£8 (plus £1.50 p. and p.) ISBN 978-1-912710-09-6
Mike Quille is a writer, reviewer and chief editor of Culture Matters.
£8 (plus £1.50 p. and p.) ISBN 978-1-912710-07-2
One of These Dead Places is a collection of poems and images by Jane Burn.
One of the voices rarely heard in modern poetry is that of working-class women, in terms of both the impact of major historical events on their identity, health and happiness, as well as their day-to-day experiences of work, men and motherhood.
In this remarkable, powerful collection, Jane Burn has told her story and more, in a series of poems which are both personal and political. She has also illustrated the poems with a beautifully imaginative series of illustrations, which add depth and detail to the collection.
This is a vital collection for our time. Are things worse than the 80s? Have a read, then decide — you won’t be disappointed. As one of the titles says: these poems are ‘Sentences to Survive In’.
£5 (plus £1.50 p&p) ISBN 978-1-912710-06-5
We Will Be Free! is an anthology of poems from the Bread and Roses Poetry Award 2018, sponsored by Unite.
This is my second year judging this much-needed and extraordinary competition. Again, I was struck by the passion, the urgency and the sheer hard work driving people to write these poems. So many of the entries were beautifully put together, often with a story that demanded to be told and with artfully refreshing humour.
The poems all reflected the fact that we find ourselves in such bleak and alienating times—making this type of competition more crucial than ever. And this year we had a particularly healthy number of entries from women and from young people—again, a reflection of deep, unvoiced feelings from those hardest hit, by today’s increasingly rampant inequality.
- Mary Sayer Judge of the Bread and Roses Poetry Award
We must take heart from the response in this competition, as well as more widely, that the working class are continuing their fight for justice, equality, and freedom—be it the economic struggle on the picket line, the political struggle through the ballot box, and the cultural struggle through poetry, the arts generally, and other cultural activities.
Society cannot be changed solely from the top, even with a progressive Labour government. It needs strong unions, not an add-on to government but to assist in building the foundations of a more just and equal country. None of this can be done without socialist culture policies—for the many, not the few.
- Len McCluskey, General Secretary, Unite
£8 plus £1.50 p. and p.
A new collection of poems by Mair De-Gare Pitt, with accompanying paintings by Jill Powell.
From the very first poem this collection focuses on the human and, through its brilliant lyricism, elevates the experiences it describes into something like beauty. The collection understands that the real way to political change is by moving people, by getting hold of their hearts, and by writing memorably, which the poems do again and again.
I’d say this collection is important because it’s political. But I’ll say more. It’s important if you’re human. It is wonderfully illustrated by Jill Powell, the images and poems now endorsing each other, now opening each other up to new possibilities. It’s a great thing to see a publisher putting together a sequence now of beautifully written, wonderfully produced pamphlets, which seem to be doing something important and different in British poetry.
- Jonathan Edwards
Mike Quille reviews Invisible Britain: Portraits of Hope and Resilience, and interviews the editor, Paul Sng.
Paul Sng’s films – Sleaford Mods, and Dispossession: The Great Housing Swindle – have explored the lives of working-class people who have been ignored, marginalised or demonised by mainstream media, and who are protesting and challenging the status quo in some way.
In this new book of documentary photographs, the portraits and accompanying text tell the untold, invisible stories of people who have been targeted by austerity economics, left behind by cuts to public services and excluded from mainstream media narratives.
Corinne, by Jenny Lewis
The subjects look out at us in a dignified, equal way. They’re not case studies of despair to grit up a superficial TV drama, nor are they illustrations of some story about benefit scroungers. They are sensitive, revealing and empathic portraits – some inspiring, some heartbreaking – of ordinary people with stories to tell us.
Carl, by J. S. Mottram
Their stories are about their setbacks and suffering, and the various ways they persist in fighting back. Not just through political campaigning, but through voluntary caring work with prostitutes, disabled people, ex-offenders, drug users, and other poor, oppressed and exploited groups in modern capitalist society.
These people have all experienced suffering, exploitation and discrimination, against themselves and those they care about. But their determination, resilience and sense of solidarity shine through both their portraits and their stories. It is striking how much their experiences and values have made them politically aware, quite conscious of the punishment handed out to them by a rigged economic and political system.
Karen, by Jon Tonks
The value, beauty and power of this book lies in its creation of an alternative narrative that challenges all the stigmas and stereotypes that have been generated by the de-industrialisation, discrimination and class conflict of the last few decades of neoliberal capitalism. It is a fine example of the art of photography being used not to fool us with glossy photoshopped adverts of skinny models and shiny cars, but to tell the plain truth of people’s lives these days, and to stimulate our compassion, empathy and desire for radical change.
Ken Loach has said this about the book:
This book illustrates a truth we cannot ignore. Class conflict is at the heart of our society, the inevitable consequence of this economic system. This should be the first principle of our politics. Paul Sng also shows another eternal truth: in the end, people always fight back. Our task is to ensure that their resistance is not in vain.
It is indeed a vivid and truthful account of contemporary class conflict and struggle. But as well as its value as a document, it is also itself part of the cultural struggle – a protest and an inspiration to us all to join and help achieve a better life for the poor, the marginalised and the oppressed – and ourselves.
Invisible Britain: Portraits of Hope and Resilience is published by Policy Press on 1 November. Editor Paul Sng will be touring the book with a series of Q&As and screenings of the film (reviewed here) that helped inspire the book, Sleaford Mods – Invisible Britain, from 1-10 November. Dates and details via www.invisiblebritain.com
Q. Can you tell us about your films -- Sleaford Mods: Invisible Britain and Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle?
I fell into filmmaking at the age of 38. Until then I'd worked in a series of office jobs, and before that in bars and shops. I was inspired to make my first documentary after interviewing the band Sleaford Mods in October 2014. They mentioned that they were going to be doing a tour of small venues around the UK in places where a lot of bands don't usually go, some of which were in deindustrialised areas like Barnsley and Stockton-on-Tees, and inner cities that had suffered heavily from government cuts to public services.
It was one of those lightbulb moments. I thought, 'That would make a great documentary'. The idea was developed to be part band doc, part state of the nation film. In each place we visited, we met with people in the local community to ask them how austerity and other unpopular government policies had affected them. The film was shot in the run-up to the 2015 General Election and came out in cinemas in October 2015. 11 months from concept to theatrical release, self-distributed. It's very raw, and perhaps too polemical, but it got noticed and gave me a new career as a filmmaker.
I made my second documentary, Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle, in 2016/17. I made it to examine the neglect and mismanagement of social housing over the past few decades, and how this had affected residents in various areas and council estates in London, Nottingham, and Glasgow.
It came out on 8 June 2017, the day of the last General Election. Five days later, the Grenfell Tower fire happened, which made the film even more relevant. We ran a campaign in tandem with a nationwide tour of Q&A screenings to try and raise awareness about the issues, which was well received.
Nadine, by Nicola Muirhead
Q. What have been your main political and artistic influences?
I've not really thought about political influences before. If I'm influenced by politics it comes through in the issues my work has focused on: austerity, deindustrialisation, housing. Grassroots campaigns inspire me more than politicians, people like Focus E15 and The United Voice of the World union. Artistically, as a documentary maker, my work is influenced by Patrick Keiller, Michael Grigsby and Julien Temple.
Q. What was the background to your move to documentary photography, and this book?
I was in touch with Alison Shaw from Policy Press via Twitter and she mentioned that she'd be interested if I ever had an idea for a book, so I pitched the concept behind Invisible Britain, which is essentially a book of stories and portraits from people who we don't often hear from directly in the arts and media. I then met Laura Dicken, who curated and project managed the book, and we set about finding photographers and people who were up for sharing their stories. I didn't take any photos for the book, as I'm not at that standard yet.
The ethos behind the book was to amplify unheard voices and provide a means for people to speak in their own words about a specific issue or something that had impacted on their life. Direct testimony, with only minimal editing for length. Everyone got to approve the text before it was published. I enjoyed the challenge of working with the photographers – to capture someone's character or an element of their story or personality in a single image shows incredible artistry.
Q. The book seems to be a good example itself of cultural democracy. Many of the photographers are relative newcomers; the focus is on ordinary working-class subjects and their lives; there is a clear egalitarian ethos in the portraits; and the images and text together represent a clear protest against capitalist economics and a longing for a fairer society. What are your views on class, politics and culture generally, particularly in the visual arts?
I think the arts has become too middle-class, and too nepotistic. I see so many examples of people who have very little ability, but very good connections. There's not enough inclusion, and that's across both social class and ethnic background. A lot of organisations have diversity quotas, but I think there's a danger that it becomes a box-ticking exercise.
The book is intended to be the first step towards setting up an Invisible Britain platform that will work with underrepresented individuals and communities to amplify their voices and help enable them to tell their stories in the arts and media. We would also run creative workshops in various areas of filmmaking and a training and mentorship scheme, as well as offering paid work placements on film and television productions. It's in very early development, but I'm hopeful we can do something to make the arts and media more inclusive of people whose voices aren't heard often enough.
Sé, by Cian Oba-Smith
Q. What would be your advice to an incoming Labour government on its priorities to address the issues raised by this book and your work generally? What would a socialist culture policy look like?
I think the priority for any new government should be much greater investment in areas of the UK that don't have any facilities for the arts. More funding for libraries should also be a priority. Labour councils in London are closing libraries by the dozen, which is terrible. More funding for the BFI to build more regional hubs in rural and remote areas. State funding for arts and culture has shrunk over the past decade, and entry to these industries is becoming more and more off limits to working class people. I'd like to see more paid scholarships for exceptional students from disadvantaged backgrounds of all ages to study creative arts courses. There also needs to be greater scrutiny of how and where the funding is spent, to prevent nepotism.
Theresa Easton and Martin Gollan are two members of a group of artists who staged protests about The Great North Exhibition and who organised an alternative – and ongoing – series of events, The Other Great Exhibition of the North. They were recently interviewed by Mike Quille.
MQ: There was a lot of media attention given to The Great North Exhibition. What were the views of local artists?
MG: I think for many artists and musicians and others involved in the creative world of Newcastle and Gateshead, the Great Exhibition of the North (GETNORTH) was something planted down with little relevance or desire to attempt to connect with what was happening locally, especially at grassroots level.
As it got closer to the launch of GETNORTH it became increasingly clear just how limited its engagement would be with established centres of creative activity, like the Ouseburn in Newcastle, or those communities where Tory welfare reforms and austerity have increased already entrenched levels of poverty and disadvantage.
Yes, there was a small grants programme, but few artists we know were successful in getting any funding from that. And GETNORTH’s ‘inspired by’ programme was simply an act of appropriation, making claims for festivals, projects and cultural activities which were already planned and in the calendar.
‘Inspired by’ gave the illusion of GETNORTH’s reach into Newcastle and Gateshead’s local arts community, when the reality was that it barely moved beyond the established cultural venues along the Quayside and city centres of Newcastle and Gateshead.
It was clear fairly early on that IT was less about celebrating cultural, scientific and engineering accomplishments, than a promotional device for George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse. Unlike other arts festivals in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Liverpool or Middlesbrough, it was hatched in Westminster, like the Northern Powerhouse’s devolution plans.
It’s worth remembering that Osborne’s plans for a North East devolution deal, similar to Manchester’s, had already been rejected, that Greater Manchester seemed to be the only place where anything was really happening. You need to remember too that GETNORTH, although taking place in Newcastle and Gateshead, was supposed to be about the whole Northern Powerhouse area – hence John Lennon’s piano and Helen Sharman’s spacesuit being included in the rambling display at Newcastle’s Great North Museum.
GETNORTH was simply an example of artwashing – using culture to give a positive gloss to a cynically inspired political programme designed to distract northern communities from the reality of a centralised political and cultural machine. This Westminster machine is hellbent on pursuing neoliberal economic policies, and making ordinary people pay for the reckless and criminal actions of finance capitalism in the 2008 crash.
MQ: How did local artists, musicians and other creative workers react to the project?
MG: The cynicism of GETNORTH and its neoliberal capitalist roots was made clear by its list of sponsors, including BAE Systems and Virgin Trains. We acknowledge that along with the arts, it was also about science and engineering, and maybe from that perspective those two sponsors made some sense.
But only someone with a tin ear to what was already happening in museums and galleries, where protesters had already for several years been taking action against BP’s sponsorship of the National Portrait Gallery’s annual portrait competition, or Airbus’s links with the Science Museum, would think it a good idea to approach BAE Systems and Virgin.
The Art not Arms campaign against BAE Systems involvement in GETNORTH and BAE’s subsequent withdrawal, was a galvanizing moment for artists and demonstrated how we didn’t need to simply put up with it. Also, Northern Powerhouse minister Jake Berry incensed artists when he referred to them as ‘snowflakes’, chasing ‘subsidies’. It was obvious he was clueless as to the precarious working conditions of artists, who on average survive on less than £10,000 a year.
In April we put a call out through social media to anyone interested in creating an alternative, more democratic cultural initiative, which would be grassroots, led by North East artists and involve the communities that the official programme wasn’t interested in. We organised a meeting and about 20 to 30 people turned up – artists, performers, musicians, writers and activists. It seemed like we’d struck a chord.
We outlined our reasons why there needed to be a response to GETNORTH and we agreed a name for what we were planning, The Other Great Exhibition of the North, or OtherGEN. A website was set up along with Twitter and Facebook platforms to promote events and advertise the planning meetings, which continued through the summer. OtherGEN deliberately reached out to creative communities in Sunderland, Durham and Middlesbrough and elsewhere in the region, where GETNORTH was absent.
Our programme was necessarily somewhat ad hoc and reliant on the artists to themselves organise events and exhibitions. Some great ideas didn’t come off simply because of lack of time. Remember, work began on GETNORTH in 2016 – OtherGEN only had a few weeks.
However, we were awarded some funding from Seedbed Tyneside Arts and received donations from Newcastle Trades Council, Northumbria UCU and that enabled us to meet at least some of the costs incurred by the artists and performers who took part. Over time a core organising committee naturally formed and as we are all members of either Artists Union England or the Musicians Union, paying artists and performers was important.
June demo against GETNORTH artwashing
Among the events that took place as part of OtherGEN, the first was the march/parade on 22 June, the day GETNORTH launched. We marched from the Haymarket, down Northumberland St and congregated outside the Laing Art Gallery, where we had speeches and songs. It was a great way to start off.
In July The gallery at 36 Lime Street was transformed into a working studio as resident artist Theresa Easton created a range of hand printed posters in response to GETNORTH. On show was work by young women attending St Michael's Centre, Byker, alongside Theresa’s collection of broadsides and posters covering the 'Together Against Trump' campaign and a past residency at Robert Smails Printing Works, Innerleithen.
OtherGEN workshop run by Sheree Mack
I think we were all clear that OtherGEN, as much as it was a set of cultural actions, it was also a straightforwardly political act. When OPENM;NDED, a group providing a platform to explore challenging issues through conversation, community and creativity, made contact with us about a spoken word event they were organising, there was no question of OtherGEN not getting involved.
The event at Kommunity had a panel featuring OtherGEN’s Stephen Pritchard, also Mo Lovatt and John Tomaney, who had recently published an article critical of GETNORTH, and spoken word performances from Wajid Hussain, Harry Gallagher and Andy White.
Other events in August included a Friday night ceilidh at Blackfriars Centre, Byker with local band Berking Mad. An exhibition, Is the Spectacle the Sun that Never Sets, was also held at System Gallery. The show, featuring work by North East artists Azin, Mark Carr and Sharon Gollan, explored the ideologies and consequences of neoliberalism and the deliberate austerity policies pursued by the Tory government. So along with the art on display, we shared information about Gateshead Foodbank, Newcastle West End Foodbank and the People’s Kitchen.
Work, worklessness and the political economy of health, by Sharon Gollan, in an OtherGEN art exhibition
In September, OtherGEN supported a jazz event in Sunderland, with Emma Fisk and James Birkett playing early jazz numbers. There was also a display from Assign (Arts Sunderland Support Initiative Group Network) of jazz influenced artwork.
A ‘drink and draw’ night was held at the Tyneside Irish Centre. Organised by Angela Kennedy, a Gateshead-based interdisciplinary artist and activist, the drink and draw was an opportunity to have some fun and loosen up their creativity in a relaxed, friendly atmosphere.
We returned in September to Blackfriars for a comedy night with local comedians Mike Milligan and John Scott.
MQ: Now the GNE has ended, what does your group intend to do?
TE: OtherGEN has struck a chord with many of those involved and will continue to build links with communities to create events and plan artistic developments with a whole range of people. The group has also developed a supportive role within the artistic community.
Community arts screenprinting workshop at Redhills, Durham, run by Theresa Easton for OtherGEN
The neoliberal and elitist environment of the ‘art world’ where the ‘free’ market rules, is being challenged and exposed. Alternative models of making a living as an artist are being embraced. Community art, sometimes seen as less important or serious as ‘high art’, is being used to challenge the idea that success is measured by the price of artwork.
This is particularly relevant, as recently Arts Council England commissioned a report called ‘Cultural Democracy’ which was supposed to encourage arts organisations to open up decision-making and physical spaces for local communities and artists.
In fact, the report is another top-down approach that appropriates the radical concepts behind cultural democracy, and the work of communities and art activists. OtherGEN will continue to hold the government and its institutions to account as long as it continues to artwash its programmes of austerity, inequality and class-based discrimination.
MQ: What kind of pressures are artists under these days? How do you make a living?
TE: The effect of austerity on artists and their working lives is no different from other professions, having a direct adverse effect on the precarious paid work of artists. We are facing zero-hour contracts, less local government and public funding for the arts, cuts in visiting lecture work and huge cuts in schools’ art budgets, as well as the time devoted to the study and practice of the arts.
This inevitably affects the funding available for art work in educational contexts, communities, gallery work, art projects, residencies, and commissions – all these avenues of funding have been decimated by the austerity programme.
Universal Credit has hit many artists hard, as benefits are cut because of irregular wage income. Artists are regularly asked to work for free to complete projects, so their business model is often deemed unprofitable by the DWP. Artists in England formed a trade union in 2014, the Artists’ Union England, to counter the exploitative nature of their work and demand better wages and conditions.
The corporate takeover of the arts manifests itself as sponsorship deals, which do not put money into artists’ pocket or provide regular, adequately paid work. Instead corporations are using taxpayers’ subsidies to present a squeaky clean image while they avoid tax, pollute the planet and exploit lucrative government outsourcing deals.
MQ: What would you like a Corbyn-led Government to do, in terms of arts and culture policy?
TE: Reverse the austerity cuts, and reintroduce universal, accessible library and museum services. The arts will always need subsidy, so investment at local and regional level is imperative in order to avoid a centralised approach.
The arts and other kinds of cultural activity need to be at the centre of communities. They are too important to our well-being to be restricted to weekend visits to cultural venues by the better-off. Those who work in the arts need employment protection like any other worker, and to have their trade unions automatically recognised. Diversity in terms of class, ethnic background, sexuality and other factors needs to be addressed, both for those who work in the arts and those who access and engage with it. Much more needs to be done to be totally inclusive and representative of our communities, especially working class and poorer communities.
MQ: More broadly, how do you think OtherGEN relates to the current discussions and debates about cultural democracy? What lessons might political parties like Labour take from OtherGEN?
TE: The general consensus from the discussions we have had in meetings is that our kind of ethos – participatory, egalitarian, based on mutual co-operation and support, and rooted in local communities – is what cultural democracy should be about, only for artistic activities, but other cultural activities too.
Cultural democracy is not something that can be imposed from above. It’s a process of genuine empowerment of communities, and the artists in those communities. If resources and power are located in grassroots groups, and the means of cultural production and enjoyment are developed, managed and enjoyed within democratic structures, as they have been within OtherGEN meetings, then it’s genuine cultural democracy.
But if power and money are located in professional cultural organisations, following templates and monitoring systems set by national bureaucracies or private corporate sponsors, then it’s not cultural democracy.
Like health, education and key industries like the railways, culture is too important to be left to the so-called ‘free market’. In our discussions, people have imagined arrangements where there is a genuine and significant amount of shared, social ownership and democratic control of cultural services. We think that just like other more material resources, working people also need to have more ownership of cultural production, communication and enjoyment.
- Phill Jupitus
Chris Guiton and Mike Quille present an analysis of what culture means, and what a democratic and socialist approach to culture policy might look like.
The mission of Culture Matters Co-Operative Ltd is to promote cultural democracy, which we understand to be a more democratic and socialist approach to all cultural activities (including the arts). These notes set out our contribution to the current debates around cultural democracy. They set out our thoughts on
- What culture means and why it is so important
- The links between cultural activities and politics, and current examples of the way cultural activities function in class-divided societies like our own
- The general principles of a democratic and socialist approach to all cultural activities
- Details and illustrative examples of specific measures which might form part of a programme for an incoming Labour government.
What culture means and why it is important
What is culture? ‘Culture is ordinary: that is where we must start’ said Raymond Williams. This means that culture includes not just the arts, but much, much more. It includes all those learned human activities which give life purpose, meaning and value, and which human beings engage in for enjoyment, entertainment and enlightenment.
So as well as the arts, culture includes sport, religion, eating and drinking, fashion and clothing, education, the media and many other popular activities.
What does culture mean to us? Fundamentally, cultural activities are social, unifying and egalitarian. They assert our common humanity and solidarity against divisions of class, gender, race and other social divisions caused by capitalism. And cultural activities, especially art, can directly inspire and support radical change in the real world.
Taking part in cultural activities, as consumers and as producers, is not some optional extra for us. It is absolutely essential to our development as humans. It sustains our health, well-being and happiness, including our freedom from oppressive political systems and exploitative economic arrangements.
Culture, politics and class
Class-based divisions in society, based on unequal property ownership, constrain or prevent our enjoyment of culture. Cultural activities may be fundamentally liberating and social activities, but in societies divided by class they are limited, appropriated and privatised by ruling elites.
Throughout history, tiny minorities of dominant social classes have tried – and often succeeded – in turning culture into circuses, to go with the breadcrumbs thrown from the tables of the rich and powerful. In these societies, cultural activities become inaccessible, costly, irrelevant, and even an instrument of oppression. It tends to be owned, organised and delivered in undemocratic ways. It legitimises, conceals or ignores oppression and exploitation. And it is often used to promote diversionary and reactionary political messages and values.
So struggles develop against these tendencies to privatise and undermine culture, and to develop and sustain a cultural commons for the many, not the few. We, the many, face a cultural struggle against the co-option, misuse and appropriation of cultural activities. This struggle to regain enjoyable, meaningful and accessible cultural activities is like our economic and political struggles for fairer wages, for ownership and control of essential social goods and services like the railways, the utility companies and the National Health Service.
Just as commercial markets and the profit motive have shown themselves unable to provide adequate public services in areas such as health, energy and transport, so they are also unable to provide accessible culture. The aggressive inroads of neoliberal capitalism, bringing profit-making motives into cultural production, delivery and consumption, and privately owned, corporate influence and control over culture, are major challenges for a socialist cultural policy.
Current Cultural Issues
It is well understood on the Left why we need to win state power and implement political and economic policies to tackle austerity, the assault on our public services, growing poverty and inequality and the lack of political and economic democracy in Britain. What is less well understood is why and how we need to develop cultural policies, which are often perceived as being of secondary importance to political and economic issues.
Here are some examples of the issues we face, which show the need for an inclusive culture policy which can implement cultural democracy:
- in sport, we face high ticket prices for football games which exclude families on tight budgets from attending together. There is the growth of corporate boxes at events, and undemocratic ownership and control of clubs and the way that sport is organised. There is too much funding for elite sport, and not enough at grassroots level. There are the spoiling and corrupting pressures of drugs and cheating in many sports, which inevitably follow from stressing the capitalist values of competitive individualism.
- in the media, we face the private ownership of the means of human communication by gigantic media monopolies like Google, and by companies like Facebook, which appropriate information about us in order to practice surveillance and influence our commercial and political choices. We face privately owned media companies like Sky, Netflix, Disney and Fox, dedicated to making profits rather than meeting human need. And we face state-owned media like the BBC, designed to support and legitimise the economic and political status quo, and which are institutionally biased against radical politicians and newspapers.
- in our social cultures of eating and drinking, we face the terrible effects of profit-seeking capitalist corporations, loading our food and drink with sugar, salt and fats, and causing immense and increasing mental and physical health problems.
-‘There is a poet, author, singer, pianist, actor, playwright, artist in every single person’ said Jeremy Corbyn, but for working class people wishing to have an arts career, it is getting harder to become a musician or actor or writer without rich relatives to support you. Cuts and curriculum changes in education mean our children are being deprived of the chance to learn how to appreciate and participate in artistic, sporting and other cultural educational activities, at both primary and secondary school stages.
- we also face inaccessibility, obscurity, and vapid spectacle, and the fact that state funding is so unequal. Money that comes from our taxes and our Lottery tickets is overwhelmingly focused on cultural provision in the London area, which benefits mainly the already well off, and tourists.
- the massive expansion of the ‘creative industries’ and of cultural activities generally in the last few years means many more people are working in jobs linked to culture. Also, virtually everyone in the labour movement enjoys some form of cultural activity, as a consumer if not as a creator or performer. Creativity is seen as a major factor in the future economy, and a significant component of many kinds of work, both in the traditional cultural sectors and the wider ‘knowledge economy’. But the growth of the creative industries has failed to deliver on its meritocratic promise. Far from offering non-alienated labour, the chance for creative fulfilment, and post-industrial economic regeneration, young people entering the labour market today are being forced to accept poor pay and conditions, chronic job insecurity, and a lack of hard-won basic rights such as sick pay, maternity pay, and pensions. Cultural and creative labour markets are increasingly informal and closed to ‘outsiders’, operating outside equal opportunities and equality legislation and not reflecting the social and demographic make-up of contemporary society.
- the downgrading and exclusion of arts subjects from the educational curriculum of schools, combined with the marketisation of higher education away from the arts and humanities and the gutting of further and adult education, all combine to significantly reduce the opportunities for cultural and creative fulfilment of young people, and have a disproportionate effect on already marginalised groups. The opportunity for the best possible cultural and creative education, as consumers and as producers, should be available for all children, not just those of the wealthy.
- the Government’s politically-driven austerity policies, which have led to huge cuts in cultural facilities, eg libraries, community centres, youth facilities and sports facilities. These cuts are set to continue for years to come; and have been deliberately targeted at the least well-off, geographically and demographically.
- the possibilities of a vast expansion in leisure time in the next 10, 20 and 30 years, as labour-saving technology generates even more unemployment, under-employment and spare time. Again, this will impact more on the working class generally, and on less skilled workers, younger people trying to build careers, and people who are already socially excluded and discriminated against on the grounds of gender, ethnic origin, disability etc. Engagement in fulfilling cultural activities is set to become more and more important in most people's lives.
General principles for a culture policy
In general, a culture policy to implement cultural democracy would need to recognise:
- that culture is fundamental, not marginal. The creative activity embodied in culture is a form of social production, with humanity’s happiness and well-being as its end product. Spectatorship and engagement in cultural production and consumption, widely defined, are essential to human fulfilment and well-being.
- that an inclusive approach to culture is essential if we genuinely want to transform the world for the benefit of working people. Culture policy must cover cultural activities which matter to working people, and which can attract the support of the labour movement, so that culture is seen as part of the social wage for everyone. This means breaking down long-established hierarchies between different kinds of cultural activities and practices – which often reflect class distinctions – and reaffirming the legitimacy of cultural institutions and public funding based upon participatory, democratic and egalitarian principles.
- that we must challenge the narrow, centrally-dictated instrumentalism which has become so central to cultural policy and administration over the last thirty years, accompanied by oppressive monitoring and evaluation requirements, without maintaining an idealist, elitist position eg by focusing solely on the arts and excluding popular cultural activities. A genuinely socialist approach should be based on the understanding that culture, including art, belong to everyone, as creators, performers, and consumers.
- that we need to develop democratic, inclusive and bottom-up cultural policies in which communities of practitioners and audiences are empowered to direct culture towards ends that they define, whether that be entertainment, personal fulfilment, self-expression or as a contribution to the struggle for a better world, and avoiding value judgements on how and why people engage in culture. These might learn from and build on existing examples of successful 'DIY culture' in music, art, poetry and other fields, and large, public examples of working class culture such as the Durham Miners’ Gala.
- that we need to learn, through democratic, grassroots policy-making, how to develop policies and processes which can be used to encourage, enable and facilitate people to participate in cultural activities. These policy-making processes need to tackle concrete issues of accessibility, in terms of cost, geography and content; ownership and control of the institutions that fund, organise, deliver and regulate cultural activities; recognition of the fundamental need to embrace diversity of gender, race, nationality, sexuality, class, religion etc in the production and consumption of culture; and consideration of how to decolonise culture, and challenge the dualism of cultural ‘consumers’ and ‘producers’.
Specific Policy Proposals
The following examples of specific policy proposals reflect and build on many of the good ideas that have already been proposed as a contribution to the culture policy of an incoming Labour government. It is not an exhaustive list, further work is needed to clarify and develop the details, but we offer them in a constructive spirit to stimulate discussion:
- Require government policy makers (national, regional and local) to test proposed policy objectives against an over-arching objective of the promotion of a cultural democracy which works for the common good. Review whether relevant institutions and processes are fit for that purpose, and closely monitor implementation of such a radical policy in order to ensure that it is not captured by sectional interests.
- Dismantle the barriers that constrain or prevent ordinary people from accessing culture, particularly that which is publicly funded, based on cost, geography, class and social exclusion. Ensure that people generally have an equal opportunity to join in and enjoy all the arts and cultural activities.
- End the corporate capture of the Arts Council and other publicly funded arts bodies, exemplified by the recent appointment of Elisabeth Murdoch to the National Council of Arts Council England. Ensure that cultural funding is distributed equally, regionally and demographically, with regional, local and community participation to ensure that cultural spending empowers the communities that elect those representatives. Champion investment in people over large-scale vanity projects which benefit a narrow elite.
- End the distorting impact of corporate sponsorship and private philanthropy on the freedom and independence of cultural institutions.
- Ensure that leaders of cultural institutions – not only theatres, art galleries, concert halls and poetry publishers, but sports clubs, churches, and broadcasting and media corporations – seek to engage with all sections of the community, particularly the least well off and the least powerful.
- Explore ways to recover working class history and culture at a national, regional and community level, and restore the democratic and humanist cultural traditions that have been eroded by neoliberalism. This might build on the examples of local ‘people’s museums’ which have been set up in parts of the country, using community facilities and contributions by local people to build a picture of the locality.
- Recognise and support the important community role played by small music, visual and performing arts venues, many of which are facing closure as a result of commercial pressures or removal of grants or local funding. These play a vital role in developing creative ability and should be supported via business rates relief, direct subsidy and protection from commercial or residential development.
- Build on our rich history of community arts and sports by extending support, via regional culture councils and other relevant organisations and local authorities, to make space and resources available, so that creative and recreational activity is both available and accessible in urban and rural locations.
- Ensure that the cultural sector sets the standard in terms of workers’ rights, guaranteeing at least the UK Real Living Wage for all its employees, including artists and interns, management, technicians, cleaners and security staff. Introduce trades union representation into the governance arrangements of every public cultural institution.
- Rediscover the value of employer-supported workplace activities to facilitate sports and other forms of cultural participation.
- Provide proper funding for museums, galleries and libraries, to ensure that they play a much more active part in the lives of their communities, providing a place for creative activity and social connection and ensuring accountability to their publics. Museums and galleries should maintain free entry as a general principle, and offer genuine concessionary rates and free entry to low income groups to special events and exhibitions.
- Investigate and remove the barriers that exist in all cultural sectors towards equality of access to cultural and creative work by tackling the educational, financial, employment, career progression and management obstacles that prevent these sectors from reflecting the diversity of our population, particularly at leadership levels.
- Tackle the absence of significant working class representation in all cultural institutions (including the arts, sports, religion, the media, science and technology etc.) in terms of its content, audiences and practitioners.
- Amend the Equality Act to add consideration of class, social exclusion, poverty and inequality to the current policy framework, in parallel with the standard definitions of diversity, with their role factored in to all considerations of access, funding, participation etc.
- Empower and encourage local authorities to facilitate re-municipalisation at a local level, supporting social ownership for all cultural activities through co-operative and other forms of accountable, democratic self-organisation, where wealth is embedded and shared among communities rather than extracted for private gain.
- End the accelerating process of gentrification taking place in many of our cities, which first exploits and then drives out artists from local neighbourhoods. Encourage the recognition of artists as people who contribute to and enrich local communities. Consider options to set up a system of grants to provide living and material costs for artists working in community-based settings.
- Ensure art and culture are integral to the education system, free at the point of use, embedding arts education into the national curriculum so that all children in Britain, from primary school up, have the opportunity to access the best cultural and creative education, recognising the value it plays in the development of social, cognitive, emotional and physical skills and promoting lifelong arts learning.
- End the destructive audit and accountability culture, excessive testing and associated narrowing of the curriculum in our schools. Replace it with an approach to education which is holistic, enables children to live their lives to the full, and which addresses mental and physical health and wellbeing; encouraging students to think critically, questioning everything, nurturing enthusiasm for learning and intellectual curiosity.
- Reform and democratise the BBC to enable it to genuinely fulfil its public service broadcasting obligations and make a positive contribution to society, fully representative of its diverse audiences. Give adequate space and time to publicising and encouraging grassroots, DIY culture, and film and TV productions which offer a progressive or socialist vision of a fairer society
- Tackle the corporate capture of the web by monopolistic advertising platforms such as Google and Facebook via the introduction of effective regulation and taxation. Consider options for forms of social ownership of privately owned social media platforms. Facilitate the creation of decentralized social media networks, owned and controlled by the people.
- Introduce a statutory duty of care for the larger social media services, covering the key harms seen on social media platforms (harassment, misuse of personal data, hate crime, intimidation etc), backed by effective enforcement.
Sport and Leisure
- Challenge the commodification of football and other sports by using regulation and taxation to restrict corporate exploitation of clubs, players and spectators, and facilitate a return to the social and community origins of our national sports.
- As part of this new approach, tackle the chronic under-investment in football by enforcing a five per cent levy on Premier League broadcasting rights to be ploughed back into the grassroots game to improve pitches, facilities and training opportunities. Explore options to extend this policy to other sports such as cricket and rugby, which are similarly disfigured by corporate funding.
- Facilitate a shift of public spending on recreation and sport from high profile, elite sports to a greater range of community sports, encouraging a more inclusive and egalitarian ethos in sports institutions and activities, with full community participation in their governance, design and delivery.
- Improve the democratic accountability of sports clubs by giving supporters a greater say in how their clubs are run, at board level, including decisions regarding ownership changes and property sales.
- Require sports authorities to make significant improvements on provisions for fans with disabilities.
- Make the protection of public parks, playgrounds and leisure centres by local authorities and other bodies a legal requirement, prohibit privatisation and outsourcing, and provide proper funding to ensure they are properly maintained and remain free to use.
The arts and other cultural activities are often co-opted to reflect and serve the needs of the dominant class, in a class-divided society such as ours. At the same time, though, they can also provide the space to resist the status quo, to overcome alienation and oppression, and bring enjoyment and meaning into our lives. They can help people envision better, fairer ways of organising our society, as well as promoting our physical, mental and spiritual well-being.
These notes are intended to stimulate debate about the shape and content of a radical and comprehensive culture policy that a future Labour Government might be encouraged to adopt. Clearly, they are not the final word on the subject. Much work needs to be done to test ideas, develop detail and fill gaps. But, hopefully, they provide food for thought and offer a platform for further discussion. Readers are invited to submit general pieces (critical or creative) to our website, to help further the debate. They may also wish to consider joining the Movement for Cultural Democracy, which is a new campaign to drive a radical and transformative cultural programme in the UK.
Now is the time to seize the opportunity to create a comprehensive package of culture polices for the many, not the few.
With thanks to Theresa Easton, Sophie Hope, Jack Newsinger, John Storey and many others, for their valuable comments and contributions to this article.
Mike Quille interviews Paul Summers, including extracts from a major new poem which is published by Culture Matters. It will be launched at the People, Pits and Politics festival in Durham on Friday 13th July, the day before the Miners’ Gala, and is available for purchase here.
Paul Summers is deeply rooted in the working-class pit communities of the North East, and the poem was commissioned from him by Culture Matters. Its aim is to show, as a poetical and political statement, the growing political importance under Corbyn’s Labour Party of the socialist values and politics of the old mining communities – the women as well as the men – who struggled for a more caring, collective and co-operative way of life through their sheer hard work, their trade unions, and their political affiliations.
This heritage is celebrated and recreated annually at the Gala in Durham, one of the world’s biggest working-class cultural festivals, and the poem links the processions at the Gala to the rebirth of a more class conscious, socialist politics in the labour movement and the Labour Party.
MQ: To start with, can you tell us something about yourself? What's your background, and how did you come to appreciate and write poetry?
PS: I was born in Blyth, Northumberland, in 1967. We lived in an old 2 up 2 down terrace in a place called Cowpen, half a mile west of Bates’ Pit (the last working pit out of the 10 or so that had existed in Blyth) where both my grandads had worked and half a mile east of Bebside village, where my great and great-great-grandads had settled in the 1850s to hew coals.
It was a lovely old working-class community: we had all the romantic clichés of back doors left open, borrowing cups of sugar or coal from the neighbours, a wash-day chorus of gossip in the back lane, as well as the less romantic realities of the domestic violence, the alcoholism and the undercurrent of racism. I suppose it was quite an anachronistic place on reflection; whenever I recount it to people now it feels as though I was brought up in Beamish Museum or on the set of When The Boat Comes In.
Most of the people in the street were old, retired miners, their wives or widows and they were all good talkers, fond of a yarn or a song and a bit of reminiscence about ye olden days, the hardships they’d endured and the mischief they’d got up to. They were an oral historian’s dream. I was captivated by them, seduced by their stories, and I think that’s what sowed the seed of me being a yarner of sorts too.
Class, politics, social history and cultural identity were ever present, all wrapped up in their tales of extraordinary ordinariness. I think I decided quite early on that I fancied being a south-east Northumbrian version of John Boy from The Walton’, documenting the place I lived in and the characters who I shared it with. To a greater or lesser extent, I’ve just about succeeded in fulfilling my career model. I’m not sure that being a poet featured highly in that plan but it’s what I’ve found I’m probably best at, despite still occasionally dabbling in bits of prose and drama.
I had a great comprehensive education too, and was encouraged by a few ‘special’ teachers to take my writing seriously and to keep on being in love with history and peoples’ stories.
I was 17 in 1984, when the Miners’ Strike started. It brought politics with a capital ‘P’ to our front door. It highlighted both the unities and divisions within the community, in opinion, ideologies and realities. I remember the pragmatism of some of the older fellas, like my granda, saying that most pits were like men and if you got 3 score and ten years out of them you’d have been lucky.
I remember the ferocity of support for Scargill from many others who were fighting for their futures (or their children’s futures) and who could foresee the coming desolation of a town without industry or opportunity. I remember witnessing the heavy hand of the police state first hand for the first time – waking up to find a long line of South Yorkshire SPG riot vans parked up along Cowpen Road, in readiness for any bother on the picket line.
I remember a few (slightly drunken) mates getting viciously beaten up by the coppers on the night that Scargill spoke at Croft Park, the home of the mighty Blyth Spartans. I remember the tales of hardship and suicidal depression you’d hear around the doors, the hate-filled stories of scabs and Tory vindictiveness, as well as the stories of incredible resolve, resilience and solidarity.
Anyhow, the strike was defeated and in a few years the pit was closed. Blyth didn’t fare too well for a decade or so after that. I think at some point in the late 80s we had the dubious honour of being voted the most depressing place in the country twice in a row, and being labelled as the heroin capital of the north.
Plenty to bear witness to, plenty to educate you in social injustice and existential torment, in defeat and optimism, in nihilism and hope, in grief and joy, in laughter and tears, plenty of complex stuff that a person could easily spend their entire creative life trying to unpick & make sense of.
MQ: Can you tell us something about your poetic career, what you've been trying to achieve and how that's changed over the years?
PS: I’d left school at 17 and motivated no doubt by TV lawyer Petrocelli, I started to work as a trainee legal executive at a solicitors’ office in Newcastle. It was a thoroughly Dickensian institution which paid us less than the dole for working from 8 till 5.30, and it fuelled my dislike for the upper classes, my hatred of privilege and my growing sense of social injustice. Luckily for me (in retrospect) I was sacked in 1987, for playing snooker when I should have been at Newcastle College doing my afternoon-release Legal Executive’s course.
If nothing else my dismissal encouraged me to go and do my A Levels and to start thinking about getting a degree. In the process of the former I met three literature lecturers/poets called Brendan Cleary, George Charlton & Tony Baynes. All three were interested in and supportive of my writing and at that moment in time that was the only motivation I needed. They introduced me to literary magazines and the work of other writers and they encouraged me to start submitting stuff myself.
By 1990 I’d had bits and bobs of stuff published and had, by a strange fluke of history, found myself co-organising the Morden Tower poetry readings in Newcastle. The tragic suicide of my fellow co-organiser left me, the anxious rookie, at the helm. It was an interesting time – I met some great poets and my poetic education continued, and I made some long-lasting allies and friends. I also learned what a self-interested viper’s nest the creative world could be, and how the world of literature was still fairly bourgeois and unwelcoming to a working class man. All good lessons for a naïve, small-town boy.
I’d published a few little chapbooks through Brendan Cleary’s Echo Room Press in the nineties, and picked up a couple of writers’ awards from Northern Arts, but the last bus was my first proper collection. Iron Press published it on May 1st 1998, and luckily it was well received and reviewed. It even got the title sequence from the book in that year’s Forward poetry anthology, and a brief but favourable mention in the broadsheets.
the last bus was all about growing up in Blyth, all about the micro-universe of Cowpen, all about family, friends and acquaintances, all about love and loss. But it was also, by default, about the bigger stuff: about class, politics, identity and history, dead-set on exploring the tensions between romanticised and realistic representations of a working-class community. I was already tired of unquestioningly romantic Geordierama versions of working class existence in the north East. It created my version of Walton’s Mountain, not pre-war Virginia but Thatcher era, post-industrial Northumberland – and hopefully not just sentimental and eulogising. It was full of rage and love, the complexity of identity and familial relations. It was me trying to tell the truth, or my truth anyhow, to be authentic, to tell it how it was, warts and all.
The next few books just picked up the baton – any street, any town, ‘all human life is here’ (and worthy of poetry). In fact, I don’t think I’ve veered that far from that way of thinking in the following twenty years of writing. The focus on community or geography might occasionally shift, town to city, macro to domestic, Britain to Australia and back, but the desire to report, document and interrogate people and place remains the same. My muses or motivations to write remain the same too: rage and outrage, confusion and bewilderment, love, rapture and grief, all of them demanding the need to bear witness.
MQ. There are a number of issues around poetry and politics that I'd like to explore with you. What are your own political beliefs, and how do they influence your choice of poetic subject and approach?
PS: I like to think that I’m a compassionate socialist who isn’t averse to most of the core values of communism. I’d very much like to see the end of capitalism and neo-liberalism and for them to be replaced with a more equitable, just, democratic and sustainable model of society free of class division, elites, patriarchy and hierarchies.
Much of my poetry is shaped by this political positioning and my experiences as a working class, comprehensively educated bloke from the post-industrial North East of England. A reviewer once said that my work ‘wasn’t political in the way Brecht or Neruda’s was, but that it was full of politics nonetheless’. My granda, who was fond of a proverb, used to say it was fine to wave the flag but a different thing altogether to hit people over the head with the flag-staff. I think I try and do precisely that.
I hope I authentically and empathically represent and document aspects of my community, I hope I display compassion and care. I hope the questions I occasionally pose on our behaviours are relevant ones, and that my frequent outrage is well placed. I hope that me bearing witness to the things which appal and enrage me occasionally impacts on other people’s thinking.
I hope I occasionally encourage an intellectual or ideological response from people as well as an emotional one. I hope people find the beauty and tenderness in my poems which might re-energise them or keep a darkness at bay. I hope I model being a ‘decent’, compassionate person in my work. I don’t think you’d have to work very hard to establish my politics – I hope you can see the flag even though I am not always whacking you with it.
MQ: What's your view on the history of poetry, and its close historical association with politically dominant and leisured classes in society?
PS: Poetry may have been genuinely popular in the British Isles at several moments of history, when an oral tradition was dominant amongst largely illiterate societies. Whether it was a population transfixed by the retelling of a Viking saga or the romans of the troubadours and minstrels, folklore and song, to the doggerel of the music hall and the gin-house balladeers, or Kipling’s imperial jingoism. Oral transmission popularised poetry and made the form more accessible to all classes, not just the book-owning, forelock tugging, velvet-suited elites.
This all seems to have changed with the advent of modernism, when for one reason or another, poetry seems to have retrenched itself as a ‘difficult’ or ‘high’ art and retreated back into the confines of its ivory towers (or red brick university towers). And the upper classes asserted a new set of conventions to make the canon more exclusive and impenetrable, and by turns less human and engaging.
This position wasn’t really challenged in Britain until the 60s, when a generation of baby-boomer, working-class, grammar school kids started to introduce poetic narratives and styles that were more familiar and engaging to the broader population. This coincided with the Beat movement in the US, with May 68 in Paris and the Summer of Love in America. Poetry had a brief renaissance, existing happily alongside the words of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen and their like. Even then though, the reach of poetry into the world of the working classes was miniscule in comparison to the gin-house days.
Since then, you could argue there has a been a painfully slow democratisation of the form. As Sean O’Brien suggested in The Deregulated Muse, the last thirty or forty years has undoubtedly seen a more diverse range of voices appear, denting the glass ceilings of gender, class, race and sexuality, and there are probably more physical and virtual platforms for dissemination than ever before. However, it’s still a long way from reaching mainstream status, where it’s readily consumed by the masses.
Despite the perennial broadsheet hype suggesting poetry is the new rock and roll, book sales and audiences suggest the contrary. It’s still a fairly marginalised artform with a limited reach, and limited opportunity for it to be a sustainable way of making a living, unless you find a niche in academia or socially engaged activities.
Some of the indie presses are trying their damnedest to increase this diversity and readership but mostly they do it without resource or capacity to impact on the already flooded cultural arena.
The premier publishing houses still have limited sized lists and equally limited marketing capacity and generally speaking they are still, in my opinion, fairly bourgeois and unchallenging in their choices of poets to champion.
Then we have the various splits & factions within the poetry world itself: around aesthetics, regional identities , our various sociological classifications and identities, the ascendancy of stage and page, the academic and the ‘popular’, the ‘majors’ and the ‘minors’, the left and the right, the ‘art for art’s sake’ mob and the politically engaged creative utilitarians.
We poets are a very disunited and disjointed village and fragmentation, as anyone familiar with leftist politics will tell you, has never been a strength in terms of furthering your message or realising change.
MQ: How do you think poetry can contribute towards making a better, juster, world?
PS: We as poets can bear witness to and challenge atrocity and social injustice at every level we find it, we can be moral arbiters and polemicists, agitators and rabble-rousers. We can flag up the experience of the marginalised and forgotten. We can be conduits for the telling and re-telling of histories, and the dissemination of alternative ideas and ideologies.
We can remind people of the things we share, our commonalities, as well as celebrating our difference. We can validate experiences and create a sense of universal interest. We can celebrate beauty, compassion and altruism. We can provide a space of sanctuary, delight or quiet grieving. We can make people laugh as well as move them to tears. We can remind each other of our humanity and of the responsibilities that goes with enacting and facilitating that humanity. We can encourage broader participation, be brave enough to take our work into non-traditional environments, we can be educators and facilitators, we can organise events and publish.
We can collaborate, collectivise and work cross-form. We can actually start to think like cultural democrats and political activists, rather than wallowing in our garrets or talking only to our respective choirs. We can do whatever our motivations, confidence and energy levels allow us. We can all be subversives if we understand what and who we are fighting against.
fish quay fugues
- i. doggerland
the old world is dying and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.
- antonio gramsci
& the way will be perilous;
black ice & shark-eyed smiles,
several heaps of hogmanay vomit,
a vacant pizza-box draped with hoar,
its palimpsest of feast & greed,
bleak litany of the new & old,
dog-shit & fag-ends & crumbling roads,
the hours’ lash, the pains of labour,
the endless cycle of peddled fact.
& then the sanctuary of frozen sand;
its confluence of salt & wind-whipped crows,
the hymn of a sea cathedral hollow.
kick off your shoes my love & walk;
due east, towards the burgeoning sun.
plough on through the grave mounds
of haddock-frames & listless kelp,
tread slowly on the pebble field,
avoid the triggers of its toad-back traps;
then walk & wade & catch your breath,
beyond the bar where codling lurk,
let swell becalm your troubled blood,
squeeze shut your jaded eyes & dream;
the rapture of tectonic plates entwined
in acts of violence & of love, the red raw
ooze of magma’s birthing, each push,
each jolt, each breathless force exerted
sees citadels emergent from these waves,
a glimpse of doggerland’s trembling plains,
its strongholds of hope re-rendered
now un-drowned, their beacons still charged,
their gates agape, their monsters slain;
each edifice an altar awaiting our faith.
MQ. Can you say something about how you wrote this poem and what it means to you?
PS: doggerland is from a new sequence of poems I’m working on called the fish quay fugues. The poems document the flights of my imagination as I walk by the river.
Walking has become part of my creative practice. I walk every day, rain, hail or shine. Usually it’s the same route: from my house in North Shields down the bank to the River Tyne at the Fish Quay, then eastwards towards the Spanish Battery Prow, onto the Haven Beach at Tynemouth, then back home to Shields via Collingwood’s Monument, Knott’s Flats and Northumberland Park.
At low tide I walk out on the rocks in a vain search for sea-borne archaeological treasures and a high tide along the promenade. It’s become a form of meditation, sometimes a head-clearing exercising, sometimes a thought-refining process. Lots of creative ideas are polished and there is much philosophising en route.
I have spent, and continue to spend, a great chunk of my life trying to negotiate with myself over a position of continued optimism for humankind and for the arrival of some sort of socialist utopia: the great & ponderous dialectic between hope and despondency. History proves that I am more than capable of the latter path, the path of perpetual moping, angry cynicism or even nihilism, but it’s not a version of myself I’m particularly attracted to. It doesn’t seem like a very sustainable model for your general wellbeing or that of those around you.
So, I continue to dredge my psyche for a semblance of hope. I do this even though throughout my adult life, it has often seemed as if we have stumbled from one period of Brechtian ‘dark times’ to another, without any real or sustained recourse to any ‘light times’. I do this even though reality tells me I have experienced lots of ideological defeats and disappointments and very few victories.
Now that I am a decade into being a parent, I feel even more of an obligation to be hopeful, at least within my outward looking face. Otherwise, the prospects of my children’s futures are just too difficult to contemplate. It is because of this, I genuinely feel we must remain stubbornly optimistic, we must remain robustly hopeful that the ‘glorious day’ will come, equality & peace will prevail & that all the evils of capitalism will be kicked into touch for good.
I think these new poems are all addressing this nagging question of hope and despair, and generally speaking – up to now anyway – they are leaning towards optimism, even if that optimism is slightly metaphysical.
It strikes me that both optimism & hope may both be forms of necessary denial: essential parts of the toolkit of any forward-looking socialist trying to keep the red flag flying and the black dog at bay.
Extract from arise!
by Paul Summers
‘they being dead yet speaketh’
so history is done,
the shafts capped,
the breathless heaps
erased or made-over:
a short-cut to asda,
a low gradient jog,
somewhere for the dog
to take a shit.
& frail romance,
no rusted remnant,
no totem mark,
only nature to sing
a broken picket-line
of hunch-backed thistles,
a huddle of poppies
in a fly-tipped fridge,
summer’s shrill birdsong
captive in a cage of gorse,
three score years & ten
of spoil beneath our feet,
rendered mute & obsolete,
our pasts & present
their marriage annulled
by devious progress.
history is done
the cynics proclaim,
they do not hear it
nagging in our veins,
they do not hear
the bitter wind
hiss its litany
of familiar names.
they do not hear
the whispered yakka
echo in the helix
of our complex genes.
they do not hear
of redundant lives,
of prospects slain
at altars of profit
& heinous spite.
history is done
the sages refrain,
they do not hear it
niggling in our veins.
MQ. Can you tell us a bit about what the Gala and mining history means to you?
PS: As I implied earlier, my family has had a connection to coal-mining since the late 1700s. The Summers ancestors started out working in the bell-pits of north Northumberland then migrated southwards towards Newcastle and south-east Northumberland as the process was more industrialised. Other branches of the family migrated eastwards from Cumbria or northwards from Cornwall into the Durham coalfield before they ultimately ended up in Blyth. My dad was the first man in his direct bloodline in over a hundred and fifty years never to work down the pit, choosing the relatively safety of the Town Gas Yard and a fitter’s apprenticeship instead. It’s safe to say that coal, and the traditions that go with mining it, is firmly embedded in our genetic make-up.
As a Blyth boy we always went to the Northumberland Miners’ Picnic at Attlee Park in Bedlington. We’d march from Blyth behind the Bates & Cambois Banner. It was similarly rousing but only a proportion of the scale of Durham by the time I can remember it. I’ve fond memories though, good rousing speakers, brass bands, abundant ice cream & candy floss. My mam had even been a Picnic Queen in the late fifties, representing West Sleekburn Colliery. It still exists today to a greater or lesser degree, and happens at Woodhorn Museum in early June.
I‘d never been to the Big Meeting in Durham until the early nineties but now I try to get there whenever I can. It’s an amazing spectacle and still incredibly moving I think. There were a quarter of million people there last year, and it’s still regarded as the biggest trade union event in Europe – and that’s despite the fact that we’ve got no deep-mines left in either the Durham or Northumberland coalfields.
arise! by Paul Summers is available here. 10% of sales income will go to to the Durham Miners’ Association, towards the restoration of Redhills and its development into a cultural hub for the area.
£5 plus £2 p. and p.
arise! is a new long poem by Paul Summers, which is both a celebration of the past, and an inspiration for the future. The pamphlet was commissioned by Culture Matters for the Durham Miners' Gala this year, and it is sponsored by the Durham Miners' Association.
The poem celebrates the rich heritage and culture of mining communities, which is expressed so vibrantly and colourfully in the marches, the banners, the music and the speeches at the Durham Miners’ Gala. It invokes the collective and co-operative spirit of past generations of men and women who worked and struggled so hard to survive, to build their union, and to organise politically to fight for a better world.
arise! also celebrates the new, resurgent spirit in the Labour Party, led by Jeremy Corbyn, and the renewal of support for socialist solutions to the country’s growing economic and social problems.
It's wonderful to see the proud history of the Durham Miners' Gala represented in this powerful poem. Paul Summers has managed to capture the spirit of the Miners' Gala and its central place in our movement's mission to achieve 'victory for the many, and not the few'. – Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party.
A powerful, rhythmic and inspiring poem – Alan Cummings, Secretary, Durham Miners' Association.
‘arise!’is a full-throated song of defiant hope, seeing in the history of the coal industry much to mourn, yet much to celebrate. – Sean O’Brien, Professor of Creative Writing, Newcastle University
10% of the proceeds of sales of this book will go to the DMA Redhills Appeal, to help turn Redhills into a cultural hub for the area.