God, I enjoyed my book launch party last week. (Though not as much as some people, eh, Toby?) So much so that I’m not sure I can ever forgive myself. I keep thinking not of the fun I had but of all those friends I wish could have been there but weren’t. My fault, totally, in most cases: I’m horrendously disorganised when it comes to party invitations — and it’s entirely possible that you’re one of the people I love most in the world but forgot to invite because, hey, I’m just a bit useless that way.
Anyway, this party. As you’ll probably be aware — and if not let me spell it out — the launch was for this incredibly readable, well-researched, funny but also ‘serious and significant’ (says Matt Ridley in The Spectator — and who I am to disagree with so distinguished an expert in so important a publication?) book I recently published. It’s called Watermelons: How Environmentalists are Killing the Planet, Destroying the Economy and Stealing Your Children’s Future.
I think the main reason the party went so well was that, invitations apart, I had nothing to do with the organisation. Instead, the party was thrown for me in the grand style by my friends Azia and Marwan Chatila. Azia owns a gorgeous spa hotel in Paphos, Cyprus, called the Azia Resort & Spa; Marwan is a very high-end jeweller. Suffice to say that both are a bit better off than I am, which is why instead of the usual, self-funded cheap-wine’n’lager jobs in one of the further-flung London postcodes, my party this year was in a sumptuous private address in Knightsbridge with chilled, proper champagne flowing all evening and iced vodka shots (as you’ll recall, Toby. Or possibly not) at the end. Nicky Haslam came: nuff said.
In my speech, I paid tribute to my gracious hosts in particular and to the art of patronage in general. As a believer in terrifying frankness and the primacy of the free market, I thought it wouldn’t be out of place to point up the healthy symbiosis of the occasion. On the one hand, I James Delingpole and my (mostly) riff-raff friends were able to enjoy hospitality well above our station; on the other hand, Azia and Marwan — and the upmarket friends they invited — got to experience the frisson of slumming it with artists, intellectuals, hacks and other vermin. Everyone went home happy.
Until at least the 1800s, of course, this tradition of patronage was pretty much the only way the likes of me could survive. When at school I learned that even a talent as great as Shakespeare could only make ends meet by fawning before toffs like the Earls of Pembroke and Southampton I remember being appalled. But as I grow older and wiser — and the times grow more difficult — I realise that there is nothing shaming or unfair about patronage. It’s merely an honest acknowledgement of how the world works.
People with money and power tend to spend most of their time hanging out with people who also have money and power. This can make the conversation limited. In the old days, the problem would have been solved with a court jester, or perhaps a bear-keeper or an ensemble of crumhorn players and lutanists. Subsequently this patronage was extended to painters, landscape architects, poets, playwrights, sculptors and so on. With the expansion of commerce and the growth of the middle class, this tradition fell into abeyance somewhat, as authors like Dickens and Trollope were finally able to earn their crust by selling to their new mass market. Of course the rich and aristocratic continued through the 19th and 20th centuries to collect arty types to enliven their social circle, but their outreach work was no longer an essential part of the struggling artist’s survival mechanism.
But even in that notionally more democratic period, I wonder whether many artists were truly independent. If they weren’t prostituting their talents to cater to the debauched tastes of the masses, then they were courting the prissy opinions of the chattering classes or pandering to the prejudices of newspaper proprietors. Worse, by the 20th century, private patronage had been superseded by the infinitely more corrupt and corrupting system of publicly funded arts, whereby favours (prizes, paid speaking gigs, academic sinecures) are doled out to those sycophants who observe the pieties of the politically correct establishment.
As someone who was never quite sufficiently black, Muslim, disabled, gay, female or left-wing to benefit from state patronage, I can’t say I much regret its recession-driven demise. I’m less overjoyed by the simultaneous deaths of my two main sources of income — publishing and print journalism — but even here I think there are grounds for cautious optimism.
Consider the extraordinarily generous £26 million donation by Mica Ertegun, widow of record mogul Ahmet, to Oxford University to establish a graduate scholarship programme in the humanities. Perhaps that’s where she would always have spent her money, but I like to imagine that it was also a defiant response to these brutish, nakedly instrumentalist times: a nobly altruistic celebration of art for art’s sake in a desperate age when western civilisation is under threat, and almost no one in their right mind would choose — or could afford — to study the humanities.
At my launch a friendly City type and his charming wife told me how interesting they thought my life was. I in turn told them how much I’d like their money. It was ever thus with artists and plutocrats. Thank you Marwan, thank you Ahmet, thank you Mica, thank you all you patrons out there for the work you do in redressing the balance.