Hard Times

Throughout September I stood on street corners in Peckham and handed out flyers for the Peckham Fun Palace.  Well I tried to.  The first set of flyers were designed to encourage people to come forward with ideas and suggestions, or just enthusiasm, to take part in the making of the Fun Palace, later on and nearer the date I had flyers with things that people could come to – a choir, a monster workshop, a flash-fry-Frankenstein.  Everything was free.  It was also supposed to be fun.  But for some reason the idea of ‘free fun’ or ‘free fun event’ or ‘Peckham Fun Palace’ seemed like anything but fun to the people of Peckham as they laboured along burdened by shopping, kids or just a scowl.  I mean, of course, some people did take the leaflet, some people even smiled and said thank you.  Some people even came.  But it puzzled me that so many people would reject something that was free, easy (no registration or logging in, just turn up on the day) and could provide either them or their kids with two hours free entertainment.

So I’ve been thinking about that for quite a while now.  And I think what it is, is that people are thinking ‘Life is Hard’.  And if you think life is hard, then it probably is, for you.  That is not to say that the people I’m talking about are self-deluded millionaires who worry about Waitrose dropping their favourite flavour of crisps.  Life is probably not easy for these people, like it isn’t easy for you and me, they have to work, they have to pay their bills, money is tight – for some just for the necessities, for others saving for something special.  Anyone with kids and no ‘staff’ to help them look after them is going to be working hard, one way or another.  But if you keep thinking to yourself ‘life is hard’, ‘my life is so hard’, it creeps into your attitude to everything.  So you look at me, handing out my little postcards and you think ‘I don’t have time, I don’t want to deal with anything else, I can’t be bothered with that.  Are you crazy woman? that you think I have time for ‘fun’!’ and maybe you just turn your head away, or shake it, or even tut as you go by.  If you do take the card (because it’s easier than not and maybe you sympathise with me and my ‘hard life’ standing there in the rain) you look at it and think, ‘oh maybe, if only I had the time, if only I had the energy, if only my life wasn’t so demanding and exhausting I’d actually do this, I could do with some fun, but….’  So one way or another, that hard life of yours is actually stopping you from doing something that might make it a bit less hard.

I don’t mean just fun things, but other stuff too, because you don’t want to take on any more ‘burdens’ you don’t volunteer for things, you aren’t active in your community, you don’t protest, maybe you don’t even vote, you don’t complain until you really, really have to.  If more and more people retreat into their hard life shells, then it will all get harder for everyone.  Instead of seeing an opportunity to work together to make things better, people are staying clear of each other for fear of being dragged into something that will add to their work load or their financial commitments.  But maybe it only takes a few people to step outside of that hard life shell to make a difference?

In his track ‘Hard Times’ Plan B has this to say:

Through these hard times people see what it’s like for the poor

Through these hard times people really find out what it’s like to be ignored
Through these hard times people just don’t seem to give a damn, oh oh no
Through these hard times it really feels like no one understands, mm mm yeah yeah

To a certain extent I think more people now do see and understand what it is like for the poor.  The “squeezed middle”, may not be living in a damp, overpriced, bedsit living off value beans, but they are beginning to understand what financial insecurity feels like, what working harder for less feels like, what ‘hard life’ feels like.  And yes it does seem like people don’t give a damn.  And certainly politicians will have to search their memory banks to remember what it feels like.  And most of the cabinet and most of those on the other front bench haven’t got a clue (although I daresay some of them do think their lives are hard) and some of them also don’t give a damn.

In my own little world I divide people up into ‘people who give a damn’ and ‘people who don’t’.  There are some people who will take an active part in society, regardless of whether it brings them any direct benefit, because they care about the whole, not just themselves.  They are the people who will start an action group, go on a march, sign a petition, create an event, raise money for charity, volunteer, vote, do stuff that helps make the world a better place (even if it’s just picking up litter from a communal square).  Other people want it done for them. They might not articulate it like that, but effectively, they want a nicer world, but they either don’t think it is achievable (so why bother to try) or don’t think they have the capacity to do anything extra (hard life) to make a difference.

Despite the lip-service that is ‘Big Society’ the austerity propaganda of the Government, actually reinforces the idea of ‘hard life’ of belt tightening, hard times, financial insecurity, and that creates a climate of paranoia about the future and that promotes hard life thinking.  Far from believing that we are ‘all in this together’ hard life thinking makes us more concerned to protect ourselves and our own and less inclined to offer help out to strangers or the world in general.  It fuels the kind of paranoia that allows far right parties such as UKIP to gain a toe-hold.  Their simplistic policies are easily understood and provide no intellectual challenges or equivocations, their subliminal message is ‘we will protect you and your interest from all threats’.  Not un-surprisingly they appeal to the struggling workers who despite employment still find themselves on the borders of, or in poverty (8 million adults live in poverty in the UK, but officially only 2 million are unemployed – putting 6 million in jobs that don’t pay enough to lift them out of poverty).  Not understanding how that might feel, the other parties continue to bicker amongst themselves and rely on ad-men and pollsters to try and work out what might appeal to voters, usually resulting in unconvincing gloss over small changes in policy details, rather than anything that will make a difference than anyone can understand.  So maybe if we are to counter UKIP and its encroachments we need some positive propositions – how we can ‘all be in it together’, how being poor is not unalterably a bad thing, and being rich a good thing.  Yes we need roofs over our heads and enough to eat, but there is so much more we could have with that that doesn’t need to cost a thing – the c.60,000 people who attended 139 Fun Palaces over the weekend of 4/5 October found that out – free fun – how about that!  And many of the Fun Palaces, like the one in Peckham, cost very little to put on and make – maybe £100 for some flyers and supplies, but most run on voluntary effort, volunteered and shared resources and spaces.

So how do we get round this, how do we change our state of mind from ‘hard life’ to ‘good life’ without changing our actual circumstances?  Well to quote Sam Kogan ‘we think what we want to think’ so we could just think about it differently.  It isn’t always easy to do that, and even with an effort of will, the small obstacles that life throws up can easily dump us back into our hard life thinking.

But here is an example from my own life.  In June I got made redundant from my part-time job.  The job that paid the rent and the bills.  I still had another freelance job – but it wasn’t going to keep me afloat.  Just before I got made redundant a friend had approached me with some freelance work and that would keep me going for a bit too.  I figured with my pay and redundancy money (not much, about two month’s wages), and some savings, and the freelance job, I could probably keep going till November.  So I decided I would only apply for jobs I really wanted to do.  I decided that I wasn’t going to panic until the money actually ran out.  I still had the occasional panic (of course), but I reminded myself that things had been worse in the past, in fact my financial situation had often been worse when I was in full unemployment and with a good salary.  I had to keep reminding my friends (who were practically coming round with casseroles) that I had been made redundant not bankrupt and that the two were not inextricably linked.  In fact I hated my job and was trying to leave anyway, as soon as I got over the shock of being told I was being made redundant I felt like an enormous burden had been lifted.  In the months since, when I’ve begun to think those ‘hard life’ thoughts again I’ve just had to remind myself ‘at least I’m not working at xxx anymore!’ and that is often enough to put me back on track.

Whilst I was trying to pull together the Peckham Fun Palace I had a lot of ups and downs, as the time neared for the actual weekend, I got more and more apprehensive, things seemed to fall apart a bit in terms of arrangements and I definitely got sucked back into ‘hard life’ thinking.  But was it really so hard?  I had several happy volunteers to help me on the day.  People did turn up for at least part of it.  They enjoyed themselves.  I enjoyed helping them make monsters.  But dragging a shopping trolley full of paint and a wheely suitcase full of other stuff back in the rain on the Sunday evening I felt miserable.  But really I was just tired and hormonal (PMT) and I needed to get over myself and not wallow in a rut of hard times.

Because what I have found, since becoming poorer, by losing my job, is that I’ve actually got richer.  I have time to do things that make me happy.  Time to do more of the things I enjoy and care about; working on What Next? Southwark, making a Fun Palace, writing, painting, teaching a friend to draw, dog-sitting and walking, acting, reading, getting involved.  So far I haven’t run out of money, and of course I save money because so much of the stuff I’m doing is either free or costs little.  I don’t need to self-medicate with lunches from Pret and a treat for dinner when I get home.  I don’t need to go shopping for clothes and shoes I don’t need because I need to feel that working for money has to have a point to it, if I hate the work itself.  The money I’m earning now comes from things I do care about, things I do want to be involved in and do.  The people I’m working with respect me and treat me like an equal and a colleague not a minion, so I don’t need to bolster my self esteem by enhancing my appearance, I can just be me (and it turns out I’m very cheap to run if I’m just myself!).

So I’m staying in this moment, and living like this is going to be my life. I’m not thinking, what if the future is bleak, what if I die old and poor, what if…. Because I’m not a clairvoyant and I can’t see all the details of my future so I’m not going to worry about the details of my future.  I think if I make an effort now to make the world I live in a better place, if I make an effort now to live in a more sustainable way and work with people who are trying to make governments understand what needs to be done to sustain the planet and sustain the people on it, then by the time the future comes round maybe it will be the better future I’ve made, rather than one I can imagine from the fixed point of now.

So here’s another little song lyric from one of my favourite albums – The Harrow and the Harvest – it’s from a track called ‘Hard Times’ by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings:

“Singing hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind
Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind, Bessie
Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind no more”

So there you have it: hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind no more.  Give it a go.

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#create365 no.16 a different way of doing things

I was going to title this piece ‘a better way of doing things’ and then I stopped because I wasn’t sure that what we did at the weekend was ‘better’, but it was ‘different’ and it was certainly very enjoyable.  What was it that we did? Well…..

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The programme (made in a hour on Thursday morning)

Hilary Jennings finally got to put her long-held plan of a Southside Players play in a weekend (that was also a new directors workshop) into action.  We took the play ‘Two’ by Jim Cartwright – although it is designed for just two actors to play a huge number of parts, this means that each scene is a manageable duo-logue (or in some cases mostly monologue), making a collaborative approach easier in terms of logistics, style, continuity and story.   A company of 20 people assembled, some would direct, some would act, some would do both, some parts were played by more than one person and some people played more than one part.  Hilary had the joyful job of writing the schedule for this.

Having done a basic readthrough on Wednesday and been allocated our parts and directors, on Saturday we met in the weird and wonderful ‘Shakespearian style globe Theatre’ of the Bedford pub.

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Looking down from the Gallery of the theatre, rehearsal in progress

We sat in a circle and we talked – we did a lot of this -it was a good thing – we found out, that we all knew a lot more than we thought we did, that we had a wide range of expertise and that the individual view point of experiencing something (as an actor or a director) was just as valid as a system or method that required training and practice.  We started off talking about warm-ups, why we do them, whether we should do them, what works, what doesn’t, why they need to be adapted to the type of play you are doing, the kind of cast you have, and the point you are in the process – a rehearsal warm-up and a pre-show warm-up might be very different.

Then we did some warm ups! My favourite was (I think) called House.  People are grouped in differently numbered groups around a circle (two people in one place, three in another, five in another) – these are the houses – a big group is a big house, a small one is a flat.  The homeless person has to go round to each of these houses and ask to be let in – they can do this in any style, the houses then reject them and tell them to move on mimicking the style they have been asked in – so far so good.  At any point someone in a house can decide to ‘move house’ they do this by running to one of the other houses – each house must only ever have the right number of people in it so everyone starts to run – the person left without a house at the end is the new homeless person – repeat until you all fall on the floor from exhaustion/laughing too much.

We then looked at ways of looking at text.  Again we had some general discussions, how you might mark the actual text to make it easier, how you might analyse it for the verbal structure, how you might analyse it in the context of the play.  We did some interesting exercises with a piece of text from the play and looked at all sorts of ways of finding meaning, relationship, physicality – to be honest at one point we did start to make it up but that is the nature of the game anyway so we just went with this.  We then sat around and I explained a bit about the ten steps for creating a character/analysing a play and that led to a discussion about different ‘methods’ and styles – ie not everything is Stanislavskian.

We then split off into our director/actor groups and did some work on our scenes.  After lunch I did a short session on ‘objectless action’ as the play specifically states that all props are to be ‘mimed’.  Then we did some more work on our scenes and those of us doing more than one thing did the other thing.

At the end of the day we came together to agree things that needed a consensus – this was the most interesting bit, with eight directors and another 12 people involved you’d think this might be tricky.  It took minutes.  We had a flip chart sheet with the plan of the theatre on it.  We decided where the street was, where the bar was, where the tv was, all the physcial context of the pub.  We agreed the season.  We agreed any other stuff that were required.  We agreed the timetable for the next day.

Using the map actor/director

Using the map actor/director

 

On Sunday we mostly just rehearsed the different parts, then did a run through and then did the performance.  What struck me as so interesting and maybe ‘better’ was that in one room you could have two directors directing two different scenes and some actors running through stuff they’d already worked on.  There was no tension, no huffing about ‘too loud’ or ‘in my space’ and it seemed (to me) some how more relaxed than a normal rehearsal – even though we were technically ‘up against the clock’.  It felt like the divided attention actually allowed the actors to be freer, braver, and the divided responsibility of the directing also gave the directors breathing space.  Often being part of a cast can feel great, like you’re part of a crack troop of soldiers, but being the director sets you apart, you’re the Captain, or the General and you have to take charge and ‘make it happen’.  In our very communal set up, everyone was one of the troops.

A panoramic view of one of the rehearsal rooms, three different scenes in progress

A panoramic view of one of the rehearsal rooms, three different scenes in progress

Because of the duplication of directing effort – we got so much more time – a play in a weekend – yes, but working 10 till 5 each day with an hour for lunch is only 12 hours.  Take out all the workshops and discussions and its more like 5 hours of actual scene work.  But times that by 8 and you have 20 hours of scene work (and it’s a short play) which is a big difference.  So this made what might have been a mad-scramble into something that felt way more leisurely than the average rehearsal period for either am-dram or fringe (50-80 hours for am-dram and maybe 80-150 hours for fringe/low budget).

And it worked, the performance worked, and people were happy.  The audience, the directors, the actors.  So happy that we all wanted to do it again.  Or maybe try it on something more challenging, or in a different style, we started talking about plays that might work, and how collaboration is so much more enjoyable, interesting and rewarding than just doing your own thing.  I suspect there will be more of this to come and it may be ‘better’ or it may just be ‘different’ – as long as we come out the end of it with something that people enjoy and find worthwhile it doesn’t really matter which.

 

 

 

 

 

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Things I’d like to see (part 1): Real diversity in the arts

I’ve been thinking a lot, a lot, a lot about this.  And, you know me, talking about it quite a bit.

The thing about diversity is – it’s quite diverse and there are going to be certain barriers that are specific to certain groups and not others.  It’s also not always helpful to lump people into bigger groups just for the ease of not having to spell everything out.  The needs of people with mobility challenges – in wheelchairs and so on, are not necessarily the same needs as those with sensory impairment challenges (hearing or sight loss) so you can’t just talk about ‘disability’ as if it was a big homogenous group.  Ditto BAME – that’s a lot of different people you’ve lumped in their in that 4 letter acronym.  The cultural backgrounds of different ethnic groups might not necessarily depend so much on their genetic ethnicity but where they were brought up, where their parents were brought up and the socio-economic circumstances of both their own and their family’s past generations.  A third generation black kid from a family of academics and diplomats isn’t going to face the same barriers to accessing the arts as the child of first generation Somalian imigrants working in low paid menial jobs.  We are all different… Or are we.

There is a degree of homogeneity in the arts and that is white, male, privileged and in control.  Sounds familiar?  Yes, it reflects government, banking, big business, etc, etc.  Clearly women have made a bit of an impact – we are no longer quite as marginalised and you could say that on the second rung of privilege were white, privileged women.  It should be said that having a disability of any kind in these two groups – will knock you down the rungs a bit.  It’s a snakes and ladders kind of game after all.

I don’t think quotas are the answer – even for women who actually are half the population.  Ethnic diversity in the UK is not as great as one might think – sitting in the centre of London – here in the capital we are nearly half and half, elsewhere in the UK that drops significantly.  That isn’t the point though.  Diversity in the arts isn’t about representation, about giving people a proportional share, because that isn’t the value of it.  The value – as it would be if we could ever crack diversity in political representation – is in the multiplicity of viewpoints, the variety of experience, the difference in approach not just to the idea of cultural diversity, but to all sorts of things that spring from variety.  Right now a lot of the people of influence, success and power in the arts have arrived their through the same routes, learning the same things in the same handful of institutions and taking the same paths to their achievement.  Right now there might be a few of them left that had a slightly different educational route – maybe even from a comprehensive, but as those few retire, the next generation will become even more identical.  Unless we do something about it of course.

What could we do – what is this thing I’d like to see?

Education – the Department of Education needs to stop faffing about tinkering with examinations and make up its mind whether it is going to have a National Curriculum – or not.  There is no point in a National Curriculum that is only enforced on c. 45% of schools.  If they aren’t going to bother – and given that the rhetoric over Free schools is that they are better ‘ because they can make free choices about what they teach’ it seems odd to impose what they are saying are less than ideal restrictions on the very schools they have direct control of.  So how do you influence what is taught if you don’t have a National Curriculum.  By performance measures in certain subjects – that’s how.  Currently it’s STEM (Science, technology, engineering and maths) and it really ought to be STEAM – A for arts.  Every child should have the right to choose arts GCSE and A levels.

Engagement: Given that arts education in schools can be limited – there must be greater opportunities for children to engage with the arts through after-school clubs and through actual trips out to theatre, galleries, dance, concerts, etc.  I have been told anecdotally that in some areas there is no budget for trips as the parents can’t cover the costs and nor can the school – surely here is a worthy recipient of Arts Council lottery money?  The ability to attend after-school clubs can also be shut off due to weekly fees and ‘extras’ for kit and trips.  Again the poorest kids miss out.  But surely it isn’t beyond the wit of man to find a way to help out – if we can hand out free school meals, why not free school arts and sports?  It isn’t really that the stuff isn’t there for them either – there are lots of good companies, both aimed specifically at children and also big companies running education programmes – but if they aren’t properly funded to enable them to provide chunks of stuff for free then barriers pop up, but even if they do, people need to get to these places and get home again.

Visibility – it’s easier to see diversity in the arts if you are already engaged – on the stage and on tv it is possible to see all sorts of people from all sorts of background.  But that pool of diversity is shrinking and drying up, and the people behind the scenes, and the backers, producers and purse string holders remain resolutely white, privileged and often male.  It would be great to see more critical weight and more wide ranging media coverage of smaller and more interesting productions – it’s all very well to televise of live broadcast big star shows from big star companies – but how much better engagement would be if we also got some of the small stuff – maybe some of the stuff from the regions?  The Royal Exchange Manchester is churning out an extraordinary amount of theatre that addresses all sorts of different ‘gaps’ in the system – using ‘mainstream’ plays they bring different view points – recently an all black ‘All My Sons’ and coming soon Maxine Peake in Hamlet – where are the live broadcasts from Manchester?  I recently had Theatre Royal Plymouth rehearsing in the space I manage in London.  I said ‘look forward to seeing the reviews’ and they laughed, sadly, and said ‘you won’t see any reviews. No-one will come to Plymouth’ – how outrageous is that?  Fabulous things could be going on all over the country but unless you are right next door – we’ll never know – because national critics can’t be bothered or can’t get the expense budget to stay overnight.

This is just a starting point and I’d really welcome comments either challenging what I’m saying and offering an alternative approach or giving some ideas of what else we could do, how else we can make this happen.   I just want to see it happen – I don’t claim to have any or all of the solutions that can make that so.

 

 

 

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Ask the Artist

Last night I went to the first Provocation to come out of the Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value – it was titled ‘Are cuts to funding the greatest threat to culture?’

Now the Commission are quite clear that they need some better working definition of ‘Culture’ but it seems to me, and certainly was implied by the panel, that when we are talking about ‘cuts to funding’ we are talking about ‘cuts to funding in the arts’ and in this context we are therefore talking about the value of arts (and how that then becomes a value to culture).

My thinking is this:

Arts are the artist’s interrogation of and response to the world around them.  This results in expression of some kind – not always a product, not always for public consumption.  It may only result in leading the artist to some new process or response.

Culture is the diffusion of these expressions into society – at the strongest level – where they are coming direct from the artist they are what we might traditionally call ‘Culture’ – exhibitions, theatrical performances, symphonies.  At their most diffuse they are in the adverts we watch, the video games we play and the memes and norms we accept as part of our society and national identity (I have a lot more to say about this but I’ll keep it brief here!).

As such the artist is an essential part of any debate about arts and culture. 

Extraordinarily given the theme of this provocation, not a single artist was represented on the panel (the project itself in terms of both Commissioners and Academics is low on any kind of creative worker).   The two rather gloomy economists pretty much suggested that the arts would just have to suck it up and hope to come out the other side of economic austerity by being ingenious and stoic.  That rather incensed me.  This was followed by some debate about funding of institutions and organisations, with interventions about private funding from the floor.  Once or twice Alan Davey from the Arts Council mentioned the need to nurture talent.  Bev Skeggs, a sociologist from Goldsmiths, spoke up for the need for Education to be addressed particularly in relation to maintaining diversity in the arts (another massive topic for another day).   But if the value of the artist was acknowledge it was in some kind of assumed or implied way or referenced as a product: ‘talent’.  This made me cross, so when it came to question time I asked my question, which was something like:

“Where is the voice of the artist in this debate, in this commission?  If we value the arts do we not by implication value the artist? The artists of this country have done far more in subsidising the arts in this country than either government or private investment.  We are the people with two jobs, paying taxes, working at a grassroots level.  On David Cameron’s (alleged) favourite CD there is a track that begins “Everything is free now, that’s what they say.  But we’re going to do it anyway, even if it doesn’t pay” and this is the cultural norm in the UK.  If we are going to change that, and I think we should, then you need to give artists a voice in these debates and discussions.”

Well that’s what I think I said, I don’t have a transcript so no doubt I will be corrected.

My comment about the artists subsidising the arts raised a round of applause.  The actual question was greeted with a rather panicky silence from the panel followed by some rather unspecific answers.  I doubt anyone had thought about why there were no artists on the panel, why there was no artist represented except as an ‘arts installation’ outside the room the debate was held in (a fact which to me says something so literal about patronage and the patronising of artists that it is mind boggling that so many clever people couldn’t see it).

Alan Davey, Chief Executive of the Arts Council, was about to answer me when the debate was moved on because of time constraints.  So this morning I wrote to him and asked if he would like to make his response.  This was my letter:

“We spoke briefly last night at the Warwick Commission provocation.  I was the person who asked the question about the artist’s voice (and I should clarify that by artist I mean all those involved in creative practice: artists, dancers, musicians, actors, directors, writers).  I didn’t feel that I quite got my message across to you and that you thought I was in some way attacking you/the Arts Council.  This was certainly not my intention and I could see that you were one of the people on the panel who had some concern for those actually creating the art – rather than just institutions and organisations.

I know that the Arts Council does do valuable work to help artists access funding but my real point was about actually asking artists to take part in debates and conversations about funding and arts and culture strategy – not from a ‘give us some more money’ point of view, but to find out from them what they think needs to be done to sustain the arts in the UK during this period of ‘austerity’ (whether you believe in it or not it’s certainly real enough for the people holding the purse strings). 

It may be that if you involved the artists themselves in these discussions they would not be about ‘more’ money but how that money might be better spent to encourage a pipeline of talent that would feed into the both the cultural world generally (the psycho-social value of culture) as well as our growing commercial creative sector (the economic value of culture).  If we do not value our artists and encourage them at the grassroots then the arts scene will be dominated by art made by and for an elite of rich people and rich people’s children.  Real talent will move away from the UK and with it our dominance of the cultural economy and cultural head space of the world.

There is plenty to be said about the role of Education in this debate.  But I would again urge you to use the Arts Council as a way of engaging artists’ voices in these discussions.  Don’t just talk to the people running organisations and institutions that employ people or commission them.  The majority of artists are not on salaries, are not ‘employed’ in any real sense by an organisation, they live from commission to commission, a day’s work here, a month there.  Their views will be different from those who have buildings to maintain and employees’ jobs and welfare to consider.  You might find those views a refreshing change or you might find them an additional challenge, but I would make the plea that you at least attempt to get them heard, both by the Arts Council itself, but also by those that you, as an agency, interact with in both Government, private philanthropy and the creative industries.

If I was over-emphatic yesterday and appeared aggressive I do apologise – this is a subject I am extremely passionate about and that is sometimes hard to channel into polite conversation!”

This was his response:

“I never really got onto the involving artists bit – which I really do believe in – and we have to make sure we do it.  Only on Monday we involved some artists in looking at our approach to ‘Rebalancing Cultural Capital’ and the result was brilliant.  We were told firmly where our arguments missed the point and where we should be stronger.  I think we need to involve artists as we evolve things or we’ll be irrelevant”

Both the evolution and the involvement will be good if they happen!  I’d make another plea though.  Don’t just involve the artists you know about, that you fund, or have achieved success.  Try and talk to the ones who aren’t emerging, but who emerged and then retreated, who were full of promise but have been stalled by lack of opportunity, lack of space, lack of financial security.  There are a lot of things that artists need in order to do their work that aren’t anything to do with money – not cash money.  They need space, they need a voice, they need opportunities, they need supportive networks.  They need these to not be bound by stupid briefs and rules and regulations that tick some funder/sponsor/investor boxes.   Or provided by people who want to guide them and mould them and ‘mentor’ them into the accepted mainstream or the accepted alternatives.  Ask us! Ask us what we need.  Ask us what we think the strategy should be for supporting arts and culture in the UK, because we are the people who are going to have to make it happen and we are the people with the creativity and imagination that might find solutions you haven’t even thought of yet.   As Robert Peston pointed out – this is something that computers and robots can’t do!

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Say No to the Status Quo – how to use your vote to make change happen

Step 1: Find out who is standing for election – not just the big parties who will be letter-bombing your door with leaflets… Make a list.

Step 2: Cross out anybody you would never vote for – whether the person or the party

Step 3: What’s Left?

Some parties you’ve voted for before but are now disillusioned with

Some parties you’ve considered but don’t know much about

Some independents you know nothing about

Step 4: Do some research

Find out about parties you’ve never voted for but might now consider

Find out about independent candidates and what they stand for

Step 5: Draw up a list of things you care about that are affected by Government policy – health, education, airport expansion, train fares, badgers, whatever.

Step 6: Cross check your list of what you care about with the parties and people you might consider voting for

Maybe have a scoring system – you can weight it – say 5 if they match on an issue you are really passionate about and 2 if you care about it, and 1 if it’s just something you think is an ‘ought to do’ rather than particularly emotive for you.

Step 7: You’ll either have a clear winner – that you can now vote for – in the event of a tie vote for the woman candidate, or if they are both women – toss a coin.

If you still can’t find anyone to vote for – spoil your ballot paper – be counted as disenchanted not disenfranchised – people died so you can vote.

For info on how things are run in the UK: http://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/

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Show me the evidence!

George and Dave may still be intent on showing us the money but I say “show me the evidence!”

In the last decade, with almost global access (and input into) the internet and its many web-based resources, we have moved towards (and continue to move towards) a culture and society based on evidence.

In the 21st Century it would be impossible for the writers of Chariots of Fire (to pick one small example) to get away with the number of historical inaccuracies it contains and which probably allow it to be a ‘better story’.  Any real-life drama can be checked against documentary evidence and if it ignores the truth then there will be a backlash (Argo/Ben Affleck).

There should be little room then, you would think, for woolly, opinion based, emotional policies and decisions in business and politics.

Alas no.  Whilst we increasingly demand that our friends and colleagues back up their casual assertions with ‘proofs’ (often drawn from that miracle of the modern world Wikipedia), we do not seem to put the same onus on government when it comes to policy.

Why not?

Well, I would put forward (the only semi-evidence based) opinion that successive UK governments have failed to see the increasing importance of data gathering if they are to create policies that address (and utilise) the increasing complexities of the world we live in.

SIC codes (Standard Industrial Classification) which the government uses to analyse growth in different areas of the economy have not been significantly revised since the 1940s.  How can you know which sectors to prioritise and where government investment and incentives should go for maximum effect – if you don’t have an accurate picture of what’s going on?

Health data is currently inadequate to the task of needs based commissioning.  And yet if we were able to implement commissioning based on what was needed now and looking at evidence based trends for the future we could probably achieve massive efficiency savings for the NHS.  The catastrophic and expensive failure of the NHS National Programme for IT is helping to hold progress back.  Everyone is scared of making another massive mistake.  And yet we now have technology that is more connectable and work could be done at least at local level to redress the data gap.

I’m happy to admit that I don’t have any hard evidence or data to support my hunch that not having the right data might actually be useful to politicians.  An incomplete picture is more capable of interpretation than a complete one.

Gathering data is a tedious business, for those who set out to do so.  And for us, the public, endlessly filling out monitoring forms and surveys. But I think we must bit the bullet and ask for MORE!

I’m not advocating a Big Brother exercise here.  The data can be anonymous and/or anonymised.  Before we challenge the right of government to ask for more details – to help it plan better our services, economic growth and the governance of the country – we might stop and think about the data we regularly give away for a free to purely commercial organisations – such as supermarkets and marketeers – just in return for a few pence off our shopping or a free gift opportunity.

We must demand and encourage proper evidence based spending by our councils and CCGs.  They should be pulling data from all available sources – understanding it through a ‘sticky note’ process of querying it with those putting it together and using it to commit our limited resources, whether manpower or budget, to the areas that have greatest need and greatest benefit.

We must have an economic programme that places emphasis on sectors of the economy according to their proportionate value to the future prosperity of the country – not based on an emotional attachment to one type of business or another – manufacturing giving way to financial services as the favoured child – whilst creative industries – as profitable to the GDP as finance – fights on despite lack of real government investment.

You rarely here any pundit – even a creative one – complaining that the creative industries will up-sticks and leave the UK due to some new economic policy produced by the Government and yet were they do to so the impact would be enormous.  Even the so called ‘subsidised’ sector might be better called ‘not for profit’ – and even then often turns a profit through other spin off vehicles.  Those ‘subsidies’ and ‘grants’ should be seen as investments – ones that often produce a good financial return directly to the tax-payer and where they do not provide investment in the talent pool that the Creative Industries use to leverage billions of pounds of GDP.  Returns on tax payer investment in the arts are often greater in terms of tax revenue than the original grant – can the same be said of our subsidised banks?

Sense about Science has an ‘Ask for Evidence’ campaign – I think this should be broadened to all tax payer spending, all government planning and policy:

Ask for evidence from our council about why and how they are spending your money

Ask for evidence from your MP about the reasoning behind policies that affect you

Ask for evidence from government (and any political party you might vote into government) for their policies

And then check that evidence against what you know, and what you can find out – after all the evidence is out there waiting to be found.

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Punishing the Unloved

Yeah, well, thanks Dave!

I’d like to be married.  Maybe I’ll still get a chance at it.  As I head over the hill of 50 though it is statistically unlikely.  Sadly, I just haven’t found love.  I’d like to say it wasn’t my fault but I have had feedback:

“too fat”

“too loud”

“too old”

“too opinionated”

So maybe, I am somewhat to blame.  But you see I didn’t want to compromise. Not on love.  After all, I’m not a politician, so compromise isn’t in my nature.

Instead I’ve diverted my energies (that might otherwise have been directed at my partner and my children should I have been so blessed) into my career, into volunteering, into creating things and generally into doing my best to help make the world a better place.  Which would benefit not just me, my family and friends, but also all those happily married family types as well.

And yet, for some reason, the government thinks I should be punished for this.  Punished for being unloved.  I’ll be paying more in tax than those happy couples who have officially joined themselves together.  Who enjoy the long term security of a loving home and get all the emotional benefits of marriage.  Now they get extra money for it too.

Someone will have to fund that tax rebate – once again it will be me – working, single, healthy.  Because we’re the people who pay in: taxes, voluntary effort, support and care, and don’t take out.

Thanks Mr Cameron, thanks a bunch.

 

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