Monday, January 23, 2017

A story of jobs and growth that UK business doesn't want told

Everyone's talking about trade deals. And with trade deals, business. For the UK has stuff to sell. Statistics show weapons, cars, drugs, crude and refined oil. But mostly we're selling services.

And this is where it becomes interesting for those of us working in the arts. The arts aren't on in the trade deal agenda. Cars are mentioned, financial services and other exports. But as The Economist warned recently there's no "golden era of trade" coming. I mean, the US bans haggis imports!

Quite a lot is not being told. And consistently off the agenda is a story the Tories themselves describe as one of the UK's greatest successes. The arts and the artists, the writers and publishers, the music and get the idea.

Creative industries have created more jobs that any other sector and increased UK exports.

So why are we being force fed the language of monstrous men whose names we can't bring ourselves to mention? Why does the news every morning, at the moment, sound like an episode of Taboo?

Is it because this story will generate panic, envy and fury among those whose vocabulary is governed by phrases such as: going forward, track record, brand awareness, digital penetration, like-for-like. This story of how, against all odds, almost mythically, the uncontrollable, free-thinking, rebellious individuals who make up the creative industries have made good, despite refuting the language of powerpoint, team-building and mission statements.

More than made good, in fact. Ed Vaizey, a former minister for culture spelled it out: "The creative industries are one of the UK's greatest success stories...."

That's me, that's my friends Jane Fordham, David Parfitt, Michaela Ridgway, Suzannah Dunn, David Kendall, Moniza Alvi and many, many more. That's my kids, my ex and my mum. It's my dedicated and inspiring publisher, Arc in Todmorden, Fabrica Gallery in Brighton, it's the Poetry Business in Sheffield and Modern Poetry in Translation, it's PigHog poetry, it's Rich Mix in London and The Dark Horse magazine in Edinburgh. It's AudioActive and all the struggling promotors of music, spoken word, the small presses, the editors, the painters, photographers and curators.

The facts overturn the stereotype of the artist with her head in the clouds who's afraid of business. Of the bumbling creative who's incompetent with cash and figures, of the radical who's ideologically opposed to making money. Because despite ourselves we are generating work and we're good at it.

So this raises questions. Firstly, why suppress a success story? Censor it almost?
Giya Makondo-Wills,
documentary photographer

Is it that we have no lobbyists and vested interests? Is it that we are small and speak our minds? That we satirise the establishment's attempts to pull the wool over our eyes with 'alternative facts', an establishment that would rather ignore the facts and pay subsidies to the failing businesses of friends?

The story at its most basic nests in the Creative Industries Economic Estimates (January 2016), Department for Culture, Media and Sport. A press release from the time states: "The UK's creative industries are now worth a record £84.1 billion to the UK economy....British films, music, video games, crafts and publishing are taking a lead role in driving the UK's economic recovery, according to the latest Government statistics.

"The figures show the sector growing at almost twice the rate of the wider UK economy - generating £9.6 million per hour. And this success is set to last, with a strong line-up of British talent and creativity in 2016 promising yet another blockbuster year ahead."

I'll repeat that: at almost twice the rate of the wider UK economy.....

Vaisey's department found:
- The rise in Gross Added Value (GVA) of the creative industries between 2008 and 2014 was 37.5% higher than any other sector.
- The Creative Economy had grown by a quarter (24.9%) since 2011, at a rate faster than the whole of the UK economy, which grew by 12.1 % over the same period."
- Creative jobs are increasing at a higher rate than the rest of the economy. It is responsible for 1 in 12 UK jobs.
-  Exports are increasing.
- The Creative economy has grown by a quarter since 2011 "at a rate faster than the whole of the UK economy, which grew by 12.1 per cent. This rise has primarily been led by the growth of the creative industries."

Mrisi Makondo Wills
A year has passed and Ed Vaizey has been replaced by Matthew Hancock who it seems is best known for setting out on foot to play cricket at the north pole in 2005. He developed frostbite. And perhaps politicians like him and the wild-haired blonds, are why we hear most from the manufacturing lobby promoting their arms, planes, cars, construction, drugs, electronics, plastics, nuclear, furniture, textiles, space inventions, food and drink.

So I'll turn to the late John Berger to explain why the powerful are afraid of the arts: "I can’t tell  you what art does and how it does it, but I know that art has often judged the judges, pleaded revenge to the innocent and shown to the future what the past has suffered, so that it has never been forgotten. I know too that the powerful fear art, whatever its form, when it does this, and that amongst the people such art sometimes runs like a rumor or a legend because it makes sense of what life’s brutalities cannot, a sense that unites us, for it is inseparable from a justice at last. Art, when it functions like this, becomes a meeting-place of the invisible, the irreducible, the enduring, guts and honor."

In these days of unemployment, of the endless unfolding other world of Twitter, those of us who are in the creative industries must prepare our crib sheets to tell the story no-one wants told.

Monday, January 09, 2017

Becoming unemployable

When I woke up after nearly two weeks of several types of cheese, crackers, wine, cake, pastry, sauces, spirits and above all, chocolate, the drive to clear shelves that started before Christmas and was suspended for present-swapping and eating came back even stronger.

It was as if I was standing at the tree recycling space on the Level, breathing in the smell of forest.

This month I am 62. My last summer was ruined by neighbours' endless building work and for some reason it still bothers me. Perhaps because the summers in front of me are numbered. Or that I needed to get manure for the allotment. Recently I had been dreaming about being surrounded by giant fish.

Whatever the reason. I woke up, went to my laptop, opened Gmail and wrote my resignation. I've thought about that decision quite a bit since. It halved my already diabolical income (around £9,000 pa) from so-called teaching. But the course I was 'teaching' on has been a nightmare from the start and I felt more mistreated than I have since I worked for Goldsmiths University for a year. In fact, when I queried the fact that it wasn't teaching, I was told I wasn't meant to be. I was meant to be moderating.

The Literary Agency, Curtis Brown, puts it succinctly in publicity for its own creative writing course: "Right now, writing schools are multiplying like mould on jam."

The Open University, my employer, describes the group of associate lecturers it employs to deliver its creative writing courses as "a vibrant and experienced group of over a hundred and fifty practising writers". Its website adds: "Since 2003 The Open University has recruited over 30,000 students to its undergraduate creative writing modules. These have proved enormously popular with students…."

I have had a lot of respect for the OU, particularly in the quality of the course materials for A215, the course I still work on. I admire its clarity in marking criteria and the care it takes to discuss marking criteria among ALs each year. But let's face it, as an AL I am cannon fodder. I am delivering a course other people have been very well paid to write, I probably put in more hours than I am paid for (most ALs do) and have next to no contact with the far better paid academics based in Milton Keynes. I have never felt valued, let's say.

It's a capitalist arrangement, of course. I work, I am paid. At my age why would I need anything more? Well…. every year in September I am kept waiting to see if there will be enough students to re-employ me. I have been working for the OU for at least 10 years and I still don't know, year on year, if there will be work in September.

Many have written about the exploitation of casual staff. I don't quite qualify as that with the OU but it is still precarious. There is no career progression. The OU charges each student £2,786 for the course I've been working on for a decade. On average I have a tutor group of around 15. My group, therefore, generates income for the OU of more than £40,000 and I am paid around £5,000.

It doesn't take a major intelligence to work out that creative writing's a money spinner. As Curtis Brown so aptly puts it, there are plenty of courses out there being delivered by people like me who are earning a pittance to enable institutions to make profit.

And the one I rather rapidly realised wasn't for me will be earning a fortune. But I felt like I was working in a call centre.

I am as sick of these unchallenged arrangements in which working conditions are regarded as irrelevant, or an inconvenience, or something to be put up with out of desperation, as I am of the books gathering dust that went to the charity shop on December 21, the plates, cushions and old sleeping bags that went to Shabitat the same day.

Fucked over by the government so I can't claim my pension till I'm 66, I am now earning less per day than I was 25 years ago. So I am increasingly intolerant and have decided that this year is an experiment in being frugal and shuffling off the exploiters. It may leave me with no work at all. It may be I've become unemployable.

The one light on the horizon, excuse the cliche, is the Royal Literary Fund, which is (aside from the National Union of Journalists) probably one of the only institutions in the UK that respects writers, pays us properly and has our interests at heart. The current wave of strikes on public transport may be irritating, but I say, go for it and thank god someone is still standing up for working conditions.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

The history business

Two ugly sisters, apparently, in Hever Castle
The car was warning me. As we approached Hever Castle on the winding roads of the Sussex/Kent border, a sharp ringing started up underneath our seats. We drove into the mist, trying to ignore it, Giya's boyfriend battling with car sickness.

Although I've been to Hever a couple of times, Jan Willem is a fan of castles. He's visiting from the Netherlands and had missed out on seeing Hever the last time he was here. It's not easy to get to on public transport, but in the Christmas/New Year limbo, with industrial action on top, I took pity and said I'd drive.

I made sandwiches, packed slices of Mum's Christmas cake, mince pies, nut brittle, filled three flasks with tea, coffee and hot chocolate and we were prepared.

It was cold and damp when we got out of the car near the jousting field, and wandered towards the house. I was surprised by how busy it was and then we turned a corner. In front of the castle, masking our view of the entrance across the moat, was a funfair. Later I would notice the deafening music, but for now, we headed over the moat and into the courtyard clutching our tickets.

It took a while to sink in, but a bundle of rags hanging from a window was Rapunzel. A badly pasted sign told us the castle had a pantomime theme. Far worse was to come.
The largest Christmas tree made it impossible
to appreciate the portrait of Henry.

There were a lot of visitors, too many to fit into its small rooms. And someone had been determined to put a Christmas tree, garland, baubles or table decoration in every available corner and on every surface. It was impossible to stand and look or even consider the story we were walking through - that of Henry VIII, who cut off the head of a woman who was brought up here and then gave the house away to another of his wives.

Where was the story of incest and adultery? Anne's role as the mother of Elizabeth 1? Why were these stories being shoved aside in favour of badly presented summaries of fairy tales?

Anne Boleyn
We pushed on, bemused by each new tree (wasn't one enough?) and clutch of baubles. A wicked witch sat at one of the windows with a bottle marked poison. Seven small beds (belonging to the seven dwarves) were pushed up against the wall in the Staircase Gallery and a confused tourist asked his partner what they were there for.

We found Sleeping Beauty in King Henry's Bedchamber - the four poster randomly draped in strands of plastic ivy - and Snow White had been put up in the Waldegrave Room's  four poster, which was "decorated" with birds.

Thumbs up from Snow White for the birdsong CD
I failed to count how many trees were crammed into the 16th century long gallery along with a mysterious round tent for children under 16 only, as I tried to peer behind them at historical stuff on the walls, stumbling on towards another display of mannequins, including Cinderella's ugly sisters who appeared to be dressed in an amalgamation of bargains from the British Heart Foundation, Poundland and a joke shop.

And towards the end of the gallery, a prince and princess stood in a white and silver grotto.

Elizabeth 1 - Anne's daughter

Pantomime at Hever,
Risenga in front of a
Prince and Princess
enjoying a white Christmas
There was a queue to leave after we'd trooped through the torture room, featuring Robin Hood and where someone had thoughtfully placed a couple of child-sized bows and arrows in another window well.

So, to our picnic....we headed for a spare table and started to unpack until we realised that there was a hidden speaker in yet another festive display and it was pumping out volume. There was nowhere to hide. We bagged a spot under a heater where it was marginally quieter and decided to head for the lake (via the maze) for some peace from the tat, fairy lights, tasteless versions of Christmas and forced jollity. Even the topiary had been draped in lights.

As well as being acclaimed for its collection of Tudor portraits, Hever's won prizes for its gardens. The lake walk was a relief from the relentless tackiness of the house - mist over the water, Canada geese in flight, the willows and pavilion. Then we saw the blue and lime green LED floodlights beaming through the mist (the lime green was flashing).

The only truth in the day, the only really uplifting moment, was watching the geese lift off from the end of the lake and settle again in the sky's reflection under the mist.

I wondered if I was wrong to moan about the tat and baubles in every corner of a mainly reconstructed interior until I gasped out loud at the drab Sleeping Beauty, utterly without magic or anything in fact to make a story work, in her tired wig and dressing up costume, in the bed of this vicious king.... and the woman next to me said 'Yes'. She also had been wondering what the hell Hever was thinking.

And I realised I was embarrassed. Because we'd brought a visitor from the Netherlands, because there were tourists from Japan, the US, France, Spain, Germany, China, also squeezing through these rooms that they'd been lured to by the history business. It's bad enough having to discuss Brexit.

I was embarrassed that someone had not considered historical accuracy - the Tudor masquerades, mumming, the importance of the Lord of Misrule. I was embarrassed by the shoddy quality of it all, which seemed to indicate the paying public really didn't matter because having travelled all this way, who was going to make a fuss and ruin a day out? I was embarrassed because I have been to many historical sites in my years of travelling and only once, in Tenerife, seen anything as bad as Hever's gaudy attempt at Christmas.

As we walked back to the car we wondered why, if they wanted installations to reflect the seasons, they (whoever they is in the management of the castle) hadn't employed light artists to do something outside and set designers to do something inside. Or maybe history doesn't matter now, or the visitor history in fact an inconvenience for those in the history business? And why was the only room they didn't touch that of the Astor's?

Hever Castle is owned by Broadland Properties Limited. It is a member of the Historic Houses Association.