Cultural Commentary

Cultural Commentary (86)

Towards Forever: Radical Reflections on History and Art
Monday, 06 July 2020 08:42

Towards Forever: Radical Reflections on History and Art

Written by

Sean Ledwith reviews Tony McKenna's latest book, Toward Forever: Radical Reflections on History and Art

This is the third of Tony McKenna’s collections of essays in which he aspires to demonstrate that a Marxist framework is the best way of comprehending the cultural and political challenges being generated in the era of late capitalism. Like his previous two similar volumes, Toward Forever is a dazzling display of erudition and insight that never fails to offer stimulating lines of thought on a remarkable breadth of topics.

McKenna’s achievement in his previous collections has been to persuasively argue that a dialectical method, rigorously but deftly applied, can explain the potency of many of the pre-eminent cultural products of our time. He has analysed how the successes of Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad and The Hunger Games to name but a few are explicable in terms of the peculiar anxieties and tensions of the post-2008 crash world.

McKenna has also usefully revisited more traditional subjects that have received attention from other Marxist commentators such as the Greek myths, the novels of Balzac and Hugo, and the art of Rembrandt and Blake. In addition, McKenna has supplied valuable analyses of some of the key political personalities that have shaped 21st century politics so far such as Chavez, Corbyn and Trump. 

The most striking quality of McKenna’s overall approach is the ability to contextualise this remarkable variety of subjects within the prevailing relations of production of a particular era without undermining the crucial role of human agency.

He should also be commended for a willingness ‘to boldly go’ into areas of concern that more hidebound analysts on the left might regard as unworthy of attention. Whatever we might subjectively think about the comedy of Ricky Gervais or film versions of Batman, they are hugely popular cultural artefacts that evidently tap into some element of the zeitgeist that a coherent Marxist world-view should feel obligated to explain. McKenna’s mentality is an appropriate adaptation of Gramsci’s famous exhortation that the left should consider ‘everything that concerns people’ if it wishes to retain relevance in the crowded digital marketplace of theoretical paradigms that compete for our attention.  

Toward Forever replicates the tried and tested formula that McKenna utilised in his first two collections. He covers a stunning diversity of topics including The Sopranos, The Wizard of Oz, the art of Goya and the epidemic of suicides in contemporary Japan! There is also a sympathetic and moving account of the rise and fall of the Syrian Revolution that, for a time, looked like it might able uproot the callous brutality of the Assad regime before being overwhelmed by the intervention of regional and global players with their own opportunistic agendas.

A historical materialist approach to culture

The breadth of McKenna’s range in no way affects the depth of his analyses of these subjects; in fact, the cumulative effect is to powerfully show that a non-reductionist version of Marxism is unrivalled in terms of explanatory power by any other theoretical framework. In a piece on contemporary art in this volume, he touches on this unique capacity of historical materialism, in the right hands, to illuminate the scope of human activities:

The truth which resonates in this type of art is the same truth which lives in the pages of Marx’s Capital and Lenin’s The State and Revolution. The difference is that the truth of art in an emotive and intuitive manner; a semi-conscious and fantastical way which reduces the forms of social reality to the interplay of imaginary characters in a novel or colours on a canvas. (179)

McKenna’s conception of the role of culture within historical materialism is a compelling reformulation of Kantian aesthetic theory. The great German philosopher of the Enlightenment theorised the power of art as its ability to take us tantalisingly close to the noumenal realm, or those aspects of the universe such as God or the infinite which we can sense but never truly access.

In McKenna’s more grounded version, cultural products of the highest calibre help us tune into the subterranean dynamics of the historical process which are often clouded by our quotidian concerns but which can be discerned with a wider perspective. In his characteristically elegant words:

Art is the expression of the truth of the political consciousness which has not, yet, descended from heaven to earth; it contains the truth of the social world but only through the distorting prism of its fantasy. (180)

The other refreshing quality of McKenna’s output is a writing style that is a sheer pleasure to read even if the subject is not necessarily what a reader may be interested in. He unpacks ideas with a crystalline clarity and fluency that puts to shame other Marxist cultural commentators who appear to think cluttering up their text with academic jargon is an indicator of merit. McKenna is one of the best writers on the British left today as he makes the effort to understand why certain cultural products are popular and then communicates his analysis in a way that any reasonably educated person could comprehend.

The need to make sense of history and the hope of changing it

Dan Brown’s best-selling 2004 novel The Da Vinci Code may seem like an unlikely choice for such an exploration of the utopian undercurrents in contemporary capitalist culture. However McKenna’s analysis of the book here is the perfect illustration of his ability to analyse examples of popular culture in a way that sheds light on the historical process and explains why a book about Christianity could have such a huge impact in our long-established secular society.  

da vinci code 3 

Of course, most Marxist aestheticians would probably dismiss the novel as throwaway trash to be picked up in airport terminal to kill a few hours on holiday and nothing more. McKenna is not blind to Brown’s notorious literary limitations and he effortlessly skewers the wafer-thin characterisations and plodding style of the prose. Nevertheless, The Da Vinci Code sold millions, has been translated into forty languages and spawned a booming sub-genre of semiotic mysteries set in a shadowy world of cryptology, religious cults and charismatic historical personalities.

So why would a poorly written potboiler with two-dimensional characters about the early history of Christianity become a smash hit in the first decade of the 21st century? McKenna’s persuasive answer is that the book provides putative answers in a world that appears to be spiralling out of control, run by politicians who are pitifully short of solutions to its multiple problems.  Those answers in DVC may be untenable and little short of ridiculous to many, but at least they provide a narratalogical coherence to thousand years of history.

The notion that the Catholic Church and the Priory of Zion have been fighting out an ideological contest for hegemony within Christianity is based on the flimsiest of historical evidence, but for millions of readers it allows for the apparent carnage and chaos of world history to be reconfigured and made comprehensible.

The postmodern aversion to grand narratives that has permeated our discourse since the 1980s has created a vacuum in the heart of Western culture that leaves many people longing for an over-arching understanding of a world that appears to be accelerating towards the precipice. The Vatican might not be everyone’s choice for the guiding brain of  two millennia of history but it is easy to see why any form of purposeful intelligence could be more comforting than the uncontrolled playing out of blind historical forces. The Da Vinci Code cleverly manipulates not just this elemental need to make sense of the past but also our hope that human beings in the present have the ability to alter the trajectory of events.

At the climax of the story, the character of Sophie Nevue comes to a realisation that her estrangement from her grandfather is linked to a conflict which has been taking place on an ideological plane for centuries. McKenna argues this conjoining of the micro and macro levels of analyses is profoundly affecting and chimes with a longing for an understanding of our place in history that all human beings feel. The fact that this device occurs in an apparently disposable piece of pulp fiction only adds to the book’s underrated achievement.

McKenna sums up the appeal of DVC:

It contains within its aesthetic a profound truth about the reality of history and ourselves as historical beings-immersed in its flux, shaped by its rhythms and yet often unaware of its elemental pulse and presence in the backdrop of our lives, until suddenly the stability of the present seems to fissure and crack.as history erupts once more, and new epochs, new adventures and new freedoms are born. (136)

This linking of the personal and the political is what McKenna finds to be decisively absent from the critically acclaimed and multi-Oscar winning 2017 film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Directed by Irish filmmaker Martin McDonagh, the movie centres around a quest for justice by bereaved mother Mildred Hayes, played with searing power by Frances McDormand.

Three Billboards 1147x326 

After her daughter is raped and murdered, Hayes launches an uncompromising attack on the defective local police department which has conspicuously failed to make progress in the identification of the culprit. This brings her into conflict with the cancer-ridden Chief of Police Willoughby, portrayed movingly by Woody Harrelson.

McKenna insightfully contends that although the premise and the collision of wills between the two protagonists are intringuiling poised, the film’s potential cinematic greatness is squandered as Willoughby’s unexpected demise before the halfway point robs the storyline of a level of complexity that it might have attained if their relationship had played out fully. The police chief takes his own life, unwilling to endure the crumbling of his physical and mental powers as the cancer spreads within his body.

Inevitably, Willoughby is posthumously sanctified in the story and the opportunity is lost for his character to confront the misogyny and racism of the institution he has represented for decades. McKenna uses this misstep on the part of McDonagh to argue an essentially dialectical process of interpersonal and intrapersonal conflict is the root of great stories in any medium:

This film throws light on the most fundamental task for any writer; that is, to unspool the thread of necessity which runs through both character and plot. Aesthetic skill lies in the ability to create characters which are grounded in fundamental social-historical contradictions and whose lives attain a richness such that, after a while, it feels as though you-the writer-are simply a passive observer, merely recording the details of those lives as they unfold out in front of you in the form of an independent existence. (190)

Arguably the greatest stories ever produced by the human race are the cycle of mythological adventures based around the gods and heroes of ancient Greece. Our appetite for re-enactments and updates of the dramatic lives of characters such as Oedipus, Achilles, Jason and Helen of Troy is seemingly never-ending and has produced some creative iterations in the 21st century already.

In an essay on the novels of Madeline Miller, McKenna perceptively notes how fourth wave feminism, expressed in the global MeToo movement, provides the essential ideological context for the success of recent fictional recreations of female Greek protagonists such as Penelope and Briseis, by authors such as Emily Wilson and Pat Barker.

circe madeline miller 

Miller has added to this distinguished sub-genre with two books, Song of Achilles and Circe. In the latter, published in 2018, she takes a relatively marginal character from Homer’s Odyssey and re-imagines Circe’s backstory and life after her encounter with the famed king of Ithaca, Odysseus. The key to Miller’s evident resonance with millions of readers, McKenna argues, is a nuanced exploration of the dialectical conflicts that occur within the psyche of every human being. In Circe’s case, she is psychologically torn between the world of the immortals that she is raised in, and the world of mortals such as Odysseus that she encounters as she grows up. In McKenna’s words:

Miller carefully cultivates an ideological opposition between the manual labour of the oppressed and the pronounced aristocratic parasitism of the oppressor-an opposition which opens up between the human world and the world of the divine. Such an opposition, in fantasy form, has a real and historical resonance in the ancient Greek world. (148)   

Such an opposition is no longer central in our era but an alternative clash between the prevailing patriarchal capitalism and the liberated sexuality of an embryonic postcapitalist society is evident on a regular basis in the news headlines. As an American author, Miller has spoken explicitly of how she was traumatised by the elevation to the White House of a crassly racist and sexist President in 2016; but also how she has been inspired by the political resistance that Trump has provoked in the forms of Bernie Sanders, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and other figures of a rejuvenated US left.

McKenna justifiably explains that these expressions of anti-capitalist insurgency are the context to the powerful impact of Miller’s evocative renditions of archaic Greece:

Looking at the American political landscape, the MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter, the Slut Walks, Occupy Wall Street, it is difficult, for me at least, not to feel in Circe’s ancient, epic struggle something of the form and the impetus of these broader political movements which were also shaped by those who have been in some way exiled from the political mainstream and who begin to develop their own powers of freedom and self-determination in response. (159)

In his closing chapter on the art of Goya, the author optimistically describes a detail from a painting from the 1820s called The Milkmaid of Bordeaux, the Spaniard’s last masterpiece:

in the far-right corner there is a retreating patch of shadowy cloud, but directly outlining the young woman’s head – creating a halo-like effect – is a burgeoning blue fissured with delicate white light. It feels as though a night-time storm has come and gone and now, breaking through, comes the silvery, morning light of a brand new day. (236)

As the world continues to groan under the dark shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, it is to be hoped that McKenna’s thesis that great cultural products presage the coming of a more enlightened social order turns out to be valid. Even without viral threats, climate change and global immiseration mean that the mass of humanity is becoming increasingly desperate to see that silvery, morning light breaking through.

Poetry, Politics, Pandemics and Washing Hands
Sunday, 05 July 2020 09:22

Poetry, Politics, Pandemics and Washing Hands

Written by

Sally Flint looks at the state of poetry, continuing the joint series with the Morning Star on the cultural fallout of Covid-19. The photo by Jasbat Malhi is of Dr. Rahat Indor performing in Tagore

History shows that catastrophes, conflicts, traumas and protests provoke poets to write, and that the most insightful poems survive because they contain a universal truth connected to the human condition. So how are poets dealing with disease, death and often contradictory political rhetoric in a world that has suddenly and unexpectedly locked-down our lives – a place where we’re clearly not ‘all in this together’?

However, as the virus spreads there are multiple windows opening, especially related to online technology. Poets are used to connecting things in their heads though, pinning down what Coleridge describes as a poem being, ‘the best words in the best order’; they are well practised in staying focused to search out and unravel the truth.

For example, there are poets taking purposeful walks to scrutinise nearby cemeteries, researching past flu epidemics, noticing signs in newly barricaded shops, and empty public spaces. Poets are asking what matters most to friends and families, what ‘isolation’ means, and what Covid-19 is doing to the poor and BAME communities, imagining alternatives and what happens next for humanity as a whole.

As riots spread across the USA, and marches across other capital cities take off, it shows that while the proletariat can be contained by a life-threatening virus for the common good, they can’t be by the horrific murder of a black man by a policeman on the side of a road in Minnesota, witnessed on screens in homes around the world.

Poets are always on the lookout to connect narrative threads – as storytellers they are alert to ‘plot holes’, and can capture injustice in a few words. It’s why Jeremy Corbyn used poems to great effect, reading Wilfred Owens’ ‘Futility’ on Remembrance Day in 2015 and often quoting Shelley’s ‘The Masque of Anarchy’ to drive home a political message, for us to ‘to rise up like lions’. Poet Laureates Simon Armitage and Carol Anne Duffy are also showing showing that poetry is not about privilege or elitism.

Simon Armitage performing 'Lockdown'

We stand united on a precipice unlike any other time, where capitalism is exploiting but not providing for the many. There are new voices and imaginations needing to be heard, and brave new poetry editors who are poised to publish challenging writing. Spiteful, confusing tweets and blogs may come and go, but meaningful poems that reflect the strengths and vulnerabilities of the human condition have the potential to drive positive change and endure. Websites and publishers like Culture Matters can get key messages across quickly and effectively, just as a virus spreads.

Poets’ imaginations will be fired up as more stories emerge out of this pandemic, and political falsehoods will link in creative minds. We will be watching to see if the homeless are back on to the streets this time next year, if health and social care workers receive a pay rise, and whether the newly unemployed desperately chasing poorly paid and precarious jobs remain indebted to private landlords. While politicians and the press turn blind eyes, poets will continue to write and scrutinise the ‘new normal’ in a quest for the truth.

It seems few of us will see out this virus unscathed, but it’s the workers – especially the struggling, less well-off workers who need to be remembered and supported most by progressive politics and progressive political poetry.

Over a decade ago, in her poem ‘Indoors’, the late Eavan Boland writes, as if forecasting Covid-19:

So it was above our neighbourhood, the world straightening
under wings, the noise of discord
clearly audible, the hinterland reaching to the sea,
its skin a map of wounds, its history a treatise of infections.

In a ‘second wave’ of Covid flooding the planet, poets will be peeling back the skin to see what lies beneath, to show among other things how politicians have handled this crisis – or washed their hands of it.
As June Jordan said, ‘Poetry is a political act because it involves telling the truth.’ A body of politically driven and socially relevant poetry will surely grow out of this pandemic. It will continue to reach out in protest, anger, sadness and compassion, and touch even the hardest of rich and powerful capitalist hearts, so we can all move towards a greener, kinder, safer and more equal, truthful future.

Will post-pandemic poetry be like this? Steve Pottinger performing a recent poem of his.

A History of Ireland in 100 Words
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Tuesday, 09 June 2020 10:39

A History of Ireland in 100 Words

Written by

Luke Callinan reviews A History of Ireland in 100 Words by Sharon Arbuthnot, Máire Ní Mhaonaigh and Gregory Toner, Royal Irish Academy, 320 pp, €19.99, ISBN: 9781911479185.

“Ní hí an teanga do chuaidh ó chion
acht an dream dár dhual a dídion
(mon-uar) dár bhéigin a ndán
sa nduan do thréigin go tiomlán”

“It is not the language which has come into
disesteem but those who should protect it,
they who have been (alas!) obliged to
abandon their poems and verses completely.”

- 17th Century poem by Diarmuid Mac Muireadhaigh addressed to Górdún Ó Néill, a captain in the army of King James II.

Ogham inscriptions provide the earliest concrete evidence of the Irish language, dating as far back as the 4th century, while the majority of extant examples can be traced to the following 5th and 6thcenturies. This primitive form of written Irish evolved and developed in to what would become the most extensive surviving literature in early modern medieval Europe. While the depth and richness of this literature has been examined and understood by a section of Irish academia, its intertexuality as well as the wider cultural and social hegemony that fused it and gave it real meaning has been largely lost on those who currently inhabit the island(s) of Ireland.

This loss of collective social and cultural values, memories and ways of thinking is particularly regrettable. It didn’t take place overnight nor did it happen in a cultural or political vacuum: it is the logical outcome of a coherent, brutal and multifarious colonisation process that successfully replaced Irish with English as the primary medium of communication for the bulk of the country. This process has been examined thoroughly by well-known writer and publisher Tomás Mac Síomóin in his books The Broken Harp and The Gael Becomes Irish.

An encouraging trend has emerged in Irish language literature in which Irish language texts are being reproduced, reimagined and reconstructed by modern scholars. Examples of these productions include Tuatha Dé Danann by Diarmuid Johnson, An Tromdhámh by Feargal Ó Béarra and Darach Ó Scolaí’s Táin Bó Cuailnge. These, and others like them, present today’s reader with some of the most important figures, events and narratives from our literary tradition in the medium of modern Irish.

A History of Ireland in 100 Words is a valuable contribution to this work. While the authors clarify that the publication is not an attempt to comprehensively detail the course of Irish history, it serves to highlight the collated lexicon of Old and Middle Irish based on materials from the period c.700-1700. As the authors explain, its purpose is to provide “insights into moments of life that may be otherwise absent from the history books”; and in this it certainly succeeds.

We are presented with lively accounts of 100 words in the Irish language from this period, some of which have even survived in Hiberno-English language registers such as ‘Taoiseach’ (the term for Ireland’s ‘Prime Minister’), ‘Leipreachán’, ‘Bóithrín’ (literally a small cow-path but used to describe a narrow, frequently unpaved, road in rural parts of Ireland), ‘Bróg’ (meaning ‘shoe’ but used contemporarily to describe a person’s accent) and ‘Punt’ (the Irish currency until 2002).

We learn that the word for poet in Irish, ‘file’, is related to the verb ‘to see’, demonstrating a perceived prophetic capacity. This applies to great art up to this day as an alternative way of understanding the world to science and philosophy.

Language and colonisation

Discussion of the word ‘Gall’, understood by many today as ‘foreigner’ but with a much deeper and complex history, puts a spotlight on the 12th century King of Leinster, Diarmaid na nGall, who sought the military assistance of England’s King Henry II to regain his kingdom, sparking a chain of events that would result in the Anglo-Norman invasion of 1169.

While the earliest documented form of political authority in Ireland was kingship, with a king (‘rí’) for each kingdom (‘tuath’), by the 8th century this power structure was being surpassed by the emergence of leaders controlling larger territories. The title given to these was ‘Taoiseach’, originally meaning ‘first’ but clearly having evolved at an early stage to indicate ‘leader’.  This survives today in the term for Ireland’s highest government office holder, ‘An Taoiseach’. It is worth mentioning evidence of women in the role of ‘Taoiseach’ as far back as the 8th century, unlike today’s office, which has never been held by a woman.

The 15th century curse ‘úir aineoil tarat’ (‘may foreign soil be over you’) implies negative connotations for foreign burials and vividly reinforces the deep connection people had to land and territory had in Gaelic Ireland. It reminded me of Big Bill Neidjie’s words, an elder of the Kakadu people in northern Australia: “I feel with my body, with my blood. Feeling all these trees, all this country. When this wind blow you can feel it. Same for country… you feel it, you can look, but feeling… that make you.”

In general, of course, the wisdom contained in Irish medieval literature reflects a symbiotic land-animal-human relationship that generated respect and fear in equal measure. Use of the term ‘mac tíre’ (‘son of the land’) for wolf was employed to avoid summoning the animal by speaking his actual name, ‘faol’, but has come to be the most common word for ‘wolf’ in modern Irish. Ireland’s wild wolves of course became extinct in the late 18th century.

Edmund Spenser, an English colonizer and poet of the late 16th century Tudor re-conquest period in Ireland, understood the central importance of language in the colonising process. He wrote that “words are the image of the mynde, the mynde must needs be affected with the words: So that the speech beinge Irishe, the harte must needs be Irishe, for out of aboundance of the harte the tongue speaketh.” If Irish people could be coerced in to adopting the English language, they would come to accept a world view framed by that language, one that would re-define how they see themselves and their place in the world.

Kenyan academic Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o has described languages as natural hard-drives, positing that the loss of that hard drive invariably causes loss of the memories and knowledge, information, thoughts and thought-processes which have been carried by that language for generations.

Collective recovery of our Irish language hard-drive is an essential component in the de-colonisation of Ireland and A History of Ireland in 100 Words, as well as the invaluable work of all those involved with the Electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language project more broadly, certainly provides some of the tools to help do that successfully.

Will the Covid-19 pandemic mean the end of culture as we know it?
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Saturday, 06 June 2020 12:38

Will the Covid-19 pandemic mean the end of culture as we know it?

Written by

Clara Paillard is the co-president of PCS Culture Group representing 4,000 museums & heritage workers across the UK. In this addition to our joint series with the Morning Star, she reflects on the bleak prospects for the future of the arts and culture after the pandemic, and argues for emergency funding, the end of privatisation, and the application of cultural democracy to the sector.

A year ago, cleaners and porters at the British Museum were all transferred to a new private company following the collapse of giant Carillion. After 4 months of limbo during which the museum refused to speak to them or to PCS, their trade union, workers were all transferred to 3 month contracts pending a restructure. Some of them had been working at the Museum for over 20 years before falling victims to this privatisation.

Fast forward one year to today, and most of them have been put on furlough and are waiting anxiously to see what the future holds for them, in a country scarred by the Covid-19 pandemic. They are not alone, as millions of workers are holding their breath as the lockdown is easing, and cultural institutions are talking about reopening their doors in July.

Tens of thousands of museum workers were sent home when they closed, followed shortly by theatres, music halls, cinemas and the rest of the country. Thousands of artists and freelancers saw their contracts and commissions paused or dropped. Self-employed educators, tour guides, and technicians were left without an income. Many of them do not qualify for furlough, small business grants or self-employment support as they often combine two or more precarious jobs with their freelance work. Countless workers were left with sick pay or no pay for self-isolation and sickness.

Local cultural production

Despite this, grassroots and locally organised artistic and cultural activities have been flourishing online. Museums and galleries have been pouring out free online content, with virtual tours, exhibitions and activities. Orchestras and choirs have been playing on Facebook, artists sharing and selling their art on Twitter or Instagram, art lessons provided on Zoom, DJs playing live on social media, and lots more similar digital cultural production.

At home, people have rediscovered their creative potential, with many spending more time painting, playing music, watching films, modelling, drawing, and other cultural activities, showing how important they are for our mental health and wellbeing. Bread is not enough, we want roses too!

The key question now is this: how will the arts and cultural activities, already damaged by ten years of Tory austerity policies, survive the Covid pandemic? Most museums now rely on commercial income to balance their books. During closure, that income is not available, potentially leaving huge funding gaps in their budget and stopping them from reopening. Southbank arts venues have warned they may not be able to reopen until 2021 unless emergency funding is provided by the government. Historic Royal Palaces have cut their staff pensions, blaming the pandemic for financial uncertainty. Casual workers at the Tate are worried about their future after the 31st July, while freelance educators are unlikely to be re-employed for a long time.

The PCS Union Culture Group is very clear: no venue should reopen until it is safe for workers and visitors. We are battling to ensure employers adhere to key health and safety principles, and the unions are involved in negotiations and risk assessments for reopening.

But that is not enough. The sector is facing a battle for survival, and the government should agree an immediate emergency fund to ensure it wins that battle. Museums, galleries and the arts are central to our health, happiness and sense of community and togetherness. They also play a significant role in the economy. Re-opening the sector will be important in signalling that it is safe for people to enjoy culture and travel again. Financial guarantees would also remove the pressure to reopen before it is safe to do so.

Our concern is that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport may instead plan to cut funding for arts organisations, and blame the pandemic for further austerity policies. We believe that would be a huge mistake. It would threaten the access and availability of culture for everyone, and it would threaten the livelihoods of the often low-paid staff who have continued working during the lockdown to ensure the safety of the nation’s treasures. The government should instead look to the aftermath of the Second World War, when the UK and many other countries invested in the arts as part of their plans to widen access and rebuild society.

Cultural democracy

A number of groups, including the PCS Culture Group, various regional TUC Culture Committees, and the Movement for Cultural Democracy have worked in the past few years to develop an alternative programme and funding model for culture.

Arts funding as a whole should be reviewed and increased, and we need to ditch the discredited austerity, privatisation and private funding model. Museums are not money-making machines, but a public service dedicated to education and the art. Proper funding would ensure that workers in those institutions are paid decently with secure terms and conditions, rather than zero hours contracts and bogus self-employment arrangements that are endemic in this sector. It would allow proper artists’ commissions and residencies and help deliver a proper status for artists, as in my home country of France. And it could fund popular arts and cultural education on a large scale, benefiting public health and the economy.

Beyond emergency help, further debates are needed to explore using corporate taxation to expand arts funding and to replace corporate and private ownership, control and sponsorship with state ownership and control, which could be exercised at community, municipal and national levels. This would help the many DIY grassroots activities developed during the Covid crisis to continue.

Provision of arts and culture also needs to be rebalanced, so that people living outside the London area, and in working-class communities, have greater access to cultural facilities.

Currently, arts and cultural institutions are often governed by boards of trustees, mostly from a privileged and corporate background. Democratising cultural institutions would allow community groups, local councils, trade unions and workers to have a say about management and decision-making.

Trade unions are particularly keen to establish minimum standards and terms and conditions for cultural workers, whether employed or self-employed, and to eliminate precarious work. There also needs to be action on equal opportunities in the creative and cultural industry so that people from all socio-economic groups have equal access to jobs and careers, as there is widespread evidence of class-based discrimination.

Finally, art education and production must also be more accessible and meaningful to all. We need to encourage more grassroots, locally situated cultural production, as well as developing more outreach and educational work in schools and working- class communities. The inclusion of disabled people, BAME communities, women, young people and LGBT people is paramount to diversify cultural production and access. Many institutions grew from imperial conquest and colonialism, and are still displaying institutional racism and discrimination.

The PCS Culture Group has now launched a campaign and an online petition calling for no re-opening of cultural institutions before it is safe; emergency funding for instituions, to help society recover from the crisis; and a reversal of privatisation in the culture sector. The Group is also holding a public online event on Thursday 11th June at 6pm with speakers from across the sector.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights spells it out in Article 27: “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits”. We will honour those principles and continue our struggle for culture for the many, not the few.

The countryside, class and culture
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Monday, 01 June 2020 08:46

The countryside, class and culture

Written by

Stuart Cartland looks at the cultural and political representation of topography, at how landscape becomes mythscape, expressing class power and national identity. The painting is Mr and Mrs. Andrews, by Thomas Gainsborough, about 1750

As the fine weather and easing of coronavirus restrictions are upon us, many will be wanting to enjoy the pleasures of the countryside. But beware, the countryside is not a neutral space - are you entering a cultural domain where you are even welcome?

There is nothing natural or even legitimate to the social and cultural exclusivity that the English countryside has come to represent, yet the seemingly timeless narrative of traditionalism and conservatism has become well established cultural tropes. The dominant conservative evocation of Englishness draws heavily from an emotive and evocative imagery based around landscape.

24819 barbour 

A modern day Mr. and Mrs. Andrews?

It is an idealised England (and Englishness) which is viewed as both being under attack from and ignored by the marauding forces of modernity and alterity. It is typically rural, middle to upper-middle class, and associated with the south (the basic formulation to understanding the conservative and right-wing position and perspective in regards to Englishness). As Wright elaborates, “it possible to argue that this version of a green and pleasant England persists in the Conservative psyche today. Indeed, the nearer one gets to the grassroots of contemporary Toryism in England, the nearer one gets to this puritanical discourse, and the defensiveness and paranoia that go with it”.

There is clearly nothing political or ideological about the English countryside per se. Indeed, it commands a critical sense of importance to many different and disparate political, social, historical and cultural movements and ideologies such as the Levellers and the Diggers, Orwell, Blake, Morris and the campaign for the right to roam typified by the mass trespass on Kinder Scout, all associated more with the English left, radicalism and socialism. However, it is the hijacking and ideological manipulation of the subject matter, coupled with the constructed and constantly reinforced political and cultural meanings that equate rural England to conservatism and traditionalism.

SC Kinder Scout mass trespass

Kinder Scout Mass Trespass

It is also the attached and attributed symbolism that places a mythological idealised concept of rural England at the heart of conservative and traditional notions of Englishness, which has become synonymous with a sense of English national identity and what it represents. As Mark Perryman highlights, “the temptation to retreat into an unchanging past, a theme park for an old country is strong, offering security versus global risk and the comfort blanket of the familiar”. In a prevailing contemporary climate of crisis, threat, insecurity and uncertainty, such a position has become the dominant, legitimised position.

Cultural and ideological representations of topography are crucial to understanding a conservative discourse of Englishness. A timeless and enduring idolisation of place, culture, class and tradition are bound in a romanticised ‘mythscape’. However, this is one which is man-made and ideologically created. Idealised topographical representations articulate a moral and national narrative which relates to the present. This draws upon national anxieties and contributes towards an illusory sense of hegemony in an age of rapidly changing boundaries and realities.

Landscape can be viewed as the location of ideological clashes of fantasy, desire and anxiety. The conservative and traditionalist mythscape plays upon concepts of the North of England as symbolising the stereotypical working-class, industrial cityscapes whilst the South representing a middle and upper-class idyll of English country gardens. The timeless pastoral green dream of tranquillity and social order however is an illusion, often imposed to obscure what we actually see or encounter. As Robert MacFarlane (2015) describes it, this can be called ‘landscape culture’. It is an idealised notion of ‘dwelling’, ‘belonging’ and ‘heritage’ that needs to be seen through the “turbulence of England in the era of late capitalism”.

A contemporary period foisting such ‘alien’ ideas as political correctness or multiculturalism, challenging ‘our’ sovereignty and ignoring the interests of the moral majority. It forms the raison-de-etre to political campaigns and movements such as the Campaign for an English Parliament, UKIP and the English Democrats. The English countryside as an elite ideological domain resonates with conservative traditionalists not because it draws upon an exhaustive list of characterisations but rather an attitude.

SC 3 The pub and pint as essential symbolic political accessories monopolised by the rightjpg

This defensive definition of Englishness is formulated through a bitter awareness that the world is charging headlong in the opposite direction. It is a defensive narrative of retreat and denial. The English countryside has become symbolic as a last-ditch effort to defend against encroaching modern forces. This can be seen in the contemporary context by traditionalist concepts of Englishness against issues such as gay marriage, the banning of blood sports, environmental concerns, and gender equality.

The countryside has played an important part in the English imagination particularly since the Industrial Revolution. The origins of conservative traditionalism linked to the countryside can be traced throughout modern English social and cultural history, from Cobbett’s ‘rural rides’ in the 1820s to the popularity of the National Trust after the Second World War. Specific examples typify such a conceptualisation of a romantic and nostalgic England which feeds into contemporary politicised (and often reimagined and manipulated) notions. For example, Edmund Burke’s ‘Little Platoons’ in his ‘Reflections on the Revolution in France’ (1790) and the social and cultural reactionary conservatism not only in regards to the perceived threat of foreign political revolutionary fervour but the political and ideological anti-establishmentarianism contained within such a threat.

William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ (set to music by Parry in 1915), is a direct antithesis to the dark, gritty, industrialised cities of the Midlands and the North of England. William Morris’s notion of a future, rural utopia in ‘News from Nowhere’ (1890), with the banishment of industrialised city living to the history books. Rudyard Kipling’s idealised Sussex of ‘Puck of Pook’s Hill’ (1917) and the wider idea of a, “psychological retreat to the English countryside” (Marsden, 2000:26) to a rural England in contrast to the mechanised and industrialised warfare of the first and second world wars. Stanley Baldwin’s (1924) ‘long shadows on country grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pool fillers’. George Orwell’s ‘Lion and the Unicorn’ (1941) of ‘old maids cycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist’, and G.K Chesterton’s famous lines, “smile at us, pay us, pass us but do not quite forget. For we are the people of England, that never have spoken yet”.

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The countryside elite firmly embedded as natural heirs to a sense of rural moral authority

The English countryside has become synonymous with representations of conservationism which have often led to cultural conservatism. This has created a rural nostalgia culture industry of country dwellers clad in Barbour jackets and Hunter wellies, with Range Rovers and barn conversions, steeped in the cultural and political domain of the Cotswoldian elite rolling around in pastoral clichés. It is an England represented as a historicised rural idyll, embodied by a sense of timeless and naturalised tradition and place. Victorian poets and writers (Wordsworth and Coleridge), artists (Turner and Constable) and composers (Elgar, and latterly Britten) all employed to help perpetuate this ideologically evocative version of a decidedly green and pleasant land.

The countryside has firmly become established within contemporary English culture as the cultural domain of the middle and upper classes, where they play the role or act as the only legitimate form of authority, expression and belonging. These roles refer to assumed norms of deference to the conservative ‘country folk’ where feudalism never really went away. The countryside represents the domain of the wealthy, who literally buy into an idealised and sanitised ‘escape to the country’ of chocolate box images of quaint villages and a bucolic escape from ethnic minorities, multiculturalism, political correctness, the Labour Party, council estates, Primark and the like. Indeed this can be understood through the almost impossible task of trying to find a pub in the country that hasn’t been converted into the most ubiquitous form of contrived exclusivity - the gastropub.

SC gastro pub with standard and ubiquitous decor

The classic gastropub interior, with its standard and ubiquitous accoutrements

These aren’t just pubs catering to the wealthy elite who escape to the country for weekend leisure pursuits of animal abuse, but rather operate as a means to sell the lifestyle choice - that to patronise their establishment you are or can become one of them, part of the country elite, and so inhabit and experience this mythscape of upper-class country lifestyle. 

Nevertheless, these are largely superficial expressions of ideology repackaged and resold as lifestyle choice. Doubtless, the countryside can be a pleasant place of rolling hills and blue skies, and by and large it is not an exclusive domain full of Tories. But that is the point - it has been commandeered through the cultural domain as such… so as you venture out after the lockdown, good luck with finding a pub that hasn’t been converted into a shrine to this particular form of cultural hegemony!

Something we can all drink to: Wetherspoons in public ownership
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Wednesday, 13 May 2020 19:44

Something we can all drink to: Wetherspoons in public ownership

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Keith Flett says pubs could be a radically different experience after lockdown ends, and taking the Wetherspooons chain into public ownership would be a good start and a great example of cultural democracy. Image: Wetherspoons' Lord High Constable pub, Gloucester, Photo: Philafrenzy/Wikipedia


All pubs in Britain are currently shut for trade on the premises and it’s not known when they will re-open. But after the Covid-19 crisis has receded, how could they be different? How could the spirit of self-help and community organisation, discussed by Jack Newsinger in his recent article in this series from Culture Matters and the Morning Star, be applied to pubs?

There is already a model model of pub ownership and operation that stemmed from a national crisis — the Carlisle state management scheme, which started in 1916. Pub opening hours were restricted and those in areas where munitions were manufactured were nationalised, with five breweries consolidated into one state-owned one.

The architect Harry Redfern designed 14 new “model” pubs around the Carlisle area in the style of the arts and craft movement influenced by William Morris. They could operate to wider criteria than making profits and take into account principles of enjoyable and healthy alcohol consumption, all under the democratic control of an elected government rather than owned and run to make returns to private shareholders.

The Carlisle scheme was a great success. By 1933 the pub contributed £60,000 annually to the Exchequer in profits, around £4.3 million in 2020 prices.
While the language and attitudes of 1916 are not those of 2020, the aim was clear — to shift the pub from being a place where men went to drink and get drunk to a more social environment where the whole community could go to talk, read, play games and generally enjoy some time away from work or home.

In a post-Covid-19 world, a national network of publicly owned pubs owned and run by local communities or municipal bodies, promoting a socially conscious model of drink and leisure, would surely be an improvement on the current situation. Fortunately, there already exists such a network of more than 800 pubs across the UK and, based on pre-lockdown statements and actions by its owner, it  could well be ripe for bringing into public hands.

Tim Martin started his Wetherspoons pub empire within a few months of Thatcher becoming Prime Minister in May 1979. Some of the free-market changes that Thatcher’s governments brought in helped Martin’s business. They boosted pub companies over traditional brewery-tied houses and promoted a philosophy of individual freedoms — for some — which meant loosening restrictions on pubs. No doubt these changes were welcomed by many but they came at a price, such as long hours, low pay and zero-hours contracts for pub workers.

Forty years ago many pubs sold only poor-quality keg beer, the result of a trend to monopoly in the brewing industry from the 1960s that had left Britain with just a few mega breweries. They didn’t often do much in the way of food and many tended to be dominated by middle-aged men with rather right-wing views. In short, they were welcoming to the few, not the many.

The Wetherspoons business model, like the Carlisle scheme, was different. Reasonable quality real ale, tea, coffee and meals were sold all day at reasonable prices. The pubs didn’t have loud music blaring out, TVs or fruit machines. They were places where you could go and chat, or read a book. The result was that at that time in Wetherspoons pubs one could find a socially mixed clientele, including far more women and ethnic minorities than might be usual in other pubs.

But nowadays Wetherspoons has become notorious as a poor employer, even in an industry not known for a high standard of employment practices.

So why not roll out a 2020 version of the Carlisle state management model by nationalising Wetherspoons? The state would have a network of pubs which could be relatively easily modified to fit a concept of a new model pub, a community hub run for local people, not for profit. In time, they could be handed over to local authorities and communities to run.

As with the Carlisle scheme, there could be rules and requirements covering managers and staff, so that a decent working environment with good wages could be provided and precarious employment abolished. Nationalising Wetherspoons and turning the pubs into a network of socially owned new model pubs would be an example of cultural democracy which communities could build on in other areas of their cultural life, such as sport.

It is of course only one of a range of responses that will be required in beer, brewing and pubs as a result of the Covid-19 crisis. State intervention could also be used to protect pubs threatened with closure and shape them into more socially aware community hubs, where breweries or pub companies are still demanding rent against their non-existent income.

But it would be a good start and relatively easy to do.

This is the latest in the series of articles on culture after Covid-19, jointly published by the Morning Star and Culture Matters.

After the pandemic, culture should not be the same again
Sunday, 03 May 2020 09:38

After the pandemic, culture should not be the same again

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Jack Newsinger continues the series, jointly published on Culture Matters and the Morning Star, on the effects of the Covid-19 crisis on culture, sketching out what needs to change and why. Can artists, writers and other creatives form closer alliances with the labour movement? The accompanying image is by Jonpaul Kirvan.

Culture matters more than ever, as Mike Quille pointed out in the introduction to this series of articles. Yet  pandemic has completely shut down public arts and culture in the UK. Theatres, cinemas, libraries, music venues (including Glastonbury Festival’s 50th anniversary) – all closed until further notice, and likely to be some of the last to be allowed to reopen, with enormous impacts on the people whose livelihoods depend upon functioning cultural and creative industries.

We are all used to the glamour of the film and television industries, or the pomp of the theatre and opera, but it is worth emphasising that many of these workers are precariously employed on short term contracts often with little security or savings – the arts and creative industries are disproportionately reliant on a highly skilled, dedicated and passionate, but precarious workforce.

The people who serve coffee in the cafes are very often also the people on the stages; the guitarist in the band has also lost her other income teaching music lessons in a school. This ability to quickly contract when income disappears is how cultural organisations have learnt to keep functioning in Britain’s competitive cultural economy, but it can be brutal for many of the people who actually make culture, just like the stresses and strains faced by workers in the NHS, care homes and other public services which have suffered years of exposure to austerity economics and the imposition of capitalist rationality.

As in the rest of society, the COVID-19 crisis has made visible the weaknesses and inequalities in the arts and creative industries that were already present under the surface if anyone cared to look hard enough. Unsurprisingly, the way that the crisis has so far played out has mirrored these inequalities. There is increasing evidence that Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people are suffering a disproportionate financial and employment penalty due to the lockdown. These inequalities will intersect with class, age, disability and region to compound and deepen the already significant disparities that exist in access to the arts and culture, for both producers and audiences. The danger is that commissioners used to seeing ‘minority arts’ and working-class participation as something of a side endeavour will retreat into the ‘safe’ zone of the ‘old boys’ network’ with a resulting narrowing of participation, vitality and cultural diversity. 

The COVID-19 crisis has shown the cracks and weaknesses in the system. But it also might reveal ways to overcome them. ‘Lockdown culture’ is forcing makers and audiences to find new ways to connect with each other. Some of these seek to reproduce existing capitalist relationships of production remotely. For example, the Artists' Support Pledge, in which artists sell their work through Instagram, promising that once they reach £1000 of sales they will spend £200 on another artist’s work.

The crisis pushes to the forefront new ideas about how we should fund the arts. Do we want a precarious commercial model that mirrors the inequalities of the market, or can we find more egalitarian ways of providing stability for cultural producers? Can this be an opportunity to overcome the pathological elitism and lack of diversity of the arts and cultural establishment? The Arts Council moved relatively quickly to announce a package of £160m to support cultural organisations and individuals. This is an essential lifeline but it appears to be targeted at maintaining the existing cultural landscape, with larger, prestigious organisations that serve metropolitan middle-class tastes taking priority (as they always have).

In this vacuum of new ideas, it is the spirit of self-help and community organisation that offers the way forward. Debates around Universal Basic Income have become more relevant. As noted by the artist and activist Stephen Pritchard, “Is the time coming when art will finally embrace self-organised alternatives rooted in ethical practice, equitable living, commoning, fair pay, openness and hope? Can art help rebuild our lives and our communities? Can it reimagine ways of being and living together after a global pandemic that surely changes everything?”

Three things emerge from all this so far. Firstly, professional artists, filmmakers, writers, makers, and all cultural practitioners are also workers, ultimately, and need collective representation and a strong welfare state. There must surely be potential for closer links and mutual support between cultural practitioners and the labour movement, given their shared values and belief that the arts and culture generally can be a liberating force.

Secondly, the importance of looking to the people about how the arts and culture can change. People are showing that they will still put their creativity out there whether they get paid or not, which says something about the importance of the human capacity for connecting through culture beyond commercial relationships.

Finally, quarantine has demonstrated the importance of internet connectivity, and culture is flourishing online, whether it be watching a concert on Instagram live, learning how to paint on Facebook, or home art-schooling your children using the Tate’s online galleries. This is surely to be celebrated. If only we had a government that would guarantee free broadband for all…..

Common Ground: rebuilding community and co-operation after Covid-19
Saturday, 25 April 2020 15:37

Common Ground: rebuilding community and co-operation after Covid-19

Written by

Lyndsey Ayre reflects on common ground, coronavirus, and the values of the labour movement. The image is of  a piece of embroidery by Melanie Kyles

This must be the beginning of change. Whenever we reach the other side of this crisis – whenever and whatever that might look like - we must begin to plan immediately for a better future. We must count the dead and hold those to account who failed them. And we must stand together and say: enough. Things cannot be allowed to return to the way that they were. The way that they were was the problem.

We must remember the people who worked tirelessly when so many of us stayed indoors: the checkout workers, the nurses, the refuse collectors, the teachers, the doctors, the librarians, the postal workers and delivery drivers. These are the people that we should value the most. These are the people who should be honoured, and whose salaries should reflect our gratitude.

We have lived in a culture of endless greed: of belligerent hedge fund managers, grubby-fingered billionaires and sneering, public schoolboy politicians. Though we dress it in the lineaments of modernity, beneath our filters and slick user interfaces is the same system: moth-eaten, broken, old.

The way that things were was the problem. This must be the beginning of change.

Common ground

It is 8.30am and I am walking down silent suburban streets towards Newcastle’s Town Moor. The morning is bright and cool like a whistle. The main road that runs in front of my flat is usually thronged with cars and busses, commuters rushing for early shifts and hectic parents on the school run. For several weeks now, it has been empty. Sunlight shines on red brick and daffodils, on faded chalk hopscotch daubed on cracked paving stones. Rainbows beam from high windows. Curtains are drawn. English Ivy reaches above garden walls, trailing wistful fingers towards the cherry blossom.

There is nothing. There is no one. The day is draped in a veil of yellow and blue. I’m looking for common ground.

 It has been over 100 days since the Chinese government declared an unknown pneumonia had been detected in the area around a wet market in Wuhan. In the weeks and months that followed, the world has been brought to its knees by what we now know to be the coronavirus named Covid-19. Previously titanic industries – oil, air travel – are at the edge of collapse. Businesses, large and small, have been forced to close their doors, with thousands of people furloughed. Arts organisations – scoring low on the list of public sympathy - face turbulent and uncertain futures. At the forefront, of course, the human cost: the days tick by with little to differentiate them other than the bleak death toll. 759, 823, 449. Every one a person. Every one a history: a favourite song, a favourite scent, a way of smiling.

At present in the UK, we are still allowed to go out for one walk a day. I’m grateful for these trips outdoors that afford respite from the trek between bedroom to the dining room table, where my work computer looms over the room. In many other countries, access to the outdoors was cut much earlier on. People across the globe find themselves legally confined to their own homes. We’re a world under house arrest.

Still, well-meaning Instagram videos tell us, that doesn’t have to be so bad. We may not have freedom to do as we please, but there’s one thing that we do have an abundance of: time. Finally, we can take up baking, learn a new language, plant strawberry bushes and tomatoes in our gardens and yards. There are worse things, after all, than to find yourself confined to the safety of home.

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Newcastle's Town Moor. Photo: Chi Onwurah MP

Yet home is the first frontier against inequality. Contrary to the wartime rhetoric adopted by some commentators, this is a virus that discriminates – both in the pre-existing conditions and geographical factors which can make a person more vulnerable to serious illness and in the impact of self-isolation on a person’s physical and emotional health. Poorly-maintained, privately-rented property; anti-social neighbours; small, cramped living conditions and blocks of flats still wrapped in lethal cladding. It is a mental health timebomb, and with every day that passes the problem intensifies, threatening to swamp the already submerged NHS even further.

Access to the outdoors is a lifeline to so many people – people living alone, people who do not have backyards or gardens, people who need to exercise for their mental or physical health and those who face the danger of domestic violence. Since lockdown began, Refuge reported a 700% increase in calls to its helplines in a single day. Hotels across the UK wrote to the government to offer their rooms to victims of domestic abuse. At the time of writing, the government had not taken them up on their offer.

Few could dispute that we must all stay at home as much as possible and do our part in slowing the transmission of Covid-19. But the existing conditions in which so many people now find themselves prisoner cannot be allowed to go unaddressed.

In the coming months and years, as we attempt to rebuild our societies across the world, we must make this a priority. ‘Home’ should not be a word that means safety for some, danger for others. Home should be a place of solace for everyone.   

People coming together

When I reach the edge of the Town Moor, the gate closes behind me with a heavy, metallic sound. Here there are no cars, no closed-up cafes or small shops with printed statements pinned to their doors. Here there are none of the houses of surrounding affluent Gosforth, each of them a display of wealth and security. The vast expanse of the moor – larger, Wikipedia tells me, than both Hyde Park and Hampstead Heath combined – opens up around me, flat, parallel, the pages of a book cracked open. On the horizon, the buildings of the city are held at a distance: the lone chimney of the RVI, the pale skeleton of St James’ Park. 

The Town Moor has been a largely unchanging green space on the fringe of the city centre for many centuries. Not landscaped, not neatly ordered with child’s play park and paving stones and smart displays of Spring flowers, but something bleak, desolate and disordered, instead. It is an enduring landscape somewhere between a rural and urban space: a sort of ancient edgeland, connecting the different suburbs of the city like an immeasurable village green. A place of vast emptiness, it echoes, paradoxically, with years of people coming together.

In 1873, the moor hosted a demonstration in favour of universal male suffrage. Some 200,000 people attended. From 1721 until 1881, horse racing was held at the Town Moor. When the racing was moved to Gosforth Park – a location difficult for many of the poorer people living in the city centre to get to - the North East Temperance League stepped in and organised a week-long fair, instead. 1,000 of the poorest children in the city were given food. 150,000 people attended the fair and the event was deemed to be such a success that it continued as the Hoppings to this day. The Town Moor has many other uses as a public gathering place: as the host of the Northern Pride Festival, the weekly Park Run, the August bank holiday mela. Over the past couple of years, it has been host to the This Is Tomorrow festival, headlined in 2019 by Johnny Marr, whose melancholic guitars drenched the distant city streets with poetry and longing.

The Town Moor is – and has been, since it hosted the horse races of the 1700s – a highly accessible place for the people of Newcastle to visit. The importance of this cannot be overstated. By contrast, the countryside can often feel like a distant and alien place to many of us without our own means of transport. A DEFRA review, in 2019, highlighted that the National Parks were failing to attract people from working class and minority ethnic backgrounds. And yet the obvious benefits of access to the outdoors have been thrown into sharp relief by this crisis. The ‘right’ to air and exercise was enshrined in law in the Law of Property Act 1925. We have to do more to make these spaces work for everyone. School trips should encourage children to think of our National Parks as their own to explore. The benefits of the rural environment need to continue into our city centres, too: as the impact of the closures of our urban centres seems likely to topple the already precarious High Street, we have to rethink what we use our cities for, and come up with ways to make them greener.

Rebuilding the commons after the coronavirus crisis

On the moor, on an April morning, there are people: all of us drawn here by the will to see something other than the inside of our own homes. The path is wide – wide enough for two people to pass safely, but many people walk by as normal, perhaps uncertain of the safe distance, perhaps absent-minded, perhaps, even, in blatant denial that there’s any need to stay apart. I leave the path and walk across the grass, instead. The land is uneven and difficult to walk across. There are ditches and clumps of compacted grass: scars on the land from its yearly events. I head towards two large hills at the West of the moor, where a tiny figure stands silhouetted against a blossoming sky.  

Halfway across, I realise I’ve gone the wrong way. The tiny figure has descended the hill and is walking briskly towards a gate onto Grandstand Road. There is a much simpler route, here, with a well-trodden gravel path ascending the lowest slope of the hill. In contrast, I find myself picking slowly though long grass and nettles, surrounded by cows. I wonder, briefly, how often cows kill humans and then reassure myself that these cows must be safe: the Freemen have grazed cattle on this land for centuries. Later, I google this and learn that, in fact, if there are calves present – there are not on the Town Moor, thankfully - herds of cattle do kill people. In fact, the Independent says, they are the most deadly large mammal in the UK. I don’t know this at the time, and I walk straight through them, smiling as they chew mouthfuls of grass laconically, flicking tails against flies. Somehow, this feels right: the point of walking on land like the Town Moor isn’t to go the easiest or simplest way – it’s to immerse yourself in the stretch of the land around you.

Near the foot of the largest of these hills – the imaginatively named ‘Cow Hill’ - I stop and take a swig of water from the bottle in my backpack. There’s a chilling moment as I realise where I’m standing: I’ve been reading about the history of the moor, and have learnt that in the thickness of these trees, still circled by a fence, there was once an isolation hospital for Small Pox. Grainy black and white photos on Google from 1898 show a man lying in a hospital bed in a dark room, and the horse drawn ambulance cart that would have taken patients there. It’s difficult to believe that this is the site. The buildings were demolished in 1958 and there is nothing to commemorate it. No plaque, no statue: only the trees. I stand there for a while, thinking about that hospital, thinking about those people.  

Then I begin to climb the hill.

It’s hard to know how to write about this time. Online, people scramble to make sense of a crisis of global proportions unseen in our lifetimes. There are videos and lists, hints and tips and tricks and hashtags. We are a world that cannot stop talking. And yet how should we navigate discussion around a time of so much pain and suffering?

The city stretches out around me. Chimneys and trees and distant high rises. The Byker Wall squats like an alien spaceship. Rows of miniscule terraces branch away, their windows glinting in the morning sun. In every one of those buildings, a person.

There will be time and space for us to come together again. I know this, standing on the top of the hill, overlooking the city. The Town Moor invites us to think about it: about space and community, about the past and the future, about the things that are possible and the things that have been. The commons has always been a key tenet of the labour movement. Now, more than ever, their significance is vital as we look to rebuild our societies in the wake of Covid-19.

Why culture matters more than ever
Saturday, 25 April 2020 14:50

Why culture matters more than ever

Written by

Mike Quille makes an appeal for support for Culture Matters, and introduces a new series of articles on the effects of the coronavirus crisis on culture. The image is of Efa Supertramp, who was among the many radical artists bypassing the gatekeepers of cultural production by appearing at the WSO Isolation Festival on April 11. Broadcast live on Facebook, it raised more than £27,000 for food banks

How do working people achieve more personal and political freedom? In the Wages of Labour, written in 1844, Karl Marx had this to say:

To develop greater spiritual freedom, a people must break their bondage to their bodily needs — they must cease to be the slaves of the body. They must, above all, have time at their disposal for spiritual creative activity and spiritual enjoyment.

The same point was made more poetically in a poem based on Helen Todd’s speech on the aims of the women’s movement:

Hearts starve as well as bodies. Give us bread, but give us roses.

The Culture Matters Co-Operative is all about bread and roses. It has been running for nearly five years and promotes bread and roses for all — a progressive, socialist and democratic approach to all forms of cultural activities.

We believe that all forms of culture should be for everyone and that class-based divisions in society constrain, prevent and spoil our enjoyment of all the cultural activities which we need to enjoy life and be fully human. This is also recognised in the expanded references to culture in the latest version of Britain’s Road to Socialism, the programme of the Communist Party of Britain.

By culture we mean not only the arts — poetry, film, theatre and visual art — but other activities like sport which bring enjoyment, enlightenment and entertainment into our lives. And using media like the internet, TV and social media is an important cultural activity and one of the few cultural activities we’ve been able to practise under lockdown.

Digital technology also has great potential to democratise culture, allowing working-class radicals to bypass the gatekeepers of cultural production, and we use it to run a website which publishes creative and critical material on a range of topics.

Supported by trade unions — mainly Unite, the Communication Workers Union, the Musicians’ Union and PCS — we have also run a number of Bread and Roses arts awards to encourage cultural production by trade unionists and other workers that is meaningful to work and life in a class-divided society.

We've also published a range of poetry books such as Witches, Warriors and Workers, a groundbreaking anthology of poetry by working-class women, edited by Jane Burn and Fran Lock. Supported by various trade unions and trades councils, we’re also publishing a series of anthologies of radical literature.

Poetry collections from Ireland (Children of the Nation) and Wales (Onward / Ymlaen!) have already appeared and there will be an anthology of radical Scottish poetry coming out later this year. These books are all for sale on this website, see links above.

We’ve grown fast in just a few years and that’s thanks to the voluntary work of committed writers, artists and activists and to trade-union support. We’re proud that our mission has been valued by creative workers, readers and the labour movement generally.

We want to refresh and broaden the content of the website and tackle class-based discrimination in publishing by building networks of creative workers. We want too to expand our output in Britain and abroad and support the labour movement in local campaigns for cultural democracy.

To do that we need financial resources, so that we can meet the expenses of running a website and publishing operation and commission more material. You — or your union or trades council — can make donations here or drop us a message at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and we’ll supply our bank details. At the same time, feel free to suggest — or ask for help with — projects to promote cultural democracy.

Coronavirus and culture

It's inevitable that the current coronavirus crisis will affect all kinds of cultural activities, in all kinds of ways. Going to a concert, a film, a football match, a religious service, is never going to be the same again.

The virus has driven us apart. Yet, as socialists, we have always been committed to the way culture brings us together in shared and social activities. Culture gives voice to the values of solidarity, the dignity of work, concern for the poor, celebration of our strength and potential and in imagining a better world.

So how are we going to do that, now? What does a socialist response to the effects of the coronavirus crisis on culture look like? How should things change around the content, management and state support of culture? What does the coronavirus crisis means for our “spiritual enjoyment” of different cultural activities?

To help answer these questions, the Morning Star and Culture Matters will be jointly publishing a series of articles over the next few weeks. Whether we are consuming or creating culture, it’s hoped they will help the discussions and debates about “bread and roses” and how we achieve greater freedom. Please get in touch at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. if you wish to contribute something to the series — an article, review, poem, image or music clip.

Now what? Grieve, care, and rise with your class.....
Friday, 24 April 2020 13:57

Now what? Grieve, care, and rise with your class.....

Written by

Fran Lock continues with the second part of her reflection on working-class resistance and beauty, caring and grieving, struggle and solidarity.

I shaved my hair off yesterday. Our clippers are old and pretty knackered, and the process was hardly as seamless as film and television might have led you to believe, but still, I managed it, in my own typically shambolic way. Newly shorn, I joked with friends and family that my decision was taken in homage to the imaginative sorority of anchorites around whom much of my recent reading and thinking has centred, but in truth it’s not even as complicated as that. At various times in my life I have worn either punk’s aggressively dorsal ‘Mohawk’ or chosen to go full skinhead. It’s simultaneously ‘not that big a deal’ and critically important to me.

I shaved my head for the first time at thirteen. I won’t dwell, but psychologically I wasn’t ‘in a good place’, largely because I wasn’t in a good place in a literal sense either. Since that time both individuals and institutions have insisted on seeing my shaving my head as a sign of instability, a kind of crude barometer of emotional distress. Why else, after all, would a woman or girl choose to do that to herself? This was irksome and outdated even then, but on some level broadly correct: I wasn’t happy.

However, the act was absolutely reasoned and volitional. It was also resistive. It was also joyful. Being passing-pretty in the tedious conventional sense had led to no good place for me, or the other women and girls around me, so my shaving my head was, in the first instance, defensive, my armour against the objectifying gaze of predatory men. More than this, it was a renunciation of the worldview to which that gaze and its crass aesthetic judgements belonged. I didn’t value ‘pretty’, it seemed a shallow metric for self-worth to me. I wanted to publicaly and irreversibly denounce that value system, and everything it wanted or expected me to be. It remains one of the things in my life I am most proud of.

Care for yourself

I bring this up now only because I want to stress and affirm the importance of autonomy and self-care as the necessary precursor to any kind of collective and radical action. When asking what we can do to bring about change, an important step for any woman, but for working-class women, and for working-class queer women in particular, is to begin to unpick the self-strangling, effacement and abnegation of decades.

I’m not talking here about the docile self-coddling of Instagram influencers, I’m talking about Audre Lorde, writing in A Burst of Light that: ‘Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.’ It’s about survival. It’s about preserving yourself in a world that is hostile to your existence, your identity, and by extension, to your communities. In these circumstances honouring your autonomy is also about remembering that not every woman has that opportunity or freedom.

And that’s a beginning, as grieving and carving out the space in which to grieve is a beginning, but it isn’t enough. It’s hard to imagine what is. Every time I try to write intelligently about a way forward, I find myself recapitulating the old prescriptive dictates of ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’, circling a narrow and instrumentalised vision of art and culture that is every bit as monolithic and blinkered as that of the capitalist patriarchy.

I certainly have very strong feelings about the kind of art I want to engage with and produce at the present time: art that isn’t merely ‘about’ our besetting crises; art that moves beyond coronavirus, climate, or capitalism as subject and into a profound textual reckoning with their rhetorics and aesthetics. I want more than the purely topical. I don’t want poems that hoover up our daily pain as imaginative fodder in reactive or exploitative ways. I want stress and rupture on the level of language. I want damage done to theme and form. I want difficulty and discomfort.

But I also want beauty. I want John Clare and Jane Burn offering pyrotechnic prayers to nature. I want Maxo Vanka’s Pieta, and Keats’ ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’. I want Szilvia Bognar singing ‘Lily of the Valley’, and Natalia Goncharova’s Liturgy six winged Seraph. I want dancing in my socks to Billie Idol with my brother. I don’t believe art is less worthy or authentic for being beautiful. And beauty, however seemingly superficial, can kindle hope, can offer us an ‘otherwise’, can say ‘it doesn’t have to be like this’, can lend us strength when everything around us feels abject, lost, or ugly. It preserves and strengthens the spirit, and I wouldn’t wish that portal shut for anyone.

What I don’t want is to temper historical injustice or present crisis with aesthetic pleasure. What I don’t want is to be beholden to some power elite’s defanged idea of beauty, beauty as palliative, as distraction, as a papering of cracks. I want art and poetry whose seeing and saying stimulates; whose seeing and saying is sharpened by experience. I want working-class beauty, beauty with the stakes raised, beauty that feels – and is – hard won. I want moments of ecstasy, flashes of brilliance. I want to read, see, hear, and feel changed.

This is something we can do in our daily lives as artists, sure; these are the issues we can choose to live in sensitised daily communion with, but the burden to produce change, to make space for these voices, shouldn’t be placed on the backs of individual creators. Working-class creators are already overburdened, and our art is integral to the machinery of our survival. You inhibit and homogenise art when you start talking about what people can and can’t make; what their responsibilities are, their sanctioned forms and subjects, the correct way to approach them. You diminish art, and you also – more importantly – damage people. Working-class women in particular have seen enough violence and silencing as it is. How then, do we drive change and speak to crisis effectively? How do we move from mere catharsis into meaningful resistance, collective dissent?

Rise with your class

Obviously, I don’t have all the answers. I’m not sure I have any, and that can be frankly terrifying. If the responsibility for change lies with the seemingly impenetrable systems that administer us – the publishing cohorts, the academies, the funding bodies, etc. – then we can feel overwhelmed, impotent, powerless to act, but we are not. There is always something we can do. I’ve been thinking about that a lot these last few months. Even before coronavirus, my own life had changed in a variety of ways, good and bad, and I’d been thrown into a period of profound reflection about what comes next for me. In poetry and in the academy I have a sneaking suspicion that I’ve come as far as I’ll ever be allowed to go.

This is infinitely frustrating, and there are days I feel like a failure. It helps to understand the dynamics of the system that has put me and keeps me ‘in my place’, but it is nonetheless a struggle to maintain any sense of self-worth of forward motion within a culture that seems explicitly designed to exclude me. I know I’m not the only one who feels like this because a large part of working on Witches, Warriors, Workers with Jane Burn has been about fostering networks of solidarity with women from all walks of life, many with stories to tell about their experiences of exclusion and erasure inside of cultural space. The most important lesson for me from all of those conversations has been: rise with your class, not above it.

Doing for your community raises you. It is succour and soul food in and of itself. It gives you back a sense of agency and control. Truly, this is Lorde’s vision of self-care: an outward-reaching and embracive act of love for your comrades. In practical terms this act of love can look – has looked – like: editorial attention to polyphony and difference; an active seeking out of stories and voices beyond our comfort zones and cohorts. It has been encouraging, including and furthering voices that might not otherwise have been given space. It has been reviewing each other’s work, recommending each other for prizes. It has been taking that work out into the world in unexpected ways: pushing it into elite cultural spaces, and the hearts and hubs of local communities alike.

Struggle for your community

We can do this. Even now, even from our separate anchorite cells, we can connect to the world in ways that bring these voices into focus. We can say ‘hey, this is worthy of attention’ and ‘hey, this demands space.’ This can – and has – looked like specifically foregrounding working-class women’s voices at online festivals, making working-class artistic production the subject of academic essays and conference papers. It has looked like a persistent obtruding onto the notice of publishers, magazine editors, and event organisers. It is not waiting to be invited, not asking to be included, not fretting about looking needy or stupid, but continually stating ‘here I am’ and ‘here we are’ and ‘this deserves to take up space’. It is publicaly questioning ‘why not?’ when they shut the door on you.

Never doubt this process is exhausting. It is a struggle. And here I find my attention returned to the edicts of the anchorites: to suffer without love is a waste of pain, but to understand your struggle as one in common with and on behalf of your community is to give it back purpose and dignity. This is not to make a fetish out of struggle, or working-class resilience, or to lionise it for its own sake, but to remind ourselves that we are not passive, that this pushing forward is work, a political mission.

The Ancerne Wisse (a 13th century guide for anchorites) tells the would-be ascetic to ‘gather into your heart all those who are ill or wretched’ and to remember that the privations and perturbations of secluded life are undertaken on behalf of the community, that you ‘hold up’, others through your sacrifice. This injunction had made the rounds a few times since lockdown started, and it’s easy to see its particular relevance to coronavirus and the practice of self-isolation, but it’s also a useful mantra for any of us, as activists and artists, as women in the world,Any time we’re kettled, arrested, detained without charge; any time our work is rejected, or ignored, or ridiculed; any time we are denied funding, when we are spoken over or shut out; any time we are threatened and bullied legally or physically, we are persisting, we are manifesting resistance, not just for ourselves, but for all of us.

You close the door, I open a window

And once you grasp this thought, you realise that there is so much you can do, a thousand tiny acts of everyday solidarity. My favourite of these has to do with access. By making work available for free; by disseminating art and poetry widely online, we can tip the balance of power away from the old publishing elites. Obviously, not everybody has access to the internet, and I don’t want to uncritically trumpet technology as the saviour of working-class art and literature, but it does open up possibilities. It changes what’s available to us in terms of form, what we can technically achieve. Colour can be present to a greater degree; the spatial relationships between text and image can diverge in extreme and surprising ways, and most of all, our ability to collaborate with and choreograph a variety of voices expands ten-fold.

Our implied audience changes too, because we are removing artistic production from its usual elite haunts. We are connecting to each other, we are talking to each other, deciding and refining our own tastes and ideas, not relying upon on some middle-class editorial filter to tell us what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ art. When cultural elites close a door, we can repurpose a window. And isolation might provide the impetus to these projects, but their staying power is potentially limitless.

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. This doesn’t mean we stop trying to breach their protected enclaves, but there is tremendous value in carving out space for ourselves on our own terms. Peter Raynard’s Proletarian Poetry has been offering one such invaluable space for years, and it’s time for more.

These thoughts keep me energised at a time when it’s tempting to sink into the lethargy of depression. Trapped in the house for hours every day, with the literal reminders of my failure to escape the economic and social precarity into which I was born, has been wearing. More wearing is that I have no real outlet for these thoughts and feelings. It isn’t that I’ve not been given the opportunity to celebrate my achievements, but I’ve found that those celebrations tend to minimise or outright invisiblise the unequal effort involved, in favour of some endlessly tiresome version of the self-transcending narrative: that my achievements as a working-class person are the result of exceptional individual talent or skill. And that’s wrong. If I rise at all I do so with the help of or at the expense of other working-class people. The space I occupy I had to compete with others for, and the place I attained has been granted to me through a combination of hard work, insanely good luck, and the almost extravagant kindness of those who went before me, leaning down and giving me a hand up.

This is something else that it is important to acknowledge at every opportunity. When you’re given a platform, talk about where you came from, and how lucky you are; honour those who helped you on the way, and remind your listeners how unfair it is that luck has to come into it at all. Tell the truth, even when they call you militant and shrill, even when you make them palpably uncomfortable. Know where and to whom your gratitude belongs, and know what and who has kept you back.

Without my dear friend and mentor, Roddy Lumsden, I wouldn’t be about to complete my Ph.D. I wouldn’t be publishing poetry at all. Roddy was a tireless champion not just of my work, but of any work he believed in, irrespective of aesthetic disposition, irrespective of where it came from. Roddy wasn’t narrowly political, he just wanted exciting and vibrant work to be heard because it mattered to him, he really cared, and in caring he gouged out cultural space for queer poets, BAME poets, working-class poets and Traveller poets. He furthered our reach and he taught many of us how to respect ourselves as creators, even when the outside world doesn’t want to.

Which is where, I think, I came in, with the importance of grieving, of honouring our dead. Isolation affords us this opportunity, to think about who we are and the kind of work we want to do in the world; to remember that we are not really alone, but part of a long continuity of mutual care, links in the chain.

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