April 16, 2014 6:00 pm

Britain’s loudmouth literary crowd

A few blunt words are unlikely to hurt anyone who has spent years at the sharp end in the City
©Getty

During his years in investment banking, Sajid Javid was probably called worse things than a philistine. This must be why Britain’s new culture secretary is not locked in his office weeping hot tears at the sour reception to his appointment from the arts lobby – and especially the children’s writer, Michael Rosen. To have your taste doubted by the author of You’re Thinking About Doughnuts and Little Rabbit Foo Foo is a very rough thing, but Deutsche Bank probably does a nice line in thick-skin training.

The question is why artists, especially those of a literary bent, are still invited to expound like this. There is little evidence that ordinary people care what even the mega-selling Ian McEwans and Philip Pullmans think about anything outside their work. And the novelist’s life is almost custom-engineered to preclude intelligent commentary on the real world. They shut themselves away to write and live off their imaginations. Politics and business are rather more earthly than that. There is no literary answer to Vladimir Putin’s revanchism or a £100bn budget deficit. Yet writers are still consulted as some kind of extra-parliamentary political class.

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On this story

Janan Ganesh

This can go badly wrong. On the second anniversary of 9/11, the journalist Geoffrey Wheatcroft chronicled “Two years of gibberish” from the literary world in response to that atrocity. Reading it again after more than a decade, none of the guff he painstakingly quotes has improved with time. “Touch me,” one author begged. “Kiss me. Remind me what I am . . . the immensity of this event can only be mirrored in the immensity of what we are.” Such wisdom. If only George W Bush had listened.

Immigrant story

Something else about Mr Javid will grate with artists: he is not particularly interested in his ethnic status, much less tortured by it. Most efforts to dramatise the immigrant experience in film, theatre and literature show people mired in neurosis about their identity, always at pains to reconcile their inherited culture with the ways of a modern western country, always anxious at their limited success in doing so.

This was the theme of much of the best writing of the 20th century, especially in America, where the likes of Saul Bellow and Philip Roth turned Jewish outsiders into the Oliver Twists and David Copperfields of the day. From The Buddha of Suburbia to White Teeth, both adapted to screen, this is also the recent history of British storytelling. The problem with all this is that it only captures one type of immigrant experience.

Banx cartoon

There is another, simpler kind, in which people arrive in Britain, work hard, get on and never find themselves lost in an existential quandary about “who they are”. They are so seamlessly assimilated as to be unaware of having done any assimilation. This is the story of Mr Javid and his father. It is the story of lots of modern Britons, from Poland, Sri Lanka and most places in between. Their stories are untold but they are living realities.

The Stupid party

The rest of the UK is starting to notice that Scotland might actually vote for independence in five months. Unionists can console themselves with one thought as their poll lead narrows. Support for their cause within the Conservative party remains solid. For a party that stands to prosper in a UK denuded of Scotland, where it is as well-liked as gastroenteritis, this shows some magnanimity. It is also the third time in recent years that the Tories have voted against their interests on a matter of constitutional change.

In 2011 the party campaigned against the alternative-vote model of electoral reform in a referendum. The model carries all kinds of flaws and was roundly defeated. But it would have stopped rightwing votes splitting between the Conservatives and the rising UK Independence party. The following year Conservative MPs rejected a Liberal Democrat plan for reform of the House of Lords. Had they backed it, their coalition partners would have voted through a review of parliamentary boundaries that was worth 20 seats to the Tories. With AV and redistricting, the Conservatives would be favourites for next year’s general election. Minus Scotland, their future would glitter. Yet they oppose all this.

No wonder John Stuart Mill called them the Stupid party.

janan.ganesh@ft.com

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