Most novelists and poets are broke. But why aren’t we getting a bailout? We’ve been no worse at our jobs than the bankers. Written for Prospect Magazine:
“Dude, where’s my cheque? Either this is not a recovery, or you forgot to mail out our cheques while the recession was on.”
“That’s what you’d open with?”
“Yes, he’s the prime minister so he’s probably busy, right? And I think we would need to get in on him straight off—prevent him from using his famous charm.”
Early in September, my poet friend Mitch and I were sitting beneath skies of sodden sugar attempting to enjoy our second barbecue of the day. Sometime in May, we had inadvertently bought 200 bags of charcoal. (Online—Paypal—a tip from a malicious playwright of our acquaintance.) The summer months had passed in a blaze of drizzle and James Purnell and we had never got around to lighting a single briquette. So now that autumn was all but upon us, we were flame-grilling pretty much every meal.
We were discussing the much-whispered end to the recession. Specifically, we were going over what we would say to Gordon Brown in the event of our finally being called into Downing Street. This idea had first flourished during an earlier “if I ruled the world” conversation, back in 2008, along the lines that if the government was bailing out the banks, it was surely only a matter of time before they started bailing out novelists and poets.
“We’re even more of an essential part of the national fabric,” Mitch had argued. “If we go down, the nation goes down. Before the bankers, I would have called in all the writers and promised that—as long as we undertook to stop all high-risk stuff—there would be taxpayer funds made available.”
“What do you mean high-risk stuff?” I had asked.
“The sub-genre market,” Mitch had explained. “The poets would have to undertake to keep it strictly metrical and rhyming. And the novelists would have to quit bundling up bad biography with bad fiction and trying to sell it on as ‘memoir.’ At least for a few years until everyone forgets again.”
“What about the playwrights?”
Back in 2008, we had both come to believe that Downing Street would definitely call. No doubt, we would have been required to sit though an atrocious late night curry… but then, soon enough, the chancellor would have been writing us cheques, paying off our debts, buying up our foreign rights and offering us copper-bottomed royalty guarantees for all future works. Rushdie and Motion would probably have to be nationalised but the rest of us would get the assurances we needed.
It made a great deal of sense. After all, Mitch was right about the national fabric: writers are at the very heart of how a nation thinks about itself. What country names its streets and its pubs after bankers? None. Will there ever be a Victor Blank Road? No. The HSBC and Duck Tavern? Unlikely. ABN AMRO night on BBC2? I doubt it. Would people cross the globe in 400 years’ time to stand outside the house where Fred Goodwin was born? Not unless they were planning to put another brick through his window. When bankers want love, they have to pay for it.
So why not a bailout for us? Mitch and I—and lots of other writers we knew—were all about to go bankrupt. And we had surely been no worse at our jobs than the bankers had been at theirs. Indeed, between us, Mitch and I had involved less than a dozen readers in our mistakes. With relatively modest taxpayer support, we could keep our works flowing exactly as we have done before and guarantee all 11 of our readers their money back should they suddenly ask for it at the same time.
Plus, there was a precedent. Soon after the outbreak of the first world war in August 1914, Lloyd George, then chancellor, invited 25 leading authors to Wellington House, headquarters of the war propaganda bureau, to discuss ways of best maintaining Britain’s interests in the impending crises. Those who attended the meeting included Kipling, Hardy, Conan Doyle, Ford Madox Ford, HG Wells… Indeed, had not Shelley once (rightly, sagely) said that “the poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”?
The time had come for a little acknowledgement. So we had reasoned.
And yet, incredibly, as I write this… still no call and still no cheques. Either the recession is not actually over and they are waiting for things to get really bad, or Mitch is right and Gordon has simply forgotten. Still, at least we’re not suffering all the draconian controls and regulations that the bankers have had to work within since they were bailed out by the state. I hear that they are really struggling to come to terms with how different things are now. Ease up on them, I say. Otherwise we risk crushing their elliptical wits, their elegant imaginations and their eloquent humanity. Which would be a tragedy