Thursday, September 28, 2006


(The "City" is London's financial district. It is a very small part of London as a whole)

Should we be surprised that the best-run and most critically acclaimed arts centre in Britain receives not a penny from the Arts Council? Should we be astounded that, without the benefit of a single directive from the Government’s culture quango about the importance of multiculturalism, access, diversity, outreach — or any of the other new Labour buzzwords rammed down the throats of people in the arts for the past nine years — this arts centre should nevertheless be pulling in 770,000 socially diverse punters a year? And what does this say, by inference, about the stifling effect of the nanny state on less independent organisations?

These questions popped into my head last week as the Barbican Centre in London announced plans to celebrate its 25th birthday in March with 25 brilliantly devised “landmark events”, ranging from an Icelandic epic and an Islamic festival to glitzy concerts and a celebration of punk. At the same time its management unveiled the finishing touches to a £30 million transformation that has swept away the worst features of the once-derided architecture. The hopeless non-entrance, Kafkaesque corridors, baffling signs and dry-as-dust acoustics in the concert hall: all have been remedied, leaving the place looking sleek, chic, and fit for service for at least the next 50 years.

What makes this feat close to miraculous is that, only 12 years ago, the Barbican was a byword for fear, loathing and chaos. The Royal Shakespeare Company, then resident in the centre, was locked in perpetual war with the management, which was itself chronically dysfunctional. When an abrasive woman from the Milk Marketing Board was appointed to run the centre — on the grounds that if you can sell a full range of dairy products you can surely flog King Lear — the nadir was reached. Even the City of London Corporation, which built the place, seemed in despair about its future.

But in 1995 John Tusa, a former BBC mandarin with an insatiable taste for culture, was appointed managing director, and a quiet visionary called Graham Sheffield brought in as artistic director. They have wrought a renaissance. Today, the Barbican must rank as the world’s top arts centre — easily outclassing the Lincoln Centre in New York for adventurous programming and sustained quality.

Enough about Tusa and Sheffield, however. They aren’t short of cheerleaders. What interests me about the Barbican is its funding. Its £18 million subsidy comes not from the Government via its poodle, the Arts Council — with the mandatory clump of social-engineering strings attached — but from the City of London Corporation. Which, rather astonishingly, makes that local authority the third biggest funder of the arts in Britain.

I have my dozy moments, but I’m not so naive as to think that the City is coughing up such substantial dosh out of pure altruism. In case you hadn’t noticed, there’s a war going on. The Square Mile, centre of the financial universe for so long, is facing competition not just from Frankfurt and Tokyo, but from an upstart on its doorstep — Canary Wharf. The battle to retain the big bank HQs and dealing-rooms is being fought on many fronts, not least the phallic rush to erect the tallest tower in town. But one vital area is “quality of life”. And the fact that the City has an arts centre that mounts 900 top-class events a year is a huge advantage.

But the City’s motives for funding the Barbican don’t really matter. What’s important is that it doesn’t interfere in how the centre is run. It appoints top arts professionals, then lets them get on with the job. It doesn’t try to micro-manage areas beyond its competence. It liberates those it finances, rather than stifling creativity with endless red tape and petty “accountability” procedures.

Well, you can see where I’m heading. The way the Barbican is run is in stark contrast not only to every other subsidised arts organisation, but to most other areas of public life in Blair’s Britain. What we have seen over the past nine years has been an unprecedented increase in the number of political diktats that attempt to regiment every facet of our existence — from health, diet and education to the law and liberty. At the root of this trend are power mania and arrogance. We are now ruled by people who not only want to control the smallest aspects of our lives, but who are vain enough to think that they know better than the experts in any field.

Of course I accept that, in a democracy, politicians must regularly scrutinise publicly-funded professions on our behalf. But it’s a question of degree. The endless, pointless meddling of recent years has simply stopped good people doing their jobs well. I see that Gordon Brown has promised more “devolved” decision-making in future. It’s hard to believe, since under his iron rule the Treasury has broken all known records for control-freakery and arrogant interference in areas that have nothing to do with the economy — a prime instance being the way that arts organisations operate. The Barbican is a shining example of the good things that can happen when politicians keep their clumsy fingers out of the pie. Let’s see more abstinence in future.



A sleepy community of Benedictine monks in south Devon is the latest, and perhaps most unlikely, target in the battle against binge drinking. Alcopops come and go, but Buckfast wine is a perennial favourite among young drinkers keen to test their alcohol limit. Now the tonic wine produced by the Benedictine monks of Buckfast Abbey, Devon, has fallen foul of law makers, who believe it has much to answer for. Scottish health minister Andy Kerr is the latest politician north of the border to express concerns about the effects of the drink commonly known as Buckie - citing its link to binge drinking. "There's something different about that drink," says Mr Kerr, calling it "seriously bad".

Buckfast Tonic Wine originates from Roman Catholic monks - not a group traditionally associated with the drunken masses - and was first produced by them more than 100 years ago, using a recipe brought from France. It is red wine-based, with a high caffeine content. Tellingly, the label on the bottle reads "the name tonic wine does not imply health giving or medicinal properties." It is sweet and viscous. At 5 pounds for a 750ml bottle, it is cheap but powerful - alcohol content is 15% - and considered a rite of passage by many an ambitious young drinker. "It tended to precede a rather spectacular night, because it's horribly potent," recalls Paul, a former student at Manchester.

But it is the drink's prevalence in the so-called Buckfast Triangle - an area east of Glasgow between Airdrie, Coatbridge and Cumbernauld - that has raised concerns. It even spawned its own episode of the Scottish TV comedy Rab C Nesbitt and is known locally by several pet names: Buckie Baracas, a bottle of "what the hell are you looking at?", Wreck the Hoose Juice and Coatbridge Table Wine. More seriously, there have been calls to have it sold in plastic bottles, because of the mess created by broken ones on the street, and, in court, it has been implicated, along with vodka, in one car crash death in Doune, north of Stirling.

David, a Glasgow pub manager, confesses to having enjoyed Buckfast in his formative drinking days, and perceives a strong social stigma linked to its abuse. "There's a huge problem with it in the streets," he says. "Fifteen and sixteen-year-olds drink Buckfast and they'll have no qualms about tooting someone over the head. It all stems from boredom. They'll have two to three bottles and it's like lighting a touch-paper, they go wild." But the drinks industry, and Buckfast's maker, say it is being made a scapegoat for what is a wider social problem of alcohol abuse. Spokesman for distributors J Chandler & Co (Buckfast) Ltd, Jim Wilson, points out that Buckfast trails other drinks, like whisky, in sales. It has only a half a per cent of the total alcohol market and does not feature in the top 100 brands.

Of its £30m annual turnover, 10% is sold in Lanarkshire and much exported to Spain, Australia, and the Caribbean - where its not blamed for a society's ills, says Mr Wilson. At the request of the monks, Buckfast is not advertised in areas perceived to have difficulties, no two-for-one or 20p off offers here. Talks between the distributor and Mr Kerr have been slated for 30 October. "The problem with anything alcoholic is if it's abused," says Mr Wilson. "Why target Buckfast? If your policies aren't working, and you're looking for a scapegoat, have a go."



Government health inspectors are to investigate how Maidstone Hospital in Kent handled an outbreak of an infection that killed six patients and contributed to the deaths of fourteen others. The Healthcare Commission announced an inquiry yesterday into Clostridium difficile, which it said followed concerns about the rates of infection at the hospital since 2004. C. difficile is the main cause of diarrhoea infections in British hospitals, and contributes to more deaths than MRSA.

The inquiry into Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust will examine whether the rates of C. difficile are high, taking into account all factors. The investigation, one of only two the commission has conducted into C. difficile, will look at outbreaks of the infection and evaluate the trust's systems and procedures for controlling it. It is also likely to consider the trust's arrangements for identifying and notifying cases, the factors contributing to the rates of infection, the trust's response on the wards, and the priority given to its control.

The investigation was requested by the South East Coast Strategic Health Authority and the trust, whose three hospitals serve Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells and surrounding areas including Tonbridge, Sevenoaks and parts of East Sussex. C. difficile can cause a wide range of symptoms, from mild diarrhoea to life-threatening conditions.

Nigel Ellis, head of investigations at the Healthcare Commission, said: "Our investigation will examine how the trust identified and dealt with cases of C. difficile. "We recognise that outbreaks of infection are not always easy to control, but when they do happen they pose a very serious risk to patient safety. "We need to find out what happened, what systems the trust has in place to ensure this does not happen again and whether further improvements are needed to protect the safety of patients."

The commission, which is the independent inspection body for the NHS and the private and voluntary healthcare sectors, will publish its findings and recommendations for improvement in a report expected next year.

Maidstone is by no means the first hospital to suffer a serious outbreak of C. difficile. A total of 334 patients were infected with the bacterium and at least 33 died between October 2003 and June last year at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire. In a highly critical report into that outbreak, published in July, the commission said that there had been serious and significant failings in the way in which senior hospital managers had responded to it.

According to the Office for National Statistics, in 2003 there were 1,748 mentions of C. difficile on death certificates, of which 934 noted the infection as the underlying cause of death. Between April and June, 136 patients at Maidstone Hospital were found to be infected with C. difficile, the trust said. The infection was the definite cause of death of six patients; in fourteen others it contributed to their deaths but was not the main cause, and it was unlikely to have led to the deaths of four other patients who had had the infection.


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