Friday, 29 August 2008

Hit the North?

I grew up in a village near Preston that contained several disused cotton mills, where generations of my ancestors had worked. I went to University in Liverpool but left to go to London for work the day after the 1987 general election. (The sun was shining on a triumphant Jeffrey Archer in London whist it poured with rain as we packed the removal van.) I live now in Stockton-on-Tees, work in Newcastle and can give you an impassioned and illustrated talk on the role of culture-led regeneration in North East England at thirty seconds notice.

So I really ought to have no sympathy at all with the authors of Policy Exchange’s recent ‘Cities Unlimited’ report. This was widely reported as saying (amongst other things) that cities and towns such as Stockton, Liverpool and Sunderland are beyond regeneration, let alone redemption, historical hangovers, and people unfortunate enough to be born or live there should accept that, and move down south. The south of England, meanwhile, had to accept that places like Oxford should double in size. (The only direct reference to the arts is to Baltic in Gateshead, but the point being made is that golf courses might be better for attracting high earners. The boys at Policy Exchange are obviously unaware that both Baltic and our council golf courses attract people from all backgrounds and earning potential.)

To quote Mark E. Smith’s apposite ‘NWRA’, ‘I was mad, and laughed at the same time.’ But, reading the report rather than the reports of it, it isn’t quite as mad, bad or dangerous to read as it might be. The report is sufficiently poorly researched and argued even I can pick holes in it. Their version of ‘economic geography’ seems simplistic, for instance, let alone their version of Sunderland. It obviously makes no sense in a place as small as Britain to write off large chunks of the country as ‘beyond their sell by date’. David Cameron called the report ‘insane’ apparently, which seems a bit strong. Suffice to say I’ve not put my house on the market.

But despite being easy to dismiss, the report raises some interesting questions for those of us who do believe in both the bits of this island that happen not to be London or the South East and in regeneration of all sorts, but especially culture-led:
· Isn't it true we can’t expect to have the same effect everywhere, and we don’t often make this plain?
· To what extent do the economic effects of culture-led regeneration rely on the density you can achieve it cities and large towns – and how might we need to act differently in smaller places?
· To what extent can we achieve an equity of cultural provision across the country without kidding ourselves that what will work or is necessary in Gateshead will work in Grimethorpe and Godalming?
· What would a ‘cultural geography’ reading tell us about Britain, and the places that have been, are and could be culturally ‘productive’?

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

More to life than books you know but not much more?

A couple of people thought I was actually reading Clement Greenberg and Frieze whilst on my holidays. As a family catchphrase has it: I might be daft - but I’m not stupid…

I will wind up gently, after two days of email threshing and thrashing, by sharing the books I did actually read on holiday, for no other reason than some people suggested it.

Bringing It All Back Home by Ian Daley. Fantastic book about music, life, class, identity and place – in particular Featherstone, West Yorkshire. Funny, poignant, stimulating, the last chapter made me weep and the rest made me go delving through my mp3 player. If you’ve ever liked music, or people, you should read this book, so that’s hopefully all of you - but I'm told it might help if you're male and the far side of 40.

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon. Parallel future noir, set in an an Alaskan Jewish-homeland. Prose snappier than a fedora, proper thriller and emotional content too – very satisfying.

Then We Came To an End by Joshua Ferris. Had meant to get away from odd office behaviour on holiday, but this is all about people and their odd behaviour in the office as cutbacks loom and the pointlessness of their jobs dawns on them. (Obviously didn’t ring any bells at all with me…) Starts off funny and a little glib but builds. By the end I was describing it as Joseph Heller’s Something Happened for the web 2.0 age – and I love that book. Fittingly, there are some entertaining web promos. Start here.

The Rain before It Falls by Jonathan Coe. Slight detour from Coe’s usual style – wierdly enough reminded me of Maggie Farrell’s The Vanishing Trick of Esmee Lennox which I read on last year’s holiday. Bit over-written at times but eventually very engaging tale of love, daughters and mothers.

Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks by Christopher Brookmyre. Functional ‘quirky’ thriller I borrowed off my son as I’d run out of other books.

Ok, now it’s back to Westminster and Whitehall Weekly and normal service.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Sing a holiday hymn...

By the power of 'post options' this is delivered while I'm on holiday, just to keep you interested...

Here's two quotes I'll be pondering before going back to work:

"... if you have to choose between life and happiness or art, remember always to choose life and happiness.'' Clement Greenberg

‘Expecting love and understanding in return for work is probably the chief source of misery for creative people. So honour your friends, lovers and family, for only they can give you the recognition you need, and don’t look for it in art.’ Jan Verwoert, Frieze May 2008

Saturday, 2 August 2008

Do you believe in magic?

According to this news story, Barack Obama and David Cameron talked about lack of time to think when they met recently. I know my own days can get horribly crowded, no matter how hard you try to protect some bit of the day. The BBC story suggests a number of ways to carve out time, such as making sure you don’t eat at your desk but go for a walk (something I am not bad at, actually.) Writing things down really helps – which is why the reflective time put into posting here has been beneficial for me, I think.

However, taking a break is also recommended - which is what I’ll be doing over the next couple of weeks, so it will go a bit quiet here. If you want to think summery thoughts about the value of art, identity and aesthetics and so on I suggest you spend 2 minutes and 15 seconds watching this video of The Lovin’ Spoonful doing Do You Believe in Magic?