Damaging cuts to arts funding by the government have been described as “totally barbaric” by Carol Ann Duffy, the 57-year-old first female Poet Laureate who is a star performer at Marlborough’s literary festival on Sunday.
In the swirl of the political party conferences, it is perhaps inevitable that someone born in Glasgow’s Gorbals who describes her upbringing as “left-wing, Catholic, working class”, has warned of the danger of slashing grants to arts organisations.
“Not to actively support culture by at the very least giving money to it is the equivalent to burning the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, ”Duffy declared when presenting the 2013 Society of Authors Awards.
In comments that received little publicity as part of the austerity agenda, she said the government appeared “younger and more sassy, with a Prime Minister who plays The Smiths”, but it was proving to be even more damage to the country’s culture than the Tories of the 1980s.
Tourists, she pointed out, knew they were visiting the country of Shakespeare, Wordsworth and JK Rowling” when they came here and, she added: “I think the arts are who we are in Britain.”
Presenting £70,000 to writers in grants from £1,500 to £8,000, the Poet Laureate, who was appointed to the post in 2009 and wrote her first poem tackling the scandal of MPs’ expenses, said these were tiny sums of money.
“But the sense of being valued and cared for can be the difference between the books being written or not,” she added.
Culture was a huge contributor to the country’s economy and ought to be safeguarded rather than cut by Culture Secretary Maria Miller. “If not we will have a country full of Tescos and not theatres,” she protested.
Duffy, who believes that poetry is “our national art” and “the music of being human”, was herself the winner of a Scottish Arts Council award for her collection Standing Female Nude in 1985.
Since then she has won the Somerset Maugham Award, the Whitbread Poetry Award, the T.S Eliot Prize, is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and been honoured with a CBE.
Her poems are studied in British schools at GCSE, A-level, and Higher levels. In August 2008, her Education for Leisure, a poem about violence, was removed from the AQA examination board’s GCSE poetry anthology, following a complaint about its references to knife crime and a goldfish being flushed down a toilet.
The poem begins, “Today I am going to kill something. Anything. /I have had enough of being ignored and today/I am going to play God.” The protagonist kills a fly, then a goldfish. The budgie panics and the cat hides. It ends with him, or her, leaving the house with a knife. “The pavements glitter suddenly. I touch your arm.”
Schools were urged to destroy copies of the unedited anthology, according to newspaper reports, though this was later denied by AQA.
Duffy described the decision ridiculous, insisting: “It’s an anti-violence poem. It is a plea for education rather than violence.”
Carol Ann Duffy is appearing at the Literary Festival, sponsored by Brewin Dolphin, at Marlborough College on Sunday (7.30pm).
For tickets phone 01249 701628.