Monday, 30 June 2008

How many of your neighbours can you name?

I went to a fascinating conference last week. Organised by the North East Social Capital Forum, 'Healthy, wealthy and wise' gave me lots to think about, both personally and professionally. Social capital is the relationships that bind us together and lead us to trust others around us - including those not in our direct networks. The arts can play a key role in building social capital - from two people singing or playing instruments together to huge gatherings like Glastonbury via the multitude of groups, societies and communal arts activities people take part in.

A number of speakers set out the potential benefits of social capital - which has been linked to creating the conditions for safe, creative economies to develop. (It can also be used for ill: bullying, racism and homophobia, for instance, rely on a form of social capital that excludes ‘the other’.) The keynote speaker was Robert Putnam, a Harvard professor who is a leading figure in this field. It's worth looking at his ideas, which have lots of relevance to those making arguments for the arts, or thinking how to develop engagement in the arts.

It can help to think what puts people off, as well as what attracts them to the arts as personal or social activity. (And of course the new digital social networks mean you can be private and social at once far more comfortably.) You can see some of the presentations (some of which suffered from that prevalent condition relianceonpowerpointitis) on the Community Foundation website.

My personal challenges? Well, if it's true that every 10 minutes of commuting by car reduces your likelihood of taking part in community activity by 10%, how do I find more time to get involved locally? And how many of my neighbours could I name? Not as many as I could when I worked shorter hours, from home, and picked the kids up from school. Conclusion: work gets in the way of social capital. Or substitutes one network for another with different effects.

I think arts organisations could think productively about how they encourage the building of social capital. Perhaps adapt some of the ideas on this website. (Rather folksy, maybe, and more suited to America than some other countries, perhaps, but adaptable.) Why don’t arts venues host blood donor sessions, for instance, for staff and local people? (Click here if that sounds like a good idea and you’re in the UK.) Could there be more discussions after shows, or open houses where people can simply meet staff? What kind of greeting do visitors get?

And of course, the conference gave me plenty to think about how the Arts Council could produce more interaction and trust. But I’ll come back to that.

Monday, 16 June 2008

Once we had a country and we thought it fair

It’s Refugee Week in the UK. (Please open this link in another window and listen to Open Air FM’s ‘Celebrating Sanctuary’ programme whilst reading this post.) Refugee Week is a festival of arts, cultural and education activity that celebrates the contribution of refugees to British life. Why’s this anything to do with the arts? Well, many people who have to go into exile are often put in that position because of their cultural activism – their writing, their films, their art, as well as their politics. And culture becomes even more important in exile.

If you want to know why you should be bothered at all you could start by reading the novelist Mark Haddon’s recent piece about the way the Government treats asylum seekers in the UK. My wife is an ESOL teacher in Stockton-on-Tees, and I’ve met many people with astonishing stories, talented people with lots to give, some of whom end up sleeping on friends’ floors and getting by on vouchers and charity, when they could be giving something back to the country they are very grateful too, despite their troubles. I know the stories Mark Haddon tells are sadly typical. I also share the feelings of anger and shame he describes.

There are an increasing number of projects trying to ensure the skills and talents that people bring to this country don’t get lost under the brutal pressures of survival. Exiled Writers, for instance brings writers together in London and on the web. You can look on the Refugee Week site for other examples.

The North East’s best Adopted-Geordie-American-Iranian filmmaker Tina Gharavi has made an eight hour film called Asylum Carwash for the Engaging Refugees & Asylum Seekers project; a partnership project between National Museums Liverpool, Salford Museums and Art Gallery, Tyne & Wear Museums and Leicester City Museums Service. The description ends with the question I’ll end on too: How often do we think about what people are forced to endure in order to survive?

(This post definitely fits into the ‘personal opinion not necessarily reflecting the Arts Council position’ category, though I’m proud to see our logo on the Refugee Week funders and partners page. If you’re interested in another essay on art and asylum, you can still read my introduction to Geoff Broadway’s 2001 Durham Cathedral Residency exhibition on his site. The title of this post comes from W.H. Auden's Refugee Blues.)

Friday, 13 June 2008

Who do you love?

Here's a coming together of politics and culture that made me smile. An 'Early Day Motion' has been laid in the Westminster Parliament asking the House to note the passing of the fabulous rectangular-guitared gravel-voiced genius Bo Diddley, who sadly died last week. (Just in case anyone thinks I'm being ironic, I'm not, and will beat you with my very thick vinyl copy of Bo Diddley's Greatest Hits if I need to prove it.) You can read it here and see who's signed it. There's some kind of irony in the mention of the economy and debt, given Bo Diddley was, like many black musicians of his generation, understandably bitter about the deals he was forced to sign as a young man.

I stumbled across this in my weekly update from the Conservative Culture team, to whom, given some of their recent press releases, I dedicate this brilliant clip of Diddley's 'You Can't Judge A Book By Its Cover'.

Monday, 9 June 2008

Do you remember the first time?

I used to do lots of poetry readings. I’ve read to hundreds of people, and I’ve read to less people than I can fit round my kitchen table. I’ve had some great times performing and I’ve had some miserable times when reading poems out loud has felt like the most archaic thing you can do short of going to live in a cave. (I imagine my audiences’ experiences have varied similarly.)

Last week I did one of my rare readings. (Although I am still writing, it’s been a while since I’ve had anything substantial published other than in anthologies such as last year’s ‘A Balkan Exchange’, the output of a collaboration with some friends in Bulgaria and North East England.) Thanks to an invite from the kind folks at Richmond’s Georgian Theatre Royal I was the guest at their monthly reading. After my performance, there was an ‘open floor’ slot for other people there. (I was going to write ‘audience’ but the roles moved around during the evening.)

No less than three people said they were reading a poem out in public for the first time. It was clearly a big step for all of them, a brave, exposing and emotional moment, and something everyone there responded to. As the guest poet and ‘MC’ I felt nervous and responsible for the atmosphere. I was reminded of the huge commitment it takes to ‘participate’, one we who work in the arts can sometimes take for granted. That first time experience is a really crucial one: do we make it as safe as we can for people to take that risk?

Some years ago I edited Words Out Loud, a book of essays on ‘the poetry reading’ and what might be going on in one. I was reminded last week of something Keith Jafrate said in his essay: ‘All those life-changing moments can’t be sold, to ‘the audience’, to other promoters or to the arts quangos. That is to say, a faith cannot be sold.’ The book is now out of print but you can probably pick one up second-hand, and I have a few left if anyone’s especially keen.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Am I now too old to enjoy On The Road?

Here’s an interesting example of the dilemmas around how to encourage ‘participation’ – in this case, reading. Some of the major children’s publishers are suggesting adopting ‘age banding’. This means that books will display the recommended age range for readers. The theory is this guidance will make is easier for adults to buy books for children and young people, ‘signpost’ potential readers towards books they are more likely to enjoy, and thus encourage more children to read books and thereby increase our rather depressing child literacy rates. The big publishers and some writers support this approach. I imagine it might also appeal to grandparents and aunties and uncles, not to mention children used to unwrapping books they’re never going to read.

On the other hand, Phillip Pullman and many other leading children’s authors are asking for support for their protest at this. They feel the approach would be damaging to young readers, put some off books that might seem either ‘babyish’ or ‘too old’ according to their banding, and generally undermine individuality – as well as ignoring the intentions of many writers and illustrators to make their work matter to people of all ages. You can read their case, and join the protest if persuaded, at

This looks like a classic example of good intentions being undermined by clumsy intervention that goes against the grain of what actually motivates people. Think of the books you might have missed if you paid more attention to banding than to design, the first pages, the blurb, your instinct, and so on. Why not adopt the ‘if you like that, try this’ technique as refined, in different ways by Amazon and And whilst we’re at it, why not use that more widely right across the arts? I know they can get it horribly wrong, but that’s part of the fun, isn’t it?

(Mind you, I do sometimes think some of the existential Penguin Classics I read as a teenager should have had a sticker on saying ‘You might actually be too young and hopeful for this. Lighten up and come back when you’re older.' And when I read the new 'scroll' edition of Kerouac's On The Road I did indeed wonder whether I was getting too old and grumpy for it...)

Monday, 2 June 2008

Michael Standen

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the importance of adult education and mentioned some of the stalwart writer-tutor-organisers in North East England. Yesterday I heard that one of them, Michael Standen, had passed away suddenly. Michael had been one of the activists in North East literature since I was in short trousers, as an editor and writer as well as in his long-time day job at the WEA. He was also a key member of the editorial group of Other Poetry magazine, and of Colpitts Poetry, the long running reading series in Durham. He had just marked turning 70 with a fine selected poems published by Shoestring Press, who had also published a festschrift of poems by Michael's many poet friends.

Obviously my sympathies go to Michael’s family and friends, especially his wife Val. He was both exceptional in his qualities and typical of many people who keep the arts – perhaps especially literature – going in the small corners of our country. Although I never got a note from him without some implicit - or indeed explicit - exhortation to get rid of our application forms, he still treated me as a collaborator in our literary culture and always put the work first. Michael had been around long enough to remember the days things could be sorted out over a quiet chat with the literature officer. Mind you, so have I, and though we had slightly different takes on that era, we had the same ends in mind. We would also swap stories of committees, organisational frustrations and the awkwardness of having to take ‘tough decisions’. He was a patient, kind and funny man, but with the stubbornness necessary to put on poetry readings for decades. Few of you that read this will know who he was, but trust me, there are very few of his like, and he will be sadly missed.