Monday, 3 May 2010

The three Rs; repetition, repetition, repetition

A few Arts Counselling subscribers I've bumped into in the real world have asked about how to subscribe to my new blog, Thinking Practice. You can do so by going to the site and filling in the email subscribe dooberry on the top tight hand side, or by clicking here and following instructions.

A good many of AC's subscribers have done so, so apologies to you for repetition. Please accept this video of someone playing The Fall's Repetition on a record player by way of recompense. (I do have this single, but this is not my video, honest.)

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

360° Review

Here's the piece I would 'end on'. Although I've mentioned it, and linked to it, I've spared you my poems here, but this is one I wrote for my leaving do, and then forgot, in the emotion of the moment, to read. Besides we'd already had a new Shakespeare poem that night. (Tom Shakespeare, that is, my chair at ACE amongst many other things.) It was probably for the best, that night, but I shared it afterwards with the team in the North East office, and it seemed as as good a way to go quiet here as any.

360° Review

The angles of the north are sharp as words

bitten in the wind, ballasted by bricks

so they can’t float over Pennines or Borders

to the uber-North as it plays its trump card,

devolution. My devotion is fast,

true as the compass of the A19,

A1 , or East Coast Main Line, the magnet’s pull

towards home or good work, twin poles that switch

and twitch like dancers in cold rehearsals.

Even restless melodies can settle

for equilibrium, and those have been mine,

home, work, twin arts of making worlds together.

But winds change, pick my dump weight up and heave.

Release is good, from on high landscapes shift,

graceful application turned to growth, sun

staccato off roofs and extractor fans,

curves and corners of new tunes and stages

rising like time-lapsed dough giddy with yeast.

There’s a toolbox down there, plenty to make

us tight with invention, rapt in creation.

There is no stopping us, no hopes gone south

now, no mothballing but of metaphors

of our doubt. We are done with all that,

have set out on fresh sweaty marathons,

mantras muttered against cynicism’s

insufficient priorities, competing

demands for fresh beats of northern hearts.

The sun sets in the west, beyond Barrow.

Yes, we are brothers and sisters from sea to sea:

our vowels as flat as the plains of class.

I have walked slowly to’t Foot Of Our Stairs,

a long march of a ten year trek but that’s

where I’m bound now, working out what I’ve done.

What we’ve done, is all I can see or say to end.

More is needed than these puzzled lines, more due

to others than this circular ‘thank you’.

But thank you will have to do.

Monday, 5 April 2010

Say goodbye wave hello

Well, I did warn you March might be quiet on here... but I'm back. Kind of.

It's a bit of a shame, really, as in many ways I wanted to ramp up activity here, but it seems the work ethic got in the way during my last few weeks at the Arts Council. However, I was trying to do a few too many things at once to eke out the time and energy to do justice to the subjects that arose here. You may, therefore, never hear about the 'Cafe Culturel' discussion I took part in, with Kate Fox, in which I read poems by Zbigniew Herbert and Czeslaw Milosz and a women in the audience sang us a song after telling us about her job interview, or about what I learnt about arts leadership on the first part of a coaching course, about my struggles turning the theories of resilience into something like plain English or my writing the mother of all leaving poems for 14 colleagues leaving the Arts Council, or the fantastic and art-full week my wife and I have just had in New York.

Those of us who have departed as a result of the recent restructure - which stems back to the last Government Spending Review and will see an extra £6.5M for Regularly Funded Organisations, with the Arts Council having around 25% less staff - are now all off to pastures new. In my case that's my own business, Thinking Practice. The name combines the two elements I believe the arts and culture sector need to integrate even better - more consciously perhaps - than now, and because I hope other people will become involved over time.

The aim is to help the arts and cultural sectors, and maybe the broader third sector, create a fairer and more beautiful world, by helping them to increase their own impact and build their resilience through creative approaches that combine thinking (eg analysis and strategy) with practice (eg doing, learning, coaching). You can read about it on a beta site here.

Lots of people have asked whether I'll carry on blogging when I leave the Arts Council. The short answer is yes, although obviously it's a quite different context. I started Arts Counselling because it seemed the perfect form to share enthusiasms and ideas, whilst demonstrating that not everyone who works for the Arts Council is a faceless bureaucrat. (There are a total of 27 of those according to the most recent HR stats, apparently.) Sadly my Executive Board colleagues have been terribly slow in following my example, not for the first time either, though once someone shows them the on switch for the blogosphere, who knows? Seriously, I'm told Andrew Nairne's twittering is cult following amongst some, and there are more and more ACE-types on there, so things/people are opening up. If you want to petition Alan Davey to take up the Arts Counselling baton his email is publicly available, and I for one think he'd do a great blog.

Opinion has been split on whether I should keep the Arts Counselling name for future blogging. It is - obviously - a brilliant name, but given its origins can't help but relate to my now former employer. I'm incredibly proud of that organisation and my time there, and will be using what I learnt for the rest of my career, but it feels time to let go of that association for my writing. Later this week then, I will start blogging on Thinking Practice. You can expect the same mixture of ideas, thoughts, links, descriptions of experiences, questions and recommendations. You'll also be able to subscribe by email as many people do to Arts Counselling. If you are currently a subscriber you can subscribe to Thinking Practice by clicking here. Please do, I'll be disappointed, and my ego shattered, if too many of you were just watching out of funder-curiosity rather than hanging on my every word.

There's one more post I think it appropriate to put here, then this site will be dormant but available, as I think there's some useful stuff here. I'll find a way of archiving some of the more durable posts on the Thinking Practice site. Thanks for reading, and thanks for all the feedback and thoughts. Remember: it's time for some Thinking Practice.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Michael Foot and the smashed watch trick

On the radio last night they played a great clip of Michael Foot in Parliament assualting Keith Joseph with typical wit and grace. He compares Keith Joseph (one of the hard men of the Thatcher cabinet at that time wandering the country in bewilderment at the industrial 'reorganisation' they had set off) to a magician he used to see in the theatre in Plymouth as a young man, who would obtain a watch from someone in the audience, carefully place it under a handkerchief and then smash it with a mallet. He would then look completely puzzled and announce he had forgotten the second half of the trick...

This made me think two things. Firstly, how the genuine the 'laugh' is when it comes, from the other MPs, and how different that is to today's yahboo behaviour in the house - although there are one or two genuine wits left, notably William Hague, perhaps surprisingly, in themain the barracking and pantomime behaviour would get MPs excluded from any decent comprehensive. Secondly, and more importantly, how relevant the story is today. As all parties try and sound both tough and magical about cuts, hearing Michael Foot's elegant scorn illuminate the real issue, I couldn't help wonder whether the second half of the trick is any better known thirty years on. If it is isn't, only those with the money to buy new watches will be laughing.

(You can hear the clip 55 minutes into the programme here for the next few days.)

Michael Foot and the value of hope

I was really sad to hear the news of Michael Foot passing - although at the ripe old age of 96. I saw him speak a couple of times in the 1980's, once in the run up to the 1983 election and once after that heavy defeat. He was as powerful an orator as I've ever seen in this country. Perhaps not unrelated, he was also one of the most cultured politicians you would find. For him politics and culture and history were not seperate categories, nor were they contained from the real world struggles of real people.

Inevitably much reference has been made to that 1983 election, although his life had been a long and distinguished one even by then, and the tributes have tended to subtly state he was, well, mistaken but passionate and committed. Even at the time of the 1983 election, I thought he was treated unfairly. (I got to vote for the first time in that election, on the day of an English Literature A level exam. We played The Beat's Stand Down Margaret through the 6th Form Common Room in a vain - in all sense of the word probably - attempt to influence voters using the school. It was 14 long years before I got to vote for a candidate that actually got in.)

Thinking about that, and what (and who) Michael Foot represented, I was reminded of something Vaclav Havel said: “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” Checking that quote , I came across this: “Hope is a state of mind, not of the world. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good.” That seems to me what Michael Foot was about, win or lose. In that he differed from the breakaway SDP who really cost the country that election, and their spiritual progeny in all parties. Would that there were more like him still around.

(I know I'm leaving very shortly, but I suppose I should state: personal views, not Arts Council views.)

Friday, 26 February 2010

Giving up art for lent?

Will Self has written in the New Statesman of his idea that we should give up art for Lent in order to get in touch with ourselves. His typically sparky essay ends: 'Our deep faith in Fortuna's free market remains intact, and no dissident theses have been nailed to the doors of Tate Modern. Archbishop Serota sits secure on his throne. As for me, I find I do need a period of contemplation away from the hurly-burly of religious gallery observance. I feel strangely drawn to visit a modern church, where it's quiet and calm, and divinely ugly.'

Perhaps he got the idea from Arts Council England North East's communications team, as they've just conducted a similar experiment, which is documented in the video above. The Usher family from South Shields were asked to remove all art from their lives for a week and see how it felt. (No doodling, no humming, no all singing all dancing as the mum puts it.) They were then rewarded with a week of rather special artistic activities, including workshops with Kate Fox and Beccy Owen round the kitchen table.

Perhaps we should promote a national-no-art-week, as a counter-intuitive way of helping people appreciate the arts more?

Dark and true and tender is the North

Whether the North East forms part of a larger Northern identity has been the subject of much debate recently. Obviously this has resonance for Arts CouncilEngland as we (they!) get closer to implementing the new management structure. Alarm at power shifting is, I think, generally greater than it needs to be, but there's something interesting culturally about it.

The Journal newspaper have been running a campaign 'Case for the North East', which alongside many strong cases has included some rather odd and (to my mind) parochial statements suggesting there is no such thing as the North - it's 'a convenient line drawn on a civil servant's map' and 'the truth is we relate as much to London, Scotland and Europe as we do to the rest of the north'. Economically there may be some truth in that, but culturally I couldn't disagree more. (And whoever built Hadrian's Wall, or thought up the word Northumbria - North of the Humber? - might be with me.)

Of course the North East is as different from the North West as a Geordie accent is from Scouse, and both are different from Yorkshire. But then Tyneside is different from Teesside. They do though, have things in common - industrial and class heritage most particularly. The stereotypes of 'Northernness' cut across the country - and so do the positives. I think that's an interesting thing to explore - and the understanding of our variety and diversity that results a real inspiration.

Two things are happening at the moment that explore ideas of northerness is a more exciting sense than the Journal's campaign. (And don't get me wrong, I want resources and power to reside in the region - just not for almost charitable reasons.) Firstly Northern Stage (now run by that lovely southern lady Erica Whyman, or Why-Aye-man as she's known in Newcastle) is celebrating its 40th birthday with a major project exploring Northernness in a global context. And then The Civic in Barnsley are hosting Northern Futures, a competition for northern talent. I guess one can see the dangers here though, as even I thought they could have included some North Eastern names in their examples. (Or indeed more people who still lived in the North.)

(Of course, I would say all that, wouldn't I, having spent the first 22 years of my life in the NW, 5 in Yorkshire and the last 17 in the North East. I did spend a year in London Village, but that just reinforced my northerness.)