Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Where Do I Go From Here?

Those regular readers who clicked through to the refugee-related blog I put over on How I Learned to Sing to protect the poeliacs* amongst you will have noticed the blog included extracts from an essay I wrote in 2001 for the publication accompany artist Geoff Broadway's piece Where Do I Go From Here? This work was based on Geoff's spell as Artist-in-Residence at Durham Cathedral, and connected interviews with people who had taken asylum in the North East to the 12th century knocker still to be found at the Cathedral. You could knock on the door and take sanctuary for 40 days, apparently, no questions asked, be it debt collectors, angry cuckolds or oligarchs who were after you.

I only included extracts I found online as I couldn't put my hand on my version of the full essay, either in digital or hard copy, and the page had fallen off Geoff's site. Anyway, I've now got a copy of the whole thing and have uploaded it here.

It was interesting and not a little depressing reading the piece after so many years, although I was pleased that I thought it was actually a good piece of work - albeit not as powerful as Geoff's own work of course. There is something a little terrifying about reading work old enough for me to have forgotten it, or exactly what I said and how. This was a better such experience than many I've had.

The depressing thing was that there were so many sentences that could have been written in the last fortnight, and all of the quotations I used in the piece could also still be dropped into certain kinds of conversations all too comfortably. It's weird that the essay includes a number of quotations from Brecht, about whom I wrote apropos of something completely different recently, although he was, of course, a refugee himself: 'I’m like the man who took a brick to show/ How beautiful his house used once to be.' 

The most challenging of the things I wrote may be these sentences, as they address anyone, including me, tempted to a virtue-signalling gesture that inadvertently suggests this 'crisis' is a temporary thing solvable simply by being kind, rather than an ongoing phenomenon that requires kindness perhaps above all, but not alone, if we are to change any government behaviour:

'It is simplistic to think asylum is simply  a matter of compassion or otherwise. It is ruled by political and economic priorities. Why else would Canada accept, for instance, 82 % of applicants from Sri Lanka as refugees according to UN definitions, whilst Britain considers only 0.2% of applicants from Sri Lanka eligible.'

Anyway, you can read the whole thing here, it has a killer quote from Zadie Smith, I'm withholding to tempt you...

*Verse-aversion or intolerance

Monday, 7 September 2015

Back to school special

It’s a new year. I’m told that these days by the sounds through my office from the nearby school playground, rather than by my kids needing new shoes, bags, pencils, PE kit, or, in the university years, help with the rent. But I suspect most of us of any age and family situation in the UK always associate the September turn in the weather with a new school year. We might grow nostalgic for that new book, new protractor, fresh start feeling, or we might rejoice not to ever have to go back into a classroom, but there’s some kind of emotional twitch in most of us at this time of year. (I envy the French the word ‘la rentrĂ©e’, which sums those mixed emotions up brilliantly somehow, and not just for those in education.) 

 Arts provision in schools is a key area of argument and activity at the moment. Bob & Roberta Smith even stood for parliament against Michael Gove to raise the issue. The changes to the curriculum are making it harder and harder for schools to support arts activity. Even changes to the History curriculum are making it harder for the many ‘industrial’ museums. Can’t have children learning about the industrial revolution, they might hear about unions or health and safety or something dangerous like that, I suppose. 

 Although the government tries its best to spin it, asserting in typical black-is-white fashion that it values the thing it is reducing, most readings of the statistics suggest fewer young people are choosing to take most arts subjects at GCSE. The excellent Cultural Learning Alliance explore the figures in very clear fashion here. As mentioned there is also evidence that this trend is worse, in some subjects at least, amongst young people from more deprived areas. It seems also to be reinforcing the long-standing gender differences in take up of arts subjects at GCSE. 

Schools trips are also getting squeezed, be it by teacher nervousness or actual budgetary or curricular pressure. I saw some evidence recently that this is especially so in special schools which is worrying. 

 One rarely sees English Literature in the list of arts subjects, although I think it should be there. The upside of it being compulsory is that young people get introduced to some ‘great’ books, some of which are actually great. The downside of it being compulsory is that compulsory things are often horrible when you’re at school - for some, unlucky, people it’s a bore and serves to put them off novels, poetry and plays for life. I know we don’t like to admit this, but that was my observation at school and is what I’ve heard from many people since.

 So I’d like to apologise to any GCSE English students about to begin the AQA GCSE English Literature syllabus using the OUP student book for the bit in the next two years when you get to my poem, 'As luck would have it', if you don’t like it. I’m sharing the pictures here not for education purposes but simply as illustration - click them for larger versions. But if any regular readers want to answer in the comments section, please feel free… 

 I’m sorry I don’t have the resolve of my hero Adrian Mitchell to ban my poems from exam-related books. It wasn’t the money, I actually let my publisher keep that as I was feeling generous and grateful and a bit guilty for not being a better-selling poet, it was the excitement that maybe someone who enjoyed Eng. Lit as much as I did might found my work through the poem. It was that ego-serving moment we almost-unknown poets get when someone responds to the message in a bottle that is a book of poems. I was pleased you have to compare and contrast it with Siegried Sassoon, not that I've read him much since I was at school. I was even more pleased to be used in this way as I don’t even know the editors in real life.

 It is rather disorientating to see the questions posed, especially about something which is a reimagining of my own birth, and to read the example first sentences to answers. I’m not saying any of them are unhelpful, of course, it's just a bit odd. It was amusing though that a footnote was needed including the comical phrase, ‘the pop group The Beatles’. Tell me even 14 year olds know the Beatles were a pop group, please? And I’ll maybe tell you one day about the time I offended creative education guru Sir Ken Robinson (no relation) by admitting I really didn’t like the Beatles at all.

 I put it all down to a good bad education

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Just being here is glorious

I had been struck mute by the news, and reactions to it. But over on my poetry blog I've been thinking about an artwork, and sharing an essay I wrote for a brochure back in 2001 that quotes some newspaper headlines such as 'ASYLUM: WE ARE BEING INVADED'. So no surprises here at headlines now.

I've also shared a poem about refuge, on of the 'Dunno Elegies' from my book How I Learned to Sing. It uses the Rilke line 'Just being here is glorious' as an epigraph, as that is often the experience asylum seekers and refugees have expressed to me about being in England.

To avoid too much poetry on this blog, you can read it over here.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

The Art of Doubt

 The other day, taking a brief break from the exciting projects I’m currently working on, I pulled BRECHT POEMS PART TWO from the poetry shelves that watch me work. These are mainly ‘poems of the Crisis Years’, perhaps it was that which made me pick this book, rather than the adjacent Kamau Brathwaite, Joseph Brodsky or indeed BRECHT POEMS PART THREE. 

 I was drawn into a poem called ‘The Doubter’, which struck me as eminently useful for all consultants, researchers, artists, managers, leaders, campaigners, directors, producers, strategists, management teams, politicians, voters, representatives, writers and makers of arguments and positions of any other description. It has resonance with Beckett’s famous and useful ‘Fail again. Fail better.’ But it seems to resist the glamour that sometimes attaches to that, in a way I like. 

 The questions are specific and pointed, and people I facilitate or coach may well hear some of them in the future. They also reminded me of those in Kenneth Koch’s The Art of Poetry, which are very useful for writers specifically. (And enjoyable for all readers.) 

 Brecht’s poem seemed to sum up a lot of principles I hold to in writing almost anything. The importance of being clear, but not wiping out ambiguity, subtlety, even contradiction. Sense of self and audience. Properly acknowledging what is actually happening, like it or not, before working to change it if need be. (That’s what I take from ‘Do you accept all that develops?’, rather than acquiescence.) Not being swayed by how well something is phrased. And turning to action, the ‘so what?’ as I might say in facilitator mode. 

 I share this here in case useful to others, and as BB is long gone. I would balance it with a line from Bruce Springsteen: ‘God have mercy on the man who doubts what he’s sure of’ - also worth reminding oneself of, deist or not. But next time you feel you've cracked something, pause for a moment of doubt. 


Whenever we seemed 
To have found the answer to a question 
One of us united the string of the old rolled-up 
Chinese scroll on the wall, so that it fell down and 
Revealed to us the man on the bench who 
Doubted so much. 

I, he said to us 
Am the doubter. I am doubtful whether 
The work was well done that devoured your days. 
Whether what you said would still have value for anyone if it were less well said. 
Whether you said it well but perhaps 
Were not convinced of the truth of what you said. 
Whether it is not ambiguous; each possible misunderstanding 
Is your responsibility. Or it can be unambiguous 
And take the contradictions out of things; is it too unambiguous? 
If so, what you say is useless. Your thing has no life in it. 
Are you truly in the stream of happening? Do you accept 
All that develops? Are you developing? Who are you? To whom 
Do you speak? Who finds what you say useful? And, by the way: 
Is it sobering? Can it be read in the morning? 
Is it also linked to what is already there?  Are the sentences that were 
Spoken before you made use of, or at least refuted? Is everything verifiable? 
By experience? By which one? But above all 
Always above all else: how does one act 
If one believes what you say? Above all: how does one act? 

 Reflectively, curiously, we studied the doubting 
 Blue man on the scroll, looked at each other and 
 Made a fresh start. 

(translated by Lee Baxendall)

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Northern Arts Case for Capital (Throwback Special)

North East England’s Case for Culture, which I wrote about yesterday, was at least partly inspired by the example, some might say the myth, of a 1995 document produced by Northern Arts, the Case for Capital. This set out what the North (which included Cumbria at that time) wanted to do with the lottery funds about to come on stream from the national Arts Council. It had come about from regional partnership and survey of ambition, in a similar way to the Case for Culture. It had a vision and a set of arguments, and some specific asks of arts organisations, local authorities and the national funding bodies.

 Funnily enough, when the North East Cultural Partnership steering group were first thinking about the Case for Culture, they wanted to look back at the Case for Capital, but we found it hard to get our hands on a copy. There were certainly none online to be found. So I’m sharing it here, in case it’s useful, instructive or just interesting for anyone who was curious about it when they saw it mentioned in the new Case for Culture. These are scans provided by David Powell who worked on the Case for Capital for Northern Arts – thanks to David for that.

 Northern Arts no longer exists of course so hopefully no-one will object to me putting it here as a public service. (I was a member of the Senior Management Team when Gerry Robinson merged Northern Arts into Arts Council, so I feel ok sharing it, although I should make clear I wasn’t there when this first Case for Capital was developed, so take no credit or blame at all for it.) Here are the links, with the full report split into three for reasons of file size:

The Case for Capital 1995 (summary document)
The Case for Capital 1995 (part 1)
The Case for Capital 1995 (part 2)
The Case for Capital 1995 (part 3)

 Hindsight makes The Case for Capital a fascinating read, at least for the likes of me. One could spend a long time discussing the things that happened, the things that didn’t, the things that shifted shape, the things that turned out to need, let’s say, a bit more time and support than anticipated. One could no doubt critique it in all kinds of ways, especially with the benefit of hindsight. (Some of the gaps were filled in a subsequent second Case in 2000. If anyone's got a copy of that, do let me know.)

 Narrow your eyes and you can see a slightly different region, a range of alternative futures, as if in some weird arts policy-reflecting sci-fi novel, where there’s no Sage Gateshead but a Regional Music Centre in Newcastle for instance, leaving a very different Quayside. But what strikes me is how much of the inspiration of the early 1990s have been delivered in some form.

 That, and how playing the violin must be good for you... Compare the picture of Bradley Creswick below with the one on the Chronicle website this week, one of a set of rather beautiful photographs by Andy Martin of the musicians of the Royal Northern Sinfonia, just some of the beneficiaries of the cases for culture made in the North East over many decades. Cover star Mike McGrother, now more active in Stockton than ever, hasn't aged too badly either.


Monday, 17 August 2015

North East England's Case for Culture

Culture North East (also known as the North East Cultural Partnership) recently launched ‘The North East of England’s Case for Culture’. This is a ‘statement of ambition for the next 15 years’ and has five ‘aspirations’. (Pauses to think how much he dislikes that word and its contemporary applications and insinuations. Continues…) 

 Few would take much issue with the aspirations, which I suspect both Jeremy Corbyn and Liz Kendall could include in their manifestos. The five aspirations are participation and reach, children and young people, talent and progression, economic value, and a vibrant and distinctive region with an excellent quality of life. The how has four main ideas: the partnership itself, increasing policy and funding influence, tripling overall investment over next 5 years and using the Case to encourage investment. Some symptoms of strategic tautology (a conditions I just made up) there, perhaps, and some missed opportunities but nothing fatal. For example, in relation to investment how powerful would it have been if the 12 local authorities involved in the Partnership had felt able to make their own investment commitments clear? 

 The Case for Culture has been created by a very inclusive process, with many sectors consulted via lead organisations, business and voluntary sectors, local authorities, open space meetings and other means – the appendices are impressive in their breadth. Interestingly, and healthily, the work was lead by Beamish Museum, rather than any of those smooth talking consultancy types. (I fed in when asked to by New Writing North, as a writer, although should also declare some pro-bono involvement in the early work with members of the Partnership board on what such a case might look at, and how.) 

 NECP has 24 board members – 12 local authority representatives and 12 people from the cultural, education and business sectors. It’s a unique partnership so far as I’m aware, and this is a unique strategic document. Inevitably, one must grudgingly concede, any strategy like this is going to bear testament to the smoothing-out effects of committee working and regional politicking that connect process to prose. This is apparent here in the lack of really big choices for the region. (Although I must say the actual prose is smooth and sharp and lacks the traditional visible stitching of many such documents.) 

 This is a tool for making cases, not a list of exciting priority ideas for investment (and by implication a shadow list what’s not an agreed regional priority) so this is perhaps fair enough – although I think a list of priorities ideas might have more sway with the potential funders right now. At the launch event in Durham, in warmly welcoming the Case, the advice of CEOs of both ACE and HLF boiled down to ‘be great and have great ideas’. Although I think the world needs rather more than that kind of beauty contest right now, and more than an ‘inverse-beauty contest’ of fixing blights and cold spots too, I hope funders will respond imaginatively to the collective ambition represented by the Case and how it's been made, it may have been more attention-grabbing to have also some specific proposals of a Factory-scale if not type. (Ideally without a £10M pa revenue bill though...) 

 But, although  the Case for Culture could have done with more specific examples to anchor the passion, I welcome The Case for Culture warmly and positively. The folk involved have done a good job. I hope the region can continue to work together to prioritise what needs to happen next, not just leave that to the sharpest elbows, loudest voices, most smoke-filled rooms or – even – shiniest ideas. 

One such area where the Case may be useful in the next phase precisely because of its own weakness is in diversity. The Case vastly underplays the way in which the North East has changed in recent decades, and continues to change, and the contribution a more diverse cultural offer could make across all its aspirations. It even brings up what is to me an old, old argument that ‘the North East is actually one of the least diverse regions in the UK’. (Why ‘actually’, by the way, what’s that little emphasis suggesting?) This may be true at the headline stat level in relation to certain protected characteristics, but that misses at least three vital things. Firstly even at regional level, change is rapid – with the non-White population doubling between the last two censuses. Secondly, our cities and major towns are hugely more diverse in terms of ethnicity than 20 years ago – especially amongst young people. And thirdly, we have very high proportions of people with disabilities and impairments, for whom participation in culture and the economy is important. Class remains vital, as pointed out, but it shouldn’t be used to avoid considering other aspects of diversity, and how class intersects with gender, ethnicity and disability or sexuality. 

 Demographic change in recent years is a potentially really important positive for the North East, culturally and in terms of attracting businesses to the region, given the importance placed on diversity of workforce by many businesses. (Attracting business is one reason quality of life is important to the Case.) The relative homogeneity of North East England, or a perception of it, has arguably been a disadvantage in many ways. The perception that the North East is a white bread white culture kind of place is not helped by looking at the ethnicity of the North East Cultural Partnership board, which is (so far as I can tell), all white, despite having 24 members. (That’s 2 more than Trevor Nunn’s all-white history plays cast, for which he’s getting some flack.) I’ve said it before, and I know members of the partnership are conscious of this, but that’s more than disappointing, it's not good enough. So I think diversity needs to be added to the Case for Culture in practice, and not just in terms of community identity, as it is rather painted in the longer document. 

 As the work of Creative Case NORTH has shown, in developing the Arts Council’s very welcome Creative Case for Diversity, the diversity of our cultural offer is not the responsibility of those people who happen to not be straight white able-bodied males, but of everyone in the sector. I was recently commissioned to review three years of work by the Creative Case NORTH consortium, based on surveys, interviews and meta-analysis of over 150,000 words of reports and event transcripts. This will be published shortly by the consortium, but there are themes which may be helpful to diversifying the Case for Culture. 

The heart of the Creative Case NORTH process has been dialogue, based on mutual understanding and trust – which doesn’t always happen at the same time for everyone. Creating safe spaces to generate what one person powerfully called ‘1-1 accountability’ is important. This means bringing people together, not asking for individual community or sector responses, but encouraging people to be accountable to each other for our creativity and the platforms we create for each other. This is an idea that, in some ways at least, seems entirely in tune with how the North East Cultural Partnership developed the Case for Culture, so should be easily widened to make diversity a stronger strand of exploration of how we deliver it. 

 Thinking about 1-1 accountability would, in fact, strengthen every aspiration described in the Case, as part of using it, as suggested, as ‘a springboard’. What do we owe others in terms of participation in the culture of the region? What is culture’s role within the economy, and who is it for? What are our responsibilities in terms of developing young people, talent at any age and in ensuring reach and progression? Despite my caveats, I welcome the North East’s partnership approach to working through such questions.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Cultural value, inequality and comedy timing

Sometimes the world throws out comedy timing. Sometimes it's simply funny. Sometimes, more often these days, it seems, the universe displays a black humour. And sometimes it can be just a bit embarrassing....

Today AHRC published Cultural Value and Inequality, a new critical literature review by Dave O'Brien and Kate Oakley, part of the AHRC's extensive Cultural Value Project. (So extensive even I was involved in one of the projects it funded last year.) It's a really important piece of work, and a very strong and sharp one. (It boils a lot of work down to less than 20 pages plus a bibliography that could keep one occupied a good while.)

At the heart of the report are questions of who gets to make culture, who gets to (or chooses to) consume it, and what impact inequality has on people and culture alike. O'Brien and Oakley argue that the two need to be considered in relation to each other, rather than separately. They focus particularly on race, gender and class, where, as I know from some work I've been doing with EW Group recently which I'll write more about to when I can, there is more material. They also highlight a lack of research around, for instance, disabled people as workers in culture. It's a short and stimulating read, and concludes by seeking more interdisciplinary research (as opposed to art form or area specific work) and improvements in data collection to inform analysis and understanding of how inequality works within cultural value. 

Coincidentally O'Brien and Oakley's argument that consumption and production need to be seen as two sides of the cultural value coin was also made by Sarah Brigham of Derby Theatre this week in (on?) The Guardian. She described the way in which diversifying the artists a theatre works with can help broaden the audience - and vice versa. She also tells the story of a 'cultural leader' who got their hot tips entirely from white men in London. That could be so many people it's not even worth wondering who it was, but it brings me to the embarrassing and depressing bit....

Shortly after reading the report on cultural value and inequality, I read the news that the new Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee is to be made up of 11 white males. This is the kind of national team line up not thought a good idea since Viv Anderson was a boy. (It's a football reference, yes, but important cultural history too, look it up...)

This is, as I said, both depressing and embarassing in its symbolism, even if you think the Committee is irrelevant to your work. (It isn't by the way, unless you think democracy is irrelevant.)  Diversifying the workforce is one of the most urgent challenges facing the cultural sector, and this certainly isn't going to help. Even us white men of a certain age are getting tired of listening to white men of a certain age and their views. (Last time I said that in a meeting I mysteriously dropped off the invite list for subsequent gatherings.) 

No time for deeper analysis right now, if there's one to be made. I do, though, look forward to seeing the the Select Committee appear on, by the way.