Monday, 28 March 2016

Notes on the new culture white paper

The government has released a new white paper on culture and the arts – something that should be welcomed, since there hasn’t been anything on the subject for decades.

Not only are the arts and culture crucial for general wellbeing and a positive force in terms of education and development, they are hugely important for the economy of the UK – and not just in London.

But where the white paper could have been a positive force, even a quick reading illustrates that it’s full of empty promises, with words such as “support” and “encourage” rendered meaningless by lack of commitments on funding (even though it specifically quotes the Prime Minister as an enthusiast of “public-funded” arts and culture) and by the governments own policies on, say, education, where it fully intends to remove all schools from having to teach the national curriculum that this paper says has importance to culture and arts.

The devil is always in the detail – or the lack thereof. So here goes, with an analysis of approximately half of the document in question.

On page 5, in the introduction by Ed Vaizey, the minister of state for culture, communications and creative industries, it states: “The increased appetite for culture was evident after Culture Secretary Chris Smith introduced free admission to museums in 2001.”

This is disingenuous, since 2001 saw a re-introduction of free admission.

The 1980s had seen attacks on cultural public spending, and pressures from the Conservative government of the day to introduce admission saw many museums and galleries do so.

Those that didn’t – including the British Museum, the Tate and the National Gallery – saw visitor numbers rise, while some that introduced charging saw substantial declines. The V&A introduced a £5 admission in 1997 and saw visitor numbers halved. (1)

And post-2001, the white paper says, that was repeated as, “in the next decade, visitor numbers soared” when admission fees were dropped.

The paper quotes Chancellor George Osborne in his last autumn statement as saying that our “creative industries are ... ‘one of the best investments we can make as a nation’.” So let's look for the investment.

It invokes the Bard, while Mr Vaizey himself also notes that it will “look at how culture can be used in place-making – and if ever a town was shaped by culture it is Stratford-on-Avon, where every year Shakespeare brings 4.9 million visitors to the town”. This is perhaps unfortunate, given what is happening in the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ – and not least Lancaster (2), where most museums are on the cusp of closure as a direct result of cuts to local government funding, even as the city tries to utilise its own extraordinary heritage to draw visitors in.

The introduction notes that: “When we look at new models for funding, we find that our experience with Shakespeare shows us the way. In Barking a community-focussed outdoor production of The Merchant of Venice is being crowdfunded to the tune of £80,000 and has raised £25,000 from a local property company”.

Yet only a few pages earlier, the first words in the white paper, after the contents, are:

“If you believe in publicly-funded arts and culture as I passionately do, then you must also believe in equality of access, attracting all, and welcoming all.

Rt Hon David Cameron MP”

“Publicly-funded arts and culture” now appears to have a new definition – crowdfunding (which requires disposable income) and gifts from business.

On page 8, it states: “Everyone should enjoy the opportunities culture offers, no matter where they start in life.

“We will put in place measures to increase participation in culture, especially among those who are currently excluded from the opportunities that culture has to offer.

“In particular, we will ensure that children and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are inspired by and have new meaningful relationships with culture.”

It’s difficult to imagine that anyone would disagree with this.

The document explains that the new apprenticeships levy will mean that “our larger cultural organisations” will be expected to “take on apprentices and promote diversity and inclusion in the workplace.” Expectation, though, does not mean anything to back it up.

Funded bodies will need to publish strategies for increased access (which will cost them resources, of course).

On page 9, it states that the government will work with various bodies to promote culture as good for wellbeing, while a “new £40 million Discover England fund will showcase” the new programmes, including UK City of Culture, the Great Exhibition of the North.

It’s simply unfortunate that, at the same time, Lancashire County Council (as just one example) is planning on axing “40 libraries, five museums and two adult education centres”.

These include the cuts impacting on Lancaster, plus many, many more, including Blackpool tram maintenance, which will presumably not be good for an area that is already seriously struggling. (3)

All the subsequent talk of “new cultural partnerships” and a “Great Place scheme” and “Heritage Action Zones in England” is meaningless in the face of such devastating cuts and losses.

We will encourage councils and owners to make empty business premises available to cultural organisations on a temporary basis.”

Because “cultural organisations” can just spring up suddenly and take over such premises and put something on without any other resources that require financing. Oh, wait – that’s where the crowdfunding and business patronage come in (not the PM’s “publicly-funded” bit, you note).

“Technology offers many opportunities to bring our culture to many more people in many different ways. We will work with our cultural institutions to make the UK one of the world’s leading countries for digitised public collections and use of technology to enhance the online experience of users.”

You won’t be able to look at anything in the flesh, but we’re going to digitise Lancaster’s collections so that you can look at them online after the museums are closed (it won’t help the city itself – unless you have to pay to view – and it’ll create and sustain bugger all in the way of jobs, but whoopy-do! It’s digital!

If this isn’t (an extreme but entirely logical interpretation of) the case, then it’s just more meaningless twaddle. Is there any evidence that people don’t go to museums and galleries because the ‘online digital experience’ isn’t what it could be?

Personally, I never use audio guides or anything other than brief notes when visiting an exhibition etc – because it gets in the way, in my opinion: as do those concentrating on such things rather than the exhibits.

Page 10 sees talk of the UK’s global “soft power” (not the bombs that gave us our “mojo” back) and of building on the “GREAT Britain campaign”, which has “increased investment” (it doesn’t say from where, but this will apparently attract “world-class events to the UK”).

This year, “we will support Shakespeare Lives”, although at no point does it elucidate on what concrete form that government “support” will take.

Page 11 notes that: “We have a successful model of cultural investment in which public funding works alongside earned income, private sector finance and philanthropy. This mixture of income streams provides the basis for a thriving and resilient cultural sector.”

Well, except where the public funding is withdrawn (see Lancashire etc), while it’s difficult to see how the ad hoc nature of the proposal that councils and businesses should loan out empty properties will in any way promote stability and, therefore, quality.

“We will continue to support growth through investment and incentives”. Interesting that it does not mention the public funding that it quotes the Prime Minister stressing.

Of course, there are forms of VAT refunds to help, while a new tax relief for museums and galleries is to be introduced next year (someone tell Lancashire to hang on!)

“We will establish a new Commercial Academy for Culture to improve and spread commercial expertise in the cultural sectors,” because making money is what culture is all about or should be – see, Lancashire: that’s been your problem.

There’ll be a new Private Investment Survey and “tailored reviews” and a “wide-ranging review of the museums sector” ...

The paper makes clear that investment in culture has “enormous economic value” (p13) – “in 2014, the economic contribution of museums, galleries, libraries and the arts was £5.4 billion,” while “heritage tourism accounts for 2% of GDP, contributing £26 billion per year” (p16) and “research by the British Council shows that cultural attractions are the most commonly mentioned factor in terms of what makes the UK an attractive place to visit while the arts was the third most commonly mentioned reason”.

On page 13: “it [the white paper] explains how the government will help to secure the role of culture in our society”.

As a whole, the paper makes much of saying that the arts and culture are important for all and should be available to all. You’ll find absolutely no disagreement here.

It says that all “state-funded schools” must provide a broad and balanced curriculum, nurturing the “spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils”. Again, no disagreement.

Apparently the national curriculum “sets the expectation” that pupils will study cultural subjects. “New, gold-standard GCSEs and A levels have been introduced in these subjects”. (p23)

Unfortunately, since academies and free schools do not have to teach the national curriculum, and all schools are set to be academised ...

In fact, let’s be even clearer. While academies and free schools are subject to that “broad and balanced curriculum”, the funding agreement simply means that “they are required to ensure their curriculum:

“includes English, maths and science;

“includes Religious Education, although the nature of this will depend on whether the school has a faith designation;

“secures access to independent, impartial careers advice for pupils in years 9-11; and

“includes sex and relationship education (SRE).” (4)

On page 22, it says: “The majority of the organisations supported by Arts Council England and the Heritage Lottery Fund are committed to working with children and young people, while schemes such as the Family Arts Festival and the Summer Reading Challenge are crucial in introducing young families to their local cultural organisations, especially libraries”.

Excellent. Except where those libraries have closed or are slated to close. See Lancashire – and beyond. As of August 2015, 337 libraries have closed in the UK since 2009-10. (5)

On page 23, we learn that there’s going to be a new “cultural citizens programme” [sic – I don’t know what happened to the possessive apostrophe]. The government will “encourage schools” to use the pupil premium for cultural education, while the Pupil Premium Awards will “highlight the benefits of cultural education”.

This is a close look at just under half the white paper. You can find it all here.

But it should be clear from this that, while the general tone is entirely agreeable, it is nothing to get excited about, for the reasons made very clear above. Its all sleight of hand; appearing to give (a little) with one hand while removing a lot with the other.

Or perhaps the Bard might have suggested that it was full of a sort of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.







Thursday, 24 March 2016

Wooden it be nice?

Nature's own sculpture
Not only do I not fly very often (thankfully), but it seems to have been a very long time since I sat next to an airplane window, in daylight, on a clear day.

But that happened when we flew back to the UK from Germany last week. And as we headed north west, the world below offered further evidence of something I’ve been aware of for a few years now: German towns and villages are never far from woods and forests.

Not only are forests at the heart of the German psyche, but it’s also reflected in the country’s love of wood as a material – and in particular, as a vehicle for art.

My maternal grandparents visited the Alpine region in the years after WWII and brought back a few small pieces, which my mother still has. So I’ve been familiar for years with the angular planes of wood on a carved mountain goat.

In 2000, my own parents went to Germany – the trip was my father’s retirement gift from his parishioners, and included tickets for the Oberammergau Passion Play.

They brought me back a pair of carved edelweiss flowers and a man with lantern and donkey, which owes something to the sentimental style of porcelain Hummel figures (if memory serves, my mother has a couple of those stashed somewhere too).

The central part of the Holy Blood altarpiece
When we headed into Bavaria for the first time last year, I expected to see plenty of wood carving, but in the event, the only obvious thing to be seen was cuckoo clocks.

This was not a trip where we were able to spend any time wandering in woods, but one of the specific things that we had penned in to do was to visit the Jakobskirche for some rather more polished wood.

The city’s main church, it’s Lutheran, although part of the many official pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela.

Built between 1311 and 1484, in 1525, the church saw the peasant leader Florian Geyer (a Franconian noble) read aloud the articles of the revolting peasants during the German Peasant’s War.

But if you climb up the stairs to a gallery behind the vast organ, you’ll find a Holy Blood altarpiece, carved by Tilman Riemenschneider between 1500-1505.

The raw material
Riemenschneider has been dubbed ‘Germany’s Michelangelo’ and his work is always worth seeing. This is one of his seminal pieces – Andrew Graham-Dixon goes into some detail about in in his TV series, The Art of Germany. The artist’s ability to create highly realistic faces that seemed to have an inner life puts him head and shoulders above many others.

The church is also home to a high altar created in 1466 by Friedrich Herlin, a pupil of Rogier van der Weyden, but the Riemenschneider is the undoubted star here.

Flanked by two relief panels showing scenes from the Easter story, the central section of the altarpiece is a vast, 3D representation of the Last Supper. But what lends this version so much power is the figure of a disciple looking away from Christ and down toward us. As Graham-Dixon explained, it is a direct challenge to anyone looking at it.

Art historian Kenneth Clark considered that Riemenschneider’s works showed an idea of German piety in the 15th century and were harbingers of the coming Reformation.

Wooden woodsman and mushroom
The challenge created by the disciple breaking through the fourth wall (in effect) is a personal one that can be seen as indicative of the ideas of a personal relationship with God that would develop.

Away from religion, we did spot one or two wood carvings – although one small shop was still closed for the winter.

But I did find a small woodsman, which has now safely made the journey back to London, where he’s joined by a small wooden mushroom, which I was charged just €1 for, after the woman in the shop we were in was so delighted by The Other Half making a substantial Christmas decoration purchase.

However, aside from wooden Christmas decorations that were purchased away from Käthe Wohlfahrt, Germany’s biggest Christmas decoration manufacturer, which has its headquarters in Rothenburg, together with a number of shops and a Christmas museum.

One visit convinced us that it is grossly overpriced and nowhere near the best quality around. Indeed, the owner of one independent shop told us that the company, via marriage, was effectively in Japanese hands and that Japanese tourists expect things to be expensive as a guarantee of quality.

Nature and time, wrought in wood
What we did come away with – well, what I insisted on coming away with – was a cuckoo clock: a genuine, hand-made one from the Black Forest (which isn’t that far away).

I picked the smallest one I could find; not one made to look like a chalet; with no painting on it. Not only is it made from wood – the traditional design reflects the woods and forests.

Back in London, I took my time getting it out of the box and mounting it on the wall. There is something ridiculously fascinating, in these technological times, in having something that requires no batteries or plugs – it’s almost a revelation that leaves you wondering how anything can work without that confounded electrickery.

It delights me that it’s properly hand made; that when you open the back, the inside reveals once more how it not mass produced. It is, then, thus evidence that real craftsmanship has not been lost.

It’s hardly a Riemenschneider, but it is an authentic piece of Germany in its own way, and in an era of  smart this and smart that, it’s a real pleasure to have.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Let's sit down to good film

Ian McKellen in wonderful form
In between recent trips to the cinema, I’ve also managed to see a few films at home, both on television channels or discs, and it seemed too good an opportunity not to do a brief round up.

First up comes Mr Holmes, last year’s take on Sherlock – this time, with Ian McKellen as an aging and long-retired version of the iconic consulting detective.

It’s the late 1940s – a world changed utterly by the atomic bomb – and, worried that he’s losing his mind, Holmes is trying to piece together the final case that led to his retirement.

At the same time, he becomes the idol of the young, precocious son of the housekeeper who looks after him in his retirement home on England’s south coast.

Beautifully filmed and wonderfully acted – McKellen is simply a joy to watch – this gentle UK-made piece is full of hidden depths and philosophical ruminations.

Well worth a watch.

Messers Karloff, Lorre and Price
Rather different – but no less entertaining (albeit for very different reasons) is Roger Corman’s The Raven, which I caught up with a couple of weeks ago.

It’s less a case of being based on Edgar Allan Poe’s poem of the same name than having been inspired by it, in the loosest sense.

In this 1963 outing, we have three sorcerers vying against each other for magical supremacy, with Vincent Price, Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff as the trio, engaged at various points throughout in finger-pointy duels.

It’s deliciously camp, which is possibly not the first thing that one might expect from writer Richard Matheson, who penned the zombie horror classic, I Am Legend, while a young Jack Nicholson spend most of his on-screen time looking pretty much lost in such company.

Enormous fun – Price in particular had such a wonderful voice for this sort of film – and the blu ray comes with extras that includes a German documentary about Lorre.

It’s surprisingly serious in tone given the nature of the main feature, but very definitely worth watching, providing a reminder of just what a fine actor he was, and covering his relationship with Brecht as well as offering a detailed look at his breakthrough film role as the murderer in Fritz Lang’s classic of German Expressionist cinema, M (1931).

One reviewer on Amazon decided to be snotty about Lorre  ‘wasting his talent’ because of drink. It’s the point at which you decide to respond by suggesting they inform themselves better about the German exiles in the US and the problems that many of them suffered.

Doris Day and Rock Hudson suffering misunderstandings
On a completely different note, last weekend saw me slumped in front of the gogglebox, on cat cuddling duty, when up popped Send Me No Flowers, a 1964 rom-com that I haven’t seen in decades.

Starring Doris Day and Rock Hudson – with Tony Randall in the sort of friend-of-the-leading-man character that he made his own – it’s a typical farce spun out after Hudson’s hypochondriac suburbanite overhears his doctor discussing a terminal case and soon-to-be-deceased individual is himself.

Directed by Norman Jewison, this was the final of a trio of Day-Hudson-Randall outings and while it’s pleasing enough fodder, it doesn’t have anything like the zip of Pillow Talk and Lover Come Back.

Still, it was nice enough to see again one of the sort of films I feel as though I grew up with – and Day is always wonderful.

Last in this little round-up comes Paul, a 2011 sci-fi comedy road movie that I’d managed to see bits of before, but never the whole thing.

Nick Frost and Simon Pegg with Paul
Starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, it’s about two British geeks who go on their dream holiday to San Diego for Comic-Con, followed by a road trip across the US to visit various sites of importance in UFO lore.

However, their plans go awry when they find themselves on the run with Paul, a fugitive alien who is running away from plans to dissect him.

Really good fun, with a very enjoyable supporting cast that includes Blythe Danner, Seth Rogan (as the voice of Paul) and Sigourney Weaver, who subsequently described it to Graham Norton as a “love letter to sci-fi fans” (I think she said the same of the equally enjoyable Galaxy Quest).

Very good fun, pacey, with good characters – including an alien that is far from a film stereotype – plus loads of nods to other films and pop culture, what’s not to enjoy? It was the perfect way to follow a stack of the equally geek-oriented The Big Bang Theory.

Monday, 21 March 2016

Romanticism on the high seas for World Poetry Day

Since its World Poetry Day – and since its over six years since I posted this – it seems the perfect time to share once more one of my favourite poems.

Introduced to me some years ago by a German friend, this piece of early Brecht was to serve as my personal pathway into German-style romanticism.

Ive not really been the same since.

Last Wave by George Grie

Ballade von den Seeräubern (Ballad of the Pirates)

Frantic with brandy from their plunder
Drenched in the blackness of the gale
Splintered by frost and stunned by thunder
Hemmed in the crows-nest, ghostly pale
Scorched by the sun through tattered shirt
(The winter sun kept them alive)
Amid starvation, sickness, dirt
So sang the remnant that survived:
Oh heavenly sky of streaming blue!
Enormous wind, the sails blow free!
Let wind and heavens go hang! But oh
Sweet Mary, let us keep the sea!

No waving fields with gentle breezes
Or dockside bar with raucous band
No dance hall warm with gin and kisses
No gambling hall kept them on land.
They very quickly tired of fighting
By midnight girls began to pall:
Their rotten hulk seemed more inviting
That ship without a flag at all.
Oh heavenly sky of streaming blue!
Enormous wind, the sails blow free!
Let wind and heavens go hang! But oh
Sweet Mary, let us keep the sea!

Riddled with rats, its bilges oozing
With pestilence and puke and piss
They swear by her when they
’re out boozing
And cherish her just as she is.
In storms they
ll reckon their position
Lashed to the halyards by their hair:
d go to heaven on one condition –
That she can find a mooring there.
Oh heavenly sky of streaming blue!
Enormous wind, the sails blow free!
Let wind and heavens go hang! But oh
Sweet Mary, let us keep the sea!

They loot their wine and belch with pleasure
While bales of silk and bars of gold
And precious stones and other treasure
Weigh down the rat-infested hold.
To grace their limbs, all hard and shrunken
Sacked junks yield vari-coloured stuffs
Till out their knives come in some drunken
Quarrel about a pair of cuffs.
Oh heavenly sky of streaming blue!
Enormous wind, the sails blow free!
Let wind and heavens go hang! But oh
Sweet Mary, let us keep the sea!

They murder coldly and detachedly
Whatever comes across their path
They throttle gullets as relaxedly
As fling a rope up to the mast.
At wakes they fall upon the liquor
Then stagger overboard and drown
While the remainder give a snigger
And wave a toe as they go down.
Oh heavenly sky of streaming blue!
Enormous wind, the sails blow free!
Let wind and heavens go hang! But oh
Sweet Mary, let us keep the sea!

Across a violet horizon
Caught in the ice by pale moonlight
On pitch-black nights when mist is rising
And half the ship is lost from sight
They lurk like wolves between the hatches
And murder for the fun of it
And sing to keep warm in their watches
Like children drumming as they shit.
Oh heavenly sky of streaming blue!
Enormous wind, the sails blow free!
Let wind and heavens go hang! But oh
Sweet Mary, let us keep the sea!

They take their hairy bellies with them
To stuff with food on foreign ships
Then stretch them out in sweet oblivion
Athwart the foreign women
s hips.
In gentle winds, in blue unbounded
Like noble beasts they graze and play
And often seven bulls have mounted
Some foreign girl they
ve made their prey.
Oh heavenly sky of streaming blue!
Enormous wind, the sails blow free!
Let wind and heavens go hang! But oh
Sweet Mary, let us keep the sea!

Once you have danced till you
re exhausted
And boozed until your belly sags
Though sun and moon unite their forces –
Your appetite for fighting flags.
Brilliant with stars, the night will shake them
While music plays in gentle ease
And wind will fill their sails and take them
To other undiscovered seas.
Oh heavenly sky of streaming blue!
Enormous wind, the sails blow free!
Let wind and heavens go hang! But oh
Sweet Mary, let us keep the sea!

But then upon an April evening
Without a star by which to steer
The placid ocean, softly heaving
Decides that they must disappear.
The boundless sky they love is hiding
The stars in smoke that shrouds their sight
While their beloved winds are sliding
The clouds towards the gentle light.
Oh heavenly sky of streaming blue!
Enormous wind, the sails blow free!
Let wind and heavens go hang! But oh
Sweet Mary, let us keep the sea!

At first they
re fanned by playful breezes
Into the night they mustn
t miss
The velvet sky smiles once, then closes
Its hatches on the black abyss.
Once more they feel the kindly ocean
Watching beside them on their way
The wind then lulls them with its motion
And kills them all by break of day.
Oh heavenly sky of streaming blue!
Enormous wind, the sails blow free!
Let wind and heavens go hang! But oh
Sweet Mary, let us keep the sea!

Once more the final wave is tossing
The cursed vessel to the sky
When suddenly it clears, disclosing
The mighty reef on which they lie.
And, at last, a strange impression
While rigging screams and storm winds howl
Of voices hurtling to perdition
Yet once more singing, louder still:
Oh heavenly sky of streaming blue!
Enormous wind, the sails blow free!
Let wind and heavens go hang! But oh
Sweet Mary, let us keep the sea!

Bertolt Brecht, 1919