Fran Lock writes about poetry and class, in the latest in the series of jointly published Morning Star/Culture Matters articles on the effects of the pandemic on cultural activities
During this Covid crisis, poetry is being asked to do a lot of good: to offer consolation and catharsis, to carry some kind of vague universal experience, to speak truth to power. But whose experiences, and whose truth? These are pressing questions.
Everyone, from practitioners to pundits, has an opinion, the same opinion: poetry is a 'contemplative' form, productive of comfort and of empathy; what poetry does singularly well is negotiate between subjective feeling and mass social concern. True, but whether contemplation is likely to provide solace or to further empathy rather depends on what you're being asked to contemplate, doesn't it? And we might be equally involved in global events, but we are not all equally affected by them. The virus does not discriminate. Humans do.
This is where our current definitions of poetry fail, at a disparity so great it can never quite be broached; at the edge of an ONS report that says there are fifty-five deaths for every one-hundred-thousand people in the poorest parts of England compared with twenty-five in the wealthier areas. For BAME communities the situation is even bleaker. Class dictates which of us will feel the effects of coronavirus the deepest, and who will be left to endure its legacy the longest. Under such conditions what should poetry do or be?
Poetry doesn't stand outside of capitalism's brutalising power structures speaking in. It is enmeshed and beholden to those structures; subject to and scarred by them. Artists are also workers: art is work, and the large majority of us do other jobs to support ourselves and our families. When the welfare state is failed by government, it fails us too, when jobs are cut, they're our jobs too.
The idea that art is an adequate salve to these wounds is ludicrous. 'Feeling better' should not replace collective, active and organised social change. This is the limit and the danger of 'consolation': we shouldn't have to find ways to 'cope' with an unacceptable situation; pressure should be applied to those who engineered it.
Catharsis is ripe for exploitation. The deep swell of feeling a poem prompts may seem profound, momentous even, but it is interior, entirely subjective, the oppositeof true sympathy, true solidarity. This kind of poetry, and the idea that it connects people through some golden thread of fellow feeling conceals the fatal extent of the inequality existing between us.
Catharsis makes a fetish of working-class resilience; it ties that suffering to a marketable performance of identity, where your pain has meaning and value only in so far as it elicits a profound emotional response in your audience. Writing the poem may help us, but its efficacy in challenging the attitudes and conditions that produce those feelings is limited.
I live – we live – a continual, exhausting negotiation with and within language; with and within capitalism. Our use of language is both an organic response and a purposeful riposte to the non-language of bureaucracy, the populist sloganeering of governments, and the reductive stereotyping of the mainstream media.
I want to fight back against the misuse of lyric; against the easy absorption it sometimes fosters. Capitalism uses ease of assimilation to slide its most toxic messages past us on the sly. Those are the enemy's tactics. Our poetry must do more. If the state were a body, then poetry should tell us where it hurts; to keep pointing to the sites of failure and neglect and saying 'Look! Listen!'
They don't listen. If they did funding bodies and publishers would have already moved past the tokenistic representational model of working-class inclusion to make real changes to the way in which financial support for artists is allocated and accessed.
Applying for assistance - before coronavirus and during - is a bewildering process. Many give up. In poverty you're asked to account for yourself in a variety of ways every day, just to access what you need to survive. We live with a level of scrutiny and required 'proof' that is intrusive and stressful. Impenetrable bureaucratic processes are not helpful. Funding bodies frequently assume a familiarity with their processes, but often people are unaware of what's out there, what they're 'entitled' to. And there are talented artists who don't have the vocabulary to present the 'best case' for their vibrant and necessary work. Who, among the working classes, can afford to expend time and attention on a process they feel sure will fail?
Attention to diversity means reaching out, talking about the opportunities for disadvantaged artists with those artists. Regularly. Systematically. People new to funding processes may have no previous experience navigating these systems. It is about making space for them, even if their work does not conform to some preconceived idea of how a working-class person writes or sounds. It means recognising that a middle-class audience is not the default. It means making money available to forms of art that the working class can actually practice.
To occupy the same spaces as our middle-class peers we are performing a phenomenal amount of extra labour; it's labour we shouldn't have to perform. But if we do, if this is really the best system our cultural gatekeepers can come up with, then we should be allowed to be angry. The idea that art should or indeed can be apolitical is patently ridiculous, and it's a fiction that serves those already comfortably ensconced in places of privilege.
Dave Lordan, in the first of a three part series, explores creativity, the arts and cultural activities before the development of class-based societies.
Poetry is indispensable - if only we knew what it was for. - Jean Cocteau
Before any major hunt the women of the Baka family group will sing "yelli". This they will do in the early morning before dawn and while the men and children are in their huts. One voice starts - a beautiful, haunting melody reverberating through the trees. After a few minutes another voice joins in, then another. Each voice will sing their own repeating melody, each one with its own rhythm and cycle, and yet all of them sitting together as one song composed of magical polyphonic harmonies that carry far into the forest, blending in with the unending night-time songs of the insects.
To paraphrase the Nobel literature laureate Orhan Pamuk, creativity is putting things together to make new things. It is the modality by which humans shape the material world to meet their various needs and serve their various purposes. In the broadest sense then, it is similar to the Marxist conceptions of labour or work. Creativity is work and work is creativity.
The nature and conditions of work change over time and according to the dominant system of production. Factories, call centres, and now ‘working from home’ - alongside commodity production and the profit motive - are all extremely recent phenomena. For most of humanity’s time here on Earth (300000 years of Sapiens and millions more years if we include predecessor creative/labouring hominids) work (of hunting, gathering, sheltering, and tool production) was entirely dedicated to meeting basic survival needs. It was undertaken in common, and benefited all who participated. Things could not have been otherwise - in a hostile environment humans had no option but to work together on a more or less egalitarian basis to survive.
The efforts of each member of the nomadic band were required to keep all others safe and alive. No doubt petty rivalries and intra-group tensions existed, but, in the absence of significant surplus wealth for one faction to hoard, these tensions did not solidify into permanent hierarchical divisions or structural inequalities. Humans were chained to each other for good or for ill, and everything they had to do to stay alive, they had to do together.
The subset of creativity which we think of as artistic creativity evolved in this Palaeolithic context of endless struggle and scarcity and throughout the prehistoric period is also entirely dedicated to meeting the survival needs of the primal group. ‘Art’ is not in any way a distinct or indeed superior form of work to any other. Songs, for example, may have arisen as part of the work process, co-ordinating activity through call and response structures, as well as uplifting morale and increasing stamina during hard tasks and long treks.
Cave paintings undoubtedly contributed in some way to hunting culture and activities, perhaps to magically increase the chances of hunting party success, or to conjure into being herds of large mammals during times of scarcity or declining herds, or as a way of ‘contacting’ or honouring the souls of dead animals by way of apology for killing them. The very first statues we find in the archaeological record mostly appear to be fertility or female-worshipping icons dedicated to the generative power of women and The Earth - they too were aids to reproduction and would have had no meaning or purpose outside of such putative magical aid.
Only with the emergence of class societies does art become distinct from other kinds of work and become subject, overall, to the dictates of class power, inter-imperial competition, and commodity production - against which of course many kinds of art and artist from the very beginning struggle and contradict. Only in the contexts of class and commodity does the artist eventually become a mystical figure unlike other kinds of workers, with insights and abilities inaccessible to most, interdependent not with society as a whole but with the profit motive and/or bureaucratic state patronage.
This epochal shift from the art of common purpose to mystified and commodified art can still be traced in the etymology of later ages. The Latin Creare, ancient root of the the English word Creativity, means ‘to make or to produce or to grow’ - the artist is like a farmer or craftsperson who makes socially useful things. By the late Middle Ages, however, when artists were firmly attached to aristocratic courts, the english word create had come to mean ‘form out of nothing’ and is ‘used of a divine and spiritual being’. The artist as demigod, beyond the apprehension of the commoner, aligned with and determined by those similarly heavenly things such as kings and queens and popes - and som-time later, the market.
Creation and creativity
Humans emerge from nature and consist of combined elements drawn from the natural world, in which creation and creatures exist, but not creativity. Nature is the process whereby, within geological time frames, things blindly combine with other things to make new things. The tendency of natural things is to gravitate out of chaos and towards form and equilibrium. But, due to the cosmic law of entropy, all material forms and cosmic equilibriums are temporary and subject to decay and reformation into fresh new things. In nature each creation is a temporary node in an always unfolding metamorphic chain. Thus atoms become elements, elements become stars and stars become galaxies. Tree-rats become monkeys become hominids become homo sapiens become....
Creatures, themselves new things unwittingly created by nature out of combinations of other things, create many new things out of other, pre-existing things. All of these creature-created things - consider nests, webs, burrows, anthills, hives - are purposeful and answer a direct question with regard to survival and reproduction. Some of them, from the human perspective are also beautiful and aesthetically pleasing: consider birdsong and the symphonic effect of a dawn chorus in woodland.
But this is not creativity or work in the human sense, but blind instinct at play, however impressive it is. Animals do not know what they are doing, cannot describe or analyse what they are doing, cannot imagine in advance what they are about to do, cannot in real time alter their plans or intentions to meet new needs or changing circumstances. For sure, the designs of nests, or the hunting behaviours of hyenas, change through time and metamorphosing environments, but this is a result of chance forces operating over hundreds of thousands of generations. Creativity on the other hand, introduced to the universe by the hominid genus of which Homo Sapiens is the latest and sole surviving iteration, is not blind but visionary - working towards a goal imagined in advance. It is not accidental but intentional.
Marx puts it succinctly:
A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. - Capital, Vol. I, Chap. 7, Pt. 1
Somewhere between the higher primates and the early hominids consciousness - another word for imagination, or, indeed, for language - emerges and is added to creation. Thus is creativity created and invention invented, out of which spills everything from epic poetry to poison gas, from Beethoven’s symphonies to the Big Brother household. But hundreds of thousands of years elapse in the era of creative Homo before the need arises for any of these civilised creations.
For the vast majority of the human story, our creativity has been employed to serve fundamental natural needs that are distinct in degree, but not in kind, to those of other mammals. The key difference between us and other higher animals lies in our sophisticated generation of tools. The transformation of natural objects into tools with which nature is purposefully and intentionally shaped to suit our needs is the great leap forward from nature into culture, initiated by higher primates, and refined by a metamorphic hominid succession including Erectus, Australopithecus and Neanderthal, and lately accelerated into the space age by Homo Sapiens.
Humans are no different to animals in that our primary purpose is to cheat death in the short term as individuals and in the long term as a species, to survive against each and every obstacle and threat. To succeed in this never-ending challenge, certain fundamental needs have to be constantly provided for. Food and shelter are fundamental needs without which we die. Our food sources and our shelters need to be protected from environmental threats, therefore protection is another fundamental human need. None of these needs can be met by individuals alone - only cohesive groups working together can feed, shelter, and protect both individual and group. Therefore group cohesion is also a fundamental need.
Language is the principal means by which group cohesion is achieved by humans. It tells us who we are and what we must do. It is the tool par excellence, the mother tool without which no other sophisticated tool could exist. The development of language by (at least) Neanderthals and Sapiens allowed for de-grees of collective labour and knowledge transfer previously unimaginable, enabling humans to accelerate development at an exponential speed. With the acquisition of language, humanity emerges from its pre-linguistic infancy into something like its childhood. Now all the members of a community, and all its succeeding generations can be taught the elements of hunting, cooking, shelter-building and group preservation.
This supreme tool of language allows us not only to repeat a-quired knowledge formulae, but also to build upon the already-acquired knowledge of the past by adding new layers of adaptability and innovation. Tools and techniques can be improved and new tools and techniques invented in real time for the first time. Thus, fuelled by the infinite adaptability of the word, the evolutionary processes of nature enter hyperdrive - within a geological instant the earth is cleared of forest and covered in cities and roads. Language speaks us, as the philosopher Heidegger puts it. Our societies and everything in them are created by language, our greatest creation, which creates us.
As Ernst Fischer puts it:
It was not only a question of prehistoric man believing that words were a powerful tool - they actually did increase his control over reality. Language not only made it possible to coordinate human activity in an intelligent way and to describe and transmit experience and, therefore, to improve working efficiency, it also made it possible to single out objects attaching particular words to them, thus snatching them out of the protective anonymity of nature and bringing them under man’s (sic) control. - Ernst Fischer, The Necessity of Art, Lawrence and Wishart, 1959
Individual human beings graduate from nature to culture, from animal being to human being, through primal acts of creativity enabled by language. Each infant that (finally and after an im-mense struggle) manages to combine meaningless noises into a word, and soon after a sentence, directed at the attention and for the instruction of another human being, is demonstrating incredible genius unknown on earth for its first five billion years. The first and best poem is was and always will be Ma-Ma!
The forms of work we know as the arts emerge from nature too, and, as in all other spheres, humans repurpose the natural inheritance to suit a fundamental need of their own. In the case of the arts, this fundamental need the arts satisfy in these prehistoric times is group cohesion, both in real time (synchronically) and down through the generations (diachronically). The ritually inter-related and overlapping arts of music, song, chant, dance and poetry base their varying and modifiable rhythms and melodies on those of the human body and of the surrounding elements - the footstep, the heartbeat, the breath, the beating or crashing of the sea against the shoreline, birdsong, wind noises, mammalian mating cries, and so on.
Chants, songs and dances synchronise group activities and annihilate the alienation of the individual from the group, increasing stamina and raising morale for the urgent tasks of gathering, hunting, food preparation, shelter building, and simple manufacture of tools, weapons, clothing - keeping spirits up and minds off the pain of, for example, long treks or climbs.
A collective working process requires a coordinating working rhythm. This working rhythm is supported by a more. or less articulate unison chant...The first word-signs for working processes - chanted sounds providing a uniform rhythm for the collective - were probably, at the same time, command signals intended to arouse the collective to action (in the same way as a warning cry produces an immediate passive reaction, e.g. the flight of the herd). Thus there was power stored up in every linguistic means of expression - power over both man and nature. - Ernst Fischer, The Necessity of Art, Lawrence and Wishart, 1959
Songs and chants retain this original group cohesion purpose into the modern era, most obviously in hard manual work and military settings - think of the worksongs of African-American Slaves, such as Swing Low Sweet Chariot. Think of the marching songs common to all infantries. The primeval structure of the participatory, unifying chant - call and response - is also fossilised in the verse chorus structure of most songs, in religious ceremonies such as the Catholic mass, in some participatory live poetry cultures in the Middle East, and so on.
Scottish Island women ‘Walking The Tweed’ while singing an old worksong.
The story has a different original purpose, which is present in the role stories play in the lives of infant humans today. Those of us who are lucky enough to have been born into a situation of love and care will universally have been told our first story by a guardian who is trying to calm us down at bedtime, to assuage our abandonment anxiety, to put us to sleep. This will be the case whether we are born in Tokyo or Tipperary, Timbuktu or Toronto.
The story, in other words, is a natural tranquilliser - Valium in a wordy form. For this original purpose, its content is far less important than its form - the pre-linguistic infant has no idea what any of the story means, it’s simply that the presence of familiar, uninterrupted voice-in-flow is calming and reassuring. Nonsense rhymes exist because sense is not a requirement for the job they are doing.
In a hostile natural environment, as darkness fell and the presence of potential predators in the surrounding landscape is felt more keenly and more terrifyingly with every passing instant, the enunciation of a story by a leading tribe member calms and reassures, allowing children and others to relax into a night’s shut-eye knowing someone is awake and keeping guard:
And then that sweet, heart-piercing melody He drew out from the rigid-seeming lyre, And made the circle round the winter fire More like to heaven than gardens of the May. So many a heavy thought he chased away
- William Morris, The Earthly Paradise, 1881)
All of the arts share this distractive and soothing function in common. Participation in them - and everyone in the primal group participated - requires all our individual attention, or, to put it scientifically, uses up all our neurological capacity. When we are immersed in singing, dancing, music-making and so on, our individual worries recede and we feel connected to and part of something greater than ourselves.
Primal societies viewed this something greater as divine or ancestral in nature, and accessed it through total collective immersion in ritual practices. The closest a contemporary human can come to such totally immersive collective rituals, which likely varied in scale from band-size - a couple of dozen - to far larger events at intertribal gatherings, is the way we might feel while dancing intoxicatedly at a rave, especially an ‘illegal’ outdoor one, our minds emptied of anything but the overwhelming music and our bodies locked into the collective rhythm provided by the bass. But anytime we escape into a film or a book we get an echo of the ancient immersion. Our minds are primed by evolution to take the escape routes offered to us by artistic experience, which all ultimately derives from these Palaeolithic rituals within which artistic practices originally evolved and were put to work for the collective good.
Many artists refer to the totally immersive and mentally/spiritually rewarding nature of creativity in one way or another. Composer Galen Mac Cába writes in the Irish Times that “composition is addictive. When a composer earns that feeling once, he or she wants to repeat it.”
How often do we hear rock bands talk of ‘the chemistry’ between them? The more we do art - once we find an art that suits us, be it make-up artistry, origami, poetry, or whatever - the more we want to do it. Again, this is because our creativity is an embodied adaptive ability which develops in humans in response to basic, pressing survival needs of small nomadic groups. It is a development on the higher level of human consciousness of adaptive capacities present in the animal order.
‘Early’ or as I prefer to say ‘classic’ humans lived at more or less constant threat of annihilation. They had to rely completely on their own resources, their own ability to adapt and overcome. Their greatest resource was their own creativity i.e the ability to quickly generate ideas that can help overcome environmental challenges and lead to group survival.
Creativity and health
Creativity gives us an evolutionary advantage, and therefore becomes a species trait hardwired into our DNA. Over time, due to natural selection, the pleasure circuit associated with creativity becomes an internal chemical reward system. The brain encour-ages us to be creative by combining a boost to our arousal levels and our goal-oriented concentration with a reduction in inhibition. When we are being creative and enjoying it we feel happy, engaged, relaxed, immersed. When we finish a creative project to the best of our ability, we feel a a sense of pride and achievement. Because of its origins in evolutionary struggle and overcoming we receive a positive and productive high from engaging in creativity. This is the origin of what is referred to in the psychology of creativity by theorists such as the Bolshevik Vygotsky as the flow state:
the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. in essence, flow is character-ized by complete absorption in what one does.
While we are involved in the flow of creativity we forget our troubles. This is because being creative, a marshalling of all our internal forces for the purposes of group cohesion and or immediate survival needs, takes so much focus that it prevents us from thinking about or acting upon anything but the creative task before us. Then we get an organic chemical reward when our creative efforts are judged a success - echoing the ancient feelings of relief when our creative efforts enabled us to ward off an animal attack or erect a shelter that protected us from dangerous weather or produce a tool which enabled quicker skinning of animal carcases.
All of this explains why creativity is such a powerful healing tool, being the evolved capacity that kept and keeps us alive as it enables us to pro-actively shape our environment with our survival and satisfaction in mind. The individual mental health benefits to creativity are obvious, and are the reason why arts-in-health is such an important and expanding part of contemporary arts practice, one that every socialist should support.
Primal groups needed to respond quickly to all manner of situations, and they needed healthy, upbeat, connected and communally minded individuals - otherwise group cohesion broke down and, well, everyone died. That is why we have creativity and why the arts have therefore played and will continue to play an irreplaceable role in the communal health and prospects for survival of any human group struggling to survive in a hostile world - the vast majority of us.
Creativity, cohesion and solidarity
We have dealt with the synchronising role the arts played in group cohesion during the Palaeolithic period. But what about the role played by the arts in maintaining group cohesion across time, down through the generations? This, if anything, is even more vital, even more obvious. For knowledge to travel efficiently through long distances of time, humanity invented the time machine of poetry.
When the racist imperialist John Milton wrote in the introduction to his great blank verse poemParadise Lost that ‘rhyme is the relic of a barbarous age’ he was inadvertently alerting us to the effect that formal elements of art are determined by the needs, structures, and capacities of the era in which they emerge.
In Milton’s day, now that the printing press had been invented and the age of mechanical reproduction had begun, poetry could potentially dispense with any formal elements whose primary purpose was the aiding of human memory for real recall - thus Milton dispenses with end-rhyme and makes such a fuss about it.
Yet poetry remains fundamentally and originally the art of collective remembrance through oral recall. Most of the formal apparatus with which we still generally associate poetry even half a millennium post-printing press - rhyme, alliteration, assonance, regularity of metre and verse structure, choric and trope repetition and much much more - are techniques invented by ‘illiterate’ and ‘barbaric’ peoples thousands of generations ago which modern poets have in no way managed to supersede.
Before the internet, before the phonograph, before the book, before papyrus and vellum, long before even ogham and runes, the oral artform of poetry, imprinted upon nature’s greatest recording device, the human brain, was the ark and fount of all useful knowledge - the original knowledge store or ‘cloud’.
Oral traditions and lyric poetry
In terms of efficiency and suitability to the task at hand - remembering what’s important to survive - oral poetry/song surpasses books or the internet. The oral traditions of the San People of South Africa and of Indigenous Australians, for example, have been proven to accurately recall events from up to 25000 years ago. Throughout such cosmic lengths of time, the members of such hunter-gatherer communities could rely on poetic recall for every manner of information, but especially for practical information such as how and where to find food and water in a desert, or even how to navigate at night:
“The sounds of the environment can be conveyed very easily in song. As any birdwatcher will know, trying to identify bird so, from a writ-ten description in a field guide is close to impossible. By encoding the call of birds in song, a particular bird can be identified. Accurate iden-tification of the birdsong can often mean the difference between life and death The aquatic diving bird, known as loons or divers, have a pierc-ing call which is used to detect land when a sailor is lost at sea by the Tlingit and Inuit, as no doubt it will have been by other cultures across its wide northern range. The red throated loon (Goviastellata), for ex-ample. is a fairly non-descript bird, espe-cially without its red breeding plumage, but its call is distinctive and this warrants its significant role in oral tradition. Being lost at sea at nightfall in the cold northern cli-mate, in weather conditions which block visibility to land-marks or stars, can be fatal. Loons, unlike many other aquatic birds, reliably re-turn to land each night. Survival can depend on being able to identify the call of the loon among all the bird calls at sea, in order to follow that call to land. Songs encode the call, and are the best way to constantly reinforce the sound into memory. “ - Kelly, L. (2015). Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies: Orality, Memory and the Transmission of Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
The poetry that we are in general used to encountering today is called lyric poetry, and is usually to do with expressing individual feelings, opinions, and experiences, with only a tangential re-ation to collective purpose or identity. The oft-remarked tendency towards obscure, self-referential, exclusive language in much contemporary poetry is a symptom of this fatal break with collective relevance and purpose - an analogue in the cultural realm to the ‘metabolic rift’ with which the birth of class society and settled urbanity broke the human race away from a direct and organic link to the natural world. Referring to the encoded eli-ism of much of contemporary poetry, Adrian Mitchell quipped ‘most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most peo-ple’.
The poets of earlier ages could not afford to be misunderstood or only understood by code-talking academic networks. On the contrary, they had to recite in a language and with a method that everyone could understand. So at the dawn of historical record during the bronze age, what we find emerging from prehistory are often very long poems, containing everything from thousand-generation genealogies to entire mythological cycles to encyclopaedias of natural medicine. Poets were capable of extreme acts of recall, right up until the early modern era.
It is thought, for example, that the Iliad took three days to perform in its entirety, and many societies have similar lengthy epic poems that are central to their culture and which were widely performed at everything from royal courts to cattle fairs. Epic performers probably adapted their performances to suit the tastes and needs of different audiences, so that epics could be entertainments for the people as much as flattery for the noble warriors and lords who populate them.
The poet-ritualist in prehistoric societies was therefore a very important figure upon whom the memory, identity, and spiritual well-being of the group depended. They were composite figures who were also healers and shamans, looking after the mind, body, and soul of the small group of which they were an integral part and apart from which they had no separate motives or interests.
Poetry, song, music, performance, self-decoration: all of these early arts combine into ritual and magic ceremonies in which the identity of the tribe is performed and remembered, and spells are cast to protect the tribe from predators, increase hunting success, guarantee food supply. The rudiments of science, religion, and political ideology, before these split into different modes of knowing and doing, can all be deduced from early artistic practices.
In these societies preceding class and commodity production, in which all the fundaments of human being and artistic form and function evolved in tandem with each other, arts and the artist were part of a seamless flow of communal living. This was all smashed to smithereens by the asteroidal impact of the rise of class-based societies.
In the next article in this series we will discuss the appropriation of age-old commonly held artistic techniques by the new elites and the repurposing of the arts as instruments of class rule back at the dawn of ‘civilisation’ in Sumeria, Egypt and elsewhere. In part three, we will look at how this appropriation was resisted and questioned from the very beginning, and tell the story of Thersites, literature’s first communist.
This is the third of Tony McKenna’s collections of essays in which he aspires to demonstrate that a Marxist framework is the best way of comprehending the cultural and political challenges being generated in the era of late capitalism. Like his previous two similar volumes, Toward Forever is a dazzling display of erudition and insight that never fails to offer stimulating lines of thought on a remarkable breadth of topics.
McKenna has also usefully revisited more traditional subjects that have received attention from other Marxist commentators such as the Greek myths, the novels of Balzac and Hugo, and the art of Rembrandt and Blake. In addition, McKenna has supplied valuable analyses of some of the key political personalities that have shaped 21st century politics so far such as Chavez, Corbyn and Trump.
The most striking quality of McKenna’s overall approach is the ability to contextualise this remarkable variety of subjects within the prevailing relations of production of a particular era without undermining the crucial role of human agency.
He should also be commended for a willingness ‘to boldly go’ into areas of concern that more hidebound analysts on the left might regard as unworthy of attention. Whatever we might subjectively think about the comedy of Ricky Gervais or film versions of Batman, they are hugely popular cultural artefacts that evidently tap into some element of the zeitgeist that a coherent Marxist world-view should feel obligated to explain. McKenna’s mentality is an appropriate adaptation of Gramsci’s famous exhortation that the left should consider ‘everything that concerns people’ if it wishes to retain relevance in the crowded digital marketplace of theoretical paradigms that compete for our attention.
Toward Forever replicates the tried and tested formula that McKenna utilised in his first two collections. He covers a stunning diversity of topics including The Sopranos, The Wizard of Oz, the art of Goya and the epidemic of suicides in contemporary Japan! There is also a sympathetic and moving account of the rise and fall of the Syrian Revolution that, for a time, looked like it might able uproot the callous brutality of the Assad regime before being overwhelmed by the intervention of regional and global players with their own opportunistic agendas.
A historical materialist approach to culture
The breadth of McKenna’s range in no way affects the depth of his analyses of these subjects; in fact, the cumulative effect is to powerfully show that a non-reductionist version of Marxism is unrivalled in terms of explanatory power by any other theoretical framework. In a piece on contemporary art in this volume, he touches on this unique capacity of historical materialism, in the right hands, to illuminate the scope of human activities:
The truth which resonates in this type of art is the same truth which lives in the pages of Marx’s Capital and Lenin’s The State and Revolution. The difference is that the truth of art in an emotive and intuitive manner; a semi-conscious and fantastical way which reduces the forms of social reality to the interplay of imaginary characters in a novel or colours on a canvas. (179)
McKenna’s conception of the role of culture within historical materialism is a compelling reformulation of Kantian aesthetic theory. The great German philosopher of the Enlightenment theorised the power of art as its ability to take us tantalisingly close to the noumenal realm, or those aspects of the universe such as God or the infinite which we can sense but never truly access.
In McKenna’s more grounded version, cultural products of the highest calibre help us tune into the subterranean dynamics of the historical process which are often clouded by our quotidian concerns but which can be discerned with a wider perspective. In his characteristically elegant words:
Art is the expression of the truth of the political consciousness which has not, yet, descended from heaven to earth; it contains the truth of the social world but only through the distorting prism of its fantasy. (180)
The other refreshing quality of McKenna’s output is a writing style that is a sheer pleasure to read even if the subject is not necessarily what a reader may be interested in. He unpacks ideas with a crystalline clarity and fluency that puts to shame other Marxist cultural commentators who appear to think cluttering up their text with academic jargon is an indicator of merit. McKenna is one of the best writers on the British left today as he makes the effort to understand why certain cultural products are popular and then communicates his analysis in a way that any reasonably educated person could comprehend.
The need to make sense of history and the hope of changing it
Dan Brown’s best-selling 2004 novel The Da Vinci Code may seem like an unlikely choice for such an exploration of the utopian undercurrents in contemporary capitalist culture. However McKenna’s analysis of the book here is the perfect illustration of his ability to analyse examples of popular culture in a way that sheds light on the historical process and explains why a book about Christianity could have such a huge impact in our long-established secular society.
Of course, most Marxist aestheticians would probably dismiss the novel as throwaway trash to be picked up in airport terminal to kill a few hours on holiday and nothing more. McKenna is not blind to Brown’s notorious literary limitations and he effortlessly skewers the wafer-thin characterisations and plodding style of the prose. Nevertheless, The Da Vinci Code sold millions, has been translated into forty languages and spawned a booming sub-genre of semiotic mysteries set in a shadowy world of cryptology, religious cults and charismatic historical personalities.
So why would a poorly written potboiler with two-dimensional characters about the early history of Christianity become a smash hit in the first decade of the 21st century? McKenna’s persuasive answer is that the book provides putative answers in a world that appears to be spiralling out of control, run by politicians who are pitifully short of solutions to its multiple problems. Those answers in DVC may be untenable and little short of ridiculous to many, but at least they provide a narratalogical coherence to thousand years of history.
The notion that the Catholic Church and the Priory of Zion have been fighting out an ideological contest for hegemony within Christianity is based on the flimsiest of historical evidence, but for millions of readers it allows for the apparent carnage and chaos of world history to be reconfigured and made comprehensible.
The postmodern aversion to grand narratives that has permeated our discourse since the 1980s has created a vacuum in the heart of Western culture that leaves many people longing for an over-arching understanding of a world that appears to be accelerating towards the precipice. The Vatican might not be everyone’s choice for the guiding brain of two millennia of history but it is easy to see why any form of purposeful intelligence could be more comforting than the uncontrolled playing out of blind historical forces. The Da Vinci Code cleverly manipulates not just this elemental need to make sense of the past but also our hope that human beings in the present have the ability to alter the trajectory of events.
At the climax of the story, the character of Sophie Nevue comes to a realisation that her estrangement from her grandfather is linked to a conflict which has been taking place on an ideological plane for centuries. McKenna argues this conjoining of the micro and macro levels of analyses is profoundly affecting and chimes with a longing for an understanding of our place in history that all human beings feel. The fact that this device occurs in an apparently disposable piece of pulp fiction only adds to the book’s underrated achievement.
McKenna sums up the appeal of DVC:
It contains within its aesthetic a profound truth about the reality of history and ourselves as historical beings-immersed in its flux, shaped by its rhythms and yet often unaware of its elemental pulse and presence in the backdrop of our lives, until suddenly the stability of the present seems to fissure and crack.ashistory erupts once more, and new epochs, new adventures and new freedoms are born. (136)
This linking of the personal and the political is what McKenna finds to be decisively absent from the critically acclaimed and multi-Oscar winning 2017 film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Directed by Irish filmmaker Martin McDonagh, the movie centres around a quest for justice by bereaved mother Mildred Hayes, played with searing power by Frances McDormand.
After her daughter is raped and murdered, Hayes launches an uncompromising attack on the defective local police department which has conspicuously failed to make progress in the identification of the culprit. This brings her into conflict with the cancer-ridden Chief of Police Willoughby, portrayed movingly by Woody Harrelson.
McKenna insightfully contends that although the premise and the collision of wills between the two protagonists are intringuiling poised, the film’s potential cinematic greatness is squandered as Willoughby’s unexpected demise before the halfway point robs the storyline of a level of complexity that it might have attained if their relationship had played out fully. The police chief takes his own life, unwilling to endure the crumbling of his physical and mental powers as the cancer spreads within his body.
Inevitably, Willoughby is posthumously sanctified in the story and the opportunity is lost for his character to confront the misogyny and racism of the institution he has represented for decades. McKenna uses this misstep on the part of McDonagh to argue an essentially dialectical process of interpersonal and intrapersonal conflict is the root of great stories in any medium:
This film throws light on the most fundamental task for any writer; that is, to unspool the thread of necessity which runs through both character and plot. Aesthetic skill lies in the ability to create characters which are grounded in fundamental social-historical contradictions and whose lives attain a richness such that, after a while, it feels as though you-the writer-are simply a passive observer, merely recording the details of those lives as they unfold out in front of you in the form of an independent existence. (190)
Arguably the greatest stories ever produced by the human race are the cycle of mythological adventures based around the gods and heroes of ancient Greece. Our appetite for re-enactments and updates of the dramatic lives of characters such as Oedipus, Achilles, Jason and Helen of Troy is seemingly never-ending and has produced some creative iterations in the 21st century already.
In an essay on the novels of Madeline Miller, McKenna perceptively notes how fourth wave feminism, expressed in the global MeToo movement, provides the essential ideological context for the success of recent fictional recreations of female Greek protagonists such as Penelope and Briseis, by authors such as Emily Wilson and Pat Barker.
Miller has added to this distinguished sub-genre with two books, Song ofAchilles and Circe. In the latter, published in 2018, she takes a relatively marginal character from Homer’s Odyssey and re-imagines Circe’s backstory and life after her encounter with the famed king of Ithaca, Odysseus. The key to Miller’s evident resonance with millions of readers, McKenna argues, is a nuanced exploration of the dialectical conflicts that occur within the psyche of every human being. In Circe’s case, she is psychologically torn between the world of the immortals that she is raised in, and the world of mortals such as Odysseus that she encounters as she grows up. In McKenna’s words:
Miller carefully cultivates an ideological opposition between the manual labour of the oppressed and the pronounced aristocratic parasitism of the oppressor-an opposition which opens up between the human world and the world of the divine. Such an opposition, in fantasy form, has a real and historical resonance in the ancient Greek world. (148)
Such an opposition is no longer central in our era but an alternative clash between the prevailing patriarchal capitalism and the liberated sexuality of an embryonic postcapitalist society is evident on a regular basis in the news headlines. As an American author, Miller has spoken explicitly of how she was traumatised by the elevation to the White House of a crassly racist and sexist President in 2016; but also how she has been inspired by the political resistance that Trump has provoked in the forms of Bernie Sanders, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and other figures of a rejuvenated US left.
McKenna justifiably explains that these expressions of anti-capitalist insurgency are the context to the powerful impact of Miller’s evocative renditions of archaic Greece:
Looking at the American political landscape, the MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter, the Slut Walks, Occupy Wall Street, it is difficult, for me at least, not to feel in Circe’s ancient, epic struggle something of the form and the impetus of these broader political movements which were also shaped by those who have been in some way exiled from the political mainstream and who begin to develop their own powers of freedom and self-determination in response. (159)
In his closing chapter on the art of Goya, the author optimistically describes a detail from a painting from the 1820s called The Milkmaid of Bordeaux, the Spaniard’s last masterpiece:
…in the far-right corner there is a retreating patch of shadowy cloud, but directly outlining the young woman’s head – creating a halo-like effect – is a burgeoning blue fissured with delicate white light. It feels as though a night-time storm has come and gone and now, breaking through, comes the silvery, morning light of a brand new day. (236)
As the world continues to groan under the dark shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, it is to be hoped that McKenna’s thesis that great cultural products presage the coming of a more enlightened social order turns out to be valid. Even without viral threats, climate change and global immiseration mean that the mass of humanity is becoming increasingly desperate to see that silvery, morning light breaking through.
Sally Flint looks at the state of poetry, continuing the joint series with the Morning Star on the cultural fallout of Covid-19. The photo by Jasbat Malhi is of Dr. Rahat Indor performing in Tagore
History shows that catastrophes, conflicts, traumas and protests provoke poets to write, and that the most insightful poems survive because they contain a universal truth connected to the human condition. So how are poets dealing with disease, death and often contradictory political rhetoric in a world that has suddenly and unexpectedly locked-down our lives – a place where we’re clearly not ‘all in this together’?
However, as the virus spreads there are multiple windows opening, especially related to online technology. Poets are used to connecting things in their heads though, pinning down what Coleridge describes as a poem being, ‘the best words in the best order’; they are well practised in staying focused to search out and unravel the truth.
For example, there are poets taking purposeful walks to scrutinise nearby cemeteries, researching past flu epidemics, noticing signs in newly barricaded shops, and empty public spaces. Poets are asking what matters most to friends and families, what ‘isolation’ means, and what Covid-19 is doing to the poor and BAME communities, imagining alternatives and what happens next for humanity as a whole.
As riots spread across the USA, and marches across other capital cities take off, it shows that while the proletariat can be contained by a life-threatening virus for the common good, they can’t be by the horrific murder of a black man by a policeman on the side of a road in Minnesota, witnessed on screens in homes around the world.
Poets are always on the lookout to connect narrative threads – as storytellers they are alert to ‘plot holes’, and can capture injustice in a few words. It’s why Jeremy Corbyn used poems to great effect, reading Wilfred Owens’ ‘Futility’ on Remembrance Day in 2015 and often quoting Shelley’s ‘The Masque of Anarchy’ to drive home a political message, for us to ‘to rise up like lions’. Poet Laureates Simon Armitage and Carol Anne Duffy are also showing showing that poetry is not about privilege or elitism.
Simon Armitage performing 'Lockdown'
We stand united on a precipice unlike any other time, where capitalism is exploiting but not providing for the many. There are new voices and imaginations needing to be heard, and brave new poetry editors who are poised to publish challenging writing. Spiteful, confusing tweets and blogs may come and go, but meaningful poems that reflect the strengths and vulnerabilities of the human condition have the potential to drive positive change and endure. Websites and publishers like Culture Matters can get key messages across quickly and effectively, just as a virus spreads.
Poets’ imaginations will be fired up as more stories emerge out of this pandemic, and political falsehoods will link in creative minds. We will be watching to see if the homeless are back on to the streets this time next year, if health and social care workers receive a pay rise, and whether the newly unemployed desperately chasing poorly paid and precarious jobs remain indebted to private landlords. While politicians and the press turn blind eyes, poets will continue to write and scrutinise the ‘new normal’ in a quest for the truth.
It seems few of us will see out this virus unscathed, but it’s the workers – especially the struggling, less well-off workers who need to be remembered and supported most by progressive politics and progressive political poetry.
Over a decade ago, in her poem ‘Indoors’, the late Eavan Boland writes, as if forecasting Covid-19:
So it was above our neighbourhood, the world straightening under wings, the noise of discord clearly audible, the hinterland reaching to the sea, its skin a map of wounds, its history a treatise of infections.
In a ‘second wave’ of Covid flooding the planet, poets will be peeling back the skin to see what lies beneath, to show among other things how politicians have handled this crisis – or washed their hands of it. As June Jordan said, ‘Poetry is a political act because it involves telling the truth.’ A body of politically driven and socially relevant poetry will surely grow out of this pandemic. It will continue to reach out in protest, anger, sadness and compassion, and touch even the hardest of rich and powerful capitalist hearts, so we can all move towards a greener, kinder, safer and more equal, truthful future.
Will post-pandemic poetry be like this? Steve Pottinger performing a recent poem of his.
Luke Callinan reviews A History of Ireland in 100 Words by Sharon Arbuthnot, Máire Ní Mhaonaigh and Gregory Toner, Royal Irish Academy, 320 pp, €19.99, ISBN: 9781911479185.
“Ní hí an teanga do chuaidh ó chion acht an dream dár dhual a dídion (mon-uar) dár bhéigin a ndán sa nduan do thréigin go tiomlán”
“It is not the language which has come into disesteem but those who should protect it, they who have been (alas!) obliged to abandon their poems and verses completely.”
- 17th Century poem by Diarmuid Mac Muireadhaigh addressed to Górdún Ó Néill, a captain in the army of King James II.
Ogham inscriptions provide the earliest concrete evidence of the Irish language, dating as far back as the 4th century, while the majority of extant examples can be traced to the following 5th and 6thcenturies. This primitive form of written Irish evolved and developed in to what would become the most extensive surviving literature in early modern medieval Europe. While the depth and richness of this literature has been examined and understood by a section of Irish academia, its intertexuality as well as the wider cultural and social hegemony that fused it and gave it real meaning has been largely lost on those who currently inhabit the island(s) of Ireland.
This loss of collective social and cultural values, memories and ways of thinking is particularly regrettable. It didn’t take place overnight nor did it happen in a cultural or political vacuum: it is the logical outcome of a coherent, brutal and multifarious colonisation process that successfully replaced Irish with English as the primary medium of communication for the bulk of the country. This process has been examined thoroughly by well-known writer and publisher Tomás Mac Síomóin in his books The Broken Harp and The Gael Becomes Irish.
An encouraging trend has emerged in Irish language literature in which Irish language texts are being reproduced, reimagined and reconstructed by modern scholars. Examples of these productions include Tuatha Dé Danann by Diarmuid Johnson, An Tromdhámh by Feargal Ó Béarra and Darach Ó Scolaí’s Táin Bó Cuailnge. These, and others like them, present today’s reader with some of the most important figures, events and narratives from our literary tradition in the medium of modern Irish.
A History of Ireland in 100 Words is a valuable contribution to this work. While the authors clarify that the publication is not an attempt to comprehensively detail the course of Irish history, it serves to highlight the collated lexicon of Old and Middle Irish based on materials from the period c.700-1700. As the authors explain, its purpose is to provide “insights into moments of life that may be otherwise absent from the history books”; and in this it certainly succeeds.
We are presented with lively accounts of 100 words in the Irish language from this period, some of which have even survived in Hiberno-English language registers such as ‘Taoiseach’ (the term for Ireland’s ‘Prime Minister’), ‘Leipreachán’, ‘Bóithrín’ (literally a small cow-path but used to describe a narrow, frequently unpaved, road in rural parts of Ireland), ‘Bróg’ (meaning ‘shoe’ but used contemporarily to describe a person’s accent) and ‘Punt’ (the Irish currency until 2002).
We learn that the word for poet in Irish, ‘file’, is related to the verb ‘to see’, demonstrating a perceived prophetic capacity. This applies to great art up to this day as an alternative way of understanding the world to science and philosophy.
Language and colonisation
Discussion of the word ‘Gall’, understood by many today as ‘foreigner’ but with a much deeper and complex history, puts a spotlight on the 12th century King of Leinster, Diarmaid na nGall, who sought the military assistance of England’s King Henry II to regain his kingdom, sparking a chain of events that would result in the Anglo-Norman invasion of 1169.
While the earliest documented form of political authority in Ireland was kingship, with a king (‘rí’) for each kingdom (‘tuath’), by the 8th century this power structure was being surpassed by the emergence of leaders controlling larger territories. The title given to these was ‘Taoiseach’, originally meaning ‘first’ but clearly having evolved at an early stage to indicate ‘leader’. This survives today in the term for Ireland’s highest government office holder, ‘An Taoiseach’. It is worth mentioning evidence of women in the role of ‘Taoiseach’ as far back as the 8th century, unlike today’s office, which has never been held by a woman.
The 15th century curse ‘úir aineoil tarat’ (‘may foreign soil be over you’) implies negative connotations for foreign burials and vividly reinforces the deep connection people had to land and territory had in Gaelic Ireland. It reminded me of Big Bill Neidjie’s words, an elder of the Kakadu people in northern Australia: “I feel with my body, with my blood. Feeling all these trees, all this country. When this wind blow you can feel it. Same for country… you feel it, you can look, but feeling… that make you.”
In general, of course, the wisdom contained in Irish medieval literature reflects a symbiotic land-animal-human relationship that generated respect and fear in equal measure. Use of the term ‘mac tíre’ (‘son of the land’) for wolf was employed to avoid summoning the animal by speaking his actual name, ‘faol’, but has come to be the most common word for ‘wolf’ in modern Irish. Ireland’s wild wolves of course became extinct in the late 18th century.
Edmund Spenser, an English colonizer and poet of the late 16th century Tudor re-conquest period in Ireland, understood the central importance of language in the colonising process. He wrote that “words are the image of the mynde, the mynde must needs be affected with the words: So that the speech beinge Irishe, the harte must needs be Irishe, for out of aboundance of the harte the tongue speaketh.” If Irish people could be coerced in to adopting the English language, they would come to accept a world view framed by that language, one that would re-define how they see themselves and their place in the world.
Kenyan academic Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o has described languages as natural hard-drives, positing that the loss of that hard drive invariably causes loss of the memories and knowledge, information, thoughts and thought-processes which have been carried by that language for generations.
Collective recovery of our Irish language hard-drive is an essential component in the de-colonisation of Ireland and A History of Ireland in 100 Words, as well as the invaluable work of all those involved with the Electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language project more broadly, certainly provides some of the tools to help do that successfully.
Clara Paillard is the co-president of PCS Culture Group representing 4,000 museums & heritage workers across the UK. In this addition to our joint series with the Morning Star, she reflects on the bleak prospects for the future of the arts and culture after the pandemic, and argues for emergency funding, the end of privatisation, and the application of cultural democracy to the sector.
A year ago, cleaners and porters at the British Museum were all transferred to a new private company following the collapse of giant Carillion. After 4 months of limbo during which the museum refused to speak to them or to PCS, their trade union, workers were all transferred to 3 month contracts pending a restructure. Some of them had been working at the Museum for over 20 years before falling victims to this privatisation.
Fast forward one year to today, and most of them have been put on furlough and are waiting anxiously to see what the future holds for them, in a country scarred by the Covid-19 pandemic. They are not alone, as millions of workers are holding their breath as the lockdown is easing, and cultural institutions are talking about reopening their doors in July.
Tens of thousands of museum workers were sent home when they closed, followed shortly by theatres, music halls, cinemas and the rest of the country. Thousands of artists and freelancers saw their contracts and commissions paused or dropped. Self-employed educators, tour guides, and technicians were left without an income. Many of them do not qualify for furlough, small business grants or self-employment support as they often combine two or more precarious jobs with their freelance work. Countless workers were left with sick pay or no pay for self-isolation and sickness.
Local cultural production
Despite this, grassroots and locally organised artistic and cultural activities have been flourishing online. Museums and galleries have been pouring out free online content, with virtual tours, exhibitions and activities. Orchestras and choirs have been playing on Facebook, artists sharing and selling their art on Twitter or Instagram, art lessons provided on Zoom, DJs playing live on social media, and lots more similar digital cultural production.
At home, people have rediscovered their creative potential, with many spending more time painting, playing music, watching films, modelling, drawing, and other cultural activities, showing how important they are for our mental health and wellbeing. Bread is not enough, we want roses too!
The key question now is this: how will the arts and cultural activities, already damaged by ten years of Tory austerity policies, survive the Covid pandemic? Most museums now rely on commercial income to balance their books. During closure, that income is not available, potentially leaving huge funding gaps in their budget and stopping them from reopening. Southbank arts venues have warned they may not be able to reopen until 2021 unless emergency funding is provided by the government. Historic Royal Palaces have cut their staff pensions, blaming the pandemic for financial uncertainty. Casual workers at the Tate are worried about their future after the 31st July, while freelance educators are unlikely to be re-employed for a long time.
The PCS Union Culture Group is very clear: no venue should reopen until it is safe for workers and visitors. We are battling to ensure employers adhere to key health and safety principles, and the unions are involved in negotiations and risk assessments for reopening.
But that is not enough. The sector is facing a battle for survival, and the government should agree an immediate emergency fund to ensure it wins that battle. Museums, galleries and the arts are central to our health, happiness and sense of community and togetherness. They also play a significant role in the economy. Re-opening the sector will be important in signalling that it is safe for people to enjoy culture and travel again. Financial guarantees would also remove the pressure to reopen before it is safe to do so.
Our concern is that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport may instead plan to cut funding for arts organisations, and blame the pandemic for further austerity policies. We believe that would be a huge mistake. It would threaten the access and availability of culture for everyone, and it would threaten the livelihoods of the often low-paid staff who have continued working during the lockdown to ensure the safety of the nation’s treasures. The government should instead look to the aftermath of the Second World War, when the UK and many other countries invested in the arts as part of their plans to widen access and rebuild society.
A number of groups, including the PCS Culture Group, various regional TUC Culture Committees, and the Movement for Cultural Democracy have worked in the past few years to develop an alternative programme and funding model for culture.
Arts funding as a whole should be reviewed and increased, and we need to ditch the discredited austerity, privatisation and private funding model. Museums are not money-making machines, but a public service dedicated to education and the art. Proper funding would ensure that workers in those institutions are paid decently with secure terms and conditions, rather than zero hours contracts and bogus self-employment arrangements that are endemic in this sector. It would allow proper artists’ commissions and residencies and help deliver a proper status for artists, as in my home country of France. And it could fund popular arts and cultural education on a large scale, benefiting public health and the economy.
Beyond emergency help, further debates are needed to explore using corporate taxation to expand arts funding and to replace corporate and private ownership, control and sponsorship with state ownership and control, which could be exercised at community, municipal and national levels. This would help the many DIY grassroots activities developed during the Covid crisis to continue.
Provision of arts and culture also needs to be rebalanced, so that people living outside the London area, and in working-class communities, have greater access to cultural facilities.
Currently, arts and cultural institutions are often governed by boards of trustees, mostly from a privileged and corporate background. Democratising cultural institutions would allow community groups, local councils, trade unions and workers to have a say about management and decision-making.
Trade unions are particularly keen to establish minimum standards and terms and conditions for cultural workers, whether employed or self-employed, and to eliminate precarious work. There also needs to be action on equal opportunities in the creative and cultural industry so that people from all socio-economic groups have equal access to jobs and careers, as there is widespread evidence of class-based discrimination.
Finally, art education and production must also be more accessible and meaningful to all. We need to encourage more grassroots, locally situated cultural production, as well as developing more outreach and educational work in schools and working- class communities. The inclusion of disabled people, BAME communities, women, young people and LGBT people is paramount to diversify cultural production and access. Many institutions grew from imperial conquest and colonialism, and are still displaying institutional racism and discrimination.
The PCS Culture Group has now launched a campaign and an online petition calling for no re-opening of cultural institutions before it is safe; emergency funding for instituions, to help society recover from the crisis; and a reversal of privatisation in the culture sector. The Group is also holding a public online event on Thursday 11th June at 6pm with speakers from across the sector.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights spells it out in Article 27: “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits”. We will honour those principles and continue our struggle for culture for the many, not the few.
Stuart Cartland looks at the cultural and political representation of topography, at how landscape becomes mythscape, expressing class power and national identity. The painting is Mr and Mrs. Andrews, by Thomas Gainsborough, about 1750
As the fine weather and easing of coronavirus restrictions are upon us, many will be wanting to enjoy the pleasures of the countryside. But beware, the countryside is not a neutral space - are you entering a cultural domain where you are even welcome?
There is nothing natural or even legitimate to the social and cultural exclusivity that the English countryside has come to represent, yet the seemingly timeless narrative of traditionalism and conservatism has become well established cultural tropes. The dominant conservative evocation of Englishness draws heavily from an emotive and evocative imagery based around landscape.
A modern day Mr. and Mrs. Andrews?
It is an idealised England (and Englishness) which is viewed as both being under attack from and ignored by the marauding forces of modernity and alterity. It is typically rural, middle to upper-middle class, and associated with the south (the basic formulation to understanding the conservative and right-wing position and perspective in regards to Englishness). As Wright elaborates, “it possible to argue that this version of a green and pleasant England persists in the Conservative psyche today. Indeed, the nearer one gets to the grassroots of contemporary Toryism in England, the nearer one gets to this puritanical discourse, and the defensiveness and paranoia that go with it”.
There is clearly nothing political or ideological about the English countryside per se. Indeed, it commands a critical sense of importance to many different and disparate political, social, historical and cultural movements and ideologies such as the Levellers and the Diggers, Orwell, Blake, Morris and the campaign for the right to roam typified by the mass trespass on Kinder Scout, all associated more with the English left, radicalism and socialism. However, it is the hijacking and ideological manipulation of the subject matter, coupled with the constructed and constantly reinforced political and cultural meanings that equate rural England to conservatism and traditionalism.
Kinder Scout Mass Trespass
It is also the attached and attributed symbolism that places a mythological idealised concept of rural England at the heart of conservative and traditional notions of Englishness, which has become synonymous with a sense of English national identity and what it represents. As Mark Perryman highlights, “the temptation to retreat into an unchanging past, a theme park for an old country is strong, offering security versus global risk and the comfort blanket of the familiar”. In a prevailing contemporary climate of crisis, threat, insecurity and uncertainty, such a position has become the dominant, legitimised position.
Cultural and ideological representations of topography are crucial to understanding a conservative discourse of Englishness. A timeless and enduring idolisation of place, culture, class and tradition are bound in a romanticised ‘mythscape’. However, this is one which is man-made and ideologically created. Idealised topographical representations articulate a moral and national narrative which relates to the present. This draws upon national anxieties and contributes towards an illusory sense of hegemony in an age of rapidly changing boundaries and realities.
Landscape can be viewed as the location of ideological clashes of fantasy, desire and anxiety. The conservative and traditionalist mythscape plays upon concepts of the North of England as symbolising the stereotypical working-class, industrial cityscapes whilst the South representing a middle and upper-class idyll of English country gardens. The timeless pastoral green dream of tranquillity and social order however is an illusion, often imposed to obscure what we actually see or encounter. As Robert MacFarlane (2015) describes it, this can be called ‘landscape culture’. It is an idealised notion of ‘dwelling’, ‘belonging’ and ‘heritage’ that needs to be seen through the “turbulence of England in the era of late capitalism”.
A contemporary period foisting such ‘alien’ ideas as political correctness or multiculturalism, challenging ‘our’ sovereignty and ignoring the interests of the moral majority. It forms the raison-de-etre to political campaigns and movements such as the Campaign for an English Parliament, UKIP and the English Democrats. The English countryside as an elite ideological domain resonates with conservative traditionalists not because it draws upon an exhaustive list of characterisations but rather an attitude.
This defensive definition of Englishness is formulated through a bitter awareness that the world is charging headlong in the opposite direction. It is a defensive narrative of retreat and denial. The English countryside has become symbolic as a last-ditch effort to defend against encroaching modern forces. This can be seen in the contemporary context by traditionalist concepts of Englishness against issues such as gay marriage, the banning of blood sports, environmental concerns, and gender equality.
The countryside has played an important part in the English imagination particularly since the Industrial Revolution. The origins of conservative traditionalism linked to the countryside can be traced throughout modern English social and cultural history, from Cobbett’s ‘rural rides’ in the 1820s to the popularity of the National Trust after the Second World War. Specific examples typify such a conceptualisation of a romantic and nostalgic England which feeds into contemporary politicised (and often reimagined and manipulated) notions. For example, Edmund Burke’s ‘Little Platoons’ in his ‘Reflections on the Revolution in France’ (1790) and the social and cultural reactionary conservatism not only in regards to the perceived threat of foreign political revolutionary fervour but the political and ideological anti-establishmentarianism contained within such a threat.
William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ (set to music by Parry in 1915), is a direct antithesis to the dark, gritty, industrialised cities of the Midlands and the North of England. William Morris’s notion of a future, rural utopia in ‘News from Nowhere’ (1890), with the banishment of industrialised city living to the history books. Rudyard Kipling’s idealised Sussex of ‘Puck of Pook’s Hill’ (1917) and the wider idea of a, “psychological retreat to the English countryside” (Marsden, 2000:26) to a rural England in contrast to the mechanised and industrialised warfare of the first and second world wars. Stanley Baldwin’s (1924) ‘long shadows on country grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pool fillers’. George Orwell’s ‘Lion and the Unicorn’ (1941) of ‘old maids cycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist’, and G.K Chesterton’s famous lines, “smile at us, pay us, pass us but do not quite forget. For we are the people of England, that never have spoken yet”.
The countryside elite firmly embedded as natural heirs to a sense of rural moral authority
The English countryside has become synonymous with representations of conservationism which have often led to cultural conservatism. This has created a rural nostalgia culture industry of country dwellers clad in Barbour jackets and Hunter wellies, with Range Rovers and barn conversions, steeped in the cultural and political domain of the Cotswoldian elite rolling around in pastoral clichés. It is an England represented as a historicised rural idyll, embodied by a sense of timeless and naturalised tradition and place. Victorian poets and writers (Wordsworth and Coleridge), artists (Turner and Constable) and composers (Elgar, and latterly Britten) all employed to help perpetuate this ideologically evocative version of a decidedly green and pleasant land.
The countryside has firmly become established within contemporary English culture as the cultural domain of the middle and upper classes, where they play the role or act as the only legitimate form of authority, expression and belonging. These roles refer to assumed norms of deference to the conservative ‘country folk’ where feudalism never really went away. The countryside represents the domain of the wealthy, who literally buy into an idealised and sanitised ‘escape to the country’ of chocolate box images of quaint villages and a bucolic escape from ethnic minorities, multiculturalism, political correctness, the Labour Party, council estates, Primark and the like. Indeed this can be understood through the almost impossible task of trying to find a pub in the country that hasn’t been converted into the most ubiquitous form of contrived exclusivity - the gastropub.
The classic gastropub interior, with its standard and ubiquitous accoutrements
These aren’t just pubs catering to the wealthy elite who escape to the country for weekend leisure pursuits of animal abuse, but rather operate as a means to sell the lifestyle choice - that to patronise their establishment you are or can become one of them, part of the country elite, and so inhabit and experience this mythscape of upper-class country lifestyle.
Nevertheless, these are largely superficial expressions of ideology repackaged and resold as lifestyle choice. Doubtless, the countryside can be a pleasant place of rolling hills and blue skies, and by and large it is not an exclusive domain full of Tories. But that is the point - it has been commandeered through the cultural domain as such… so as you venture out after the lockdown, good luck with finding a pub that hasn’t been converted into a shrine to this particular form of cultural hegemony!
Keith Flett says pubs could be a radically different experience after lockdown ends, and taking the Wetherspooons chain into public ownership would be a good start and a great example of cultural democracy. Image: Wetherspoons' Lord High Constable pub, Gloucester, Photo: Philafrenzy/Wikipedia
All pubs in Britain are currently shut for trade on the premises and it’s not known when they will re-open. But after the Covid-19 crisis has receded, how could they be different? How could the spirit of self-help and community organisation, discussed by Jack Newsinger in his recent article in this series from Culture Matters and the Morning Star, be applied to pubs?
There is already a model model of pub ownership and operation that stemmed from a national crisis — the Carlisle state management scheme, which started in 1916. Pub opening hours were restricted and those in areas where munitions were manufactured were nationalised, with five breweries consolidated into one state-owned one.
The architect Harry Redfern designed 14 new “model” pubs around the Carlisle area in the style of the arts and craft movement influenced by William Morris. They could operate to wider criteria than making profits and take into account principles of enjoyable and healthy alcohol consumption, all under the democratic control of an elected government rather than owned and run to make returns to private shareholders.
The Carlisle scheme was a great success. By 1933 the pub contributed £60,000 annually to the Exchequer in profits, around £4.3 million in 2020 prices. While the language and attitudes of 1916 are not those of 2020, the aim was clear — to shift the pub from being a place where men went to drink and get drunk to a more social environment where the whole community could go to talk, read, play games and generally enjoy some time away from work or home.
In a post-Covid-19 world, a national network of publicly owned pubs owned and run by local communities or municipal bodies, promoting a socially conscious model of drink and leisure, would surely be an improvement on the current situation. Fortunately, there already exists such a network of more than 800 pubs across the UK and, based on pre-lockdown statements and actions by its owner, it could well be ripe for bringing into public hands.
Tim Martin started his Wetherspoons pub empire within a few months of Thatcher becoming Prime Minister in May 1979. Some of the free-market changes that Thatcher’s governments brought in helped Martin’s business. They boosted pub companies over traditional brewery-tied houses and promoted a philosophy of individual freedoms — for some — which meant loosening restrictions on pubs. No doubt these changes were welcomed by many but they came at a price, such as long hours, low pay and zero-hours contracts for pub workers.
Forty years ago many pubs sold only poor-quality keg beer, the result of a trend to monopoly in the brewing industry from the 1960s that had left Britain with just a few mega breweries. They didn’t often do much in the way of food and many tended to be dominated by middle-aged men with rather right-wing views. In short, they were welcoming to the few, not the many.
The Wetherspoons business model, like the Carlisle scheme, was different. Reasonable quality real ale, tea, coffee and meals were sold all day at reasonable prices. The pubs didn’t have loud music blaring out, TVs or fruit machines. They were places where you could go and chat, or read a book. The result was that at that time in Wetherspoons pubs one could find a socially mixed clientele, including far more women and ethnic minorities than might be usual in other pubs.
But nowadays Wetherspoons has become notorious as a poor employer, even in an industry not known for a high standard of employment practices.
So why not roll out a 2020 version of the Carlisle state management model by nationalising Wetherspoons? The state would have a network of pubs which could be relatively easily modified to fit a concept of a new model pub, a community hub run for local people, not for profit. In time, they could be handed over to local authorities and communities to run.
As with the Carlisle scheme, there could be rules and requirements covering managers and staff, so that a decent working environment with good wages could be provided and precarious employment abolished. Nationalising Wetherspoons and turning the pubs into a network of socially owned new model pubs would be an example of cultural democracy which communities could build on in other areas of their cultural life, such as sport.
It is of course only one of a range of responses that will be required in beer, brewing and pubs as a result of the Covid-19 crisis. State intervention could also be used to protect pubs threatened with closure and shape them into more socially aware community hubs, where breweries or pub companies are still demanding rent against their non-existent income.
But it would be a good start and relatively easy to do.
This is the latest in the series of articles on culture after Covid-19, jointly published by the Morning Star and Culture Matters.
Jack Newsinger continues the series, jointly published on Culture Matters and the Morning Star, on the effects of the Covid-19 crisis on culture, sketching out what needs to change and why. Can artists, writers and other creatives form closer alliances with the labour movement? The accompanying image is by Jonpaul Kirvan.
Culture matters more than ever, as Mike Quille pointed out in the introduction to this series of articles. Yet pandemic has completely shut down public arts and culture in the UK. Theatres, cinemas, libraries, music venues (including Glastonbury Festival’s 50th anniversary) – all closed until further notice, and likely to be some of the last to be allowed to reopen, with enormous impacts on the people whose livelihoods depend upon functioning cultural and creative industries.
We are all used to the glamour of the film and television industries, or the pomp of the theatre and opera, but it is worth emphasising that many of these workers are precariously employed on short term contracts often with little security or savings – the arts and creative industries are disproportionately reliant on a highly skilled, dedicated and passionate, but precarious workforce.
The people who serve coffee in the cafes are very often also the people on the stages; the guitarist in the band has also lost her other income teaching music lessons in a school. This ability to quickly contract when income disappears is how cultural organisations have learnt to keep functioning in Britain’s competitive cultural economy, but it can be brutal for many of the people who actually make culture, just like the stresses and strains faced by workers in the NHS, care homes and other public services which have suffered years of exposure to austerity economics and the imposition of capitalist rationality.
As in the rest of society, the COVID-19 crisis has made visible the weaknesses and inequalities in the arts and creative industries that were already present under the surface if anyone cared to look hard enough. Unsurprisingly, the way that the crisis has so far played out has mirrored these inequalities. There is increasing evidence that Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people are suffering a disproportionate financial and employment penalty due to the lockdown. These inequalities will intersect with class, age, disability and region to compound and deepen the already significant disparities that exist in access to the arts and culture, for both producers and audiences. The danger is that commissioners used to seeing ‘minority arts’ and working-class participation as something of a side endeavour will retreat into the ‘safe’ zone of the ‘old boys’ network’ with a resulting narrowing of participation, vitality and cultural diversity.
The COVID-19 crisis has shown the cracks and weaknesses in the system. But it also might reveal ways to overcome them. ‘Lockdown culture’ is forcing makers and audiences to find new ways to connect with each other. Some of these seek to reproduce existing capitalist relationships of production remotely. For example, the Artists' Support Pledge, in which artists sell their work through Instagram, promising that once they reach £1000 of sales they will spend £200 on another artist’s work.
The crisis pushes to the forefront new ideas about how we should fund the arts. Do we want a precarious commercial model that mirrors the inequalities of the market, or can we find more egalitarian ways of providing stability for cultural producers? Can this be an opportunity to overcome the pathological elitism and lack of diversity of the arts and cultural establishment? The Arts Council moved relatively quickly to announce a package of £160m to support cultural organisations and individuals. This is an essential lifeline but it appears to be targeted at maintaining the existing cultural landscape, with larger, prestigious organisations that serve metropolitan middle-class tastes taking priority (as they always have).
In this vacuum of new ideas, it is the spirit of self-help and community organisation that offers the way forward. Debates around Universal Basic Income have become more relevant. As noted by the artist and activist Stephen Pritchard, “Is the time coming when art will finally embrace self-organised alternatives rooted in ethical practice, equitable living, commoning, fair pay, openness and hope? Can art help rebuild our lives and our communities? Can it reimagine ways of being and living together after a global pandemic that surely changes everything?”
Three things emerge from all this so far. Firstly, professional artists, filmmakers, writers, makers, and all cultural practitioners are also workers, ultimately, and need collective representation and a strong welfare state. There must surely be potential for closer links and mutual support between cultural practitioners and the labour movement, given their shared values and belief that the arts and culture generally can be a liberating force.
Secondly, the importance of looking to the people about how the arts and culture can change. People are showing that they will still put their creativity out there whether they get paid or not, which says something about the importance of the human capacity for connecting through culture beyond commercial relationships.
Finally, quarantine has demonstrated the importance of internet connectivity, and culture is flourishing online, whether it be watching a concert on Instagram live, learning how to paint on Facebook, or home art-schooling your children using the Tate’s online galleries. This is surely to be celebrated. If only we had a government that would guarantee free broadband for all…..
Lyndsey Ayre reflects on common ground, coronavirus, and the values of the labour movement. The image is of a piece of embroidery by Melanie Kyles
This must be the beginning of change. Whenever we reach the other side of this crisis – whenever and whatever that might look like - we must begin to plan immediately for a better future. We must count the dead and hold those to account who failed them. And we must stand together and say: enough. Things cannot be allowed to return to the way that they were. The way that they were was the problem.
We must remember the people who worked tirelessly when so many of us stayed indoors: the checkout workers, the nurses, the refuse collectors, the teachers, the doctors, the librarians, the postal workers and delivery drivers. These are the people that we should value the most. These are the people who should be honoured, and whose salaries should reflect our gratitude.
We have lived in a culture of endless greed: of belligerent hedge fund managers, grubby-fingered billionaires and sneering, public schoolboy politicians. Though we dress it in the lineaments of modernity, beneath our filters and slick user interfaces is the same system: moth-eaten, broken, old.
The way that things were was the problem. This must be the beginning of change.
It is 8.30am and I am walking down silent suburban streets towards Newcastle’s Town Moor. The morning is bright and cool like a whistle. The main road that runs in front of my flat is usually thronged with cars and busses, commuters rushing for early shifts and hectic parents on the school run. For several weeks now, it has been empty. Sunlight shines on red brick and daffodils, on faded chalk hopscotch daubed on cracked paving stones. Rainbows beam from high windows. Curtains are drawn. English Ivy reaches above garden walls, trailing wistful fingers towards the cherry blossom.
There is nothing. There is no one. The day is draped in a veil of yellow and blue. I’m looking for common ground.
It has been over 100 days since the Chinese government declared an unknown pneumonia had been detected in the area around a wet market in Wuhan. In the weeks and months that followed, the world has been brought to its knees by what we now know to be the coronavirus named Covid-19. Previously titanic industries – oil, air travel – are at the edge of collapse. Businesses, large and small, have been forced to close their doors, with thousands of people furloughed. Arts organisations – scoring low on the list of public sympathy - face turbulent and uncertain futures. At the forefront, of course, the human cost: the days tick by with little to differentiate them other than the bleak death toll. 759, 823, 449. Every one a person. Every one a history: a favourite song, a favourite scent, a way of smiling.
At present in the UK, we are still allowed to go out for one walk a day. I’m grateful for these trips outdoors that afford respite from the trek between bedroom to the dining room table, where my work computer looms over the room. In many other countries, access to the outdoors was cut much earlier on. People across the globe find themselves legally confined to their own homes. We’re a world under house arrest.
Still, well-meaning Instagram videos tell us, that doesn’t have to be so bad. We may not have freedom to do as we please, but there’s one thing that we do have an abundance of: time. Finally, we can take up baking, learn a new language, plant strawberry bushes and tomatoes in our gardens and yards. There are worse things, after all, than to find yourself confined to the safety of home.
Newcastle's Town Moor. Photo: Chi Onwurah MP
Yet home is the first frontier against inequality. Contrary to the wartime rhetoric adopted by some commentators, this is a virus that discriminates – both in the pre-existing conditions and geographical factors which can make a person more vulnerable to serious illness and in the impact of self-isolation on a person’s physical and emotional health. Poorly-maintained, privately-rented property; anti-social neighbours; small, cramped living conditions and blocks of flats still wrapped in lethal cladding. It is a mental health timebomb, and with every day that passes the problem intensifies, threatening to swamp the already submerged NHS even further.
Access to the outdoors is a lifeline to so many people – people living alone, people who do not have backyards or gardens, people who need to exercise for their mental or physical health and those who face the danger of domestic violence. Since lockdown began, Refuge reported a 700% increase in calls to its helplines in a single day. Hotels across the UK wrote to the government to offer their rooms to victims of domestic abuse. At the time of writing, the government had not taken them up on their offer.
Few could dispute that we must all stay at home as much as possible and do our part in slowing the transmission of Covid-19. But the existing conditions in which so many people now find themselves prisoner cannot be allowed to go unaddressed.
In the coming months and years, as we attempt to rebuild our societies across the world, we must make this a priority. ‘Home’ should not be a word that means safety for some, danger for others. Home should be a place of solace for everyone.
People coming together
When I reach the edge of the Town Moor, the gate closes behind me with a heavy, metallic sound. Here there are no cars, no closed-up cafes or small shops with printed statements pinned to their doors. Here there are none of the houses of surrounding affluent Gosforth, each of them a display of wealth and security. The vast expanse of the moor – larger, Wikipedia tells me, than both Hyde Park and Hampstead Heath combined – opens up around me, flat, parallel, the pages of a book cracked open. On the horizon, the buildings of the city are held at a distance: the lone chimney of the RVI, the pale skeleton of St James’ Park.
The Town Moor has been a largely unchanging green space on the fringe of the city centre for many centuries. Not landscaped, not neatly ordered with child’s play park and paving stones and smart displays of Spring flowers, but something bleak, desolate and disordered, instead. It is an enduring landscape somewhere between a rural and urban space: a sort of ancient edgeland, connecting the different suburbs of the city like an immeasurable village green. A place of vast emptiness, it echoes, paradoxically, with years of people coming together.
In 1873, the moor hosted a demonstration in favour of universal male suffrage. Some 200,000 people attended. From 1721 until 1881, horse racing was held at the Town Moor. When the racing was moved to Gosforth Park – a location difficult for many of the poorer people living in the city centre to get to - the North East Temperance League stepped in and organised a week-long fair, instead. 1,000 of the poorest children in the city were given food. 150,000 people attended the fair and the event was deemed to be such a success that it continued as the Hoppings to this day. The Town Moor has many other uses as a public gathering place: as the host of the Northern Pride Festival, the weekly Park Run, the August bank holiday mela. Over the past couple of years, it has been host to the This Is Tomorrow festival, headlined in 2019 by Johnny Marr, whose melancholic guitars drenched the distant city streets with poetry and longing.
The Town Moor is – and has been, since it hosted the horse races of the 1700s – a highly accessible place for the people of Newcastle to visit. The importance of this cannot be overstated. By contrast, the countryside can often feel like a distant and alien place to many of us without our own means of transport. A DEFRA review, in 2019, highlighted that the National Parks were failing to attract people from working class and minority ethnic backgrounds. And yet the obvious benefits of access to the outdoors have been thrown into sharp relief by this crisis. The ‘right’ to air and exercise was enshrined in law in the Law of Property Act 1925. We have to do more to make these spaces work for everyone. School trips should encourage children to think of our National Parks as their own to explore. The benefits of the rural environment need to continue into our city centres, too: as the impact of the closures of our urban centres seems likely to topple the already precarious High Street, we have to rethink what we use our cities for, and come up with ways to make them greener.
Rebuilding the commons after the coronavirus crisis
On the moor, on an April morning, there are people: all of us drawn here by the will to see something other than the inside of our own homes. The path is wide – wide enough for two people to pass safely, but many people walk by as normal, perhaps uncertain of the safe distance, perhaps absent-minded, perhaps, even, in blatant denial that there’s any need to stay apart. I leave the path and walk across the grass, instead. The land is uneven and difficult to walk across. There are ditches and clumps of compacted grass: scars on the land from its yearly events. I head towards two large hills at the West of the moor, where a tiny figure stands silhouetted against a blossoming sky.
Halfway across, I realise I’ve gone the wrong way. The tiny figure has descended the hill and is walking briskly towards a gate onto Grandstand Road. There is a much simpler route, here, with a well-trodden gravel path ascending the lowest slope of the hill. In contrast, I find myself picking slowly though long grass and nettles, surrounded by cows. I wonder, briefly, how often cows kill humans and then reassure myself that these cows must be safe: the Freemen have grazed cattle on this land for centuries. Later, I google this and learn that, in fact, if there are calves present – there are not on the Town Moor, thankfully - herds of cattle do kill people. In fact, the Independent says, they are the most deadly large mammal in the UK. I don’t know this at the time, and I walk straight through them, smiling as they chew mouthfuls of grass laconically, flicking tails against flies. Somehow, this feels right: the point of walking on land like the Town Moor isn’t to go the easiest or simplest way – it’s to immerse yourself in the stretch of the land around you.
Near the foot of the largest of these hills – the imaginatively named ‘Cow Hill’ - I stop and take a swig of water from the bottle in my backpack. There’s a chilling moment as I realise where I’m standing: I’ve been reading about the history of the moor, and have learnt that in the thickness of these trees, still circled by a fence, there was once an isolation hospital for Small Pox. Grainy black and white photos on Google from 1898 show a man lying in a hospital bed in a dark room, and the horse drawn ambulance cart that would have taken patients there. It’s difficult to believe that this is the site. The buildings were demolished in 1958 and there is nothing to commemorate it. No plaque, no statue: only the trees. I stand there for a while, thinking about that hospital, thinking about those people.
Then I begin to climb the hill.
It’s hard to know how to write about this time. Online, people scramble to make sense of a crisis of global proportions unseen in our lifetimes. There are videos and lists, hints and tips and tricks and hashtags. We are a world that cannot stop talking. And yet how should we navigate discussion around a time of so much pain and suffering?
The city stretches out around me. Chimneys and trees and distant high rises. The Byker Wall squats like an alien spaceship. Rows of miniscule terraces branch away, their windows glinting in the morning sun. In every one of those buildings, a person.
There will be time and space for us to come together again. I know this, standing on the top of the hill, overlooking the city. The Town Moor invites us to think about it: about space and community, about the past and the future, about the things that are possible and the things that have been. The commons has always been a key tenet of the labour movement. Now, more than ever, their significance is vital as we look to rebuild our societies in the wake of Covid-19.