Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Talking to the Dead

 Sometimes chinks of light are framed in black. Last weekend I was one of a number of people who read poems by our friend Gordon Hodgeon at the launch of his book, Talking to the Dead, which has just been published by Smokestack Books. We read the poems as Gordon is unable to, being almost totally paralysed. He has written these poems using a Dynavox machine, that is to say with his eyes, and with the patient help of his team of carers. This is a step further still from his last book, Still Life which was mainly written in the years after Gordon became paralysed, but whilst he could still talk with the aid of a ventilator, and therefore write using dictation software. 

 Gordon was Chief Education Adviser for Cleveland for many years, and many people he helped were at the launch event at Preston Hall Museum in Eaglescliffe. He was an example to me when I worked with him – or more accurately when his work made mine more possible, as first Literature Development Worker and then Director at Cleveland Arts - of a serious poet with a serious job not directly involved in writing, but supporting the culture necessary for poetry. We were part of a 'writing workshop’ that shared and critiqued poems in progress, toughly but over wine and food and laughter. Many of my poems would have been even more ramshackle without Gordon’s attentions.

 Gordon gave a lot of his time to others then and afterwards, through NATE, New Writing North, Cleveland Arts, Mudfog Press, and the Poetry Book Society, amongst others. We shared the experience of being Lancastrian working class grammar school boys, albeit decades apart – he demonstrated time and again how you put back into an educational culture rather than simply take out. (I’ve also adopted Gordon’s zero tolerance approach to sloppy board papers, having been on the receiving end of his rigour.) 

 His own poems were always gimlet-eyed and, some might say, a bit on the miserable side, even when he was healthy and happy, but they are exemplary in many ways: human, lyrical, full of ideas and observation. As Andy Croft, Mr Smokestack, explained, most of us at the launch of Still Life 3 years ago expected it to be Gordon’s last book, given his health and disability. But last year Gordon found a new lease of poetic life, despite the challenges. The determination necessary to make these poems beggars belief, really. 

 And they are fine poems, aptly titled. They stare death in the face, sometimes solemnly, sometimes angrily, sometimes with a joke. They talk to the dead –  father, grandfather and the poets on Gordon’s bookshelves. But they also talk of and to the living – to family and friends, and to writers and composers whose work lives on. 

‘Wild Westerly’ addresses the poets on his shelves during a storm - the sense of enclosure transferring from the house in the storm to the mind now unable to directly enjoy the books that nourished it, ending in a defiantly affirmative cry : 

‘I have a poet’s answer to this storm 
for all assembled here, 
these silent legislators. 
I can’t read their verses now 
but know their truth. 
Blake, Brecht, Marlowe, Donne, Marvell, 
Coleridge, Lawrence, Neruda, Keats, et al
Yes, we understand that you’re preoccupied 
with worms and what they’ll try, it’s natural. 
You sense our brevity, the frittering of our breath, 
we gutter out before we’ve scarce begun. 
So what I’d bellow at you if I could
would go like this: we wonder, love, cry freedom, rage. 
The living talk to the living in singing words, 
which outlive their makers. 
If you touch us, yes we will bleed. 
You know I can’t. But I implore you, 
open any page while you have breath. 
What you discover, life. Read it, devour. 

 The poems in Talking to the Dead are, for me, heartbreaking as well as heartening. The book deserves to be read widely. You can find it, and more samples, on the Smokestack website.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

The truth about fundraising: all wound up like a ball of twine?

  Twine is a consortium of theatre organisations in the North East that have been supported through Arts Council’s Catalyst programme to explore how best to raise funds for small touring theatre companies. The organisations are The Empty Space, Northumberland Theatre Company, Théâtre Sans Frontières, Theatre Hullabaloo and Unfolding Theatre. (Declaration: Thinking Practice has worked with Empty Space, Hullabaloo and Unfolding over the last few years, and I know TSF and NTC well from my time at Arts Council.) 

 It’s an interesting, and in some ways representative, consortium: 1 NPO, currently involved in a capital project as well as touring, 2 companies that have lost regular Arts Council funding in 2012 and 2015 but survive, and 2 organisations that have never had regular funding. Some organisations have long histories, and have reinvented themselves over the years, others are still going through their first evolutions. The leaders, mainly women interestingly (or not), also represent a range of ages, from Miranda Thain, who I think at one point had amongst her claims to fame being the youngest NPO Chief Exec, through to others who have notched up - in the very best sense! - slightly more tours. 

 The Catalyst programme – intended to help organisations increase the amount raised from philanthropy, sponsorship and fundraising – was a key plank of Arts Council’s attempts to ‘capacity build’ towards a new funding model, one less ‘reliant’ on public funding and drawing in more private money. There were a number of consortia supported, which begged an additional question to those raised by other grants: do people give to groups of organisations or to art forms? 

 Twine have recently published a brilliantly honest and open collection of essays called ‘The Truth About Fundraising: Or what we learned as a Catalyst Arts consortium’. It includes reflections and practical tips on individual giving, surviving when you lose regular funding, data sharing, and applying to trusts and foundations - with Natalie Querol and Annie Rigby comparing rather different results there. There’s also some nitty gritty legal and accounting advice (with usual caveats) from the North East culture-world’s favourite accountant, Pete O’Hara. (A former colleague at Northern Arts, Pete is the reason I know ‘brackets are bad.’) 

 You can boil down the conclusions to a few tips. Be realistic about the ££s. (Sample quote: ‘We’ve clearly had a great experience of individual giving. Yet it makes no sense, in terms of the time we’ve put into it, when judged only in financial terms.’) But be ambitious. Be open with your funders and audiences about what you need and why. (Funnily enough, I said this in a conference session just last week, before reading this report. If people can see what it costs to put things on, they are more prepared to help, but organisations need to be a bit more open about the reality.) Keep it simple. Keep it passionate. And keep it true to you. 

 This publication does all those things itself, so should be useful for others grappling with these issues. It doesn't quite answer my question about fundraising for common interest, but I think I picked up a few clues. To be honest, I kind of wanted a balance sheet of investment and return, but I can understand why that is not here. More of this kind of sharing, please, from other Catalyst recipients. 

 Here's the song by Lightnin' Hopkins that's referenced in my title, as my own small philanthropic act:

Friday, 12 June 2015

After the cusp: invention and wakefulness

My last blog here, in March, was headed ‘The cusp of something, but what?’ I’ve left that cliffhanger hanging a while now, for reasons of work, family and football, and we know a little bit more.

Obviously, we’ve had the election. First I was afraid. Then I was petrified. 

Then I decided this would take more than disco songs and turned my silent mind to the survival of the kind of culture I believe in, one with beauty and fairness, where we look after our fellow human beings as well as ourselves. (I do have more detailed policies too, of course. Renationalize the railways, abolish private schools, don’t starve people, that kind of thing.) Nothing I’ve seen in the political sphere has cheered me up any since then, from either the government or the Labour response to defeat. 

The scale of challenge for the cultural sector is apparent. Some people tell me they are tired of thinking about resilience, when they could be thinking of something sexier and more exciting, or simply of being sexy and exciting as artists and organisations. But if ever adaptive resilience was needed it is now. Holding onto purpose and values in as bloody-minded-but-open-and-inventive a fashion is going to be crucial. 

Call me old-fashioned, call me timid, but for all the occasional talk of ‘let some things die and invest in the new’, it feels more important for culture, right now, that most things don’t. That they persist in their creativity, ingenuity and making of meaning. We need culture in the sense of arts, museums, libraries as one of the tools for building the culture in the broader sense that will eventually wash away the brutal selfishness I sometimes – only sometimes - feel surrounded by. For understanding that we are not, actually, surrounded by selfishness and pettiness, but, that most people, however they vote, are decent, compassionate and creative. They just have some bloody funny ways of showing it.

That does not mean we simply acquiesce to the forces of neoliberalist oppression, as some might suggest I’m suggesting. We do what ‘hard-working people’ (and layabout bohemians too) have done for centuries: work as best we can to find and make truth, beauty and justice in unhelpful circumstances, and to create the conditions and mechanisms for others to do so. Holding both principals and pragmatics tightly. Recognising that takes more than individual brilliance, or 'excellence' or 'ambition'. Every true maker of culture creates opportunities, one way or another, for others to do so, I believe. That’s how culture works, as opposed to commerce. We pass it on. That's why resilience matters, and why I continue to think it important to work with individual organisations and on research probing at sectoral level to make it more rather than less likely. 

This is not quite the blog I sat down to write. I suspect I needed to clear the decks for myself, as often after a spell away. (I’ve not been lazy, I have in fact researched and written more than 30,000 words of reports in the last couple of months, but more of that anon.) Over the next couple of weeks, I plan to share a few ‘chinks of light’ here, tools and reading that can be used, adapted or even opposed, as part of the way forward. All suggestions welcome. 

Today's chink of light is a reminder that it was Roy Fisher's 85th birthday yesterday, probably England's greatest living poet. You can read about him here if you don't know his work. I think this blog may have turned out as it did because I was thinking on lines from his CITY, which I read again last night, '‘Once I wanted to prove the world was sick. Now I want to prove it healthy.' The last lines of 'The Thing About Joe Sullivan' may also be apposite: 

 'marks of invention, wakefulness; 

the rapid and perverse 
tracks that ordinary feelings 

make when they get driven 
hard enough against time.'