“Let Them Eat Custard Creams”

An Adrian Mole story written by Heide Goody and Iain Grant

To Ms Lampwick, Arts Council,

 

I must express grave concern at the Arts Council’s refusal of my request for six thousand pounds to support our readers’ group. I understand that times are hard. I imagine your role is that of an intellectual nurse, carrying out triage on art projects, offering a tot of rum to some and only comforting words to others. I want to cry out to you, “I am not dead! There is life in this body yet!” (and by body I mean the Westcotes Library Literature Group).

You raise a number of points in your letter. It is true that Westcotes Library already has another book group. Mrs Chapel’s Wednesday Book Club is, as you say, thriving. Indeed, this Japanese knotweed of a book group, is nothing short of rampant. Sometimes there’s only standing room available. But is this a good thing? Is it? Your letter makes frequent mention of the need for ‘audience engagement’ but, I ask, what audience? And what should they be engaged with?

Let me paint a picture for you. On the one hand, we have a room stuffed with pensioners, fighting over the tea urn and a plate of hobnobs as Mrs Chapel leads them through a discussion of The Time Traveller’s Wife or some Girl with the Dragon Tattoo nonsense. And, on the other hand, in the much more modest meeting room that used to be the cleaner’s cupboard (which, until the gefilte fish incident, smelled mainly of chemicals) we have the Westcotes Library Literature Group where a select few  – I attached a copy of our entrance exam. Did you have a go? – discuss the latest Kazuo Ishiguro, Haruki Murakami or Khaled Hosseini over grissini and poppy thins.

The difference between the two should be obvious. Our group is a hardy band of intrepid literary explorers and intrepid explorers do need provisions, Ms Lampwick.

You made no mention of the graphs I attached to my original application. I can send fresh copies if you have lost them. My accountant friend, Parvez, checked their accuracy. My research into the correlation between favourite snacks and literary predilections has produced some clear and undeniable results (I have submitted a short piece to the New Scientist). Digestives, rich teas and custard creams will attract fans of Harry Potter and Andy McNab. A garibaldi or a bourbon might indicate someone who will try a little Mark Haddon or at least attempt the first page of a Hilary Mantel. But if one is to give nourishment and succour to the mind of a true intellectual then it must be biscotti, florentines and perhaps even stroopwafels. Don’t dismiss this as a simple matter of biscuits; it underpins the literary education of a whole city. Please do not look down on us and cry, “Let them eat custard creams!”

You suggested that the amount we requested for refreshments was unrealistically high. I am surprised that you, a Londoner, would say this. I’ve eaten out in London and a sandwich alone can cost upwards of five pounds. Our book group’s requirements are met from the delicatessens and bakeries along the Narborough Road, but times have become hard. The pound is falling and the price of imported goods is rising. We used to buy baklava from Mr Rahman’s shop but he’s sold up and returned to Libya where there is less religious persecution (thank you, Brexit Britain).

I sense from the tone of your letter that you have perhaps spoken to our librarian and that young Mr Tiptree has expressed doubt over the value that our group brings. He insists that the library cannot afford to maintain two book groups, even though he lets the U3A craft group have free use of our meeting room for much of the week and doesn’t bat an eyelid when they turn the radiators up to maximum in June.

I have observed that the local library service seems to be more interested in being popular than anything to do with books. Craft groups! Free newspapers so the old blokes can pick their horses. Even a Wednesday book club that doesn’t even appoint a literary expert, such as myself, to guide their reading; they actually pick their next book by a show of hands. I would have thought that, on both sides of the pond, we would have learned the hard lessons that come from populism and wanton democracy! Down that road lies madness, or even worse, Barry Kent novels. You might know Barry Kent’s work. He wrote Dork’s Diary  based on a character called Aidan Vole. A shallow and foolish piece of nonsense that has gained him much undeserved popularity.

Our group prides itself on being focussed and innovative. Knowing that quality foodstuffs nourish the mind as well as the body, the four of us (three if Mr Aheer is on call) have taken to having themed snacks to accompany our books. We’ve had rollmops with Moby Dick, gefilte fish with Zusak’s The Book Thief and haggis with Robert Burns. We also have strict rules on books that are suitable for the group. Books with “The Girl…” in the title are passed over without further consideration. Anything with a Richard & Judy Book Club sticker isn’t allowed across the threshold. And anything that has been made into a tawdry Hollywood blockbuster is given short shrift. Such is our passion for finding the right book that Mr Aheer and I nearly came to blows over The Life of Pi; but I argued strongly that using a CGI tiger showed a lack of integrity. If they can’t make the effort to train up a real tiger then what does that say about the quality of the source material?

In short, I know that the Arts Council has money enough to fund our little group. You might consider diverting some cash from the English National Ballet – their tiara budget would probably suffice.

If you do not support English arts and culture, who will? Without nourishment our rarified group will die, along with maypole dancing, cheese rolling and swan upping – or worse still, some bureaucrat will attempt to combine them in an ill-advised attempt at streamlining. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that a swan can break a man’s arm, especially if you try to engage it in maypole dancing. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

 

Yours in anticipation,

A Mole