Mike Quille

Mike Quille

Mike Quille is a writer, reviewer and chief editor of Culture Matters.

Culture for the many, not the few
Thursday, 13 December 2018 14:22

Culture for the many, not the few

Published in Cultural Commentary

Mike Quille presents some principles and practical policies to implement cultural democracy.

This article is a contribution to debates around cultural democracy in the socialist left, the labour movement and academia. It includes discussion of:

- What culture means and why it is so important
- The links between cultural activities and politics, and current examples of the way cultural activities function in class-divided societies like our own
- Why we need a democratic and socialist approach to all cultural activities, going beyond the narrow, elitist and top-down approach of Arts Council England
- Specific measures which might form part of a programme for an incoming Labour government

The real meaning of culture

Culture matters to the many, not just the few. For a large part of our lives, particularly in our leisure time, we make choices – or choices are made for us – on what to do with our time. Whether to watch television, and if so what to watch. Whether to surf the internet, go on Facebook, or read a newspaper or magazine. Whether to visit an art gallery or concert hall, go to the pub or out for a meal, listen to some music, buy some clothes, make some clothes, play an instrument, go to the opera, play football, watch football, go to church, sing in a choir, paint a picture or play computer games.

All these activities, and many more, have a cultural dimension. They entertain, educate and enlighten us, and help us to enjoy life by giving it meaning, purpose and value. And the choices we make are socially determined. Their accessibility, cost and their very meanings are conditioned and constrained by the choices made by the owners, controllers, and gatekeepers of culture – the rich and the powerful, the politically dominant social classes in capitalist societies. We make our own culture, but we do not make it as we please, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. 

So culture is essential to being human. Culture is ordinary and culture is everything, a whole way of life, and it is closely linked to society, to the economy, and to politics. Let's unpack these ideas in more detail.

 

As Raymond Williams said: “Culture is ordinary: that is where we must start”. So culture includes not just the arts, but all those learned human activities which give our lives meaning and enjoyment. To restrict the term, and political discussion of it, to a selected menu of arts-based activities is to devalue and exclude the majority of cultural activities as practised by the majority of the population. As well as the arts, culture includes sport, TV and the media generally, eating and drinking, fashion and clothing, education, religion and many other popular activities. This makes for a looser and more varied set of concerns to think about, integrate into political manifestos and campaign about. But it is fairer, more inclusive and is far more relevant and appealing to the labour movement and most working people.

Fundamentally, human cultural activities are social, unifying and egalitarian. They tend to express and assert our common humanity and solidarity against divisions of class, gender, race and other social divisions caused by unequal economic arrangements such as the capitalist system. And cultural activities such as art, music and religion can directly inspire and support radical change in the real world, both personally and politically.

Taking part in this wide range of cultural activities, as consumers and as performers/actors, is not some optional extra for us. It sustains our health, well-being and happiness, promotes our freedom from oppressive political systems and exploitative economic arrangements, and is absolutely necessary to our development, liberation and flourishing as human beings. Culture is therefore essential to the socialist project of transforming society for the benefit of working people – the many.

As workers, we’re well aware of the economic struggle, the struggle for a fair return for our labour and for food, shelter, and other material necessities. In these days of austerity economics and flatlining wages, it’s a constant struggle to make ends meet on low incomes and inadequate benefits. The chaos and cruelty around the introduction of Universal Credit is the worst but not the only example of deliberate attacks on the poor by the Tory Government.

As voters and political activists, we’re also aware of the political struggle. This is the struggle to change the terms and conditions of our existence for the better – to liberate our social selves and prioritise social justice and the common good across all areas of state power and policy. So we struggle for various forms of social rather than private ownership of the land, farms, factories, offices, shops, utilities and banks. And we struggle to gain democratic control of social institutions, so that we all have an equal say in what happens in our lives.

Socialists, however, have always recognised that there is another struggle, which accompanies, expresses and supports the economic and political struggles. This is the cultural struggle, the struggle for cultural democracy, to apply fundamental socialist principles of shared ownership and democratic control to everyday and ordinary cultural activities.

How is class linked to culture?

Class-based divisions in society, based on unequal property ownership, constrain or prevent the full and free enjoyment of culture. Cultural activities may be fundamentally liberating and social, but in societies divided by class they are limited, appropriated and privatised.

Throughout history, tiny minorities of dominant social classes have tried – often successfully – to turn cultural activities into circuses, to go with the breadcrumbs thrown from the tables of the rich and powerful. In these class-divided societies, culture tends to become inaccessible, costly, irrelevant and of poor quality. It tends to be owned and organised in undemocratic ways. It tends to legitimise, conceal or ignore the ongoing, systematic oppression and exploitation of working people. And it is used to promote diversionary and reactionary political messages and values, in order to prevent the development of radical, anti-capitalist ideas such as cultural democracy.

So a continual struggle goes on to develop and sustain a cultural commons for the many, not the few. We face a cultural struggle against the co-option, misuse and appropriation of cultural activities, just like our economic and political struggles for better wages and for ownership and control of essential goods and services like our schools, our railways and our health service.

Just as neoliberal capitalism has shown itself to be incapable of providing adequate public services in these areas, so too it cannot sustain cultural production, delivery and consumption. We are witnessing the insidious and often hidden growth of corporate influence and control over cultural institutions – not only institutions like Arts Council England, but also social media platforms, broadcasters, sports clubs, pubs and clubs, and supermarkets.

These cultural institutions, which are of such importance to the everyday lives of so many people, present a major challenge for a socialist cultural policy seeking to implement shared ownership and democratic accountability into the cultural landscape.

What’s wrong with current popular cultural activities?

For the many, massive problems flow from the unequal and undemocratic ownership and control of cultural activities.

In sport, owners and management bodies are failing to make sport accessible, affordable and enjoyable for everyone, through sky-high ticket prices, undemocratic, ineffective regulatory authorities, and subsidies for elite sport at the expense of school sports and grassroots sports. Commercial pressures mean that capitalist ideologies of individual excellence and competitiveness – rather than the social and co-operative nature of most sport which is its most essential and appealing characteristic – cause regular scandals in most sports, involving drug-taking, cheating and corruption.

In the media, private ownership of large swathes of the means of communication by gigantic corporations like Amazon, Google, Apple and Facebook prevent us enjoying human interaction without being watched, manipulated and influenced by commercial capitalist interests. We face privately owned media companies like Sky, Netflix, Disney and Fox, dedicated to making profits rather than meeting human need. And we face state-controlled media like the BBC, designed to support and legitimise the economic and political status quo, and institutionally biased against radical politicians, newspapers and ideas.

Our daily activities of eating and drinking are also cultural activities, as well as biological necessities. We do so in company with family and friends, for pleasure and to express and enhance our common and social natures. Yet corporations produce and sell us food and drink loaded with too much sugar, salt, and fat, and we are pressurised into consuming unhealthy amounts and types of of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. Children and other vulnerable, poorer members of society are particularly at risk in a system where corporate profits depend on obesity and drunkenness.

Religious institutions own and control huge resources - land, buildings, capital - which do not always meet and serve the needs of many people for collective gatherings to express and strengthen shared beliefs and a commitment to the common good, and for refreshment, comfort and inspiration. Most religions have a powerful strand of concern for the poor, the vulnerable, the oppressed and exploited, yet their vicars, priests, bishops and other leaders often fail to call for and to practise social justice.

In the arts, the situation is not much better than when Raymond Williams said, in a Guardian Lecture in 1985:

The central socialist case, in matters of culture is that the lives of the great majority of people have been, and still are, almost wholly disregarded by almost all arts.

What’s wrong with the arts, and Arts Council England’s ‘Cultural Democracy in Practice’?

Problems with cultural institutions mean that we face inaccessibility, obscurity, and vapid spectacle, as does the fact that state funding is so unequal. Money that comes from our taxes and our Lottery tickets is overwhelmingly focused on cultural provision in the London area, which benefits mainly the already well off, and tourists.

MQ pi 04 2016 map

The continuing, monumental failure of Arts Council England to develop and sustain fair allocation of the massive increase in resources it has received from the taxpayer and from Lottery funds over the last 20 years or so is truly appalling. Imagine the outcry if there were far more hospitals per person in the London area than elsewhere, or far more schools for the better off than for the poor, everywhere. Yet this is broadly the situation in the arts, and one which ACE is not even planning to tackle.

Clearly fearful of the true implications of implementing cultural democracy in a class-based, unequal society, which would obviously involve replacing their current structure, funding and mission to subsidise culture for the rich, ACE have attempted to co-opt the language and the concepts in the recent report which it commissioned on ‘Cultural Democracy in Practice’. This document has come under heavy criticism, including this statement from the Movement for Cultural Democracy:

We are agreed that the Arts Council report has almost nothing to say about Cultural Democracy – in practice, in principle or as public policy. It is a crude, historically whitewashed and politically inept attempt to co-opt to its own cause a long standing and now re-emerging strand of radical cultural debate, policy and practice that fundamentally challenges its record and its structure – particularly its use of lottery funding.

The MCD has now published a new statement on rebalancing funding of the arts.

There are other problems apart from funding. For working-class people wishing to have an arts career, it is getting harder to become a musician or actor or writer without rich relatives to support you. As Jeremy Corbyn has said:

There is a poet, author, singer, pianist, actor, playwright, and artist in every single person.

But cuts and curriculum changes in education mean our children are being deprived of the chance to learn how to appreciate and participate in artistic, sporting and other cultural activities at both primary and secondary school stages, as well as facing exclusion and discrimination when they attempt a career as writer, performer, musician, actor or artist.

The Government’s politically-driven austerity policies have led to huge cuts in cultural facilities, including libraries, community centres, youth facilities and sports facilities. These cuts are set to continue for years to come, and have been knowingly targeted at the least well-off sections of society.

MQ library closures

We also face the possibility of an expansion in leisure time in the next few decades, as labour-saving technology generates more unemployment, under-employment and free time. Again, this will impact more on the working class generally, and on less skilled workers, younger people trying to build careers, and people who are already socially excluded and discriminated against for various reasons. Over time there will thus be an increasing need for accessible, relevant cultural activities for large numbers of people who are currently excluded from participation

What would a better culture policy look like?

To tackle these problems, what should be the general principles for a Labour government’s culture policy, a policy to implement genuine cultural democracy?

Firstly, acceptance that culture is ordinary and everyday, and that it is essential and not marginal to working people’s lives. Both spectatorship and engagement in cultural production and consumption are fundamental to human fulfilment and flourishing, and therefore central to any progressive political programme. It is not just an aid to ‘economic regeneration’, still less a sticking plaster to mask the deindustrialisation, decay and worsening health of many working-class communities, particularly in the North.

Secondly, we need a more inclusive approach to culture and culture policy, covering cultural activities which matter to most working people, and which can attract the support of the labour movement. We need to start promoting culture as part of the ‘social wage’ for everyone, like health, education and welfare benefits, not an exclusive extra for the better off. We need to break down long-established hierarchies between different kinds of cultural activities and practices, which often reflect and perpetuate class divisions, and which again point to the importance of integrating the economic, political and cultural struggles in our attempts to build Blake's new Jerusalem, a classless society.

Thirdly, we need to develop democratic, inclusive and bottom-up cultural policies in which communities of practitioners and audiences are empowered, through various structures of shared, social ownership and democratic control, to direct culture towards their own defined ends. Those ends should be self-determined, and could be entertainment, personal fulfilment, self-expression or as a contribution to the struggle for a better world.

More broadly, we need to think about ways of facilitating and encouraging grassroots cultural formations and activities. There are some very good examples of people working together at various forms of cultural activity – whether learning to play a musical instrument, paint, write poetry, cook, play football or make films – for enjoyment, education or the value generated by doing things in a social environment. These activities may not be explicitly political, linked to any defined progressive thinking or located in the trade union and labour movement. But by providing platforms for people to share their work and ideas, and by encouraging people to do things socially and collaboratively, they build confidence, promote learning and open the doors to deeper levels of cultural and political engagement.

Specific policy proposals – some examples

It would be inappropriate to construct a detailed blueprint for culture policies, as there is a prior need to consult, discuss, and democratically decide on priorities. But there would surely be a consensus on the left about the following priorities for an incoming Labour government:

- Dismantling the barriers of class, cost and geography that stop working people from accessing culture, as consumers and as practitioners;

- Embedding cultural education – both appreciation and practice – into the national curriculum;

- Reclaiming the media – newspapers, online platforms, TV and radio – by reforming its funding, ownership and control and providing space for working-class voices and truly diverse, community-based providers. Facebook, Google, Amazon, broadcasters and newspaper publishers all require radical reformation, taxation and regulation, to lessen and ultimately abolish the influence of billionaire private owners;

- Radical shifting of public spending on the arts and sport, towards more support for grassroots participation, working-class communities and provision outside London;

- Increasing the representation of the working class in all cultural institutions, especially the arts, sports, and the media, in terms of content, audiences and practitioners;

- Developing partnerships between secular and religious authorities, so that as congregations dwindle and resources lie unused, local communities - particularly the poorest and most oppressed sections of those communities - can be empowered to access and benefit from their material and non-material resources;

- Regulating, taxing, and democratising other relevant cultural institutions, including food and drink corporations, breweries and pubs, supermarkets, arts facilities and sports clubs. All these institutions have potential to be specialist hubs in a common socialist project to meet need (rather than make profit) across the whole span of cultural activities. Various kinds of social ownership models and democratic management arrangements need to be applied to cultural institutions including ownership by the state, local authorities and local community co-operatives.

Conclusion

Cultural activities often reflect and serve the needs of the dominant class, in a class-divided society such as ours. At the same time they can also provide the space to resist the status quo and overcome alienation and oppression. They can help people envision better, fairer ways of organising our society, as well as promoting our physical, mental and spiritual well-being. To help culture works its magic on the many, not just the few, we need to imagine a world in which we have a stake in all the cultural activities available to us, and they are organised and delivered to meet our needs as human beings and not to make profit or to reflect and legitimise a set of exploitative and oppressive econmic and political institutions.

Demo

The Labour manifesto of 1945 contained these words:

We desire to assure to our people full access to the great heritage of culture in this nation.

Cultural democracy was promised in 1945 and is long overdue. Now is the time for the Labour Party to present a new democratic and socialist culture policy in the next manifesto, and to develop local, co-ordinated campaigns involving CLPs, trade unions, and activists, across all the cultural areas. Why? Because culture matters to the many, not the few.

This article is an extended version of an article first published in New Socialist. With thanks to Roland Boer, Theresa Easton, Chris Guiton, Sophie Hope, and Jack Newsinger for their inspiration, assistance, comments and contributions to this article. Further contributions from writers, activists and artists on the detail of a socialist culture policy, are welcome, please send them to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Ruses and Fuses
Wednesday, 21 November 2018 13:36

Ruses and Fuses

Published in Our Publications

£8 (plus £1.50 p. and p.) ISBN 978-1-912710-09-6

Ruses and Fuses, by Fran Lock with collages by Steev Burgess, is the follow-up collection to Muses and Bruises.
 
Fran Lock is one of the most prolific and outstanding poets out there today, fighting with her writing. Bristling with multi-bladed language and an anger born of compassion, she takes poetry in directions the mainstream dares not take. 
 
Her first collection with Culture Matters, Muses and Bruises, brilliantly juxtaposed the lives of the nine Muses of Greek mythology, with a vivid, grotesque imagining of a grimy, glittery place called Rag Town, and the working-class girls who inhabit it. 
 
In Ruses and Fuses, Fran Lock takes us to the rebellious, inspiring heart of English dissent with her portrayals of Levellers and Diggers such as Gerard Winstanley and Ned Ludd, and their fight with authorities over property rights. She also writes of witches, workingclass suffragettes, and the unsung, unlovable labours of working-class women. Her poetry conflates historical detail and present crisis to highlight both the continuation of violence against women, and the continuum  of solidarity and sisterhood that exists despite this abuse.
 
Ruses and Fuses, like Muses and Bruises, is adorned with the poignant, sensitive collages of Steev Burgess. 
 
One of These Dead Places
Wednesday, 21 November 2018 13:24

One of These Dead Places

Published in Our Publications

£8 (plus £1.50 p. and p.) ISBN 978-1-912710-07-2

One of These Dead Places is a collection of poems and images by Jane Burn.

One of the voices rarely heard in modern poetry is that of working-class women, in terms of both the impact of major historical events on their identity, health and happiness, as well as their day-to-day experiences of work, men and motherhood.

In this remarkable, powerful collection, Jane Burn has told her story and more, in a series of poems which are both personal and political. She has also illustrated the poems with a beautifully imaginative series of illustrations, which add depth and detail to the collection.

This is a vital collection for our time. Are things worse than the 80s? Have a read, then decide — you won’t be disappointed. As one of the titles says: these poems are ‘Sentences to Survive In’.

We Will Be Free! Bread and Roses Poetry Anthology 2018
Monday, 29 October 2018 20:49

We Will Be Free! Bread and Roses Poetry Anthology 2018

Published in Our Publications

£5 (plus £1.50 p&p) ISBN 978-1-912710-06-5

We Will Be Free! is an anthology of poems from the Bread and Roses Poetry Award 2018, sponsored by Unite.

This is my second year judging this much-needed and extraordinary competition. Again, I was struck by the passion, the urgency and the sheer hard work driving people to write these poems. So many of the entries were beautifully put together, often with a story that demanded to be told and with artfully refreshing humour.

The poems all reflected the fact that we find ourselves in such bleak and alienating times—making this type of competition more crucial than ever. And this year we had a particularly healthy number of entries from women and from young people—again, a reflection of deep, unvoiced feelings from those hardest hit, by today’s increasingly rampant inequality. 

- Mary Sayer Judge of the Bread and Roses Poetry Award

We must take heart from the response in this competition, as well as more widely, that the working class are continuing their fight for justice, equality, and freedom—be it the economic struggle on the picket line, the political struggle through the ballot box, and the cultural struggle through poetry, the arts generally, and other cultural activities.

Society cannot be changed solely from the top, even with a progressive Labour government. It needs strong unions, not an add-on to government but to assist in building the foundations of a more just and equal country. None of this can be done without socialist culture policies—for the many, not the few.

- Len McCluskey, General Secretary, Unite

Power Play
Thursday, 25 October 2018 16:26

Power Play

Published in Our Publications

£8 plus £1.50 p. and p. 

ISBN: 978-1-912710-05-8

A new collection of poems by Mair De-Gare Pitt, with accompanying paintings by Jill Powell. 

From the very first poem this collection focuses on the human and, through its brilliant lyricism, elevates the experiences it describes into something like beauty. The collection understands that the real way to political change is by moving people, by getting hold of their hearts, and by writing memorably, which the poems do again and again.

I’d say this collection is important because it’s political. But I’ll say more. It’s important if you’re human. It is wonderfully illustrated by Jill Powell, the images and poems now endorsing each other, now opening each other up to new possibilities. It’s a great thing to see a publisher putting together a sequence now of beautifully written, wonderfully produced pamphlets, which seem to be doing something important and different in British poetry.

- Jonathan Edwards

Invisible Britain: Portraits of Hope and Resilience
Wednesday, 24 October 2018 09:24

Invisible Britain: Portraits of Hope and Resilience

Published in Visual Arts

Mike Quille reviews Invisible Britain: Portraits of Hope and Resilience, and interviews the editor, Paul Sng.

Paul Sng’s films – Sleaford Mods, and Dispossession: The Great Housing Swindle – have explored the lives of working-class people who have been ignored, marginalised or demonised by mainstream media, and who are protesting and challenging the status quo in some way.

In this new book of documentary photographs, the portraits and accompanying text tell the untold, invisible stories of people who have been targeted by austerity economics, left behind by cuts to public services and excluded from mainstream media narratives.

PS Corinne by Jenny Lewis resized

Corinne, by Jenny Lewis

The subjects look out at us in a dignified, equal way. They’re not case studies of despair to grit up a superficial TV drama, nor are they illustrations of some story about benefit scroungers. They are sensitive, revealing and empathic portraits – some inspiring, some heartbreaking – of ordinary people with stories to tell us.

PS Carl by J A Mortram resized

Carl, by J. S. Mottram

Their stories are about their setbacks and suffering, and the various ways they persist in fighting back. Not just through political campaigning, but through voluntary caring work with prostitutes, disabled people, ex-offenders, drug users, and other poor, oppressed and exploited groups in modern capitalist society.

These people have all experienced suffering, exploitation and discrimination, against themselves and those they care about. But their determination, resilience and sense of solidarity shine through both their portraits and their stories. It is striking how much their experiences and values have made them politically aware, quite conscious of the punishment handed out to them by a rigged economic and political system.

PS Karen by Jon Tonks resized

Karen, by Jon Tonks

The value, beauty and power of this book lies in its creation of an alternative narrative that challenges all the stigmas and stereotypes that have been generated by the de-industrialisation, discrimination and class conflict of the last few decades of neoliberal capitalism. It is a fine example of the art of photography being used not to fool us with glossy photoshopped adverts of skinny models and shiny cars, but to tell the plain truth of people’s lives these days, and to stimulate our compassion, empathy and desire for radical change.

Ken Loach has said this about the book:

This book illustrates a truth we cannot ignore. Class conflict is at the heart of our society, the inevitable consequence of this economic system. This should be the first principle of our politics. Paul Sng also shows another eternal truth: in the end, people always fight back. Our task is to ensure that their resistance is not in vain.

It is indeed a vivid and truthful account of contemporary class conflict and struggle. But as well as its value as a document, it is also itself part of the cultural struggle – a protest and an inspiration to us all to join and help achieve a better life for the poor, the marginalised and the oppressed – and ourselves.

Invisible Britain: Portraits of Hope and Resilience is published by Policy Press on 1 November. Editor Paul Sng will be touring the book with a series of Q&As and screenings of the film (reviewed here) that helped inspire the book, Sleaford Mods – Invisible Britain, from 1-10 November. Dates and details via www.invisiblebritain.com  

The Interview

Q. Can you tell us about your films -- Sleaford Mods: Invisible Britain and Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle?

I fell into filmmaking at the age of 38. Until then I'd worked in a series of office jobs, and before that in bars and shops. I was inspired to make my first documentary after interviewing the band Sleaford Mods in October 2014. They mentioned that they were going to be doing a tour of small venues around the UK in places where a lot of bands don't usually go, some of which were in deindustrialised areas like Barnsley and Stockton-on-Tees, and inner cities that had suffered heavily from government cuts to public services.

It was one of those lightbulb moments. I thought, 'That would make a great documentary'. The idea was developed to be part band doc, part state of the nation film. In each place we visited, we met with people in the local community to ask them how austerity and other unpopular government policies had affected them. The film was shot in the run-up to the 2015 General Election and came out in cinemas in October 2015. 11 months from concept to theatrical release, self-distributed. It's very raw, and perhaps too polemical, but it got noticed and gave me a new career as a filmmaker.

I made my second documentary, Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle, in 2016/17. I made it to examine the neglect and mismanagement of social housing over the past few decades, and how this had affected residents in various areas and council estates in London, Nottingham, and Glasgow.

It came out on 8 June 2017, the day of the last General Election. Five days later, the Grenfell Tower fire happened, which made the film even more relevant. We ran a campaign in tandem with a nationwide tour of Q&A screenings to try and raise awareness about the issues, which was well received.

PS Nadine by Nicola Muirhead resized

Nadine, by Nicola Muirhead

Q. What have been your main political and artistic influences?

I've not really thought about political influences before. If I'm influenced by politics it comes through in the issues my work has focused on: austerity, deindustrialisation, housing. Grassroots campaigns inspire me more than politicians, people like Focus E15 and The United Voice of the World union. Artistically, as a documentary maker, my work is influenced by Patrick Keiller, Michael Grigsby and Julien Temple.

Q. What was the background to your move to documentary photography, and this book?

I was in touch with Alison Shaw from Policy Press via Twitter and she mentioned that she'd be interested if I ever had an idea for a book, so I pitched the concept behind Invisible Britain, which is essentially a book of stories and portraits from people who we don't often hear from directly in the arts and media. I then met Laura Dicken, who curated and project managed the book, and we set about finding photographers and people who were up for sharing their stories. I didn't take any photos for the book, as I'm not at that standard yet.

The ethos behind the book was to amplify unheard voices and provide a means for people to speak in their own words about a specific issue or something that had impacted on their life. Direct testimony, with only minimal editing for length. Everyone got to approve the text before it was published. I enjoyed the challenge of working with the photographers – to capture someone's character or an element of their story or personality in a single image shows incredible artistry.

Reiss by Jo Metson Scott

Q. The book seems to be a good example itself of cultural democracy. Many of the photographers are relative newcomers; the focus is on ordinary working-class subjects and their lives; there is a clear egalitarian ethos in the portraits; and the images and text together represent a clear protest against capitalist economics and a longing for a fairer society. What are your views on class, politics and culture generally, particularly in the visual arts?

I think the arts has become too middle-class, and too nepotistic. I see so many examples of people who have very little ability, but very good connections. There's not enough inclusion, and that's across both social class and ethnic background. A lot of organisations have diversity quotas, but I think there's a danger that it becomes a box-ticking exercise.

The book is intended to be the first step towards setting up an Invisible Britain platform that will work with underrepresented individuals and communities to amplify their voices and help enable them to tell their stories in the arts and media. We would also run creative workshops in various areas of filmmaking and a training and mentorship scheme, as well as offering paid work placements on film and television productions. It's in very early development, but I'm hopeful we can do something to make the arts and media more inclusive of people whose voices aren't heard often enough.

PS Sé by Cian Oba Smith resized

Sé, by Cian Oba-Smith

Q. What would be your advice to an incoming Labour government on its priorities to address the issues raised by this book and your work generally? What would a socialist culture policy look like?

I think the priority for any new government should be much greater investment in areas of the UK that don't have any facilities for the arts. More funding for libraries should also be a priority. Labour councils in London are closing libraries by the dozen, which is terrible. More funding for the BFI to build more regional hubs in rural and remote areas. State funding for arts and culture has shrunk over the past decade, and entry to these industries is becoming more and more off limits to working class people. I'd like to see more paid scholarships for exceptional students from disadvantaged backgrounds of all ages to study creative arts courses. There also needs to be greater scrutiny of how and where the funding is spent, to prevent nepotism.

 

Poetry on the Picket Line
Saturday, 22 September 2018 08:48

Poetry on the Picket Line

Published in Our Publications

£5 plus £1.50 p. and p. Discounts available on bulk orders, please contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. for further details.

ISBN: 978-1-912710-02-7

Poetry on the Picket Line is an anthology of poetry by a group of activist poets. It sounds a bit unlikely, but it works. It’s a squad of writers prepared to turn up on picket lines and read poetry. Something a bit different, and it usually goes down pretty well.
 
The poets do what it says on the tin. They turn up at pickets and demos and read poems—with a mic, without a mic, through a bullhorn, whatever. Pickets are generally pretty pleased and surprised to see them. They appreciate the support, and some of them even appreciate the poetry!
 
Plus, it’s unusual. So pictures get taken and videos get made and shared on FB, Twitter and other social media. That helps raise the profile of the dispute. And it helps to raise the profile of the poets too. Then, when they do gigs the poets talk about the work, pass the hat round, sell T-shirts and badges, with the money going back into the various strike funds. It’s all about the solidarity, and it works. It matters because it brings poetry onto picket lines and picket lines into poetry. Real people connecting with real poetry in the real world. That’s got to be a good thing!
It is not merely the job of art to hold a mirror up to society from a distance, the best of it needs to engage with hearts and minds on the ground. Poetry on the Picket Line is a perfect manifestation of this.
- Phill Jupitus
 
Poetry with principles. Poetry with a point. Poetry on the picket line. That’s where it should be.
- Billy Bragg
 
The anthology is sponsored by PCS, RMT and the TUC London, East and South East Region. All proceeds of sale will go towards strike funds.
Culture for the many, not the few: notes towards a socialist culture policy
Saturday, 28 July 2018 08:19

Culture for the many, not the few: notes towards a socialist culture policy

Published in Cultural Commentary

Chris Guiton and Mike Quille present an analysis of what culture means, and what a democratic and socialist approach to culture policy might look like.

Introduction

The mission of Culture Matters Co-Operative Ltd is to promote cultural democracy, which we understand to be a more democratic and socialist approach to all cultural activities (including the arts). These notes set out our contribution to the current debates around cultural democracy. They set out our thoughts on

- What culture means and why it is so important

- The links between cultural activities and politics, and current examples of the way cultural activities function in class-divided societies like our own

- The general principles of a democratic and socialist approach to all cultural activities

- Details and illustrative examples of specific measures which might form part of a programme for an incoming Labour government.

What culture means and why it is important

What is culture? ‘Culture is ordinary: that is where we must start’ said Raymond Williams. This means that culture includes not just the arts, but much, much more. It includes all those learned human activities which give life purpose, meaning and value, and which human beings engage in for enjoyment, entertainment and enlightenment.

So as well as the arts, culture includes sport, religion, eating and drinking, fashion and clothing, education, the media and many other popular activities.

What does culture mean to us? Fundamentally, cultural activities are social, unifying and egalitarian. They assert our common humanity and solidarity against divisions of class, gender, race and other social divisions caused by capitalism. And cultural activities, especially art, can directly inspire and support radical change in the real world.

Taking part in cultural activities, as consumers and as producers, is not some optional extra for us. It is absolutely essential to our development as humans. It sustains our health, well-being and happiness, including our freedom from oppressive political systems and exploitative economic arrangements.

Culture, politics and class

Class-based divisions in society, based on unequal property ownership, constrain or prevent our enjoyment of culture. Cultural activities may be fundamentally liberating and social activities, but in societies divided by class they are limited, appropriated and privatised by ruling elites.

Throughout history, tiny minorities of dominant social classes have tried – and often succeeded – in turning culture into circuses, to go with the breadcrumbs thrown from the tables of the rich and powerful. In these societies, cultural activities become inaccessible, costly, irrelevant, and even an instrument of oppression. It tends to be owned, organised and delivered in undemocratic ways. It legitimises, conceals or ignores oppression and exploitation. And it is often used to promote diversionary and reactionary political messages and values.

So struggles develop against these tendencies to privatise and undermine culture, and to develop and sustain a cultural commons for the many, not the few. We, the many, face a cultural struggle against the co-option, misuse and appropriation of cultural activities. This struggle to regain enjoyable, meaningful and accessible cultural activities is like our economic and political struggles for fairer wages, for ownership and control of essential social goods and services like the railways, the utility companies and the National Health Service.

Just as commercial markets and the profit motive have shown themselves unable to provide adequate public services in areas such as health, energy and transport, so they are also unable to provide accessible culture. The aggressive inroads of neoliberal capitalism, bringing profit-making motives into cultural production, delivery and consumption, and privately owned, corporate influence and control over culture, are major challenges for a socialist cultural policy.

Current Cultural Issues

It is well understood on the Left why we need to win state power and implement political and economic policies to tackle austerity, the assault on our public services, growing poverty and inequality and the lack of political and economic democracy in Britain. What is less well understood is why and how we need to develop cultural policies, which are often perceived as being of secondary importance to political and economic issues.

Here are some examples of the issues we face, which show the need for an inclusive culture policy which can implement cultural democracy:

- in sport, we face high ticket prices for football games which exclude families on tight budgets from attending together. There is the growth of corporate boxes at events, and undemocratic ownership and control of clubs and the way that sport is organised. There is too much funding for elite sport, and not enough at grassroots level. There are the spoiling and corrupting pressures of drugs and cheating in many sports, which inevitably follow from stressing the capitalist values of competitive individualism.

- in the media, we face the private ownership of the means of human communication by gigantic media monopolies like Google, and by companies like Facebook, which appropriate information about us in order to practice surveillance and influence our commercial and political choices. We face privately owned media companies like Sky, Netflix, Disney and Fox, dedicated to making profits rather than meeting human need. And we face state-owned media like the BBC, designed to support and legitimise the economic and political status quo, and which are institutionally biased against radical politicians and newspapers.

- in our social cultures of eating and drinking, we face the terrible effects of profit-seeking capitalist corporations, loading our food and drink with sugar, salt and fats, and causing immense and increasing mental and physical health problems.

-‘There is a poet, author, singer, pianist, actor, playwright, artist in every single person’ said Jeremy Corbyn, but for working class people wishing to have an arts career, it is getting harder to become a musician or actor or writer without rich relatives to support you. Cuts and curriculum changes in education mean our children are being deprived of the chance to learn how to appreciate and participate in artistic, sporting and other cultural educational activities, at both primary and secondary school stages.

- we also face inaccessibility, obscurity, and vapid spectacle, and the fact that state funding is so unequal. Money that comes from our taxes and our Lottery tickets is overwhelmingly focused on cultural provision in the London area, which benefits mainly the already well off, and tourists.

- the massive expansion of the ‘creative industries’ and of cultural activities generally in the last few years means many more people are working in jobs linked to culture. Also, virtually everyone in the labour movement enjoys some form of cultural activity, as a consumer if not as a creator or performer. Creativity is seen as a major factor in the future economy, and a significant component of many kinds of work, both in the traditional cultural sectors and the wider ‘knowledge economy’. But the growth of the creative industries has failed to deliver on its meritocratic promise. Far from offering non-alienated labour, the chance for creative fulfilment, and post-industrial economic regeneration, young people entering the labour market today are being forced to accept poor pay and conditions, chronic job insecurity, and a lack of hard-won basic rights such as sick pay, maternity pay, and pensions. Cultural and creative labour markets are increasingly informal and closed to ‘outsiders’, operating outside equal opportunities and equality legislation and not reflecting the social and demographic make-up of contemporary society.

- the downgrading and exclusion of arts subjects from the educational curriculum of schools, combined with the marketisation of higher education away from the arts and humanities and the gutting of further and adult education, all combine to significantly reduce the opportunities for cultural and creative fulfilment of young people, and have a disproportionate effect on already marginalised groups. The opportunity for the best possible cultural and creative education, as consumers and as producers, should be available for all children, not just those of the wealthy.

- the Government’s politically-driven austerity policies, which have led to huge cuts in cultural facilities, eg libraries, community centres, youth facilities and sports facilities. These cuts are set to continue for years to come; and have been deliberately targeted at the least well-off, geographically and demographically.

- the possibilities of a vast expansion in leisure time in the next 10, 20 and 30 years, as labour-saving technology generates even more unemployment, under-employment and spare time. Again, this will impact more on the working class generally, and on less skilled workers, younger people trying to build careers, and people who are already socially excluded and discriminated against on the grounds of gender, ethnic origin, disability etc. Engagement in fulfilling cultural activities is set to become more and more important in most people's lives.

General principles for a culture policy

In general, a culture policy to implement cultural democracy would need to recognise:

- that culture is fundamental, not marginal. The creative activity embodied in culture is a form of social production, with humanity’s happiness and well-being as its end product. Spectatorship and engagement in cultural production and consumption, widely defined, are essential to human fulfilment and well-being.

- that an inclusive approach to culture is essential if we genuinely want to transform the world for the benefit of working people. Culture policy must cover cultural activities which matter to working people, and which can attract the support of the labour movement, so that culture is seen as part of the social wage for everyone. This means breaking down long-established hierarchies between different kinds of cultural activities and practices – which often reflect class distinctions – and reaffirming the legitimacy of cultural institutions and public funding based upon participatory, democratic and egalitarian principles.

- that we must challenge the narrow, centrally-dictated instrumentalism which has become so central to cultural policy and administration over the last thirty years, accompanied by oppressive monitoring and evaluation requirements, without maintaining an idealist, elitist position eg by focusing solely on the arts and excluding popular cultural activities. A genuinely socialist approach should be based on the understanding that culture, including art, belong to everyone, as creators, performers, and consumers.

- that we need to develop democratic, inclusive and bottom-up cultural policies in which communities of practitioners and audiences are empowered to direct culture towards ends that they define, whether that be entertainment, personal fulfilment, self-expression or as a contribution to the struggle for a better world, and avoiding value judgements on how and why people engage in culture. These might learn from and build on existing examples of successful 'DIY culture' in music, art, poetry and other fields, and large, public examples of working class culture such as the Durham Miners’ Gala.

- that we need to learn, through democratic, grassroots policy-making, how to develop policies and processes which can be used to encourage, enable and facilitate people to participate in cultural activities. These policy-making processes need to tackle concrete issues of accessibility, in terms of cost, geography and content; ownership and control of the institutions that fund, organise, deliver and regulate cultural activities; recognition of the fundamental need to embrace diversity of gender, race, nationality, sexuality, class, religion etc in the production and consumption of culture; and consideration of how to decolonise culture, and challenge the dualism of cultural ‘consumers’ and ‘producers’.

Specific Policy Proposals

The following examples of specific policy proposals reflect and build on many of the good ideas that have already been proposed as a contribution to the culture policy of an incoming Labour government. It is not an exhaustive list, further work is needed to clarify and develop the details, but we offer them in a constructive spirit to stimulate discussion:

- Require government policy makers (national, regional and local) to test proposed policy objectives against an over-arching objective of the promotion of a cultural democracy which works for the common good. Review whether relevant institutions and processes are fit for that purpose, and closely monitor implementation of such a radical policy in order to ensure that it is not captured by sectional interests.

- Dismantle the barriers that constrain or prevent ordinary people from accessing culture, particularly that which is publicly funded, based on cost, geography, class and social exclusion. Ensure that people generally have an equal opportunity to join in and enjoy all the arts and cultural activities.

- End the corporate capture of the Arts Council and other publicly funded arts bodies, exemplified by the recent appointment of Elisabeth Murdoch to the National Council of Arts Council England. Ensure that cultural funding is distributed equally, regionally and demographically, with regional, local and community participation to ensure that cultural spending empowers the communities that elect those representatives. Champion investment in people over large-scale vanity projects which benefit a narrow elite.

- End the distorting impact of corporate sponsorship and private philanthropy on the freedom and independence of cultural institutions.

- Ensure that leaders of cultural institutions – not only theatres, art galleries, concert halls and poetry publishers, but sports clubs, churches, and broadcasting and media corporations – seek to engage with all sections of the community, particularly the least well off and the least powerful.

- Explore ways to recover working class history and culture at a national, regional and community level, and restore the democratic and humanist cultural traditions that have been eroded by neoliberalism. This might build on the examples of local ‘people’s museums’ which have been set up in parts of the country, using community facilities and contributions by local people to build a picture of the locality.

- Recognise and support the important community role played by small music, visual and performing arts venues, many of which are facing closure as a result of commercial pressures or removal of grants or local funding. These play a vital role in developing creative ability and should be supported via business rates relief, direct subsidy and protection from commercial or residential development.

- Build on our rich history of community arts and sports by extending support, via regional culture councils and other relevant organisations and local authorities, to make space and resources available, so that creative and recreational activity is both available and accessible in urban and rural locations.

- Ensure that the cultural sector sets the standard in terms of workers’ rights, guaranteeing at least the UK Real Living Wage for all its employees, including artists and interns, management, technicians, cleaners and security staff. Introduce trades union representation into the governance arrangements of every public cultural institution.

- Rediscover the value of employer-supported workplace activities to facilitate sports and other forms of cultural participation.

- Provide proper funding for museums, galleries and libraries, to ensure that they play a much more active part in the lives of their communities, providing a place for creative activity and social connection and ensuring accountability to their publics. Museums and galleries should maintain free entry as a general principle, and offer genuine concessionary rates and free entry to low income groups to special events and exhibitions.

- Investigate and remove the barriers that exist in all cultural sectors towards equality of access to cultural and creative work by tackling the educational, financial, employment, career progression and management obstacles that prevent these sectors from reflecting the diversity of our population, particularly at leadership levels.

- Tackle the absence of significant working class representation in all cultural institutions (including the arts, sports, religion, the media, science and technology etc.) in terms of its content, audiences and practitioners.

- Amend the Equality Act to add consideration of class, social exclusion, poverty and inequality to the current policy framework, in parallel with the standard definitions of diversity, with their role factored in to all considerations of access, funding, participation etc.

- Empower and encourage local authorities to facilitate re-municipalisation at a local level, supporting social ownership for all cultural activities through co-operative and other forms of accountable, democratic self-organisation, where wealth is embedded and shared among communities rather than extracted for private gain.

- End the accelerating process of gentrification taking place in many of our cities, which first exploits and then drives out artists from local neighbourhoods. Encourage the recognition of artists as people who contribute to and enrich local communities. Consider options to set up a system of grants to provide living and material costs for artists working in community-based settings.

- Ensure art and culture are integral to the education system, free at the point of use, embedding arts education into the national curriculum so that all children in Britain, from primary school up, have the opportunity to access the best cultural and creative education, recognising the value it plays in the development of social, cognitive, emotional and physical skills and promoting lifelong arts learning.

- End the destructive audit and accountability culture, excessive testing and associated narrowing of the curriculum in our schools. Replace it with an approach to education which is holistic, enables children to live their lives to the full, and which addresses mental and physical health and wellbeing; encouraging students to think critically, questioning everything, nurturing enthusiasm for learning and intellectual curiosity.

 The media
 
- Reclaim the media (newspapers, online platforms, TV and radio) for the people by reforming its funding, ownership and control. Promote democratic accountability and pluralism in order to prevent market dominance by a small, powerful group of monopolistic interests, and create space for progressive and alternative providers capable of criticising and holding power to account.

- Reform and democratise the BBC to enable it to genuinely fulfil its public service broadcasting obligations and make a positive contribution to society, fully representative of its diverse audiences. Give adequate space and time to publicising and encouraging grassroots, DIY culture, and film and TV productions which offer a progressive or socialist vision of a fairer society

- Tackle the corporate capture of the web by monopolistic advertising platforms such as Google and Facebook via the introduction of effective regulation and taxation. Consider options for forms of social ownership of privately owned social media platforms. Facilitate the creation of decentralized social media networks, owned and controlled by the people.

- Introduce a statutory duty of care for the larger social media services, covering the key harms seen on social media platforms (harassment, misuse of personal data, hate crime, intimidation etc), backed by effective enforcement.

Sport and Leisure

- Challenge the commodification of football and other sports by using regulation and taxation to restrict corporate exploitation of clubs, players and spectators, and facilitate a return to the social and community origins of our national sports.

- As part of this new approach, tackle the chronic under-investment in football by enforcing a five per cent levy on Premier League broadcasting rights to be ploughed back into the grassroots game to improve pitches, facilities and training opportunities. Explore options to extend this policy to other sports such as cricket and rugby, which are similarly disfigured by corporate funding.

- Facilitate a shift of public spending on recreation and sport from high profile, elite sports to a greater range of community sports, encouraging a more inclusive and egalitarian ethos in sports institutions and activities, with full community participation in their governance, design and delivery.

- Improve the democratic accountability of sports clubs by giving supporters a greater say in how their clubs are run, at board level, including decisions regarding ownership changes and property sales.

- Require sports authorities to make significant improvements on provisions for fans with disabilities.

- Make the protection of public parks, playgrounds and leisure centres by local authorities and other bodies a legal requirement, prohibit privatisation and outsourcing, and provide proper funding to ensure they are properly maintained and remain free to use.

Conclusion

The arts and other cultural activities are often co-opted to reflect and serve the needs of the dominant class, in a class-divided society such as ours. At the same time, though, they can also provide the space to resist the status quo, to overcome alienation and oppression, and bring enjoyment and meaning into our lives. They can help people envision better, fairer ways of organising our society, as well as promoting our physical, mental and spiritual well-being.

These notes are intended to stimulate debate about the shape and content of a radical and comprehensive culture policy that a future Labour Government might be encouraged to adopt. Clearly, they are not the final word on the subject. Much work needs to be done to test ideas, develop detail and fill gaps. But, hopefully, they provide food for thought and offer a platform for further discussion. Readers are invited to submit general pieces (critical or creative) to our website, to help further the debate. They may also wish to consider joining the Movement for Cultural Democracy, which is a new campaign to drive a radical and transformative cultural programme in the UK.

Now is the time to seize the opportunity to create a comprehensive package of culture polices for the many, not the few.

With thanks to Theresa Easton, Sophie Hope, Jack Newsinger, John Storey and many others, for their valuable comments and contributions to this article.

Bread and Roses Poetry Award 2018
Wednesday, 11 July 2018 16:59

Bread and Roses Poetry Award 2018

Published in Poetry

Thanks to all of you who sent in poems this year. We received over 800 poems, so we're very grateful to all the contributors, and to Andy Croft from Smokestack Books and Mary Sayer from Unite for doing the difficult job of choosing the winners and the other poems to go into this year's anthology.

The five winners are Helen Burke; Martin Hayes; Fran Lock; Alan Morrison and Steve Pottinger.

All the poems will be posted up shortly. Mary Sayer said this about the competition:

This is my second year judging this much-needed and extraordinary competition. Again, I was struck by the passion, the urgency and the sheer hard work driving people to write these poems. So many of the entries were beautifully put together, often with a story that demanded to be told and with artfully refreshing humour.

The poems all reflected the fact that we find ourselves in such bleak and alienating times – making this type of competition more crucial than ever. And this year we had a particularly healthy number of entries from women and from young people – again, a reflection of deep, unvoiced feelings from those hardest hit by today’s increasingly rampant inequality.

So, thanks to all of you passionate poets out there – keep them coming! If I had my way, it would be like Alice in Wonderland: “All are winners and all should have prizes”

And Andy Croft said this:

At a time when the British poetry world is sinking under the weight of so many self-promoting vanity projects, it was a pleasure and a privilege to able to read so many moving, witty and well-written entries to the Bread and Roses competition. While the poems ranged in subject-matter, voices and styles, they shared a radical common-sense that social inequality is worse than ever, that government is remote and hostile, and that only in collective work and struggle can we begin to imagine another way of living.

The best entries try to describe the tectonic historical plates beneath the surface of everyday life, making connections with other poets, other readers, other histories and managing to avoid nostalgia, helpless anger or generalised pity. I really hope that Culture Matters is going to publish a big anthology of the best of these poems as a follow-up to last year's wonderful On Fighting On anthology.

 On Fighting On is still available for sale here.

Paul Summers, the Durham Miners' Gala, and arise!
Friday, 06 July 2018 13:37

Paul Summers, the Durham Miners' Gala, and arise!

Published in Poetry

Mike Quille interviews Paul Summers, including extracts from a major new poem which is published by Culture Matters. It will be launched at the People, Pits and Politics festival in Durham on Friday 13th July, the day before the Miners’ Gala, and is available for purchase here

Paul Summers is deeply rooted in the working-class pit communities of the North East, and the poem was commissioned from him by Culture Matters. Its aim is to show, as a poetical and political statement, the growing political importance under Corbyn’s Labour Party of the socialist values and politics of the old mining communities – the women as well as the men – who struggled for a more caring, collective and co-operative way of life through their sheer hard work, their trade unions, and their political affiliations.

This heritage is celebrated and recreated annually at the Gala in Durham, one of the world’s biggest working-class cultural festivals, and the poem links the processions at the Gala to the rebirth of a more class conscious, socialist politics in the labour movement and the Labour Party.

MQ: To start with, can you tell us something about yourself? What's your background, and how did you come to appreciate and write poetry?

PS: I was born in Blyth, Northumberland, in 1967. We lived in an old 2 up 2 down terrace in a place called Cowpen, half a mile west of Bates’ Pit (the last working pit out of the 10 or so that had existed in Blyth) where both my grandads had worked and half a mile east of Bebside village, where my great and great-great-grandads had settled in the 1850s to hew coals.

It was a lovely old working-class community: we had all the romantic clichés of back doors left open, borrowing cups of sugar or coal from the neighbours, a wash-day chorus of gossip in the back lane, as well as the less romantic realities of the domestic violence, the alcoholism and the undercurrent of racism. I suppose it was quite an anachronistic place on reflection; whenever I recount it to people now it feels as though I was brought up in Beamish Museum or on the set of When The Boat Comes In.

Most of the people in the street were old, retired miners, their wives or widows and they were all good talkers, fond of a yarn or a song and a bit of reminiscence about ye olden days, the hardships they’d endured and the mischief they’d got up to. They were an oral historian’s dream. I was captivated by them, seduced by their stories, and I think that’s what sowed the seed of me being a yarner of sorts too.

Class, politics, social history and cultural identity were ever present, all wrapped up in their tales of extraordinary ordinariness. I think I decided quite early on that I fancied being a south-east Northumbrian version of John Boy from The Walton’, documenting the place I lived in and the characters who I shared it with. To a greater or lesser extent, I’ve just about succeeded in fulfilling my career model. I’m not sure that being a poet featured highly in that plan but it’s what I’ve found I’m probably best at, despite still occasionally dabbling in bits of prose and drama.

I had a great comprehensive education too, and was encouraged by a few ‘special’ teachers to take my writing seriously and to keep on being in love with history and peoples’ stories.

I was 17 in 1984, when the Miners’ Strike started. It brought politics with a capital ‘P’ to our front door. It highlighted both the unities and divisions within the community, in opinion, ideologies and realities. I remember the pragmatism of some of the older fellas, like my granda, saying that most pits were like men and if you got 3 score and ten years out of them you’d have been lucky.

I remember the ferocity of support for Scargill from many others who were fighting for their futures (or their children’s futures) and who could foresee the coming desolation of a town without industry or opportunity. I remember witnessing the heavy hand of the police state first hand for the first time – waking up to find a long line of South Yorkshire SPG riot vans parked up along Cowpen Road, in readiness for any bother on the picket line.

I remember a few (slightly drunken) mates getting viciously beaten up by the coppers on the night that Scargill spoke at Croft Park, the home of the mighty Blyth Spartans. I remember the tales of hardship and suicidal depression you’d hear around the doors, the hate-filled stories of scabs and Tory vindictiveness, as well as the stories of incredible resolve, resilience and solidarity.

Anyhow, the strike was defeated and in a few years the pit was closed. Blyth didn’t fare too well for a decade or so after that. I think at some point in the late 80s we had the dubious honour of being voted the most depressing place in the country twice in a row, and being labelled as the heroin capital of the north.

Plenty to bear witness to, plenty to educate you in social injustice and existential torment, in defeat and optimism, in nihilism and hope, in grief and joy, in laughter and tears, plenty of complex stuff that a person could easily spend their entire creative life trying to unpick & make sense of.


MQ: Can you tell us something about your poetic career, what you've been trying to achieve and how that's changed over the years?

PS: I’d left school at 17 and motivated no doubt by TV lawyer Petrocelli, I started to work as a trainee legal executive at a solicitors’ office in Newcastle. It was a thoroughly Dickensian institution which paid us less than the dole for working from 8 till 5.30, and it fuelled my dislike for the upper classes, my hatred of privilege and my growing sense of social injustice. Luckily for me (in retrospect) I was sacked in 1987, for playing snooker when I should have been at Newcastle College doing my afternoon-release Legal Executive’s course.

If nothing else my dismissal encouraged me to go and do my A Levels and to start thinking about getting a degree. In the process of the former I met three literature lecturers/poets called Brendan Cleary, George Charlton & Tony Baynes. All three were interested in and supportive of my writing and at that moment in time that was the only motivation I needed. They introduced me to literary magazines and the work of other writers and they encouraged me to start submitting stuff myself.  

By 1990 I’d had bits and bobs of stuff published and had, by a strange fluke of history, found myself co-organising the Morden Tower poetry readings in Newcastle. The tragic suicide of my fellow co-organiser left me, the anxious rookie, at the helm. It was an interesting time – I met some great poets and my poetic education continued, and I made some long-lasting allies and friends. I also learned what a self-interested viper’s nest the creative world could be, and how the world of literature was still fairly bourgeois and unwelcoming to a working class man. All good lessons for a naïve, small-town boy.

I’d published a few little chapbooks through Brendan Cleary’s Echo Room Press in the nineties, and picked up a couple of writers’ awards from Northern Arts, but the last bus was my first proper collection. Iron Press published it on May 1st 1998, and luckily it was well received and reviewed. It even got the title sequence from the book in that year’s Forward poetry anthology, and a brief but favourable mention in the broadsheets.

the last bus was all about growing up in Blyth, all about the micro-universe of Cowpen, all about family, friends and acquaintances, all about love and loss. But it was also, by default, about the bigger stuff: about class, politics, identity and history, dead-set on exploring the tensions between romanticised and realistic representations of a working-class community. I was already tired of unquestioningly romantic Geordierama versions of working class existence in the north East. It created my version of Walton’s Mountain, not pre-war Virginia but Thatcher era, post-industrial Northumberland – and hopefully not just sentimental and eulogising. It was full of rage and love, the complexity of identity and familial relations. It was me trying to tell the truth, or my truth anyhow, to be authentic, to tell it how it was, warts and all.

The next few books just picked up the baton – any street, any town, ‘all human life is here’ (and worthy of poetry). In fact, I don’t think I’ve veered that far from that way of thinking in the following twenty years of writing. The focus on community or geography might occasionally shift, town to city, macro to domestic, Britain to Australia and back, but the desire to report, document and interrogate people and place remains the same. My muses or motivations to write remain the same too: rage and outrage, confusion and bewilderment, love, rapture and grief, all of them demanding the need to bear witness.

MQ. There are a number of issues around poetry and politics that I'd like to explore with you. What are your own political beliefs, and how do they influence your choice of poetic subject and approach?

PS: I like to think that I’m a compassionate socialist who isn’t averse to most of the core values of communism. I’d very much like to see the end of capitalism and neo-liberalism and for them to be replaced with a more equitable, just, democratic and sustainable model of society free of class division, elites, patriarchy and hierarchies.

Much of my poetry is shaped by this political positioning and my experiences as a working class, comprehensively educated bloke from the post-industrial North East of England. A reviewer once said that my work ‘wasn’t political in the way Brecht or Neruda’s was, but that it was full of politics nonetheless’. My granda, who was fond of a proverb, used to say it was fine to wave the flag but a different thing altogether to hit people over the head with the flag-staff. I think I try and do precisely that.

I hope I authentically and empathically represent and document aspects of my community, I hope I display compassion and care. I hope the questions I occasionally pose on our behaviours are relevant ones, and that my frequent outrage is well placed. I hope that me bearing witness to the things which appal and enrage me occasionally impacts on other people’s thinking.

I hope I occasionally encourage an intellectual or ideological response from people as well as an emotional one. I hope people find the beauty and tenderness in my poems which might re-energise them or keep a darkness at bay. I hope I model being a ‘decent’, compassionate person in my work. I don’t think you’d have to work very hard to establish my politics – I hope you can see the flag even though I am not always whacking you with it.

MQ: What's your view on the history of poetry, and its close historical association with politically dominant and leisured classes in society?

PS: Poetry may have been genuinely popular in the British Isles at several moments of history, when an oral tradition was dominant amongst largely illiterate societies. Whether it was a population transfixed by the retelling of a Viking saga or the romans of the troubadours and minstrels, folklore and song, to the doggerel of the music hall and the gin-house balladeers, or Kipling’s imperial jingoism. Oral transmission popularised poetry and made the form more accessible to all classes, not just the book-owning, forelock tugging, velvet-suited elites.

This all seems to have changed with the advent of modernism, when for one reason or another, poetry seems to have retrenched itself as a ‘difficult’ or ‘high’ art and retreated back into the confines of its ivory towers (or red brick university towers). And the upper classes asserted a new set of conventions to make the canon more exclusive and impenetrable, and by turns less human and engaging.

This position wasn’t really challenged in Britain until the 60s, when a generation of baby-boomer, working-class, grammar school kids started to introduce poetic narratives and styles that were more familiar and engaging to the broader population. This coincided with the Beat movement in the US, with May 68 in Paris and the Summer of Love in America. Poetry had a brief renaissance, existing happily alongside the words of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen and their like. Even then though, the reach of poetry into the world of the working classes was miniscule in comparison to the gin-house days.

Since then, you could argue there has a been a painfully slow democratisation of the form. As Sean O’Brien suggested in The Deregulated Muse, the last thirty or forty years has undoubtedly seen a more diverse range of voices appear, denting the glass ceilings of gender, class, race and sexuality, and there are probably more physical and virtual platforms for dissemination than ever before. However, it’s still a long way from reaching mainstream status, where it’s readily consumed by the masses.

Despite the perennial broadsheet hype suggesting poetry is the new rock and roll, book sales and audiences suggest the contrary. It’s still a fairly marginalised artform with a limited reach, and limited opportunity for it to be a sustainable way of making a living, unless you find a niche in academia or socially engaged activities.

Some of the indie presses are trying their damnedest to increase this diversity and readership but mostly they do it without resource or capacity to impact on the already flooded cultural arena.

The premier publishing houses still have limited sized lists and equally limited marketing capacity and generally speaking they are still, in my opinion, fairly bourgeois and unchallenging in their choices of poets to champion.

Then we have the various splits & factions within the poetry world itself: around aesthetics, regional identities , our various sociological classifications and identities, the ascendancy of stage and page, the academic and the ‘popular’, the ‘majors’ and the ‘minors’, the left and the right, the ‘art for art’s sake’ mob and the politically engaged creative utilitarians.

We poets are a very disunited and disjointed village and fragmentation, as anyone familiar with leftist politics will tell you, has never been a strength in terms of furthering your message or realising change.

MQ: How do you think poetry can contribute towards making a better, juster, world?

PS: We as poets can bear witness to and challenge atrocity and social injustice at every level we find it, we can be moral arbiters and polemicists, agitators and rabble-rousers. We can flag up the experience of the marginalised and forgotten. We can be conduits for the telling and re-telling of histories, and the dissemination of alternative ideas and ideologies.

We can remind people of the things we share, our commonalities, as well as celebrating our difference. We can validate experiences and create a sense of universal interest. We can celebrate beauty, compassion and altruism. We can provide a space of sanctuary, delight or quiet grieving. We can make people laugh as well as move them to tears. We can remind each other of our humanity and of the responsibilities that goes with enacting and facilitating that humanity. We can encourage broader participation, be brave enough to take our work into non-traditional environments, we can be educators and facilitators, we can organise events and publish.

We can collaborate, collectivise and work cross-form. We can actually start to think like cultural democrats and political activists, rather than wallowing in our garrets or talking only to our respective choirs. We can do whatever our motivations, confidence and energy levels allow us. We can all be subversives if we understand what and who we are fighting against.

fish quay fugues

  1. i. doggerland

the old world is dying and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.

- antonio gramsci

& the way will be perilous;
black ice & shark-eyed smiles,
several heaps of hogmanay vomit,
a vacant pizza-box draped with hoar,
its palimpsest of feast & greed,
bleak litany of the new & old,
dog-shit & fag-ends & crumbling roads,
the hours’ lash, the pains of labour,
the endless cycle of peddled fact.
& then the sanctuary of frozen sand;
its confluence of salt & wind-whipped crows,
the hymn of a sea cathedral hollow.

kick off your shoes my love & walk;
due east, towards the burgeoning sun.
plough on through the grave mounds
of haddock-frames & listless kelp,
tread slowly on the pebble field,
avoid the triggers of its toad-back traps;
then walk & wade & catch your breath,
beyond the bar where codling lurk,
let swell becalm your troubled blood,
squeeze shut your jaded eyes & dream;
the rapture of tectonic plates entwined
in acts of violence & of love, the red raw
ooze of magma’s birthing, each push,
each jolt, each breathless force exerted
sees citadels emergent from these waves,
a glimpse of doggerland’s trembling plains,
its strongholds of hope re-rendered
now un-drowned, their beacons still charged,
their gates agape, their monsters slain;
each edifice an altar awaiting our faith.

 

MQ. Can you say something about how you wrote this poem and what it means to you?

PS: doggerland is from a new sequence of poems I’m working on called the fish quay fugues. The poems document the flights of my imagination as I walk by the river.

Walking has become part of my creative practice. I walk every day, rain, hail or shine. Usually it’s the same route: from my house in North Shields down the bank to the River Tyne at the Fish Quay, then eastwards towards the Spanish Battery Prow, onto the Haven Beach at Tynemouth, then back home to Shields via Collingwood’s Monument, Knott’s Flats and Northumberland Park.

At low tide I walk out on the rocks in a vain search for sea-borne archaeological treasures and a high tide along the promenade. It’s become a form of meditation, sometimes a head-clearing exercising, sometimes a thought-refining process. Lots of creative ideas are polished and there is much philosophising en route.

I have spent, and continue to spend, a great chunk of my life trying to negotiate with myself over a position of continued optimism for humankind and for the arrival of some sort of socialist utopia: the great & ponderous dialectic between hope and despondency. History proves that I am more than capable of the latter path, the path of perpetual moping, angry cynicism or even nihilism, but it’s not a version of myself I’m particularly attracted to. It doesn’t seem like a very sustainable model for your general wellbeing or that of those around you.

So, I continue to dredge my psyche for a semblance of hope. I do this even though throughout my adult life, it has often seemed as if we have stumbled from one period of Brechtian ‘dark times’ to another, without any real or sustained recourse to any ‘light times’. I do this even though reality tells me I have experienced lots of ideological defeats and disappointments and very few victories.

Now that I am a decade into being a parent, I feel even more of an obligation to be hopeful, at least within my outward looking face. Otherwise, the prospects of my children’s futures are just too difficult to contemplate. It is because of this, I genuinely feel we must remain stubbornly optimistic, we must remain robustly hopeful that the ‘glorious day’ will come, equality & peace will prevail & that all the evils of capitalism will be kicked into touch for good.

I think these new poems are all addressing this nagging question of hope and despair, and generally speaking – up to now anyway – they are leaning towards optimism, even if that optimism is slightly metaphysical.

It strikes me that both optimism & hope may both be forms of necessary denial: essential parts of the toolkit of any forward-looking socialist trying to keep the red flag flying and the black dog at bay.

Extract from arise!

by Paul Summers

‘they being dead yet speaketh’

so history is done,
the shafts capped,

the breathless heaps
erased or made-over:

a short-cut to asda,
a low gradient jog,

somewhere for the dog
to take a shit.

no monument
save memory,

save anecdote
& frail romance,

no rusted remnant,
no totem mark,

only nature to sing
their hymn.

a broken picket-line
of hunch-backed thistles,

a huddle of poppies
in a fly-tipped fridge,

summer’s shrill birdsong
captive in a cage of gorse,

three score years & ten
of spoil beneath our feet,

our antecedents
rendered mute & obsolete,

our pasts & present
wedged asunder,

their marriage annulled
by devious progress.

history is done
the cynics proclaim,

they do not hear it
nagging in our veins,

they do not hear
the bitter wind

hiss its litany
of familiar names.

they do not hear
the whispered yakka

echo in the helix
of our complex genes.

they do not hear
the roll-call

of redundant lives,
of prospects slain

at altars of profit
& heinous spite.

history is done
the sages refrain,

they do not hear it
niggling in our veins.

 

MQ. Can you tell us a bit about what the Gala and mining history means to you?

PS: As I implied earlier, my family has had a connection to coal-mining since the late 1700s. The Summers ancestors started out working in the bell-pits of north Northumberland then migrated southwards towards Newcastle and south-east Northumberland as the process was more industrialised. Other branches of the family migrated eastwards from Cumbria or northwards from Cornwall into the Durham coalfield before they ultimately ended up in Blyth. My dad was the first man in his direct bloodline in over a hundred and fifty years never to work down the pit, choosing the relatively safety of the Town Gas Yard and a fitter’s apprenticeship instead. It’s safe to say that coal, and the traditions that go with mining it, is firmly embedded in our genetic make-up.

As a Blyth boy we always went to the Northumberland Miners’ Picnic at Attlee Park in Bedlington. We’d march from Blyth behind the Bates & Cambois Banner. It was similarly rousing but only a proportion of the scale of Durham by the time I can remember it. I’ve fond memories though, good rousing speakers, brass bands, abundant ice cream & candy floss. My mam had even been a Picnic Queen in the late fifties, representing West Sleekburn Colliery. It still exists today to a greater or lesser degree, and happens at Woodhorn Museum in early June.

I‘d never been to the Big Meeting in Durham until the early nineties but now I try to get there whenever I can. It’s an amazing spectacle and still incredibly moving I think. There were a quarter of million people there last year, and it’s still regarded as the biggest trade union event in Europe – and that’s despite the fact that we’ve got no deep-mines left in either the Durham or Northumberland coalfields.

arise! by Paul Summers is available here10% of sales income will go to to the Durham Miners’ Association, towards the restoration of Redhills and its development into a cultural hub for the area.

CM book Arise cover

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