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.