I am a huge admirer of Chris Hamilton-Emery. His achievements in the publishing world mark him out as someone very special. But that doesn’t mean I have to agree with everything he says and, in the case of his blog, I most definitely do not. Chris wrote that "this government, our government, is destroying not just regional culture, but access to any culture at all for working class Britain" and that "we are less diverse, less equal, more deprived of cultural access than those born 150 years ago".
How can that possibly be true, in this age of - to pick just a few examples - smartphones, omnipresent internet access, limitless TV channels, Netflix, and, above all in the publishing world, Amazon and e-books? All these things enable the dissemination of ideas, opinions, thoughts and news, as well as books, TV shows and films - culture, in short. Given the untold millions of people who have smartphones and access to television, whether terrestrial, via the internet or through some kind of cable package, how on earth can we be "more deprived of cultural access than those born 150 years ago"? Any information in any book or in any museum is readily available on the internet right now, to anyone, anywhere. How can we even begin to compare these two moments in history?
Chris’s specific complaints appear to be that thanks to cuts in government funding, state-funded theatre productions and libraries are disappearing and as a direct result this country is becoming a cultural desert. I disagree very strongly. Does he think that putting on plays and keeping libraries open all over the country will actually achieve anything? All we’ll end up with is actors performing to empty rows of seats and libraries full of empty chairs - except for those by the computers, of course. As images, these are desperately sad, if looked at in isolation. But they aren’t happening in isolation. They’re happening in a world where there is ready access to entertainment and information (in other words, ‘culture’) on a scale previous ones could not imagine. 150 years ago, in 1866, when a cholera epidemic was in the process of killing hundreds in London and there were still 50 years to go before women were allowed to vote, could anyone have dreamt of being so close to the amount of cultural material people have today? The advances made over the past 150 years - even in the past 15 - in terms of the free flow of information and ideas are astonishing.
The blunt truth is we don’t need libraries any more, or at least not in the numbers they currently exist. The same goes for subsidised theatres in every town or city (I do agree with Chris that it would be wonderful to have more flourishing theatres around, although I’m not convinced more government funding is the answer). I’m sad to say it but museums could become superfluous too, especially if they’re barely visited.
But on the positive side, almost all of our culture is readily available digitally. Entire museums, library upon library of books, films, even filmed live performances of stage plays. It’s all there. With all that in mind, are we really "less diverse, less equal, more deprived of cultural access than those born 150 years ago"? I can’t see it myself, even though I accept seeing something on a screen is not the same as seeing it in person. But it is better than not seeing it at all, and that is the key point.
‘Austerity’ as I understand it means trying not to spend taxpayers’ money on things which aren’t absolutely necessary, on the grounds that our outgoings as a country have become worryingly larger than our incomings. I would argue that subsidised theatres and libraries aren’t absolutely necessary, at least not all of them and not in the way they were necessary before technology moved on so far. Therefore, a government which takes its responsibilities to its citizens seriously - by which I mean one which spends their tax pounds carefully - is duty bound to make cuts where it can, and often culture is where the axe falls because its benefits are so abstract (I’m not saying they don’t exist, just that they’re nigh on impossible to quantify). It’s unfortunate, but it’s also a consequence of living in the real world, where pragmatism rather than romance must rule. There is, after all, no such thing as the magic money tree.
I suspect it’s arguable that whoever Chris defines as the ‘working class’ is doing fine culturally, assuming he means people who are in employment and earning even low wages. Of course, the extremely poor will struggle to have the same level of access if they can’t afford the necessary gadgets or subscriptions, but I am certain the number of people entirely cut off from culture today is proportionally far smaller than it was 150 years ago.
Finally, I’d like to look at an example of where austerity, publishing and politics meet: the rise in the minimum wage, which might not be another nail in the coffin of bookshops, small and large, but isn’t far off that description. The increased wage bill means bookshops’ costs of doing business will rise, possibly quite significantly given how small profit margins already are. As a result, cuts might have to be made within their businesses, such as to the number of employees, or the hours those employees work. The future for bookshops already looked bleak and as a result of this policy, it is now a little bit bleaker (as it is for the people who work in them). To go back to Chris’s criticism of austerity, this rise in the minimum wage is the very opposite of it. The absolute, polar opposite of austerity, in fact. It will act as a tax on businesses and the one consequence we can be certain it will have is to make life more difficult for businesses which employ people, including bookshops. And that is not going to do anything to improve access to culture for anyone in Britain, of working or any other class.
But it’s also not going to do a great deal to make it worse either because, like it or not, (and please be clear, I really do not like it) the majority of bookshops are slowly going the same way of British steel manufacturing, libraries and the horse and cart - by which I mean into the past. This doesn’t, though, mean the present and future are weaker for their loss. I believe the opposite is true. A country which doesn’t need libraries is culturally far stronger than one which does. We should celebrate and embrace what we have, not compare it to bygone eras which were vastly inferior to this one in so many ways.
Humfrey Hunter isa literary agent and publisher at Silvertail Books.