David Lister


One of the pleasures of being an arts editor is dealing with critics. Seriously.

The Independent’s are hugely talented and readable, and talking about their art forms with them is a daily bonus of this job. But critics are nothing if not direct.

We’ve recently introduced a system of putting stars next to reviews. It’s a useful guide for readers, but not every critic approves. And I spend part of this morning debating the merits of the system with a distinguished critic who thunders at one point that he will not grade a classical music concert as if it were a bottle of beer.

I mention this to one of the news editors who mutters that he would not grade a good bottle of beer as if it were some classical music concert.

Great things, newspapers. All human life is there.


Friday is our big arts day in the Review, with many pages devoted to film, rock and pop and world music. It is the one day of the week when I occasionally think back to the early days of The Independent.

I was a founder member in 1986, when I joined up as an assistant home editor and showed remarkable lack of prescience by solemnly warning my then fellow assistant home editor, Bill Bryson, of the perils of leaving a solid career like journalism for the dilettante pursuit of travel writing.

I rarely look back, but on a Friday I sometimes have cause to recall those early conversations when we decided how we would break the mould. One of those mould-breaking strategies was to allow four-letter words when necessary into a national newspaper.

From that moment, the news desk, of which I was a part, had to face a daily barrage of swear words from writers eager to show their empathy with the New Journalism.

Each Friday I now relive that. Rock stars in particular, with film directors not far behind, love to sprinkle their sentences with four-letter words. And so, this morning, I anxiously re-read the whole arts section to see if I missed any extraneous swear words.

Fortunately, today’s section contains just the couple I was happy to let through because they were genuinely relevant and a further one because it is a PJ Harvey song title. Clearly a girl after Andreas Whittam Smith’s own heart.


I have an arts column in the paper each Saturday, and today’s is about the difficulties for comedy reviewers at the Edinburgh Festival. Comedy is the hardest art form to review, as you can’t actually give away any of the jokes.

I mention the last time I wrote about comedy at the Edinburgh Festival. It was a year when I noted that the female stand-ups were a poor lot. I subsequently received a po-faced lecture in print from a columnist in Time Out, which included the unintentionally unforgettable advice: “David Lister should expose himself to more female comedians.”


I visit the festival, where the press officers at the Assembly Rooms tell me how much they dread this weekend, the weekend of the International Television Festival and the inevitable requests for free tickets from scores of TV executives, who all claim to be scouting for new talent. Perhaps they will sign up Janet Street-Porter, whose one-woman show I rather enjoy: a mixture of comedy, confessional and thinly disguised therapy.


Among the worst experiences of my life are The Independent flats at the Edinburgh Festival. On one occasion we rented one from a couple who turned out to be junkies. My feet squelched deep into the gunge that was the carpet. However, this year’s flat is clean and spacious but, like all journalist flats in Edinburgh, a weird mixture of hi-tech professionalism and student bohemianism.

As comedy reviewers return blearyeyed at six in the morning, they brush past our photographer who is already wiring pictures to the office in London. When I was an arts correspondent, the festival meant watching great shows and getting stories. As an arts editor, I find I keep thinking about budgets. It’s the wrong frame of mind in which to watch comedy.


Back in the office early to prepare the arts list for the daily 10 o’clock conference with the editor, Simon Kelner. I know that his team, Manchester City, won the previous night, and, sure enough, he is in a sunny mood.

We have a new media partnership with the National Gallery and the arts pages will have a special number about one of their exhibitions. There’s also a piece on Gordon Getty, oil billionaireturned-classical music composer.

The editor smiles, and I tell myself it’s at the ecleticism of the arts list and not the memory of Nicolas Anelka’s match-winning goal.


I take calls from numerous PRs pleading for their shows to be covered. August, with the Edinburgh Festival and the Proms, is far from the silly season it is for some other departments. Space is at a premium.

One I certainly find room for is a bit of a novelty idea – Chris Jagger, Mick’s brother, reviewing The Rolling Stones’ gig at the London Astoria for me tonight. I know that while Chris obviously loves the band he finds them a little loud for the small venue, which might just make a nice headline.

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