Fran Lock writes about that advert, and the exclusion of working-class people, lives and experiences from the arts and literature
In October this year the UK government released – then quickly withdrew and disowned – a controversial advert advising creative practitioners to retrain for the Covid-crippled job market. The image they used featured a young woman of colour in ballet-dancer's tulle, captured in the act of tying her slipper. They christened her “Fatima”, and the caption beneath told us that her next job “could be in cyber”, she just didn't know it yet.
Criticism of the ad was widespread and swift; rightly so. One of the crowning ironies to emerge from this criticism was that “Fatima” is not, in fact, a British citizen at all, but an aspiring dancer based in the US. Her real name is Desiree Kelley. Both Kelley and Krys Alex, the freelance photographer who took the photo, were quick to condemn the use of their image and their art as part of a campaign encouraging people to give up on their creative vocations and “reskill” in cyber securities. It is telling that CyberFirst, the “government outreach and education programme”, which ran the campaign, foresaw no objections, and felt no ethical qualms about the indiscriminate repurposing of art by young women of colour to further their own agenda.
Disclaiming all responsibility for the ad, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden made feeble noises about a recent visit to the Royal Ballet, describing the “wonderful” dancers there, and the immense “value” the company brings to the country. It is worth noting that even within such a prestigious company the average dancer earns barely above the minimum wage. Most dancers, of course, are not with the Royal Ballet, and there are few mainstream employment opportunities for black and minority ethnic dancers within the UK as a whole. While both opera and ballet are over-represented in government arts funding, this funding scarcely benefits the thousands of struggling freelancers, many of whom find themselves ineligible for financial support and remain unable to work, a state of exhausting precarity that disproportionately affects working-class, black, and minority ethnic people.
Much criticism of the advert centred on its cynicism and flippancy regarding the performing arts, and the structural racism that underpins such attitudes. Art is work, commentators argued; it is a passion honed into a career though years of patient and punishing study. For poor people, and people of colour, working within a system specifically designed to exclude them, the quantity of grit required to achieve any kind of sustenance or success is that much greater. Practitioners deserve the same financial safety nets as would ideally apply to any other profession.
Watching these debates unfold across social media I reflected that “work” is a vexed term, and one that right-wing elites seem intent on misunderstanding: if art is work, then by their logic the amount you earn becomes the only metric by which the worth of your job and its contribution to society is measured. If art is not-quite-work, then it is either an indulgence you can do without, or a passion so intense that you should do it for free, and where no one is obliged to acknowledge the conditions under which your labour is extracted.
Alongside these conversations, the ad unleashed a flurry of passionate and creative rejoinders in which the Tories were roundly slammed for their inability to recognise artists as people with unique talents and skills, and an arts career as anything more than an interchangeable “gig”. Arguments raged about how we define art and the value we place on it. My fellow poets were often among the most vociferous and articulate participants in this back-and-forth, but I think we also have our blind spots.
Chief among these blind spots is the idea that the Right doesn't value the arts. This is patently false, it is precisely because they value the arts so highly that they don't want us, or anyone who looks or sounds like us, involved. Excluding black or working-class people from the arts doesn't prevent art from happening, it merely prevents those same black and working-class people from participating; this in turn allows for the wholesale colonisation of cultural space by moneyed elites. A refusal to fund or to compensate artists for their labour is a form of social cleansing, it ensures that only those with wealth, privilege and connections are able to compete and to contribute; to be recognised and ultimately rewarded.
Alienated, exhausted and ashamed
I find myself returning to that obnoxious ad. It isn't “Darcy” whose next job could be in cyber. Darcy's safe: she's white, she trained at the Royal Academy, she has the support and privilege necessary to pursue her dream. Contemporary ballet is therefore well-stocked with Darcies. Future generations of Darcies will look to contemporary ballet and feel comfortably confirmed. They will seek and find reflections of themselves there; they will be welcomed and included. For “Fatima” this is not the case. Fatima will be told by her parents and teachers that her ambitions are untenable. They will not tell her this to be unkind, but they will look to contemporary ballet and see startlingly few poor brown faces there. Despite Fatima's obvious talent there will be no money left for lessons, and little spare time for practice. If Fatima does persist, she will persist inside a system that operates under an unchecked assumption of affluence. Her invisible effort to snatch time, energy and attention back from the unconducive conditions of home, or the double-shifts she works to support herself, will be left maddeningly unacknowledged. She will feel alienated, exhausted, and ashamed. Nine times out of ten she will give up.
This is not just true of dance. This pattern persists across art and literature, where the Fatimas of this world do not need to “reskill”, where they are lucky to work just one other job. Most of us working in the arts already have an as-well-as, we do not need or want an instead-of.
It serves the Tories to position art and literature as leisure activities, as charming and optional hobbies. Indeed, for many white middle-class persons the act of reading and writing is often figured as inherently pleasurable and restorative. However, these are exercises in pleasure through which the individual participates in the acquisition and confirmation of cultural status. It is a political activity; a prestige-seeking activity, which situates that reader and writer within a cohort of similarly well-read peers. Reading and being seen to have read the “right” books contributes to a sense of shared class identity. It contributes to a “house-style”, a shared fund of formal tropes and characteristic concerns. This identity is further moulded through mainstream discourse, such as literary journals, broadsheet book reviews and Radio 4 interviews with prize-winning authors. It is fostered through bookfairs and festivals; readings and signings, private events and exclusive content; cottage retreats and weekend courses.
For the middle classes, who have access to literature, literary discourse, and literary spaces from a young age, to read is to connect to a community of others like oneself. Often a significant overlap exists between the life experiences of readers and the writers whose work they consume, and between writers who submit their work, and the journal editors who decide what is published. There is a level of identification, comfort, and entitlement that is impossible to imagine for even the most joyful and voracious of working-class readers, the most driven and devoted of aspirant writers.
Our reading experiences as working-class people are different: omnivorous and opportunistic, in the main. We claw back attention from the material demands of unlovable labour. So when we read, we read partly with a sense of awkwardness and shame. We do not recognise affirmative reflections of ourselves in literature or in literary discourse. When we see ourselves in print at all, we are routinely dehumanised and reduced. When we write, then, we write with all the anxiousness and urgency of our lives behind us. When we write, these lives inform both the structure and the subject of our work; we embody a challenge to the dominant discourse, to the cultural status quo. There is much at stake for us in writing. There is much at stake for them in excluding us.
Reskill and go away
The Tories wish we would “reskill”, by which they mean “go away”. They wish poets in particular would “reskill” because due to its mode of production, poetry accommodates Fatima to a greater extent than other creative practices, being both cheap and portable. More than this, because of its emphasis on voice, on the rhythms and inflections of speech, poetry preserves the tangible traces of class and race identity. It recognises and elevates the cadences and textures of lived experience, and acknowledges the flare and dexterousness with which words are shaped and thoughts are formed across widely diverse cultures and communities. Of course they underfund us. And of course they marginalise the teaching of poetry in schools. They wish to reclaim the practice of poetry as a genteel past-time or an academic exercise. They want to deny us the opportunity to infiltrate cultural and discursive space, to talk about our lives to each other, and to challenge the implied audience for art and literature.
The poems I am presenting today explore in their various ways the complex relationship between creativity and labour; they show the diversity of working-class voice, and the intensity of working-class experience. Further, they demonstrate how necessary, and how potentially radical those voices and experiences are. The independent presses represented by these poets offer an example of the way working-class people are removing artistic production from its usual elite haunts, and connecting to each other, deciding and refining our own tastes and ideas, and not relying upon on some middle-class editorial filter to tell us what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ art. When we decide we no longer need the permission of cultural gatekeepers to publish or to mediate between ourselves and our audiences, then the conversions about issues that matter to us can be kept alive long after their fads for our tokenistic inclusion have faded. We need such spaces now more than ever, to keep the lives and experiences of both working and unemployed poor people present within cultural space at a time when government and media discourses figure us as expendable and faceless economic units; collateral damage at best.
These poets are workers: the poems they write are crafted and honed to a high degree; their writing is a space in which thinking occurs, in which questions are formulated and insights are gleaned. They are also workers in the sense that they perform “day jobs”, jobs which inform, fuel and exist in uneasy negotiation with their writing. They are Fatima, we all are. We struggle to maintain our autonomy and independence in a world that would rather we worked “in cyber”, or in ASDA, or cleaning toilets, or in Pret, or anywhere but art. But we are artists, and we are here to stay.
by Pauline Sewards
I’m going back to work next week,
one hand on my Policies
and The Little Book of Mindfulness.
The other hand clutching my pen
which in my mind
has swelled to cartoon proportions.
My mother worked for three decades
at a newsagent’s in Market town,
ironed her uniform every morning
cursed ‘Nylon’s a sod for creases,’
over the hissing steam.
She wore a badge saying Happy to Help
I’m in the helping business too
although the word is so loaded
I don’t know what it means anymore.
The newsagent’s closed ten years ago,
pigeons crap in the gutters,
net curtains grey in the windows.
Stories have spun themselves
while I’ve been away.
Red alerts on the screen
will demand data.
My mother is a survivor
When she walks around Market town
she’s greeted as minor celebrity.
‘I remember buying my Mirror from you,
you always had a smile.’
I walk on broken glass.
my pen is the means of production.
Ox and the struggle against the single file entry method
by Martin Hayes
when Ox felt ill
and couldn’t face filing out into the yard
along with the other oxen
so that they could all be strapped into their ploughs
Farmer came into the leaky barn
and just stood there
in front of him
so what’s the matter with you today
the ox mooed
deep and low
but Farmer didn’t understand
because farmers don’t understand
deep and low moos
they only understand the single file entry method
into the straps of their ploughs
so Farmer put his elbow-length gloves on
and stuck an arm up Ox’s arse
for anything that might disprove
how ill Ox said he felt
let’s see what’s up here then
then he pulled at what was inside
he pinched at what was inside
he tweaked and tried to part
what was inside
and when he couldn’t find anything
he yanked at the only thing he could get hold of
which was Ox’s guts
and because farmers think
that oxen’s guts
are full of shit
there is nothing wrong with you
you are faking it
you are full of shit
and you will not eat tonight
then he twisted a black mark into Ox’s forehead
with his thumb
and Farmer stayed true to his word
withholding Ox’s food
so that Ox remained hungry
letting out moos
deep and low
and this goes on
not only for oxen
but for nurses and fireman and fruit pickers
Body death and soul murder
by Dorothy Spencer
at least a hamster
in its ball
is breaking the boundaries
of its caged life
at least a dog
kicks up mud and dirt
as it runs along real ground
though the track is predetermined
and the rabbit is a fake
you run towards
the greatest nothing
and four tv screens
mounted on the wall
simultaneously playing the news
can’t pay we’ll take it away
and cash in the attic
to think we spent all this time
figuring out how to escape the daily plough
and body pain
callouses as big as onions
dysentery and not enough to eat
only to arrive at the end of history
running precisely nowhere
wedded as we are
to a still life
lived not on our feet but in chairs
and not in chains but in
bondage, to machines
as dumb as treadmills
Pauline Sewards is a Bristol-based poet and founder of the regular event in Easton called 'Satellite of Love'. Her first collection This is the Band was published by Hearing Eye in 2018. 'After Burnout' is taken from her most recent collection, Spirograph, published by Hearing Eye earlier this year.
Martin Hayes has worked in the courier industry for 30 years. His latest collection is Where We Get Magic From, published by Culture Matters. 'Ox and the struggle against the single file entry method' is taken from his forthcoming collection Ox, due to be published by Knives, Forks, and Spoons Press in February 2021.
Dorothy Spencer is an Editor at Lumpen Journal, A Journal of Poor and Working-Class writing, and a founding member of the Class Work Project, an education and publishing workers co-op, based in Edinburgh, Manchester and London. 'Body death soul murder' is taken from her debut chapbook See What Life Is Like, published by Lumpen earlier this year.