How to save high culture? Vending machines for books are a start

·3 min read
Comedian Frank Skinner
Comedian Frank Skinner

Amid the long list of exotic phobias – including koumpounophobia (fear of buttons) and globophobia (fear of balloons) – there must exist a word for the fear of finding oneself stranded without a book. It was this affliction that inspired the publisher Sir Allen Lane to come up with the idea of Penguin paperbacks, after finding himself bookless on a London-bound train after visiting Dame Agatha Christie in Devon.

Among the outlets for those early Penguins were vending machines known as “Penguincubators”. Now an updated Penguincubator, installed last week at Exeter St David’s station, has become a global phenomenon after the author Elif Shafak shared an image of the “cool” device with her 275,000 Instagram followers. The machine dispenses copies of Shafak’s novel, The Island of Missing Trees, alongside works by Richard Osman, Marian Keyes, Donna Tartt and George Orwell.

The enthusiastic public response feels like a fragile shoot of hope in a harsh landscape for what is dismissively known as “high” culture. The outcry against the BBC’s decision to disband the BBC Singers; Frank Skinner’s passionate pursuit of the poets Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift in his series for Sky Arts; Alistair McGowan’s long obsession with the composer Erik Satie – all hint at a weariness with the pabulum that cultural apparatchiks imagine the public appetite demands.

Frank Skinner describes a snobbish inability by consumers of high culture to grasp that his tastes encompass both football banter and the 18th-century banter of Dr Johnson: both are necessary elements of well rounded lives. The Penguinator, with its mix of popular and literary volumes, is a monument to the joy of reading, high and low. Long may it flourish (and may it never emulate lesser vending machines by swallowing a punter’s money while failing to deliver the goods).

Catching culprits

In the current fractious political climate, Rishi Sunak must hope that his initiative on anti-social behaviour, announced this week, will be a measure that everyone can love. Who could object to a plan that promises to address fly-tipping, graffiti and the public litter of  drugs paraphernalia?

Almost everyone is affected by these debilitating environmental crimes. When I lived in London, the pavements glittered with nitrous oxide canisters and the side of my house was graffitied. Now I live in rural Kent, where the roadsides are regularly defiled with fly-tipping. One particularly grim example contained long shards of broken glass and a large kitchen knife.

Making perpetrators atone expeditiously for their crimes seems a satisfying rebalancing of the scales of justice. But amid the stirring rhetoric of crackdowns and “community fightback” , a doubt persists. The evidence of anti-social behaviour is ubiquitous, but it is rare to witness a fly-tipper or graffiti-sprayer at work: secrecy is their modus operandi.

Last year the police inspectorate, HMICFRS, concluded that the police response to burglary, robbery and thefts inadequate. Add fly-tipping, graffiti and drug use to that workload, and it is hard to  see how the new proposals – to make environmental criminals clear up their mess within 48 hours, wearing the hi-vis jumpsuit of shame, will work in practice.
Rhetoric or reality? Our city streets and rural roads will be the eloquent judges of this latest political wheeze.