Culture Matters

Culture Matters

Why Culture Matters
Tuesday, 31 May 2022 12:42

Why Culture Matters

Published in Cultural Commentary

Our final video in our 'Culture for All' series of short films, sponsored by the CWU, features Professor Selina Todd talking about why culture matters.

Why Culture Matters

by Professor Selina Todd

In 2021 I published a history of social mobility: Snakes and Ladders: the Great British Social Mobility Myth. Most studies of social mobility are packed with statistics, as if the story of social mobility is beyond politics and personal experience, able to be condensed into a neat statistical table showing how many people have gone ‘up’ or ‘down’. I was more interested in who had managed to define some ways of life as superior to others, and what this meant to the people who travelled across British society during the past century. And because of this, at the beginning of the book I placed a quotation that had echoed around my head as I wrote. The quotation is from the socialist intellectual Raymond Williams, and it is this: ‘Experience isn’t only what’s happened to us. It’s also what we wanted to happen.’

That quote is taken from Williams’ autobiographical novel, Border Country, which was published in 1960. The protagonist in the novel is, like Williams, from a Welsh working-class family but he has become a university lecturer in the south of England. In the course of the novel he comes to realise that he hasn’t got to where he is by escaping his background, but by using the riches he inherited from a community characterised by solidarity, and the hope that solidarity can bring.

He inherited other things, too, that speak to the harder side of working-class life: a knowledge of deep, often unspoken unhappiness and despair arising from political defeat, poverty and the thwarting of personal dreams. In a rural community there was also love of nature but appreciation of its strength – ultimately, an appreciation of the need to coexist with the natural world rather than attempt to dominate it. And there was the tension between solidarity and the claustrophobia that small communities or tight-knit neighbourhoods can cause. As Williams showed, the need to move outwards from this community to realise personal ambitions brought rich gains – but those who did so incurred losses as well.

Put simply, Border Country, like much of Williams’ work, and like much of my own, is an attempt to smash the much-peddled notions that working-class people are ignorant, uncultured, uncivilised or – one that I’ve had to grapple with in the 21st century – that they no longer exist, having disappeared with the mines and the steelworks.

In Snakes and Ladders I traced the importance of the labour movement in creating adult education in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The demand for adult education grew out of men and women’s thirst for knowledge – and a wide-ranging knowledge at that. They wanted to know about the history of their own communities and the socialist movement, but they also wanted to discuss Shakespeare, Dickens, philosophy and art. Later, in the 1970s, when feminists began to point out that women made culture too, it was the Workers Educational Association, not the elite universities, that introduced women’s studies and women’s history courses.

There was no single ‘working-class culture’, jostling in opposition to ‘highbrow’ culture. The kind of culture of which I write always arises from material life – from the experience of industrial work, or poverty, or being born a woman into a sexist society. But the art, writing or cinema produced from those experiences doesn’t only speak to those who have had the exact same experience as the producer. Culture can provide a map to solidarity, helping to forge connections across different social and political locations, providing that burst of recognition that you too feel those deep emotions, have experienced that fate, dream the same dream.

In 2012, the playwright Shelagh Delaney died. She was best known for her play A Taste of Honey, which she wrote as a Salford teenager in 1958. It’s the story of a single mother and her teenage daughter, who herself becomes pregnant during a brief relationship with a black sailor. I decided to write Delaney’s biography, partly because I found the obituaries so frustrating. On the one hand, Delaney was accused of not having written A Taste of Honey herself, a claim made by critics since the 1950s – they couldn’t believe a working-class women was capable of this. On the other hand, the obituary writers wondered where today’s Shelagh Delaneys were, not recognising that their inability to see young working-class people as more than ‘savages’ (how one critic described Shelagh back in 1958) might not exactly help young people from pursuing their dreams.

What made a difference to Shelagh Delaney, and to many of the so-called ‘angry young’ novelists and film makers who followed in her footsteps was the availability of local opportunity. There were local newspapers, regional television channels, and city theatres where they could cut their teeth. For Shelagh, it was the existence of a radical socialist theatre, in the form of Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, that made it possible for her play to be staged in London where it became a box office hit. Those opportunities aren’t there today, but the next generation of Shelagh Delaneys are there if anyone cares to look – in her old stomping ground, MaD Theatre Company, Salford Lads Club and Salford Arts Theatre give a home and a voice to plenty of talented young people.

Culture, as Raymond Williams once said, is ordinary. It arises from everyday life. But it is also extraordinarily radical. Think of the miners’ banners that still appear each year at the Durham Miners’ Gala. On one side of many of the banners is a picture of the colliery as it is. On the other is the picture of the world we want to come. We are living through some very hard times at the moment, and it is worth remembering that many of those banners were created before 1939, in times of great hardship, a lack of democracy, and the threat of fascism. No one knew then that socialist and feminist aspirations for free healthcare and education could be achieved. It was a dream, not a precedent or a focus group, that led to the 1945 welfare state – a welfare state that gave many young people, Shelagh Delaney included, chances their parents had never had.

How do we find them and give them their chance? We need more funding for adult education, not only because many people don’t fulfil their potential at school but because we want to know different things as we get older. We need to break down the artificial division between ‘community’ arts and ‘professional’ initiatives, by giving space on BBC television and the BBC’s Internet platform to local groups, and by inviting women’s groups, WEA classes and trade unions to curate exhibitions at our national galleries and museums. And our children should grow up knowing that girls are as capable as boys, and migrants and black British people as capable as those who are white and British-born.

This hasn’t been achieved by so-called ‘diversity’ initiatives in the early 21st century, because they fail to address the causes of racism and sexism. It’s time to rediscover the culture and campaigns of earlier feminists, like those of the 1970s Women’s Liberation Movement, who argued against sex and racial stereotyping and for equal pay, equal treatment at work and in education, and for liberation from oppression, not simply ‘diversity’. And, following the lead of Southall Black Sisters who have argued this since the 1980s, our culture should not simply celebrate ‘diversity’, but, in the wake of a new wave of religious fundamentalism, must stand up for the universal values of freedom from violence and freedom of expression.

Culture translates individual dreams and disappointments into collective experiences, explaining both where they come from, and where they might take us. It is a reminder that we are not alone; we are not solely responsible for our fate; but we might use our disappointments and defeats, as well as our achievements and victories, to weave a better life for the future. As the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War once put it: ‘Reality and dreaming are different things…because dreams are nearly always the predecessors of what is to come’.

Culture for All: Why Digital Culture Matters
Tuesday, 24 May 2022 08:40

Culture for All: Why Digital Culture Matters

As part of the Culture for All series, supported by the Communication Workers Union, we're proud to present a short film about why digital culture matters, by Adam Stoneman

Why Digital Culture Matters

by Adam Stoneman

During the Covid-19 pandemic, with cultural venues closed, the internet was a portal to a world of creativity; there was an explosion of initiatives offering free access to culture online, an acceleration of what had already been developing. Museums and galleries published virtual exhibitions; plays and concerts were made available to stream; thousands of ebooks could be downloaded for free as part of a ‘National Emergency Library’.

The internet has opened up new possibilities for culture to flourish. Never before has it been so easy to share music, video, text with people across the world in an instant. The digitisation of collections and archives has opened a level of access to culture and knowledge that would have been unimaginable only a generation or two ago.

Digital technology allows us to examine paintings in breathtaking detail, interact with museum objects in 3D, collaborate with others creatively to build systems, solve problems and experiment with new forms of digital media.

The internet does not replace physical experience - whether its enjoying a play with friends, visiting a museum, going to the cinema, when we have a cultural experience with others we create a sense of community. But digital technology can complement and enhance how we experience culture.

The principle of free access to information goes back to the earliest formation of the internet in the counterculture of the 1970s. It is a fundamental principle at the heart of the Open Access movement, which fights for transparency and to extend the public domain online.

Universal, democratic access through broadband communism

But ‘free culture’ internet ideology can also disguise unequal social relations, especially when it comes to production: digital giants offer free apps, email and content as bait to hook us and then sell our information to advertisers; and then struggling independent artists are expected to provide their work for next to nothing.

It is not illegal file-sharing that has made cultural workers so precarious, but a system designed to reward the shareholders of Spotify while it pays musicians as little as $0.0032 for every time their song is played. The promise of the digital era - a level playing field of universal, democratic access - turns out to offer little compensation to artists and cultural producers.

The distribution of culture is not equal either while the internet is dominated by five big tech firms that mediate our journeys online through hidden algorithms. The commercial logic of streaming services like Spotify and Netflix - now worth more than Exxon - privilege certain forms of culture to the detriment of others. Streaming is predicated on high consumption ‘bingeing’ and repeated playbacks and works better for creating certain moods (‘Netflix and chill?’) than widening access to more complex or intellectually demanding culture.

All this while so many in the UK continue to be excluded through lack of access to digital technologies. A recent survey found almost one in ten households with children did not have adequate home access to the internet. One solution is free fibreoptic broadband for all, paid for by a tax on tech giants, and implemented through the renationalisation of parts of the telecoms industry. The BBC calls this ‘Broadband communism’.

Culture wants to be free

Despite the limitations, we must draw on the possibilities opened up by the communal production and distribution of open-source software and systems of repudiated ownership to widen access to and participation in culture.

Cultural workers organising as part of the labour movement can ensure the post-pandemic world is one in which artists earn a decent and secure living. The Union of Musicians and Allied Workers recently organised worldwide demonstrations against Spotify, demanding increased royalty payments and transparency. Workers at Amazon are also fighting an uphill battle to unionise and achieve better, safer working conditions.

Alongside this, we must defend and extend publicly funded arts and arts institutions; privatised models of arts funding, reliant on philanthropy and sponsorship have been decimated by the pandemic while public institutions have been more resilient. Post-pandemic we have the opportunity to go further, to strengthen and extend public funding to ensure everyone has the same opportunities to participate or even make a career in the arts.

At local, regional and national level, public funding can provide artists with patronage that breaks from a commercial logic, allowing more radical and challenging forms of culture to emerge. Jennie Lee, Labour’s Minister for the Arts under Harold McMillan, wrote in her famous White Paper: “There is no reason why gaiety and colour, informality and experimentation should be left to those whose primary concern is with quantity and profitability.” Digital culture must not be beholden to the laws of the algorithm - the Netflixification of culture needs to be resisted.

‘Information wants to be free’, an expression used by technology activists to refer to the human urge to share information and collaborate freely. The digital domain is far too important to be left to private corporations; we must tackle the underlying forces that shape technologies and build a society in which culture and knowledge are shared for the common good. Culture too, wants to be free.

Culture for All: Why Videogames Matter
Tuesday, 24 May 2022 08:18

Culture for All: Why Videogames Matter

Published in Science & Technology

As part of the Culture for All series, supported by the Communication Workers Union, we're proud to present a short film about why videogames matter, by Ben Cowles

Why Videogames Matter

by Ben Cowles

I've been playing video games for as far back as I can remember. Some of my earliest memories are sitting on my dad's knee playing old-school games like 1942, Outrun, and Pac Man. When I was a little bit older my parents bought me Nintendo's first home console, the NES, and then the SNES. I grew up playing games like Super Mario World, Street Fighter 2, Donkey Kong Country, Star Fox, and the Legend of Zelda.

I always believed that the complications and drudgeries of adult life would force me to outgrow my gaming affliction, but that has never been the case.

Whether they're huge games with multi-million pound budgets and thousands of developers — like the Last of Us 2, Red Dead Redemption 2 or Dishonoured 2 — or smaller affairs, with modest budgets and smaller development teams — like Journey, Disco Elysium, Inside, or Firewatch — video games these days often feature intriguing and in-depth narratives with beautiful original scores, and superb acting and directing. Console games are no longer silly little pixels bopping around a screen, but full-blown artistic productions.

For me, modern games go beyond the experiences provided by films, books and especially TV shows. Instead of passively taking it in, video games actively engage your brain by giving you direct control over a character, a business, a city, an empire, a car, a spaceship, a football team, a date, a hospital, a school, a revolution, you name it. They offer up a level of immersion you simply don’t get in any other form of entertainment.

Whether video games are a legitimate art form or not is a contentious issue. I'm not qualified to answer. What I am sure of, though, is that art is a way for us to safely access emotions that we usually don’t, wouldn’t ever want, or couldn’t ever possibly experience. What would it actually feel like to be the last survivors after a zombie apocalypse; to charge head first into a hopeless battle; to strut through the Wild West; manage a city or dictate an entire civilization; razz round a race track in a ridiculously expensive car, or have the fate of the entire universe resting on your shoulders?

It’s only through video games that I have managed to expose myself to these feelings. But, like all entertainment mediums, video games certainly have their problems, problems typical of cultural experiences in our capitalist society.

First and foremost, especially for working-class people, is the fact that games are prohibitively expensive. You'll probably need to drop at least around £400 on a console or a phone to get access to them. Then games can cost anything from, well, nothing to over £60 for most console games if you buy them new. And despite the fact that video game publishers are rolling in cash — the medium makes way more money than the film and music industries do — some companies want to hike video game prices higher.

There's a huge problem of representation in video games too, just as there are problems in films, books and other media. Too often the protagonists in video games are straight, white, cis-gendered, able-bodied men. And when they do include women, they can be sexualised and objectified to the extreme. It's embarrassing and degrading. But thankfully the medium has made great strides improving on this. Check out the new Tomb Raider games, Horizon Zero Dawn, The Walking Dead, and Gone Home for a few examples.

An industry doesn't become one of the most lucrative in the world without exploiting workers or its customers. The developers – the workers who actually make the games – often have to go through a process known as "crunch" right before the game they've been working on for years is released.

"Crunch" basically means pulling 12-hour shifts for days on end for no extra pay. So like everywhere else, there is a class struggle in the industry – thankfully workers in the industry have started to unionise and gamers have begun calling out the companies that put their workers through this process.

Perhaps one of the worst trends in the video game industry is the way companies try to squeeze more money out of gamers with microtransactions — like when a "free" game tries to make you pay small sums of money to keep playing — or lootboxes — which are essentially gambling mechanics. Making, selling and promoting video games isn't easy or cheap, but it doesn't need to based on exploitation.

Thankfully, there are a growing number of video game developers and publishers showing us how the industry could be run on socialist principles. ZA/UM, a collective of artists and musicians inspired and influenced by leftist philosophy, created the highly-acclaimed role-playing game Disco Elysium — which if you haven't played, you should definitely give it a go if you can. 

Pixel Pushers Union 512, makers of Tonight We Riot, and Motion Twin, who made Dead Cells, are worker-owned cooperatives making amazing video games. And while researching for this project, I found a lot more worker-owned co-ops currently working on unannounced games. Let's hope the pandemic has not put a stop to them.

So, could trade unions or some other agencies set up left-wing game makers, like we have left wing book publishers? Absolutely, and especially when it comes to what's referred to as indie games — games made on smaller budgets and usually without the help of corporate publishers like EA, Ubisoft, Activision Blizzard, etc.

Remember back in 2017, when the Labour Party was led by a socialist and despite not winning the election, the party's share of the vote increased by 9.6 per cent? (Psst, that was more than any other of the party's election leaders since 1945?) Well, during that campaign the Labour Party helped fund Games For The Many, a small studio that created the successful mobile phone game, Corbyn Run.

In the United States Means Interactive, the video game wing of the US anti-capitalist worker cooperative Means, published Pixel Pusher's Tonight We Riot last year. So it can be done. And with games being one of the most popular forms of entertainment, the workers' movement would benefit enormously from getting its message out on the medium.

Culture for All: Why Television Matters
Monday, 16 May 2022 08:10

Culture for All: Why Television Matters

As part of the Culture for All series, Dennis Broe introduces another short film made with the support of the Communication Workers Union, on Why Television Matters.


Why Television Matters

by Dennis Broe

Hi I’m Dennis Broe, I write about film and television. I’m now writing a book about television watching in what for some is a lockdown and for others in a dangerous time where because of the virus just going to work can be risky, especially the kind of work, like that done by postal workers and engineers, that requires facing the public.

Previously I wrote a book on something you’re probably all familiar with, binge watching TV series. Where you watch the whole series in a weekend or a day.
Of course, part of this is pure addiction and you feel terrible afterwards, feel like the show just manipulated you into watching episode after episode, and that’s partly what it’s trying to do.

The satisfaction then may not be intrinsic to the show, that is a part of it, but rather the satisfaction is to have accomplished the feat of getting to the end of the show. Netflix was the first to design shows in this way, where they could be consumed all at once with shows such as House of Cards and the current addictive series The Crown and The Queen’s Gambit.

But there is another kind of satisfaction that for me comes from watching Serial TV Series, which is what I call this form, that have an actual point to them and teach some truths about the society we live in. I don’t know about you but when I have discovered one of these series, which are actually few and far between, instead of feeling empty afterwards I feel that my time was well spent, that I learned something or had my view of the world challenged in a way that allowed it to expand.

Most of these series deal either directly or symbolically with everyday struggles. A series from last year that was surprising in how it dealt directly with the struggle of black people in the U.S. with a criminal justice system that is always waiting to entrap them was For Life, produced by the rapper 50 Cent and based on a true story, available on YouTube and Hulu. The first season has the man imprisoned unjustly, framed by a District Attorney who used the defendant’s trial to climb the ladder to success. Rather than simply wallow in prison, the man becomes a lawyer and then takes on the attorney in court and in the media. The show then uses one of the oldest genres, or types of shows, the courtroom drama but updates it with the struggle for justice of a black prisoner who every week demonstrates his brilliance in court in front of judges, having each time to change out of his bright orange prison outfit into a business suit to plead his case and that of his fellow inmates. In the second season the show has become even more topical, taking on in one episode, prisoners dying of Covid and in another bringing a brutally violent cop to justice.


Another series, available on Netflix, is Snowpiercer. This series is set in the near future, which gives it some latitude in creating a metaphor for today’s situation. The characters are trapped aboard a train keeps travelling an earth frozen and uninhabitable because world leaders decided, a la Trump, that the way to prevent global warming was to fire nuclear weapons into the earth’s atmosphere.

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The train itself has three cars, the one in the front is peopled by the rich, in lavish clothes and served meals grown in the other sections. The middle section is workers also dedicated to serving the rich but perform jobs necessary to the train’s functioning. The back section is inhabited by “the tailies,” those left to die when the train took off who stormed the train to carve out their own place in it.

The first season charts the rebellion of the tailies who subsequently take over the train and make it a more equal place for all, while the second season is about the return of the owner of the train, Mr. Wilford, who wants to reinstate the old order and put everyone back in their place. This is a big budget action series but with a point to it, deliberately making a comment on the organization of today’s world and on today’s workers. We are watching more wealth, power and more of the world, here the train’s, bounty going to satisfy their lifestyle, with those in the middle cars, who in today’s world are still needed workers like engineers and the technical and communications workforce, shrinking and with those in the last car, who must degrade themselves merely to survive, expanding.

The producer of the series is the South Korean director Bong Joon-ho who directed the 2019 Oscar winning film Parasite, which you might have seen. It tells a similar tale, about contemporary Korea divided between a poor family living in a basement where they have to “steal” internet service and which often floods and a rich family who they go to work for and who live in a mansion surrounded by acres and acres of green lawn and a gate to keep others out.

What I wanted to show is that series can be both addictive and instructive and that it is important if we want to see more of an emphasis on the latter to watch and talk about those series which can be useful in shaping contemporary struggles.

Culture for All: Why Film Matters
Thursday, 12 May 2022 11:19

Culture for All: Why Film Matters

Published in Films

 As part of the Culture for All series, supported by the Communication Workers Union, we're proud to present a short film about why film matters, by Deirdre O'Neill

Why Film Matters

by Deirdre O'Neill

Action films, horror films, romantic comedies, science fiction, documentaries – film plays a big part of our lives. Film matters, not only because it was the most popular cultural art form of the 20th century, but because film connects to so many areas of our lives in so many different ways. Not only in the way we visualise our lives, but the ways in which we understand and communicate them.

One of the wonderful things about film is that it’s a universal language, one that we can all understand. Our relationship with film is one that engages with our sense of who we are and who we might become. Film speaks to us of our dreams and our desires, making us think about who we are, who we don’t want to be and crucially who we might become.

It does this by communicating images and ideas that represent the ‘real world’. We learn about places we have never been to and people we have never met so it’s really important that we understand and engage with what kind of world it is that the films we watch are representing.

Even though Marx and Engels never watched films, they did point out something that is as relevant today as it was when they were writing: the leading or dominant ideas in circulation in society tend to reinforce the power of the ruling class. It follows that the ideas embedded within most of the films we watch serve the interest of the rich and powerful.

They might not do this overtly – rather they do it in subtle ways which, unless we know what to watch for we just take for granted. So….

- women are often represented as dependent on men;

- thirty five year old women are considered too old to play the partners of men in their 50s or even their 60s;

- white men have the most heroic positions 

- middle-class people are smart, intelligent funny and interesting

- working-class people are lazy and not very bright

- the major institutions of law and order and the police will punish the bad guys in the end

- the military are doing a tough but necessary job abroad

- the terrorists tend to be from outside the West

…..and so on. We need to develop an independent and class-specific critical engagement with film in order to develop the tools necessary to identify, through a process of discussion, debate, and critical engagement how cultural artifacts such as film reproduce and legitimise these existing structures of oppression and exploitation. It is crucially important that we are able to critically interrogate dominant images and the ideological concepts embedded in them that often go unchallenged.

Most films at the moment are made by the middle classes. They have most of the jobs behind the camera as directors, producers, editors and technicians, and in front of it as actors. So working-class people very rarely get a look in. This means when working-class life is represented on film it is filtered, literally, through the lens of a middle class who have no experience of working-class life. They have never lived on a council estate, never gone hungry, never had three jobs to survive and never had to use a foodbank. The viewpoints of the middle class and the way in which they think about the working class are therefore embedded in the films they make.

It is difficult for working-class people to get a job in the film industry and it’s not just because we can’t afford to do unpaid internships or that we are not part of the privately educated Oxbridge network that employ each other. It’s also because making sure we don’t tell our own stories is one of the ways that those with both cultural and economic power reproduce, consolidate and hang onto that power.

So, the question is, how do we change this? How do we make sure that we get to tell our own stories? Stories that connect to our experience of work and relationships around our work. Stories which are about our own culture, explore our memories, analyse and develop our politics – where we can collect all the experiences that come together and make us working-class. Just think of the stories we could tell, if given the chance.

Neoliberal capitalism and austerity has led to ever increasing hardship and deprivation for working-class people and the pandemic will be used to increase these levels of deprivation and to curb our freedoms. We need to organise, to fight and to resist – and film can document these struggles and visualise our alternatives.

The other question then is how do we achieve this, and how do we go about making our own films? The answer is participation in a democratic community-based film culture with its own screening spaces and independent forms of distribution and exhibition.

Trade unions and the labour movement generally should be working to provide training and workshops for working-class people, run by working-class people in filmmaking, scriptwriting, acting, and film criticism, so that we can create a working-class film culture that is able to represent us in ways that we can recognise and engage with.

We need to self-organise and we need to make sure we don’t compromise with the dominant model in order to get funding or good reviews.

Filmmaking, like the struggle for a different world, is a collective endeavour. It’s a way of working together to explore and analyse our struggles, our beliefs, our ideas. As a cultural practice film is able to address the issues important to working-class lives by responding to their immediate concerns, building a vision of how a very different society might begin to emerge.

Working-class values, attitudes and experiences are different from those of other classes. Working-class people think differently, have different priorities and share experiences that separate them from the middle and upper classes. It is working-class people who have the unique ability and the undeniable right to create their own narratives, tell their own stories  and to represent themselves.

That’s why film matters – because it will allow us to do that.

Culture for All: Why Poetry Matters
Tuesday, 10 May 2022 10:11

Culture for All: Why Poetry Matters

Published in Poetry

 As part of the Culture for All series, supported by the Communication Workers Union, we're proud to present Fran Lock talking about poetry. Image above: Rag Town Girls Do Poetry, by Steev Burgess

Why Poetry Matters

by Fran Lock

Hello everybody, my name is Fran Lock, and among other things, I am a writer and teacher of poetry. What this means in practice is that I have a lot of conversations with people from all walks of life about how they “don't get”, are bored by, or “can't stand” poetry, and then I do my best to convince them that poetry is in fact relevant, exciting, necessary; even potentially radical. And I generally start by explaining to people that the aversion they feel is understandable, and that it's probably not their fault. It isn't the fault of poetry either.

As with so many other things in life, I blame the Tories. Specifically, I blame successive generations of Tory governments, who have used so-called educational “reforms” to routinise and shrink the teaching of English in schools, producing a loveless conveyorbelt curriculum where students are rewarded for the relentless memorising of disconnected facts, and are really not encouraged to develop any kind of lively conversation with and about literature. Michael Gove did a tremendous amount of damage as Education Secretary in 2013, and I think Ofqual's recent decision to make poetry optional at GCSE level is part of this same ongoing process: of hammering arts education in general, and poetry in particular. And I've taught in all kinds of places, from women's shelters and prisons to universities, and something that has always struck me, and that I think is really telling about what the Tories have done to education in this country, is that while my degree students, who have the highest levels of formal education, are the most knowledgeable with regards to terminology, and to different kinds of poetic technique, and who are maybe “better read” in terms of “the classics”, it's my students who have had the least contact with formal education who are the most excited by and the most original and vivid writers of poetry.

So, when I'm talking to people about why they feel suspicious of or maybe hostile towards poetry, I try to suggest that the attitudes and perceptions we have about it are coloured by the way it has been presented to us. It has been fed to us in this way for a reason, and that is absolutely deliberate and absolutely ideological. I get angry about that because I spent a large part of my own childhood and adolescence believing that poetry wasn't for me; that poetry belonged to some mysterious higher realm called “culture” that was somehow above criticism or reproach, and which had nothing to do with the likes of me. And nobody ever bothered to tell me any different. My ah-ha! moment came when, quite by accident, I came across a recording of the poet Ciaran Carson reading his poem 'Belfast Confetti'. Here was someone like me, who sounded like my friends and family, talking about something that we knew, and something that mattered to us. I realised in that moment that I had been lied to, that I'd been edged and engineered out of something that felt really important. I asked myself who that served, and I'm still asking, still arguing that poetry matters, that it belongs to us.

Poetry, as an art form, is practically tailor-made for those of us who are poor in resources and in time. It does not require specialist tools or training. It is portable and cheap. It can be practised anywhere. Poetry can be short, and memorable. You don't need to spend hours wading through text to arrive at the point. It cuts through bullshit to reach our rawest nerve. In other words, poetry is one of the few cultural activities that working-class people, that prisoners and homeless people, and people living in poverty are able to independently access and produce. It's also one of the few places where working-class voices, accents and grammar are allowed to creep into culture, where it doesn't matter if you're not talking “proper”, where slang and patois and dialect and swearing are all up for grabs. When my students are made aware of this huge toolbox they have at their disposal, they get really energised by poetry; it gives them permission to enter that space, it lets them know that people like us are welcome to the party.

Poetry is such an immediate and intimate thing: it energises and moves people, so it's potentially incredibly powerful both socially and politically. Restricting the access of working-class people to poetry early on in life is all about denying us that power; it is about trying to reabsorb something radical, dangerous, and engaging back into the self-serving myth of middle-class literary production: only posh people make art. Only white, male, classically educated people write poetry.

This tactic, it seems to me, is inseparable from the funding cuts that ensure inequality of both provision and of access. Elites will always try to marginalise or underfund any cultural activity to such an extent that only those with a vested interest in maintaining the status-quo can afford to participate. And when they do invest, they tend to invest in the kinds of cultural activities that automatically exclude working-class people. For example, literature is underfunded by ACE in proportion to ballet, opera, theatre. Poetry is underfunded again with respect to literature. While it might well be true that some free resources and opportunities exist, and that some funding is available, these opportunities are hedged at best, either because they are solely concentrated in Greater London, or because nobody is there to guide young working-class people towards them, or because the process of accessing these opportunities is Byzantine. I've known so many working-class women in particular give up half way through applying for ACE funding because they don't have the time or the energy to spend making sense of a system that seems designed specifically to alienate them

The Tories don't want us writing poetry; they don't want us recognising and reclaiming the spoken word as a source of collective strength; they don't really want us participating in culture at all. Culture is the medium through which the work of ideology flows. It's also a place where those ideologies can be met and challenged. Publishing operations such as Culture Matters, Lumpen Journal, and Proletarian Poetry have really taken up that challenge, to make art and poetry more widely accessible and available. Because we do not need some Oxford posh-boy to tell us what's “good”. We can write about our own lives to, with, and for each other. And there are many fine poets who are publishing through operations like Culture Matters, and Smokestack Books, and Lumpen, who are writing about working-class life and labour with directness and heart, proving that we do have a seat at the table, even if we've had to fight to get it.

Nothing worth having was ever given freely, was it?

Som independents / We are independent
Monday, 09 May 2022 20:55

Som independents / We are independent

Published in Music

Som independents / We are independent

by Xavier I Panades, extracted from Gwrthryfel / Uprising

No necessitem que ens vigilis,
ni que ens suggereixis que fer.
No cal que seguis a damunt nostre,
ni que posis preu a la nostra fe.

El fantasma del meu pare plora:
per les tortures innecessàries.
El fantasma de la meva mare crida:
a seguir lluitant per la nostra vida.

No som més alts, ni més petits,
som un poble que mai decau!
No som ni més negres, ni més blancs,
Som un poble que vivim en pau!

Som independents
del teu centralisme,
dels teus oferiments.

No volem que juguis amb nosaltres!
No volem patir gana!
No volem xiular amb la llengua torta!
No volem nens ignorants!

Som independents,
de les teves guerres,
de les teves almoines.

Amb estat o sense estat,
amb força i sense por,
amb dignitat i serenitat,
sobreviurem la vostra caritat!

Som independents,
de les teves mentides,
de les teves envestides.

Som gent que parlem clar i català!
No us interposeu en els nostres afers,
ens encanta la vida, del porró bevem,
per sempre cridar: som independents!

We are independent!

We don't need you to watch us,
nor do you suggest us what to do.
You don't have to sit on us,
nor to put a price on our faith.

My father's ghost cries:
for unnecessary torture.
My mother's ghost screams:
to keep fighting for our lives.

We are neither taller nor smaller,
We are a people that never decays!
We are neither blacker nor whiter,
We are a people living in peace!

We are independent,
of your centralism,
of your offerings.

We don’t want you to play with us!
We don't want to go hungry!
We don’t want to whistle with a crooked tongue!
We don’t want ignorant kids!

We are independent,
of your wars, of your alms,

With or without status,
with strength and without fear,
with dignity and serenity,
we will survive your charity!

We are independent
of your lies, of your attacks.

We are people who speak clear and Catalan!
Do not interfere in our affairs,
we love life, we drink from the jug,
to forever shout: we are independent!

Culture for All: Why Sport Matters
Monday, 09 May 2022 07:32

Culture for All: Why Sport Matters

Published in Sport

As part of the Culture for All series, supported by the Communication Workers Union, we're proud to present a short film about why sport matters, by Michael Roberts

Why Sport Matters

by Michael Roberts

Sport is one of the most popular cultural activities in the world. It is essential to our physical, emotional and mental health, and to developing our individual talents, abilities and social skills like friendly competition, co-operation, solidarity and collective, co-ordinated effort. The recent attempt to form a ‘super league’ of top European clubs was a serious threat to these underlying values, a classic example of the way capitalism corrupts and undermines cultural activities that matter so much to us.

But the collapse of the ‘Super League’ project by the billionaire owners of the big clubs is only an interrupted chapter in the story of the commodification of sport into profitable capitalist enterprises, owned and controlled by capital. It is no accident that JP Morgan was the fund manager for the Super League plan – as the bank epitomises the role of global capital in controlling modern sport. And it is no accident that the main drivers for the new league were Real Madrid, a football club dominated in the past by the corrupt Spanish monarchy and Francoism, the fascist wing of Spanish capital.Sport is one of the most popular cultural activities in the world. It is essential to our physical, emotional and mental health, and to developing our individual talents, abilities and social skills like friendly competition, co-operation, solidarity and collective, co-ordinated effort. The recent attempt to form a ‘super league’ of top European clubs was a serious threat to these underlying values, a classic example of the way capitalism corrupts and undermines cultural activities that matter so much to us.

The Super League was going to be a cartel, designed to create a monopoly for the larger football clubs in Europe at the expense of the smaller clubs, and eventually at the expense of the ‘fans’ or followers of these clubs who would soon be paying big subscriptions to watch matches on TV or face high prices to see matches in the stadiums. But then, as I’m sure you know, that was already happening. 

The fuss made about this cartel hides the role of capital itself. It is the same idea when economists talk about the nasty role of monopolies, as though competitive capitalism was fine and equitable and we just need to return to 'free competition'. The reality is that football had already been capitalised: owned and controlled by billionaires, often as their playthings, but increasingly as money-making businesses.  Fans have no say; players and managers follow orders.

So ending this cartel (for now) does not change the reality of the commodification of sport. Sport became a business as early as the development of industrial capitalism in the mid-19th century. Take football. There are about 600 premier league professional players in England, around 4000 professional footballers in England and around 65,000 professional players in the world.  Of course, from the bottom to the top, the inequalities of income or wages for footballers are huge: from one player that earns $1.5m a week to one that cannot live on football wages and needs a second job (the latter of course are the overwhelming majority).  And then there are people who just play for fun, apparently about 250 million association football players in the world.

The inequalities in wages are just the same in other major sports around the world: baseball and American football, cricket and tennis. But the thing about football (soccer) and American baseball is that they are supposed to be the people’s sports. But at some important levels, they have never been ‘people’s sports’. The first is that women have been broadly excluded from playing, until fairly recently. Football was not a people's sport’, but a men's game, played by men and mainly watched by men. Women did not 'do sport' and certainly not football. Women's football has only just got into the wider world in recent decades: women were supposed to stay at home and prepare the meal when the men got back from playing or watching. In the case of cricket, women were expected to make the tea and prepare the sandwiches while their men played on the field.

Also racism was a powerful force in modernised sport. If you were black or Asian, you were excluded from professional sport. For example, it was not until 1947 that American professional baseball teams included a black player. Baseball until then was not just a man’s sport but a white man's sport, particularly where money was involved.


Cricket originated in the medieval villages of England and France and was mostly played by rural labourers. But it soon became a 'toff’s sport'. At an organised level it became dominated by the upper class and aristocrats (and still is in England). In England, the professional game was divided between those who were ‘players’ and got paid for playing and those who were ‘gentlemen’, who were so rich that they did not need to be paid.

Of course, modern capitalism got rid of most of this when money talked.  Now cricket has become a global capitalist enterprise, run by Indian billionaires employing cricket mercenaries from around the world in their lucrative competitions. The Super League football cartel already operates in cricket in India, while the old amateur leagues founder in the face of billionaire capital. In England cricket is hardly played any more in state schools and professional players are almost completely drawn from private schools or from cricket ‘families’. The working-class players of Yorkshire and Lancashire's industrial areas have mostly disappeared.  And although there are many Asian players at amateur club level, there are few in the professional game.


Tennis was never a people’s sport. It was invented by medieval aristocrats and played in the palaces of kings and nobles as a pastime. Tennis maintained its amateur status right into the late 20th century because it was an upper-class activity. Working-class English tennis hero, Fred Perry, son of a cotton spinner from Lancashire, three times Wimbledon champion and winner of eight ‘grand slams’, was never recognised by the authorities because he turned professional to make a living. Professionalism in tennis eventually triumphed when capitalism saw the profits that could be made in the sport. Now tennis is yet another globalised operation run by billionaire sponsors, based on an intense global rat race for players to get their rankings and earnings. 


Cycling might be considered a people's sport, as multi-millions cycle every day. But while millions cycle every weekend for pleasure, professional sport has become yet another commercial product controlled by billionaire sponsors and riddled with drug use, corruption and race-fixing, as we have learned from the story of Lance Armstrong.


Rugby was a toffs’ sport, on the whole, although in the mining valleys of Wales it gained adherence from local communities as a people’s sport – for men only. Otherwise, it was the main sport of farmers in the richer areas of England, France and the colonial countries of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa – and in the private schools and clubs of the upper classes. Rugby League was a development in the working-class areas in the north of England and was formed professionally so that working-class players could be paid – something frowned upon by the Rugby Union authorities. The irony is that capital eventually made rugby union go professional and that is where the money is now, and rugby league is the poor relative.


The people’s game of baseball in America was brought to the new continent by immigrants playing older bat and ball games in England.   But it too has been totally commercialised in 'super league franchises'. American football was never really a working-class sport, but came from the Ivy League colleges of the rich, like rugby in the UK. Now working-class kids with sporting talent desperately try to get scholarships in football, tennis and basketball as a stepping-stone to riches of the professional leagues – and of course, only a tiny minority ever make it, despite huge sacrifices by everyone.


Football was a truly working-class sport in Europe. It was first played by rural labourers in villages and then workers in industrial cities. It was mostly played for little or no money, and it was followed by working-class men (and some women). For many working-class people with talent it was a way out of poverty, just as boxing had been also. But capital took it over in the last 150 years or so. Now football is a business run by billionaires for their enjoyment and funded increasingly by global capital. Football clubs now have shareholders and are quoted on the stock exchanges.

So the Super League saga is only the latest chapter in the commodification by capitalism of sport. What the story of football and other sports tells us is that football cannot become a people's sport again under capitalism. To achieve that requires that stadiums and clubs should be in public ownership and that clubs should have members who can democratically decide their activities. Sport should not be funded by capital. Players should be employed on reasonable wages, like any other job. Private capital investment in sport and running it for profit must be replaced by a real people's sport, run by the people for the people. Sport matters too much to us to be ruined by capitalism.

The implementation of this kind of approach, this kind of cultural democracy, would of course be difficult to achieve on its own. It could only happen as part of a wider programme of public ownership and democratic control of the other cultural activities in this series of films, and as part of a wider democratisation of ownership and control of the economy and society in general. 

Gwrthryfel / Uprising: An anthology of radical poetry from contemporary Wales
Friday, 06 May 2022 14:41

Gwrthryfel / Uprising: An anthology of radical poetry from contemporary Wales

Published in Books

Gwrthryfel / Uprising takes us on a journey to the heart of Cymru. Edited by Merthyr writer Mike Jenkins, co-editor of ‘Red Poets’ magazine, with artwork by Gus Payne, this ambitious anthology of radical poetry explores Cymru’s history, hardships, rebellions and resistances. The book is sponsored by Merthyr Trades Council, the GMB union, and Left Unity Cymru.

It opens with three poems directly about the 1831 Rising, ‘an extremely significant working-class revolt” according to Professor Gwyn A. Williams. A range of historical and current themes are covered in the anthology, by eighty poets including Kitty Jay, Phil Howells, Malcolm Llywelyn, Rebecca Lowe, Alun Rees, Laura Wainwright, John Williams, and many others. There are also a number of poems in Welsh by renowned poets such as Ifor ap Glyn and Menna Elfyn.

It is an anthology of and for our troubled times.

Here, rebellious poets draw from that common history, common culture, and common desire to speak truth to the world, showing that we, the people of Wales, y werin Gymreig, have the fire of dragons in our words. Through these words the reader is taken from coal mines to political discourse, from coronavirus to historic heroes, from mountains to valleys, through towns, villages and cities. Words dug from mines, hewn from quarries, herded from hillsides and forged from furnaces—here be dragons.

Here are 21st century bards using the ancient magic of poetry to bring home the fight—the fight against imperialism, against injustice, against discrimination. Not just in Cymru, but the world over.

Why? Because an injury to one is an injury to all / un yn dioddef, pawb yn dioddef.

                                                                                              — from the Foreword by Peter Jones

Gwrthryfel / Uprising, An anthology of radical poetry from contemporary Wales, edited by Mike Jenkins, £12 inc. p. and p., 180pps., 4 colour illustrations, ISBN 978-1-912710-48-5. 

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