Posts Tagged ‘cultural life’

Trespassers W.

June 24, 2011

Riverwood – photograph by Liz Mathews

Let us trespass at once.  Literature is no one’s private ground; literature is common ground.  It is not cut up into nations; there are no wars there.  Let us trespass freely and fearlessly and find our own way for ourselves.  It is thus that English literature will survive… if commoners and outsiders like ourselves make that country our own country.

(Virginia Woolf, The Leaning Tower.)

This advice should seem more dated than it is.  When it was written, in 1940, Virginia Woolf envisaged a future (if there was a cultural future) in which ‘commoners’ would have such free access to library books and education that nothing but their own diffidence could keep them from trespassing on the hallowed ground of Eng.Lit. and claiming it as common land for the republic of readers.

In this mass trespass she imagined the canonical greats, Shakespeare et al, (‘if they could speak – and after all they can’) encouraging the rabble with cries of ‘Read me, read me for yourselves.’  ‘They do not mind if we get our accents wrong, or have to read with a crib in front of us’, she reassured the hitherto-excluded.  ‘We shall trample many flowers and bruise much ancient grass.’

It’s a kind of bashfulness, a feeling that it’s not for them, that still keeps some people – even those who are able to read and have access to reading materials – off the imagined grass.  Yet a voice like Woolf’s, a lawless encourager of the outsider, can lead us waltzing onto those forbidden lawns, picnicing, admiring the view, swimming in the lake. Fortunately, there are now – still – many writers and thinkers and fellow-readers who can help each other to travel this pleasant path.

The advice that we should ‘find our own way for ourselves’ is, in its context, perhaps a rebuttal of the elitist education which created a divide between in- and outsiders; a reassurance that we can do it independently. But it also serves as a warning against false maps; repetitive directions along the same old routes with unnecessary guides always asking for money. (The  financial exploitation of even the literature market contrasts sharply with Woolf’s hopeful prophecy of the future; ‘Money is no longer going to do our thinking for us’.)

To set against the excesses of commercialism are the many literary enterprises – small presses, independent publishers, book festivals, poems on the tube, radio programmes, blogs, local bookshops – that are latterday encouragers of reading without boundaries.  They exist perforce within the capitalist world, but not primarily to serve it;  in fact, they have a completely different priority, which is to spread the word.

This summer, I’m participating in one of the world’s biggest literary events, the Edinburgh International Book Festival, which is very exciting.  As well as reading from my own book, I’ll also be reading as part of the Amnesty Imprisoned Writers series; both events on Monday 15th August.  The festival takes place in the Charlotte Square Gardens in Edinburgh, and somehow the idea of all those writers and readers celebrating literature on the grass of a garden square reminds me irresistably of Virginia Woolf’s ‘trespass at once’, even if the trespassers are – on this occasion – welcome.

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Music & Memory

January 7, 2011

Reeds – photograph by Liz Mathews

Ever since the last waltz of the New Year’s Day concert from Vienna faded away – actually the Radetzky March, as always – I’ve been enjoying the Mozartfest on Radio 3.  It’s a good time of year to play ‘every note he wrote’, and it’s evidently very popular, perhaps especially with the audiences who listen to classical music in the background for much of the time.  But the programmers must feel a certain sense of can’t win, when their own Radio Times – which usually complains vociferously at any ‘challenging’ or overtly contemporary music – now condescendingly describes this Mozart-feast as ‘saccharine’.  (Obviously not listened to Don Giovanni recently…)

What I’ve found most moving, among all the pleasures of the season so far, is the huge personal importance of this music to so many people.  It means so much, not only in itself, but in the memories it carries.  Far more than any Proustian madeleine, certain pieces of Mozart conjure up the past, by evoking experience, feeling, character, emotion, with such subtlety and irresistable truth.

We’ve heard of people roused from coma by a favourite concerto, or comforted in their pain by the sublime music, of its effects of enlightenment or transfiguration, and in particular of its power to communicate.  This is so profound that the usual boundaries between so-different people become fluid, or even vanish entirely, until there seems to be an invisible community of listeners united in their feeling for Mozart’s work.

In an unexpectedly touching way the Play Mozart for me request programme in the evenings has shown how – in that altered state of listening – so many people remember the music-lovers who they have loved, and feel close to them even if they’re far away or long dead, with a certainty that somehow they must hear such heavenly music too.

Stop our ears

December 1, 2010

Pine cones – photograph by Liz Mathews

Will truth be quicker found because we stop our ears to music and drink no wine, and sleep instead of talking through the long winter night?

(Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader)

A question suggesting the answer ‘no’.  (A rhetorical question only relevant to anyone who might consider truth-seeking important.)  But the negative image it conjures – of a sleeping people, deaf to music, disinclined to celebration or inspiration, without conversation – seems an uneasy vision of the possible alternative.  It’s not so much a puritanical refusal of pleasure and sociability which is sketched in, as a lethargic denial of vivid existence, a preference for hibernation and insensibility.  In that opiate state there is no possibility of seeking truth, or of living brightly; during the centuries of enforced sleep, thorn-forests grow up, castle walls crumble, stories are forgotten.  Then it takes a heroic effort to awaken the sleepers.

Resistance to this dark oblivion is possible; or possible at least for those fortunate ones who are still able to hear music and talk, who have wine and warmth for those long winter nights, who can make common cause in their waking.  Gathering darkness is the time to make seasonal preparations, both for the chill winter and the turn of the year, the returning sun. Far from sleeping through the long winter nights, stopping our ears to music, drinking no wine, avoiding speech about what concerns us so deeply, we will remain inconveniently awake both as artists and audiences; truth-seeking, talkative, ears open.

Even in dark theatres

October 29, 2010

Bridge reflection – photograph by Liz Mathews

In all the wailing and gnashing of teeth over the arts cuts, there has been an oft-repeated word of comfort; ‘the arts will survive’.  This is often prefaced by ‘let’s face it’ or some other exhortation to be sensible.  After all, if the entire state is being dismantled, who are we to complain if our bit goes too?  Then, there’s much talk about ways of managing to create art without any funding, new strategies, the alternative approaches long used by non-establishment artists and so on.

Comment is superfluous on the bland corporate responses of most arts organisations, who evidently fear that outspoken opposition will jeopardise their own positions yet more.  It’s also all too obvious that the cutting of the arts budget doesn’t make any commercial sense, but is politically motivated.  (Lyn Gardner, writing in The Guardian, has been particularly convincing on the financial value of British theatre, and the high returns it gives for relatively low investment.)

A cursory glance at the discussions taking place shows that the divisive strategy of making people believe that they have to choose between arts funding and, say, hospitals or schools, has been very successful; (the idea that we might choose between arts and nuclear missiles, or arts and bankers’ bonuses, seems less prevalent.)  Also frequent is the false implication that ‘the arts’ are some rarified and separate minority interest, with no impact on anyone’s life, unless they go to grand opera twice a week.  But it doesn’t matter.  ‘The arts will survive, right?’

Of course they will.  Even in the supposedly golden age that’s now over, the vast majority of people who worked in the arts did so on a vocational basis – that is, they would have got more money doing something else.  (One of the things that unnerves governments about art is that it so often presents values which are non-capitalist, undermining the unquestioning acceptance of that system, not only in theory but also in the way many artists actually live.)

The arts will survive, not only because artists will carry on doing it anyway, even if it doesn’t pay, but also because our cultural life is too vital a fire to be stamped out quite that quickly.  Yesterday, I went to the Roundhouse in Camden to buy tickets for the RSC’s winter season in London – already virtually sold out.  This is one of the so-called ‘front line’ theatre companies, in other words an arena of real creation that’s also establishment status symbol tourist-magnet, but  – to be cut anyway.

Then I was sent this interesting flyer for a play by Maureen Duffy, also on in Camden in November at Theatro Technis, put on without the vast resources of the RSC, in the best traditions of professional off-West End live theatre.  It’s this, the strength of our theatre scene, the multiplicity of possibility, the variousness and vitality of it, that makes us so lucky – not only in London.  It’s the same inspiring story in so many different areas of creation, some of which have never been publicly funded, or only in a modest local way.

So, yes, of course the arts will survive, even flourish, against all the odds of climate.  In hard times, books will survive without libraries, drama will survive when theatres are dark, music will be played, art made in all its strange and beautiful forms.  Artists of all sorts will make their work in difficult conditions, audiences of whatever kind will struggle to witness, participate, celebrate.  We know from our own history, as well as from the contemporary experiences of other countries, that when art is banned – whether because music, dancing and plays are sinful, or because the message that literature or visual art speaks is too dangerous – its power grows.

Our arts funding may have been so drastically reduced that it’s officially considered inevitable that the cultural life of the whole country must shrivel, yet it seems that an alternative possibility is simultaneously envisaged, based on the legendary capacity of artists to survive in garrets, and audiences to seek out the art they desire even under the most dangerous circumstances.   But the existence of that hopeful vision doesn’t legitimise the idea that, so long as what concerns us all so deeply ‘survives’, however diminished, we can’t really complain.

Waiting for the Barbarians

July 28, 2010

French number – photograph by Liz Mathews

I overheard some professional philistine on the radio in a shop, demanding what good it ever did anyone to learn French, especially now you can book your hotel room over the internet. (This somewhat ignores the reality of actual arrival in a Parisian hotel, but that is another story.)  The opinion was expressed with enormous self-satisfaction at the possessor’s plain-spoken insular common sense.  But surely even someone (like me) who unfortunately lacks fluent French themselves can comprehend the mind-expanding possibilities of knowing another language, having access to another culture’s riches?  Who could want to collaborate in depriving children of the opportunity – at least – to learn so much for so little?  Only someone who is against knowledge itself, who prefers the safety of ignorance for the future, the cutting of communication between as many cultures as possible, so that we can all sink self-satisfied back into our mire.  Nostalgie de la Boue, indeed.

Everyone is outraged when hospitals are run by managers who only care about profits, but what about schools where nothing is taught except what is needed for animal existence?  How can anyone who has devoted their life to learning bear to be told that it is valueless?  What will happen if we don’t teach anything but money-related pseudo-subjects?  The only possible result will be an increased polarisation between the priviliged (and eccentric) few who independently maintain their private culture, and the rest who only have access to a bogus celebrity culture.  

Now that there’s an opportunity for philistine ideology to be expressed with such pleasure, and vehemence, the old claims re-emerge that the arts are elitist, not for the masses. If art – and education, too – can be presented as merely a status symbol for the rich, then its funding by the government may seem inappropriate, its loss unimportant. This fear of intellectualism has always been a factor of British life, and the perceived divide between ‘intellectuals’ and ‘workers’ has been very useful in preventing any common cause.  It goes with the fears of women, homosexuals, foreigners, vegetarians, artists, etc, etc, which are still major factors in maintaining this unequal society.  As it’s a matter of education, it is self-replicating; the argument is circular, the prophecy self-fulfilling.  

Just as a false dichotomy can be set up between affording health or the arts, false competition can be set up between different arts organisations, between departments in universities, or different disciplines.  While these potential allies argue, the fabric around is dismantled.  I have been amazed to read academics bickering in print about the merits of teaching the humanities at all, or British academics taking issue with Americans for lamenting the loss of departments in our universities (not their business – or the business of the entire scholarly community?), or arts organisations unable to justify their existence except in terms of money.  This is the tactic of ‘divide and rule’ indeed.  

The Greeks who protest in the streets about cuts to the funding of their cultural life, among other areas of society, call the perpetrators ‘Barbarians’; an insult with a long history, beginning with the lack of a language in which to understand each other.  In this modern context, I don’t think the concept is over-emotional, I think it is a recognition that there are people who actually like the idea of destroying culture. We have barbarians here too, who will be only too delighted to bring back the dark ages, if we let them.