedding of Charles and Camilla, Motion has been a tireless broadcaster and educator – most recently teaming up with rapper Tinchy Stryder to give a lesson in selfexpression to students on the Channel 4 programme Jamie’s Dream School – and has taken on a number of public roles, including chairing the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) since 2009.

Motion’s title for the Romanes lecture is ‘The Bonfire of the Humanities’, and his topic, the importance of the arts and humanities in social, economic and cultural life, could scarcely be more timely. In the wake of the global financial crisis, the coalition government has imposed savage cuts upon the funding of the arts and humanities across the board in education, culture and public life. Barely a year into Motion’s tenure as Chair of the MLA, for instance, the Culture Secretary announced that the body itself is being abolished and its work incorporated, with a greatly reduced budget, into an already overstretched and underfunded Arts Council. So there is currently a great deal at stake regarding questions of how and why we value the arts and humanities, and how we ought to repay this value.

In his Booker Prize judge’s speech late last year, Motion described cultural and artistic life as “the foundation and high ambition of our humanity”, for the way it “makes us more nearly ourselves, and sets us more steadily on the road to what we might become”. When I caught up with him for Oxford Today he told me how his Romanes lecture will further his public case for the arts and humanities. Partly this will take the form of a “quite forthright” response to “what looks like a very bleak picture for universities, libraries and research councils” in the light of funding cuts enacted by what he considers to be “a very philistine government”, but Motion is keen also to communicate a positive vision of the importance of poetry in culture, and this is connected to both his long-standing work in schools and university education, and to his first personal encounters with poetry:

“My own discovery of poetry was something with roots deep in my experience as a child. Not being much good at much else at school, I found that I couldn’t be wrong in a poem in the sense that I could be wrong in maths, and then, when I read more poems, and started to write my own pretty soon after that, it contributed to a sense that perhaps I did have a brain after all, and it helped me find a way to address the strongest feelings in my life. I was first pushed to read poems by my school English teacher, and the big thing for me was that he made one feel that poems belong in life. I still very much believe this – poems are responses to life, that I want to see take their place in life. So a part of my work is to make manifest the value of these things.”

This manifestation has a directly practical aspect for Motion, and this drives his tireless work on committees and public bodies: “These debates tend to get drawn into abstractions, but I’m also interested in how to make them real and palpable. The MLA, which has now had its operations folded in to the Arts Council, is an arm’s-length body, so it’s not our job to spring to the barricades and protest, but rather to get on with the job, to work from inside the machine and to spend hours and hours doing the boring, invisible stuff which one hopes will do its bit towards making a better world. This isn’t to say that I haven’t, and don’t, feel very angry about many aspects of the situation. In the case of the cutting of the Bookstart scheme, for instance, which I felt very strongly about, I got publically involved, and we managed to get the decision overturned; I think that writers, academics and everybody with an interest have a greater than ever responsibility now to be as articulate as possible about these things. But there’s also the business of rolling up your sleeves and getting on with it, and getting these issues out into the wider world, and this is what I’m mainly concerned with.”

Motion’s voice is part of a growing wave of opposition among Oxford intellectuals. Professor of Poetry Geoffrey Hill (Keble, 1950) concluded his inaugural lecture in December with a stirring vision of how poetry and criticism at their strongest try to oppose “the gigantic scam of our times” – “the bankers’ scam, the Blair-Brown scam, the coalition scam, the Big Society scam”. In a meeting of Congregation called to discuss higher education funding in February, among several other important contributions, Merton Professor of English David Norbrook urged the need to stress unapologetically the value of the university’s role in “making Britain a civilized place to live”, by “fostering critical and independent-minded debate and scrutiny of the evidence”, and to uphold this against any “imperfectly argued assumptions about market dynamism in education”. Soon afterwards, the newly founded Oxford University Campaign for Higher Education (OUCHE) began its work, alongside its Cambridge counterpart (CACHE), with an open letter registering the “dismay and alarm” of the 681 signatories, from both universities, at the speed and recklessness with which funding changes were being forced through.

Oxford author Philip Pullman (Exeter, 1965) has been another key activist, focusing on the issue of public libraries. In January Pullman gave a speech to a meeting of library campaigners in Oxford Town Hall following the local council’s decision to close 20 of the 43 public libraries in Oxfordshire; the eloquence of his defence of libraries and anger of his attack on their enemies quickly made it a viral hit on the internet. I first read it, for instance, having been emailed the link by my mother, an avid Pullman fan who worked for most of her career in the young people’s sector of the public library service in Kent. I spoke to Pullman several weeks after the Town Hall address had found him in the media glare, and he declared himself “very surprised” at the wide coverage it had received. “I’ve been banging on about things like this for a long time and no one’s taken any notice, so I thought the same thing would happen this time. Obviously the Zeitgeist and I were on the same wavelength for once.” The influence that Pullman’s activism has on the future of library funding is still being played out; as of late March, the majority of the threatened libraries have rejected the chance to apply for money tokenistically set aside from the ‘Big Society’ fund to finance them as self-run enterprises, and a further review of the situation has been announced, with a new prospect arising of privately outsourcing the running of the threatened libraries to an American firm. On these developments, Pullman has firm views:

“My opinion of the ‘Big Society’ fund is that it’s a nauseating fiddle, like everything else with the ‘Big Society’ label. I profoundly dislike the business of ‘bidding’ for money that is ours in the first place. It’s a symptom of the nervous reluctance to govern that characterises a lot of local and national administrations in the past 30 years or so. We elect people to make decisions, not to farm them out to a lot of opinion polls and focus groups and bidding processes – it’s an attempt to escape responsibility for the consequences. I’d rather government made firm decisions I disliked than indulge in a lot of fake democracy over every question that arises. As for the prospect of private provision of libraries, if it happens it will prove yet again (as if we needed to be shown another time) that private will be worse than public. Cheaper, to start with, or superficially, but worse; and not as morally offensive as private prisons, or as meanly destructive of a clear good as the privatisation of the NHS, but offensive and meanly destructive all the same.”

While its occasion was a local one, Pullman’s Town Hall speech was also notable for the breadth of its critique. The Oxford library crisis, for him, is not only a question of any merely individual policy decisions by any particular councillor or administration, but follows directly from the “market fundamentalism” that has increasingly held sway in the last few decades of Anglo-American politics, with “the greedy ghost of market madness” hastening “to kill off every humane, life-enhancing, generous, imaginative and decent corner of our public life”. In conversation, Pullman elaborated to me his views on neoliberal marketisation, a tendency that “shows up very clearly the connection between the local and the national, or the personal and the political”, since “what affects our own village or school or family has clear origins in the cast of mind embodied in the Ayn Rand Institute” (the most prominent output of which is the deregulation and laissez-fairism of Alan Greenspan, the now-retired Federal Reserve Chairman who, in the eyes of some, bears a large responsibility for our current financial predicament). Against the juggernaut of “market fundamentalism”, Pullman emphasised “how clearly Karl Marx forecast the universally destructive nature of unfettered capitalism in The Communist Manifesto”, a text he describes as “such a masterpiece of European literature that everyone ought to read it”.

Both on the ground and in terms of the bigger picture, Oxford writers have been taking a leading part in the ongoing struggle for the future of the arts and humanities in public life. Andrew Motion’s Romanes lecture promises to be a contribution of real force and persuasiveness in this struggle.

Dr Matthew Sperling is a fellow in English Literature at Keble College, and poetry editor for Oxford Today.