Landmark


An essay on a collabortive art project in Sheffield

Words: Kenn Taylor
Images: Shared Programme

Landmark is an art project created through collaboration between artists Emilie Taylor and Christopher Jarratt and eleven people they met at Project 6, a drug and alcohol support service.

On a baking hot day in Sheffield, I meet six of those eleven, Sam, Ben, Ruth, Matt, Lee and Dave. Along with Emilie and Christopher, who details the concept at the heart of the project: “We wanted to map and tell the stories of people’s journeys and moments of great change in their lives through the languages of imagery, colour and craft. Inspired by the symbolism from Sheffield’s past, we settled on pilgrim flasks and banners as the artefacts to hold and tell these stories.”

We meet in the yard of Yorkshire Artspace, with the pilgrim flasks laid out, their glazes glinting in the sun. I ask the group what they thought of these themes when they were presented with them. Lee says, “We were going in blind. But I like history, and the images shown by Chris and Emilie, the references were medieval, so I was quite happy with that. The broader context of us all going on a pilgrimage, that’s what we’ve done through this process.”

Christopher responds, “When we presented it, I did sense some hesitation, understandably so, but everyone got on board. Dealing with hard things in your life, if you can abstract them a bit, I think it helps. Embedding our stories into craft I feel is one of the most ancient and effective ways of making sense of the world.”

They met every Friday over 14 weeks, beginning each session talking about whatever came up for them, then drawing and printing in response. Lee details the impact this process had on them: “The most evocative part, drawing something every week, from our thoughts and feelings, opened up something new. That really connected us, was the glue that tied us in.”

After talking and drawing, they moved to creating objects. For the first seven weeks, they crafted the clay pilgrim flasks. For the remaining seven, they dyed and sewed large cloth pennants. 

Emilie says, “Making the drawings and letting what was under the surface speak could be emotionally deep and very heavy. Moving into material processes offered a way to sit with the weight of feeling in the room. Craft holds space. There were times, I remember dyeing the fabric after very difficult conversations, the mood transformed into all of us having an absolute riot.”

“We had big buckets. We did it as a communal thing,” Sam recalls. They tell me the wind was up the day they did the dyeing. Ruth points to the BBC building behind us, “we had visions of having to go to Radio Sheffield to get our flags back!”

Locations around the city that had significant meanings to individual group members became a focus as the project developed. They decided to dedicate one session to visiting places they’d each chosen. After arriving, they’d share what it meant to them and this was audio recorded. Later, footage was taken of the places and merged with the audio to create a film which forms part of the project.

It’s clear this revisitation of locations which held strong and sometimes painful memories had a significant impact on them. Ruth says, “My place was the Millennium Gallery; I went in again recently. It’s almost like it’s been exorcised from me, through this process. I used to only associate it with bad things, but it’s very different now for me.”

Dave agrees, “Like the park, I have found peace with it now. I go and sit at the bridge and listen to the running water. It’s that journey.”

The film is quietly meditative, its long, drawn out shots of the locations soundtracked by the group members’ heartfelt reflections. It creates an alternative map of the city through the lived experience of these individuals. Ben says of the final film, “Some of it was traumatic, but the sense of recovery and hope, that overrides any of that harrowing stuff. It was very honest, it needed to be spoken about.”

I ask about the images they chose for their flasks and banners. “I drew a wheelie bin full of empty wine bottles,” Ruth explains. “I never realised how much stress that would cause me during my addiction. I like to listen now when they empty my bin, it’s not the nosiest, not the heaviest on the street anymore. But I’d not dealt with that; it was still in there. This has aided my healing, to me forgiving myself.”

Ben says, “The symbols on my flask, I initially described them very matter of factly, they’re just magnifying glasses with eyes. Then someone said they’re quite surreal. And then I talked about how at the time I was under so much scrutiny with psychiatrists, and it links to being under that lens, stigmatised by society.”

Landmark is being exhibited in September 2022, Recovery Month, at Yorkshire Artspace and also on billboards across Sheffield. Emilie links this back to the original concept: “Pennants would have once hung from Sheffield Castle ramparts, welcoming travellers home. The flags of journeys travelled today will hang across the city on advertising hoardings.”

“For me what’s important about the banners being detached from the exhibition,” says Lee, “is if someone is driving past, they’ll be like ‘what’s that’, it will reach a far bigger audience.” The billboards will feature QR codes, to encourage people to find out more. “They will go on a journey with us. There’s a lot more to say,” he concludes.

I ask the group, looking back now, what difference they think the project has made to them. “I have grown and made myself well through this process,” Ben says. “Of course it’s been alongside therapy and other things I engage with, but this has helped no end.”

“I have a friend who has been supportive through my recovery,” Ruth says, “but doesn’t get it, me taking part in a project like this. Why would she. I didn’t get it either, before I came. It’s made me braver, to try new things. My confidence has grown.”

Christopher and Emilie collaborated with an existing community, one whose bonds were forged through the recovery process. Through this, a new temporary creative community was formed. I ask them both if they see initiating this formation as part of their artistic practice, alongside their creative skills. Christopher responds, “In short, yes. I want people to feel empowered and gain a sense of ownership over space and place through learning, skill sharing and creating work with a legacy and an inherent quality.”

Formally trained artists and those not formally trained coming together to share time, skills, knowledges and experiences and create something in collaboration, has a long tradition. It is given many different names, social practice, community art, etc, but the kernel of why it can be powerful is how it can carve a new space for all of those involved.

Exploring and exposing parts of your inner self through making art can be a challenging process. This can contribute to personal development and healing. But in creating these works around their experiences of recovery, the group have also opened up new channels for others engaging with the artworks to reflect on their own lives. Expanding communication across dividing lines. At a fundamental level, contributing to us understanding ourselves and each other better.

Lee says, “I have got hardened to the prejudice and the stigma; I can play out how it is going to go. It doesn’t define me as a person.” Those dealing with addiction, like many with less power in society, so often have their stories defined by others. Having access to your own forms of creative expression, being encouraged and given a platform for them, is essential in people being able to turn that around and speak directly of their own experiences to others. Doing this is a reclaiming of power. And it is partially because of how powerful this can be, that such access to creative expression is frequently denied and discouraged in people, one way or another.

The more you get used to expressing yourself, the more comfortable it can feel. Earlier steps though require bravery and often support. Chris unfolds some of the bright and bold banners that will soon be seen around Sheffield. I ask the group if they plan to carry on their creativity after Landmark. There is a chorus of agreement. Two members of the group have recently enrolled in degrees, influenced by taking part in the project.

“It’s reawakened in me a passion I have always had for art,” Ben says enthusiastically. “I will definitely be continuing the journey.”

Lee agrees, “I have started to write poems again and I have carried that on. It’s a nice creative process for me and I don’t think I would have done that if it wasn’t for this project.”

Dave sums up, “We’re waiting for the next one.”

This piece was commisioned and published as part of the Landmark collabortive art project which took place over eight months in 2021-22. The outcomes from the project where exhibited in Yorkshire Artspace and around Sheffield in September 2022. You can download the exhibition catalouge below.

On cardigans, accents and mis-shapes

By Kenn Taylor

But you don’t sound like you’re from Merseyside?
So you’ve lost your accent?
Did you go to a good school then?

I am tired of these questions. Every one of which is laced with prejudice and projection, even if those asking don’t intend it. Aside from any personal frustration at them, what’s more important is they illustrate some of the skewed perceptions that many middle-class people have in their encounters with working-class people.

Whilst my accent isn’t the strongest going, it is the one I have had my whole life. A mixture, not untypical, of my mum’s Liverpudlian, my dad’s Lancastrian, and me growing up in an overspill estate of Birkenhead—a place where accents range from the strongest ‘Scouse’ to basically exactly how I sound, varying even from door to door.

These questions first came up when I went to university locally in Liverpool and were almost always from middle-class students from the south. Many couldn’t seem to grasp that in a metropolitan area of 1.5 million people, there is both variation and commonality in speech and accent that comes from a complex mix of cultures and migration. This confounded their media-driven expectations about the area and its people. When years later I moved away for work, living all over the country and working for predominantly middle- to upper-class cultural organisations, such questions became even more common, and were often asked after just meeting someone.

I found these questions most often came from people who’d spent the least amount of time in Merseyside, yet considered themselves for some reason to be experts on how people from the region sounded—as well as on what the ‘local character’ was. Many would, without invitation, want to share their thoughts on this with me.

More interestingly, I noticed it became something to challenge me on: ‘But you’re not really a Scouser’, I was told, though this was something I never claimed to be—nevermind that what a Scouser is in reality is pretty ambiguous anyway. Especially when the dockland communities that Scouse culture emerged from were as much in towns like Bootle and Birkenhead more so  than suburban parts of Liverpool itself. As well as this, many dockland communities were moved from riverside neighbourhoods to new towns and housing estates miles inland, often in different boroughs and counties. In short, as those of us with personal experience know, working class and regional identities, accents, and cultures are complex and multi-layered. Many people do not want to engage with this though, because it confounds their comfortable assumptions.

The challenge implicit in this question, of course, is the assumption that being ‘Scouse’ has a particular form and characteristic, an ‘other’ that can easily be defined by someone else based on the signifier of an accent. This challenge was often accompanied by follow-up questions like: ‘So were you middle class then?’ or ‘So you went to a good school?’ I answered, for context, no to both. My dad was a railway fitter and my mum a cleaner and we lived in a working-class community. My dad became disabled and couldn’t work so I grew up largely on benefits, eligible for free school-meals et al. I went to a bog standard secondary modern school and worked for a couple of years before attending Liverpool John Moores University, as the first person in my family to enter higher education. Yet merely because my accent didn’t fit some people’s expectations around class and regional identity, I would often find my experience and identity being interrogated.

After such encounters, I often asked myself why I should have to explain any of this? Why do people feel entitled to ask such prying questions and make such statements, especially in a professional context? When you are usually just trying to respond quickly to the initial common question, ‘Where are you from then?’ why should you have to make the effort to satisfy their curiosity? A curiosity which, in reality, is about whether I and indeed other working-class people and people from Merseyside conform, or not, to their prejudices and assumptions. But you are judged too if you don’t want to respond to such questions or take issue with them. 

All this is a demonstration of the boxes that many middle- and upper-class people put working-class people in: a projection of what they want and expect from working-class people. The working class, it is assumed, have thick accents. Being from Liverpool, it is assumed, means being working class, whereas being from, say York, means being middle class. This is, of course, nonsense. Liverpool has middle-class suburbs, a significant professional sector, five universities. York meanwhile has a working class hit hard by the decline of local manufacturing and high property prices because of tourism and gentrification. However, if you don’t fulfil the stereotypes of what more privileged people consider to be working class or what people from a particular place are like, your identity and culture is questioned by those who have no real experience of it.

Academia and the cultural sector are rife with this. Because class is almost always viewed through a bourgeois lens, it is seen on their terms, as something they can define based on their own prejudices about the dress, accent, behaviour, etc. of working-class people. Some like the idea of having a bit of a working-class presence in their organisations. Yet they often only want and value working-class people who ‘fit the mould’ as they perceive it. That working-class people are as varied and complex as middle-class people, and so are their accents and cultures, is something many do not want to engage with.

This seriously impacts on the opportunities afforded to working-class people and how they are judged and treated within bourgeois and elite structures. Indeed, it even impacts on what stories are allowed to be told within culture. A working-class writer from Liverpool who wants to do something set in the region but whose work is not suitably ‘gritty’ to fit the bourgeois imagination of the place will usually have a hard time getting it told through most mainstream mediums. In contrast, witness the visceral critical reaction to Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting (Morace, 2001, p.11) when it was first published. In part because it showed a side of pretty Edinburgh that many people, residents and visitors alike, would rather pretend didn’t exist.

There is no better anthem about class, prejudice, and performativity, than Pulp’s ‘Common People’. Its vitriol about an upper-class student trying to act out what they perceived as working-class behaviour because they thought it was ‘cool’, was sparked by someone Jarvis Cocker met at art school—a type of encounter now less likely as arts schools have become further dominated by people from privileged backgrounds (Romer, 2018). It illustrates Cocker’s genius that in a three-minute pop anthem he can say more than most of us in a thousand essays.

Less remarked on, is the also brilliant ‘Mis-Shapes’, from the same album (Cocker et al., 1995): We don’t look the same as you / And we don’t do the things you do / But we live around here too.

This too is an angry and danceable song about being ‘different’ in a working-class context, because being working class is not about conforming to a narrow set of stereotypes set by others: a particular accent, a way of dressing or behaving. As Cocker exudes in Mis-Shapes, being working class doesn’t mean you have to be, as we said around ours, a ‘bad scall’. And of course, there are plenty of bad scalls in the middle and upper classes too.

This issue goes beyond accent. At a conference I attended, talk of class prompted someone to rant about how there were working-class people in the arts, they just needed to throw off the cardigans they wore to fit in. ‘You have nothing to lose but your knitwear’ perhaps? I realised, as they were speaking, that I was wearing a cardigan and considered momentarily, if this made me a reactionary class traitor. Then I remembered that my mum, who spent her working life as a cleaner and in factories, also liked a nice cardi, and  how popular it was, in the  football casual fashions in the North that I’d grown up around, to re-appropriate middle-class knitwear styles and brands—often to the horror and confusion of those who were used to wearing them. Cardigans and class were again just as complex as accents.

Never having had money for decent clothes when I was young, the first thing I did when I got my first decent paying, albeit insecure, job in my mid-twenties was to go and buy a smart overcoat that I’d long coveted. Wanting to look sharp is far from class treachery. And when you have often had little, being able to own ‘something nice’, even if it is singular, can cover up for a lack of security in general. ‘Oxfam chic’ meanwhile is often favoured mainly by those who like to try and ‘slum it’ in the same mould as the student in ‘Common People’ and others who engage in the performance of what they see as being working class. As Nathalie Olah discusses in Steal As Much As You Can (2019): ‘Cosplaying as the working class is one such method used by the middle-class ascendants to the highest ranks of the media, advertising and art institutions. Disguising their own privilege by wearing tracksuits and talking in mockney accents.’ (p.158)

Meanwhile, if you’re rebelling against working-class conventions, which can be just as restrictive and repressive as middle-class ones, then engaging and playing with elite-controlled aspects of culture can be interesting and alluring. Even if you far from swallow them wholesale. As a teenager in the 1990s, I was inspired by the Manic Street Preachers, as they demonstrated that being working class didn’t mean you had to limit your tastes or interests. Nor if you became interested in other things, did you have to abandon popular culture. They showed that grappling with the ideas and the language that is used to control you and turning them to your own ends, is the opposite of class betrayal.

Some view as a burden the feelings of ‘in betweenness’ that can emerge when you have working-class origins but end up with a level of education most working-class people are denied. However, I take the view that these feelings can be powerful. As noted by Lee Crooks (2020) in his abstract for the Working Class Academics Conference:“my capacity to inhabit – and slip between – the environs of the campus and the everyday spaces of the city beyond, I argue, provides a basis for creative transgression, doing things differently and scope for a healthy injection of working-class counter-culture, collective solidarity and humour. At the same time, this feeling of being ‘out-of-place’ and not knowing my place to some extent frees me from the conventional norms and expectations of what a university academic should do and be.”

Something echoed by Chloe Maclean (2020) at the same conference: “a cleft habitus [a feeling that ‘this is not the place for me’] is not solely a site of dislocation, but can be utilised as a resource to challenge the reproduction of hierarchies within an institution.”  

Much of the middle- and upper-class who dominate the culture sector and academia, do not want to grasp these complexities, viewing class as a principally visual and sonic set of signifiers that they can easily pick out and identify. This creates serious issues. As the current push to increase working-class representation gathers pace, there’s a risk that recruiters and commissioners will go for what they perceive to be ‘obviously’ working-class candidates. Excluding those who don’t fit the mould, they might reject a young, working-class LGBTQIA+ candidate who doesn’t have an ‘urban’ accent and doesn’t dress or behave in a way they perceive as working class. This highlights the absolute importance of having working-class people in senior management, decision-making, and commissioning roles in these sectors, not just junior or public-facing positions, or as token artists, outreach staff, or lecturers. As well as this, organisations need to seriously measure the socio-economic background of their workforces and job applicants to identify how representative, or unrepresentative, they are of society. Of course, it needs to be acknowledged that these issues are intersectional and such challenges will be disproportionately worse for people who face other forms of prejudice and stereotyping on top of class prejudice.

Issues around this could also grow now that, like in the 1990s, but in contrast to the last twenty years, being working class is becoming trendy again. Where once ‘chav’ was bandied about as an everyday insult for things not cool, now ‘bougie’ is slung about instead. Where this is dangerous for the working class, is in the inevitability of the adoption and performance of what are perceived as working-class tropes by middle- and upper-class people by those desperate not to be seen as unfashionable and longing for what they perceive as ‘authenticity’. Through this co-option and crass distortion of working-class cultures, we would also see the exclusion of more nervous, more insecure, less supported working-class voices. As noted by Olah: ‘this fetishisation only makes class divisions more entrenched, by further pushing the working-class experience into the realm of morbid spectacle.’ (p. 108) Not only does this deny opportunities to people who are actually from working-classbackgrounds, it reduces their experiences and cultural expressions to a cartoon copy.

Perhaps more optimistically, this change in fashion could indicate a lower social tolerance for bourgeois norms. Yet the trouble about being in fashion is that being working class is likely to go out of fashion again eventually, with an attendant loss of opportunities. It reminds me a little of George Orwell (2013) writing about the anarchist takeover of Barcelona in the 1930s: ‘In outward appearance it was a town in which the wealthy classes had practically ceased to exist … Practically everyone wore rough working-class clothes, or blue overalls, or some variant of the militia uniform …. I did not realize that great numbers of well-to-do bourgeois were simply lying low and disguising themselves as proletarians for the time being.’

Middle- and upper-class people need to be reminded of their prejudices and assumptions, and perhaps in the current climate they’re more likely to listen. Key to change though is ensuring that more working-class people take up space in positions of power in culture and academia. Then there needs to be a constant renewal of this through continued recruitment so that the numbers of working-class people in these sectors grow and expand through their hierarchies. Rather thanjust a token handful of working-class people brought in temporarily when there is a moral panic or it’s found to be trendy, who thenoften find themselves, in their relative isolation, up against a wall of established thought and behaviour. Change must come from outside as well, but without more working-class people in the permanent institutions of culture as well, any lasting change will be much harder.

We have to make sure the new drive towards working-class opportunity and representation truly platforms the working classes in all their diversity and complexity. That it is members of the working classes who get the opportunities to tell their own stories, not have them re-framed, twisted or co-opted by others to enhance themselves.

As it says in Mis-Shapes:
We want the things you won’t allow us
We won’t use guns, we won’t use bombs
We’ll use the one thing we’ve got more of—that’s our minds

This piece was published in issue 10 of Lumpen jourmal in June 2022

Reference list

Banks, N., Cocker, J., Doyle, C., Mackey, S., Senior, R., Webber, M. (1995). Mis-Shapes. Retrieved from: https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/pulp/misshapes.html

Crooks, L. (2020). ‘One of our own?’ On being a working class, hometown academic. Retrieved from: https://workingclass-academics.co.uk/abstracts/#LeeCrookesAb

Maclean, C. (2020). Rise with your class, not out of your class: Auto-ethnographic reflections on imposter syndrome and class conflict in higher education. Retrieved from: https://workingclassacademics.co.uk/abstracts/#ChloeMacleanAb

Morace, R. (2001). Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting: A Reader’s Guide. London, England: Continuum.

Olah, N. (2019). Steal as Much as You Can. London, England: Repeater.

Orwell, G. (2013). A State of Affairs Worth Fighting For. Retrieved from http://bookanista.com/orwells-spanish-civil-war/

Romer, C. (2018). Specialist arts colleges are among the most elitist in the country. Retrieved from: https://www.artsprofessional.co.uk/news/specialist-arts-colleges-among-most-elitist-country

Freshfield 

By Kenn Taylor

The vastness of the vista when you reach the peak of the Freshfield dunes is enough to encourage a sharp intake of breath, even when the winds aren’t up. Just before the shuffle, often ankle-deep, down the loose grain sands to sea level. 

Such expanse so close to intense urban life can surprise many, the lay of the land keeping all that density just out of view here. Very different to the beach at Crosby, with its Iron Men, suburbia just behind and the striking colours and angular shapes of the container port adjacent. That’s an attractive scene too, but not otherworldly like Freshfield can seem, just a few train stops further along. 

A line of sky, a line of water, a line of sand. Long stretched streams of cloud vapour, separating at the edges like torn cotton wool. Freshfield can almost seem like a child’s picture of the coast. The thin frames of the wind turbine clusters waving at a steady beat in the distance, the only continual indicators of the industrial world in this space. Beyond those though, a view further to the black undulating hills of Wales. 

In some lights from the top of the dunes, the Freshfield sands seem almost grey. A stretching moonscape butting against water that often appears far more tranquil than the reality of the intense currents and tidal range of the Mersey estuary and Liverpool Bay. The optical illusion across these horizons makes the huge industrial block colour ships that sail past appear much closer than they really are. As if you could paddle out in shallow waters and touch them. 

The Irish sea winds whip the sands into wisping streams, giving visibility to the air and a flecking of grit that on some days forces you to close your eyes against it. The wind and moreso the tide never let up here, eating away day after day at the coastline, slowly pushing it back and advancing the course of the sea. The dunes are the principal barrier, their tufts of grass struggling to the surface, curved in the direction of the wind like punk hairdos. Behind them, the other barrier: tall pine trees, the sun breaking through their foliage to spotlight the ground. They can give the impression of ancient forest, though in some respects they’re almost as artificial as the wind turbines and often shorter lived. It’s only once through these trees you can see the road back to wealthy commuter towns and those frequent electric trains.

The sands seem smooth from a distance, but their dips and craters, fragments of dirt and life, soon show up as soon as you get close enough. Sand deeply ridged by the pull of the tide.  Sand sucking down and piling up, devouring flimsy fences.

And there, revealed by collapsing, receding dunes, piles of odd chunky fragments of rubble shaped by years of tides. All this hastily dumped during WWII after the heavy Blitz raids on Merseyside, a temporary fix in an emergency with no thought for long term. Here they still are. 

Jagged, bubbled lumps of aggregate sit next to once deep red angular bricks now washed pink and smoothed around the edges. Large, ominous looking chunks of concrete, their original purpose now lost, stand out squat amongst them. Here though clearly what was once two steps. There, the straight, carefully-laid remains of a wall, chunks of crumbling cement still futilely clinging to it. Rusting twisted spiders legs of re-enforcement stick out, escaping the pile where they can. Still a danger, these fragments of long lost buildings. A reminder of the terrible destruction of that war on the nearby city.  This debris slowly, ever further, getting broken down. Now coloured pebbles. One day sand. 

Freshfield is an outlet valve for the city. An easy place to go without needing a car to get lost amongst the many peaks and troughs of the dunes with yourself or others. There’s always a human craving for wide open space that overwhelms us. Reduced to our smallness when separated from our crowds and our constructions. Casting our shadows on the waters, footprints are soon smoothed away, as this landscape remains as indifferent to the human presence as it can. The remains of the war will take longer to disappear, but will do just as inevitably. 

When the ships have stopped and the electric trains too, there’s just the wind and spinning of the distant turbines powering kettles and lighting lamps back in cities and towns. The space in Freshfield goes on and on and that going on is a deep reminder. A blowing away of the narrowness that we build around ourselves in screens and queues and buses and cracked paving stones. A reminder for when we go back to our urban lives where the wind has no sand grit nor strength to blast the eyes and the lungs.

This piece was published by Caught by the River in April 2022

A working-class artist is something to be

Cover of Journal of Class and Culture, Volume 1, Number 1.

By Kenn Taylor

Abstract:
The creative and cultural sectors in the United Kingdom largely exclude the working classes. Even the small number of working-class people who do ‘make it’ into these sectors often find themselves and their work badly treated by those who hold the real power. This article explores some of the experiences of working-class artists navigating the cultural sector and how exclusion, prejudice and precarity impacted and continue to impact them. It takes as its focus the filmmaker Alan Clarke and the playwright Andrea Dunbar, who were at the height of their success in the 1980s. It also considers the writers Darren McGarvey and Nathalie Olah, whose work has achieved prominence in recent years. It is through this focus I hope to demonstrate the long continuum of challenges for working-class creatives. This article also considers how, on the occasions when they are allowed the space they deserve, working-class artists have created powerful shifts in cultural production. Finally, it details some of the changes needed for working-class people to be able to take their rightful place in contributing to cultural life and the societal risks involved if they are denied that place.

The full essay can be downloaded from here.

This essay was published in Volume 1, Number 1 of the Journal of Class and Culture in December 2021.

Community and Complexity in Social Practice

Cover of Social Works?: Open Journal Issue 2.

By Kenn Taylor

My involvement in social practice stems directly from my own experience. I grew up largely on benefits in a working class, Catholic community in Merseyside and was the first in my family to go to university. When I started working in the cultural sector, I soon realised that there was a huge gulf between the sector and the background I came from, and this drew me to community practices.

Initially I was mostly engaged in projects in working-class areas of Liverpool and shared much of the same history and ‘cultural memory’ with the people I was working with. This often made building connections easier, but I was also acutely aware of how differences—even minor ones—for example, between districts, generations, religions etc, could mean very different views of even shared experiences. I quickly learned that you had to stand back from your own positionality as much when working within your ‘own’ culture as you did when working with communities of different backgrounds or experiences.

The idea of ‘community’ is something often viewed by bourgeoise cultural institutions and practitioners as inherently positive, particularly as some experiences and understandings of ‘community’ have shifted and changed. This can lead to a romanticised, if not patronising, view of some communities; one that can result in ‘othering’ even if unintentionally. Being from the background I was, it seemed obvious to me that while being part of a particular community can be supportive, powerful and culturally rich, it can also be oppressive, exclusionary and constrictive—sometimes simultaneously. Communities sometimes define themselves in opposition to others and the suppression of difference and conformity that community membership may require can be difficult for many. This can be the same for the communities that people become part of later in life, as well as the ones they are born into. As some concept of community is often at the heart of social practice, these complexities need to be opened out and considered at funding, policy and practice levels, not glossed over or ignored.

Later when I left Merseyside and worked with many more different communities, I came to understand further what an ‘outsider perspective’ could also bring to social practice. However, I still found that sharing some experience of being from a community traditionally excluded from cultural institutions, helps in learning how to navigate the intricacies that such work involves. It is vital that organisations develop this knowledge and experience at a management level as well as in delivery, so that it permeates throughout their systems and interactions with different communities. Employing people with lived experience is, of course, not a panacea for good practice, but it can make it easier to create spaces where the knowledge and experience of an organisation as well as the community they’re working with can both be acknowledged and considered in a way that can challenge entrenchment by either side. Cultural organisations that are still very dominated by the sector’s ‘somatic norm’[i] of white, middle-class workers may find this much harder. 

In spite of its complexities, working at the intersection of cultural organisations and wider communities has often been very rewarding and taught me much more than working in a purely institutional context ever could. By recruiting people with shared experience of who they’re collaborating with and by seriously engaging with these issues in social practice, we might find we achieve more powerful outcomes.

This piece was commissioned and published by the Social Art Library in September 2021.


[i] O. Brook, D. O’Brien & M. Taylor, Culture is bad for you: Inequality in the cultural and creative industries (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2020), p.191-200.

Where the sun sinks and is caught

Image of a cobbled side street as the sun starts to set.


By Kenn Taylor

The city has its grids
This is one where the sun is absorbed

The disc itself fades
far off in the distance
behind towers
behind seas
Here though,
bookended by two busy roads
of bars, restaurants, entertainment halls
Are running
as warps to their weft
smaller streets 
Taking you up and down
one of the city’s few hills

A rare space of peace in the city
Quiet streets
some still Georgian
cobbled, mewsed
Punctuated by pubs nestling in corners
Pubs which give it lifeblood
Boxes of energy
in otherwise
often silent
throughfares 

This is one of those places in the city
though,
where the energy lies buried
waiting to be dug up

All the faded red brick
Cracked paving stones
Black painted iron
Even occasional marble
and contemporary pre-fab
capture the sun as it retreats 

As the gold and red bounces off surfaces
Reflects in dark glass
and double yellow lines
Brings brief heat to alley beer gardens and
casts shadows
long and lean 

Sweat pricks brows nearing the top
High enough to watch the disc
slide away from view
Leaving only the vast
blood and honey glow

As you look back down the
long straight vista
and up beyond it
to the distance
the buildings step down beneath 

That energy though
flowing through the streets
warp and weft
The ghosts of dwellers and idlers,
prophets and priests,
of the past 
Remains even after dark 

This was published by Elsewhere Journal in October 2021.

Falling Cranes

By Kenn Taylor

Falling cranes
Flimsy facades
Open chests
Twists of rust
in dusty
concrete husks Falling cranes
Crushed to death
Pushing up
Desperate for
A new chance
Not decay

Falling cranes
Empty foundations
Fall to death
Nothing underneath
Nothing left
Falling cranes

Decaying old
Disintegrating new
Need worth
Need work
Working in
Falling cranes
Built on sand
Cracked in half
Buried
Forgotten
Falling cranes
on
They tell us
Elysian Fields

This was publihsed in Issue 3 of Jarg in August 2021.

Transpennine: a journey

By Kenn Taylor

Where can we find this powerhouse then? The concrete cooling towers of coal fired power, as they switch off one by one, are now more likely to be found in coffee table books than looming over the Northern landscape. Reverence only for our everyday once it becomes something safe and of the past.

Travelling transpennine isn’t just going through the peaks and troughs of the mountain range that divides east and west, it’s also a journey though the sites of the birth and death of Industrial Empire Britain. Those battles may have been sketched on the playing fields of Eton, but the cannon, and the cannon fodder, came from here, not down near Slough.

Northern clichés are ten a penny and mainly now something for clips on beer pumps and museums of social history. Silk union banners, pigeon racers, brass bands. All still there, but increasingly cultures of the past kept going not thriving. This of course is still much of what academia and the media want to pick over, as its easier than dealing with the contemporary cultures of hip hop from Hull or boy racers from Burnley.

Culture and place rarely stay still. Even in the rural spots that can seem idyllic from the trains that grumble through the landscape, the agrarian was often long ago replaced by the Range Rover commuter and the loft conversion firm owner. Things shift even faster in the cities. In Manchester and Leeds, you pass through clean modern stations, see towers and tower cranes soaring, all looking VIBRANT for CONTEMPORARY LIVING.

Yet on our route, where once a variety of specialised economies brewed particular cultures, now a few graduates are concentrated into the biggest conurbations, while the places they left struggle ever more. While culture rarely stays still, in some places it stops being renewed and begins to fall back in on itself. Looking always to the better times of the past, even if they weren’t that much better for most, because of the lack of a coherent present.

You cannot explain to someone who has not experienced it, the collective psychological damage to the people of a place when you remove from them its reason to exist. When the new replaces the old and gradually becomes the way of life, agrarian to commuter village, industrial city to financial one, someone always loses in those shifts. But as people are born and die and the social and physical landscape changes, leaving traces of the past to be wondered at, there is at least a sense of moving forward. In many places though and definitely as we move transpennine, there’s a sense not of change, but of growing wreck and continued loss that has hit many places.

Transpennine is a landscape you struggle not fly through and so much of it is suffering from being in the wrong part of a country with a logjammed imagination. The Pacer trains, lest we forget just bus bodies fastened to freight wagon frames, may finally be shuffling off, but the gulf between rich and poor, North and South remains as crude and uncomfortable as those trains. Fractured transport links take us through fractured locations. Places which once thrived, but at the stroke of many faraway pens over many years, have been rendered down. Once it seemed that the grim post-industrial tide could be contained. Single out the few places which had ‘failed to adapt’. An odd city, a few towns, all those mining villages swiped for the Thatcherite victory. Too bad for them. It couldn’t happen here. Yet, one by one, more places were hit. Write them all off, don’t include them in the glossy proclamations of the future, then the bitterness grows and grows.

The people in these places can see the future too. The arse end version of it. The Digital HQ in Manchester, the Digital Warehouse in Doncaster. The chosen and the not chosen. In the cities flush with capital, anti-capitalism grows. Too much money, too much petrol poured on the bonfire of development. All those deals signed in fauxthentic bars with big lightbulbs. Each handshake another nail in somewhere that doesn’t light up on investors radars. While those left on the other side of the glass, nursing broken promises of education on a Deliveroo bike, are driven by the need for change. In these cities there’s so much power and wealth, it can seem like all you need to think about is how to seize it.

Outside the chosen places though, capitalism might mean the one last shiny factory which pays well. Controlled by a faraway head office and let’s say it makes something to do with war or pollution or both, but what if there is nothing else left? Try telling the people who live there it should be abolished. When so much else has been hollowed out, fallen into malign decay after years of broken promises. Football teams struggling to survive outside of the Premier League elite. The boarded pub, the empty shops, all those building societies liquidated for the benefit of The City, and the civic, the long, poor battered civic. No longer the proud striding constructors of fine buildings all pushing to a better tomorrow. Now desperate for Government aid to even keep the streetlights on. And when everything is in decline, trying to believe in a more equitable and brighter future is hard. Especially when your young people often leave. Even in the cities of glass they head for though, the disquiet increases. They grew the middle class but didn’t lift up the left behind. The homeless an ever-constant reminder you cannot hide from the poverty in this country. Even for the middle class, the DESIREABLE suburbs are increasingly out of reach, along with the permanent contract and the final salary pension. The university fees, the good schools. The fear grows. The anxiety never leaves.

Yet despite all that weighs down, there is still a beauty ever under-appreciated and unacknowledged. From the immense flat vastness of East Riding, like Kansas made Yorkshire, bits of it crumbling away every day trying to find the lost link to the Netherlands. To the West, the arrival in Liverpool, cathedrals soaring out of the density of terraces before the descent into the dramatic dark cutting in and out of shafts out of light towards Lime Street. In between the two, all those mills that built the place and then left them. Cotton and wool. Wool and cotton. Cloth, like many things, something we actually still need but decided that we no longer needed to make. The mills fate too, divided between places chosen and not chosen. In the bright spots converted into startup complex No.32 or Urban Luxury Living. Elsewhere though LOW DEMAND FOR PROPERTY and LIMITED RETURN ON INVESTMENT means being left rotting or crudely subdivided MOTOR REPAIRS UNIT TO LET DANCING STUDIO LABELS WHILE U WAIT. But mostly TO LET. 

What was formed on this route from the land and how we shaped the land itself too. From the expansive shires, their land-owning gentry going back Yea, even unto the Middle Ages. The rain of Manchester to stop the breaking of the thread. Yorkshire mills on hills next to river courses. The vast estuary ports feeding all those needs. Poets cried as industry scared the landscape, the extraction of coal, the rising of those dark satanic mills and squalid cities. Yet from that darkness rose everything we know and the fragments of which we still hold dear, the grand buildings, the railways and avenues. Yet it was all built on the belief of endless growth and the exploitation of faraway colonies. They thought the landscape was being destroyed by the mills, now we mourn their loss. The industrial terrain reduced to ruins like all those Yorkshire abbeys painted by Turner. Yet the postmodern shopping cathedrals built to replace the factories now too are running empty. Even shorter lived, crumbling visions of our once new consumer future. Arcadia it seems never really existed. An easy lie, the corruption and iniquity of the past forgotten as we absorb only the positive images of what has gone before. Passing still through our civic centres though, even if cuts have left their scars from endlessly deferred maintenance and damp in the walls, you can still see where we tried to build Jerusalem. Now we’re told, who will pay for Jerusalem, son?
Step off the train. Where to from here? Become a London satellite or a forgotten corner? Things get worse, things fall apart? Is there an alternative, some threat to the Capital’s status quo, like when industry thundered from the North like a sonic boom? A Wind Turbine Factory for every town? Maybe, but not likely. One day perhaps they will build a fast train for us to cross this landscape, see all this and each other that much quicker, that much easier. Yet it is not enough. If we are to thrive again it is down to us. If we want to live, if we want to be heard, if we want to be different then we must build our own future across this post-industrial land. All of us, not just the chosen few. Our way. Across this spine. Transpennine.

This piece was published in Issue 5 of Lune Journal in July 2021.

Changing cultures: class, place and cultural institutions

By Kenn Taylor

In the 2000s there was a boom in new cultural facilities opening in the English regions, often in places whose economies had struggled since the 1980s. Many of them subsequently had significant challenges connecting with local audiences. Most of these new facilities were based around a particular model of art and cultural consumption that had its centre in London and other global megacities. Such organisations, when they opened, largely employed in their senior roles white middle- or upper-class people who were drawn from elsewhere and who often shared remarkably similar career backgrounds.

Nevertheless, some junior jobs were created in such places. I began my career in one of them in my native Merseyside on a zero-hours contract. Despite being passionate about art and culture, I soon became alarmed at how such organisations often seemed more focused on recognition from their peers than from the communities they were based in; as well as a wilful lack of acknowledgment that inequalities existed within and outside such institutions. Experiences such as these drew me to work in what was then called community arts, a field which seemed to at least try to address the relationship between key practices in culture and wider society.

Much of course has occurred since. Such community practices, once written off by the ‘mainstream’ cultural world, are now seen as part of the fore of contemporary culture. Class, for a time dismissed by many as irrelevant, has come back to bite.

There has also been a move away from that previous model of cultural development in the regions, with programmes such as Creative People and Places (Arts Council England) having shaken up things up a little. Yet much more needs to be done. Too many organisations still fail to employ people from working-class backgrounds and from the communities they’re based in, especially at management level. Even now, many organisations still struggle to seriously engage with many communities and cultures.

While class is our focus here, it is important not to privilege it over other inequalities. Nor by taking about organisations engaging with local cultures do I mean separating out the ‘white working class’ or a specific requirement to have been born somewhere. Class has had renewed attention recently, partially because it was almost written out of the conversation for 20-30 years. Notably it was removed from 2010 Equalities Act upon its introduction into legislation.1 Yet we must be careful not to fall into the rhetoric of divide and conquer when it comes to change in the cultural sector. I refuse to allow the exclusion of those from my socio-economic background as an excuse to further marginalise working-class people of colour who face even more barriers.2

The cultural sector more seriously engaging with class and regional identity is at its heart about social justice. It is also, though, about making cultural organisations more effective and sustainable. As is well established in business studies, having personnel from diverse backgrounds is a powerful driver in creating more successful organisations of all forms.3 Perhaps none more so than in the sector where culture is both the main input and output, and new ideas and perspectives are often vital to success.

Yet, as evidenced by an array of research and demonstrated in rigorous detail in the 2020 book Culture is Bad for You by Brook, O’Brien and Taylor the majority of the cultural workforce is still drawn from narrow sources and it remains one of the most elitist areas of work.4 This has real impacts on the culture that is produced by the sector, which in turn significantly impacts on how society views itself. Some of these inequalities are structural and beyond what the cultural sector can change in itself. However there remains much that the sector can do.

Currently the vast majority of culture workers have similar entry routes via university. While this works for many, to increase diversity in the sector we need to create more varied forms of entry. Requiring a degree is a class barrier in itself, especially as higher education has become more expensive. That divide is further widened for those who have to work alongside studying, to support themselves. There has been a positive movement away from unpaid internships in the sector, but some still remain and these are a major obstacle for those who can’t afford to work without pay.

Increasing school and college leaver entry into employment into cultural organisations is vital. There has been a growing array of initiatives for this, though the way apprenticeships were reformed in recent years has made it harder for some smaller cultural organisations to access them. However, too often things fall down in how staff are developed after they take up such entry-level roles. There need to be serious career development pathways put in place, especially in medium and large cultural organisations, where people can start as an apprentice and work their way up to senior management, especially in the ‘creative’ side of organisations where this is most often lacking. We need to develop sustainable routes to entry, including those with part-time study alongside on-the-job training, which is common in other fields, for those who cannot, or who don’t want to, take the full-time student route beforehand.

A new model needs to be cultivated where people can develop their career both within organisations and within a region. This is especially important outside of London, where even the largest cities only have a modest number of cultural organisations and jobs and so the tradition is for key management and leadership positions to be taken by highly mobile people from elsewhere. Currently, to not move about like this is to significantly reduce your career options. This is something I had to face when, having spent my whole life in Merseyside, it became apparent to me in my late 20s that unless I was prepared to work in other places, I would hit a career wall, so I spent several years moving around. While this had many positives, it also meant losing connections with family and friends as well as much financial strain. At a structural level of the cultural sector, this reduces opportunities for development for locally based candidates. It also undermines the depth of local engagement by institutions, as personnel move around and constantly have to acquaint themselves with new situations.

Those who grow up in a particular place, even if they have lived away for a time, tend to be more rooted in its stories, its cultures, its complexities and its contradictions. Thus their understanding of audiences can be much more enhanced. It’s also vital for younger participants and junior staff to be able to see someone who is from a similar background to them in the top positions when they are starting out — both in terms of class and regional identity. This is not to ignore that there are also benefits of having worked in a few different places, for staff and the organisations they work for, but to argue for the need for more plurality in how people are recruited and developed in the sector than now. Of course, being from somewhere in the regions and being working class are not one and the same, but class and place have particularly important crossovers in the regions, in terms of access to opportunity, mobility, experience and connections.

Recruitment processes also need to take better account of socio-economic diversity. For example, removing the qualifications requirements for jobs unless they are actually needed and taking account of the challenges to career development that people may have faced due their backgrounds and circumstances; with cultural institutions taking up opportunities to collaborate with specialist organisations who can help with diversifying recruitment. As well as for staff, the same goes for the recruitment of artists. This means enough open application opportunities, but also enough direct support for artists to apply who may have less confidence and experience, including ‘payment for pitching’ when appropriate.

The need to recruit artists from diverse backgrounds is even more acute in collaborative projects with communities. Too often artists from middle-class backgrounds are commissioned to engage with working class communities. While this meeting of different experiences and ideas can be powerful, just like with management of cultural organisations, it reinforces the idea that a certain type of person gets paid to make culture and lead projects. While of course having similar backgrounds does not always result in equivalent understanding or equal power relations, some shared experience between an artist and a community they’re working with does tend to make the navigation of such intricate relationships easier.

It’s important not to fall into the trap of thinking working class = better, as comfortable as it can feel given the unequal relations across the class sphere and the long tradition of dismissal of working-class cultures. This can be inadvertently patronising. Power, space and support is what working-class people need in the culture sector, not sympathy or awkward deference. I’m proud of my working-class background, its richness, vibrant culture and energy, but aspects of it, like all cultures, had its share of prejudice, narrowmindedness and exclusion. Employing and platforming working-class people and those from other structurally disadvantaged backgrounds helps create the conditions to tackle these issues and complexities in culture, because they have the direct knowledge and experience to do so. However, this then has to expand back out beyond specific projects to impact the wider operation of a cultural organisation, its relationship to its audiences and how it communicates its work.

One of the biggest issues stemming from the lack of diversity of those employed in the cultural sector is how this helps generate a kind of shared perception of ‘how things should be done’ and of what has value. Shifting organisations away from this is vital for change. That is not about completely abandoning professional practices built up over years, as these are often hugely effective in creating powerful culture. More, it’s about how cultural organisations, especially those distant from the biggest centres of cultural production, take on board what happens when their established knowledges and practices meet and intersect with different forms of knowledge and experience. I think of a quote from the Turner Prize-winning artist Mark Leckey, who grew up in the same area as me, upon his retrospective exhibition at Tate Britain in 2019: ‘This is the world I belong to now. But at one point I belonged to another intelligence.’5

The current model places institutional ideologies and practices, which may cross national borders but tend to be governed by particular classes throughout, way above other perspectives, and this is increasingly being challenged. When a space can be created where different types of experience and intelligence can respect and acknowledge each other and find crossover, that is a really interesting place from which many great cultural productions have resulted. This goes back to the traditions of things like Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed6 but such thinking is now expanding into other forms of culture and I feel we’re just at the beginning of it.

Now more than ever, cultural organisations need to reconsider their traditional value and production systems, to be more responsive, more dynamic and distribute resources more evenly across all forms of programming; not just in terms of financial investment, but how things like time, space or personnel are allocated. If organisations are to be more engaged with the places they are based in and attract a wider range of people, a focus on a constant stream of big productions which need large audiences and significant media attention to justify them, is not always the best method. Projects at scale can be powerful, inspiring and popular, but often take up so much resource that other forms of programming can be held back. Allocating resources more evenly and working in a way so that the often artificial barriers between ‘types’ of cultural project are broken down would allow for a greater variety of more innovative and open-ended programming. This will also benefit less experienced employees in being able to lead their own projects at an earlier career stage and work with less experienced artists and practitioners, meaning organisations can invest more of their resources in new voices. Crucially, this will also aid those who enter the cultural sector from more diverse backgrounds in not being siloed into particular areas of work just focused on community engagement, so they are able to bring their ideas and experiences to influence across an organisation’s work.

Of course, any form of programming takes up resources and doing ‘lots more’ might not automatically result in more depth, more diversity or better relationships with communities, but rather in exhaustion and even audience fatigue. Yet as we need to look hard at how cultural provision is done, stepping back from the current model could mean that new and more diverse forms of programming can emerge in the space that is created. In doing this, some organisations will need to shift their focus from getting validation within their particular field to gaining recognition from the communities which surround them. Yet the two need not be mutually exclusive. Doing work more rooted in particular places can often create more original programming that in turn attracts more critical attention and wider interest, rather than merely replicating the sort of bourgeois contemporary culture that can be found all over.

Some argue that current cultural organisations need to be replaced entirely. The fact is, people have been calling for the traditional academies/museums/theatres etc. to be abolished for almost as long as they’ve existed and it never happens, rather they change and adapt under new influences. Even new and radical organisations, if they don’t burn out, have a tendency to solidify and become ‘institutions’ themselves soon enough.7 While funding should certainly go to new and different organisations and new cultural forms, this doesn’t negate the need to change existing ‘pillar’ organisations to make them more relevant to contemporary life, because they’re not going anywhere.

There are also arguments that too many resources have been put into buildings rather than programmes over the past couple of decades. Yet we should also not forget how many cultural facilities have also closed in recent years, in particular those in more underinvested towns and cities. Many people live a long way from good quality facilities where they can create or experience culture. Buildings are not bad in themselves, it’s about the right type of buildings being used in the right way to meet people’s wants and needs. If you find your building doesn’t fit your organisation’s mission, change the building, not the organisation.

In the regions the largest cultural funders were traditionally local authorities,8 however, many of them now struggle to do this. Thus as culture has become something increasingly set, defined and funded by people based in the largest cities, this has perhaps added to the alienation felt by some people from the cultural sector. Especially as cultural provision in smaller towns and cities and rural areas has in many cases become increasingly vulnerable if not closed completely. By changing how cultural funding is allocated and distributed so more power is put into the hands of the people in the regions themselves, they could better allocate resources to meet complex local structures and needs.

A not dissimilar feeling of alienation is often felt by working-class people when they enter the cultural sector and find organisations, even ones they are passionate about, have an awkward relationship with people from their background. If supported, they can be positive agents of change. Yet for now, as it says in Culture is Bad for You: ‘Those who have the most insight into the problems are often given the least power.’9

This is a process of both short and long-term change. As someone from a working class background who now has a relatively established position in the cultural sector, like many others I can bring a particular perspective that can hopefully contribute to this. Yet, getting a handful of working-class people into positions in the cultural establishment is not enough. There needs to be a pipeline created to ensure there is a constant renewal of people from diverse backgrounds, including socio-economic, entering the sector, and crucially, developing in and changing it.

Given the huge tectonic shifts presently shaking the very foundations of many cultural organisations, if more do not change faster, they will struggle. If the sector embraces some of the above though, it could become more sustainable and produce forms of culture that engage a wider diversity of people. It could also contribute more to our contemporary communities, encouraging greater understanding of our society, the issues it faces and changes we need to make.

This essay was published in Engage Journal 45: Class and Inequality in July 2021.

Notes

  1. D. O’Neil and M. Wayne (2018), ‘Putting Class Back onto the UK’s Equality Agenda’ in Open Democracy, 14 January 2018, https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/opendemocracyuk/putting-class-back-onto-uks-equality-agenda/ (Accessed 6 February 2020)
  2. O. Brook, D. O’Brien and M. Taylor (2020), Culture is Bad for You: Inequality in the Cultural and Creative Industries. Manchester: Manchester University Press, p.65
  3. Eswaran, V. (2019), ‘The Business Case for Diversity in the Workplace is Now Overwhelming’ in World Economic Forum, 29 April 2019, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/04/business-case-for-diversity-in-the-workplace (Accessed 4 February 2020)
  4. Brook et al. (2020), op.cit.
  5. Leigh, D. (2019), ‘Mark Leckey: From Art World Outsider to Tate Britain’ in Financial Times, 20 September 2019, https://www.ft.com/content/7c15167a-d897-11e9-9c26-419d783e10e8 (Accessed 6 February 2021)
  6. Actingnow.co.uk, ‘What is Theatre of the Oppressed?’, http://www.actingnow.co.uk/what-is-theatre-of-the-oppressed/ Accessed 6 February 2021
  7. Cranfield, B. (2016), ‘It Should Not Be to Its Past that the ICA is Beholden, Rather the Needs of the Present and Future’ in Apollo, 31 October 2016, https://www.apollo-magazine.com/past-ica-present-future (Accessed 6 February 2021)
  8. Hill, L. (2020), ‘Let Councils Lead On Arts Funding, Says New Report’ in Arts Professional, 7 September 2020, https://www.artsprofessional.co.uk/news/let-councils-lead-arts-funding-says-new-report (Accessed 13 February 2021)
  9. Brook et al. (2020) op.cit., p.51

Two Cemeteries, Two Cities

Undercliffe Cemetery, Bradford

Words by Kenn Taylor
Images by Kenn Taylor and Chris Gibson


Two old cemeteries in two Northern English cities are as striking as they are little-known outside of their own regions. They are marked by their dramatic and very contrasting settings, one up high, one down below. 

Liverpool’s St James’ Cemetery is the antithesis to the adjacent soaring Anglican Cathedral, which is one of the world’s largest. My infant grandmother was taken to the laying of its foundation stone by King Edward VII in 1904. A few weeks prior to this ceremony though, Fred Bower, a stonemason, poet and socialist, buried a tin time capsule under where the foundation stone would be placed. It contained the message “within a stone’s throw from here, human beings are housed in slums not fit for swine”. Accompanied by copies of the Clarion and Labour Leader, it was signed “Yours sincerely, ‘A Wage Slave’.” Bower only revealed this secret 32 years later in his autobiography, Rolling Stonemason.

Liverpool Anglican Cathedral

On top of this foundation stone, at the crest of St James Mount, was built Giles Gilbert Scott’s vast edifice of a cathedral. It’s remarkably similar in profile to his Bankside Power Station, now Tate Modern. You have to admire a designer who sees the same basic shape works for both the House of God and the House of Electricity. However, the cathedral was built beside a precipice. The void below was originally a quarry for several hundred years. Its stone used for Liverpool’s first dock and Town Hall. With the city growing rapidly, the stone running out and demand for burial space increasing, the quarry was ideal for conversion. In 1826, architect John Foster Junior was commissioned to design a cemetery in the space along the same lines as Père Lachaise in Paris. Grand ramps to convey coffins down from street level were constructed. As was a mortuary chapel in the style of a Greek Temple, the Oratory. This still stands today as an occasionally opened museum of funerary sculpture. The area around the cemetery when it opened was packed with Georgian terraces, home to the city’s colonialist merchant class. Later it became one of Liverpool’s main multicultural and bohemian areas, home to John Lennon, Roger McGough and David Olusoga at various times, amongst many others.

View of Canning from St James’ Cemetery, Liverpool
Entrance to St James’ Cemetery

The cemetery was well used over the following decades. As its space began to become exhausted though, this coincided with the search for a site for a cathedral. The cemetery’s use continued after cathedral construction started. However, by the 1930s, it was packed with gravestones and the population increasingly sought newer, plainer cemeteries out the suburbs, as the move away from the Victorian taste for death began. The cathedral had no interest in taking on the graveyard and St James’ closed in 1936 after 57,774 burials. Like many similar cemeteries around the UK, it began to fall into disrepair after WWII.  By the 1960s it was in a real state of decay, frequently used by sex workers and their clients as it was close to Liverpool’s then red light district, before the area above was gentrified. In the 1970s the City Council came and cleared the majority of the gravestones. Many were stacked and covered in earth, creating an artificial slope. Others were made to tightly line the sides of the cemetery and even the interior of the snaking tunnel and walkway that takes you down into it. Other memorials still were grouped together in odd arrangements, presumably by Council workmen at a whim. Only a handful of the graves remained untouched. This however created much more green open space that was once dense with memorials. In 2001 the Archbishop’s Council and the Conservation Foundation set up The Friends of St James’ Garden to lead the preservation and the reclamation of the site.

Descending down the winding ramp of St James’, carved through the bedrock itself, could not be more gothic if you tried. It would seem like a B-movie film set if it were not so genuinely marked by the passage of time. The tunnel is cut through multi-coloured, multi-grained stone scarred by tools, strange, runic masons’ marks and carved graffiti with dates in the 1700s. Lined at ground level with those tightly-packed gravestones, To The Memory. In Memory Of. In Affectionate Memory. Now all those with memories of the dead are long gone too. It’s like going through the gullet of a HP Lovecraft story — thankfully though, a short one, as the tunnel opens out and light gets to you again, filtered through the many trees. It seems all the brighter illuminating the sides of old quarry that surround you, the dark grey-green walls shored up with yellow stone and brick. Many of the memorials themselves are so worn and unstable they have begun to be absorbed back into the landscape. Only those made of marble remain clear and bright, albeit cracked and stained. Down here there’s a feeling of being very far away from the world, even though it’s just on the edge of the city centre.

The dramatic ramps constructed for the horse-drawn hearses, with catacombs underneath, crumbling in places and with vines hanging over them, now look like the ancient ruins they were inspired by. Various ominous bricked up and barred tunnels lead off from different corners of the site. On the memorials, anchors, intense Masonic eyes, coats of arms and moons. Beyond the symbols, stories too. A few famous people. Edward Rushton, the blind anti-slavery campaigner; Kitty Wilkinson, the public wash house pioneer; William Huskisson MP, who helped make the world’s first inter-city railway happen. He would also end up being the first person to be killed by a train at its opening. His domed monument is by far the largest in the cemetery. The graves of all those old sea captains, but also children. Too many children. Several gravestones hold a long list of those who died in the Liverpool Orphan Boys Asylum. Aged 12, Aged 9, Aged 9, Aged 14, Aged 10, Aged 9, Aged 8, on and on. No poems or Bible quotes or symbols for them, just name, age, date of death. We may be equal in death but not in memoriam.

From a wall in the centre pours one of the few natural springs in Liverpool, with many different coloured bands of sedimental rock above it. When there are few people around, it is one of the few sounds down here and adds to the lost world feeling.

At the centre of St James’, the cathedral looms above, appearing even larger and overwhelming now you’re literally underground below it. In the evening, those sunsets which drape themselves over Liverpool flow down even into here, and the dark sandstone of the cathedral goes a deeper shade of red until the sun eventually dips behind it. Getting in and out of St James’ requires descent and ascent through that hand-carved tunnel at the city end, or through a solid stone arch atop a wooded hill at the Liverpool 8 end. Emerging out upwards to higher ground, but often no better light than can be found in this sunken place.

Higher still is another graveyard, way over the Pennines. Undercliffe Cemetery stands above Bradford with striking views across the city and the surrounding hills and valleys. Prominent in the distance is the vast edifice of Lister/Manningham Mills. Once the world’s largest silk factory, a strike there was a key event in the founding of the Independent Labour Party. Now, it is half converted to luxury flats and half empty. If that isn’t a symbol of much that has gone wrong in this country I don’t know what is. The well-known local photographer Ian Beesley has said you could once count 100 mill chimneys from Undercliffe. There are a lot less these days, but even now still plenty in the eyeline. Undercliffe’s origins are similar to St James’: built to meet the demands of another rapidly growing industrial city. A group of businessmen formed a joint stock company to deal with the increasing demand for burials. They purchased one hundred acres of the Undercliffe Estate in 1851 and the site was landscaped and planted, including a great promenade right through its centre with a terrace at the western end. It was consecrated in 1854 and even early on, with its fine views, the burial ground was popular as a park too.

Lister/Manningham Mills, Bradford, from Undercliffe

Between 1854 and 1928, 105,742 internments took place at Undercliffe, but by then its use was in decline. The cemetery company eventually went into liquidation in 1977. During the next few years there was growing concern over the condition of the site and the Friends of Undercliffe Cemetery was formed. After considerable pressure, Bradford Council purchased the site in 1984, declared it a conservation area and sponsored a two year restoration programme. In 1985 a new cemetery company was formed and has since become the Undercliffe Cemetery Charity. Unlike St James’ though, plots remain available — you can still be buried in Undercliffe.

This high up the air is bracing and even when the atmosphere is thick, you can see some for distance. Lines of dark yellow Yorkshire stone terraces step-climb the hills in all directions in neat, slanting rows. In the valleys, the flat grey retail sheds that replaced the mills are themselves now often empty. The sweeping main promenade through the graveyard is as dramatic as its designers intended, flanked on both sides by towering graves. Whereas St James’ is sparse, Undercliffe remains dense. A forest of obelisks, urns and crosses, trying to outdo each other in reaching upwards to the sky. Unlike churchyards where rich and poor were buried side by side, the ability to pay governed the site of a grave in Undercliffe. Plots near the promenade were the most expensive. We may be equal in death but not in memoriam.

As to be expected in a city built on wool, textile makers and merchants have some of the largest graves, including the muscular Egyptian-style Illingworth monument, still guarded by two mini sphinxes and a carved Ra — a reminder that so much of this seeming ancientness was an affectation. Age gives it an elegance, but despite the quality, most of it was pretty basic following of fashion: a smattering of Celtic and Roman, Egyptian and Greek. Fashion always changes though, and now we’ve come a long way from even the rich having such elaborate graves. Many question if we want money to be spent after death on a chunk of marble with our name carved in it. At least back then there was more variety. From the dandyish foliage, fruit and swirls of the Behrens monument, to the solemn, almost modernist, column of architect William Mawson’s grave. Mawson was the co-designer of local landmarks like Bradford Town Hall, the Wool Exchange and Saltaire Congregational Chapel. Also buried here is Miles Moulson, whose firm built large portions of the famous village of Saltaire, and Joseph Smith, the agent who bought the land for Titus Salt that Saltaire would be built on. Salt himself was one of the sponsors of this cemetery. A full circle of the dead who built Bradford.

All the symbolic codes of these graves were once familiar to anyone walking past, and now they’re obscure. After only a handful of generations, we need a translation to understand much of it. Along with the more familiar crosses and slabs, there are veiled urns and weeping willows carved in stone. Cylinders, pillars, pediments. Prancing horses and clasping hands. As well as our lost understanding of these symbols, the information in English, despite best efforts, gets lost too. Letters worn. Texts cracked. Pieces sheared away. Names, even whole stones disappearing under thick, bright green grass. Vines wrap themselves around the needles of obelisks. Armless angels and headless saints. All the decay of course makes it more visually interesting — a fractured saint is more photogenic than a polished one. The enduring appeal of the mysterious ruination.

Old cemeteries such as these are amongst the strangest parks you’ll find. Given most urban areas have plenty of green spaces, why do so many people enjoy spending time in places intended to house the dead and provide for the occasional visit from the connected living? There is of course, the romantic, melancholic notions that such places can spark in us. What better way to contemplate your situation in life than being reminded of its shortness? Indeed, all our folly in trying to make permanent things, especially about ourselves. Such things are even more apparent in graveyards now largely shut down, less tended by relatives and where nature is doing its best to take it all back. Such notions of course are a little ironic when you consider the deeply practical and financial reasons both cemeteries were founded as private, for-profit outfits, mainly to benefit those with money to spare.  A forbear of today’s public-private spaces. That said, many of our Victorian public parks themselves were founded in part to sell the big houses around them. Anything which looks old we can find all too easy to separate from its often practical, even cynical, origins by virtue of the grace that the passing of time gives.

Yet regardless of how they came to be, such places of romantic, if managed, decay, gives them a feel of being somewhere a little out of time and out of the commercialism that now intrudes into every sphere of life. Both these sites are popular perhaps just because they’re quiet spaces, with a sense of isolation from the wider world. Places high and low and away from the centre to escape the troubles and intensities of city life. Somewhere those with busy lives can briefly forget about them and those with time to kill can go for a while. More prosaically, both cemeteries remain popular with young people as places to indulge in their own lives away from guardians. Playgrounds amongst the dead.

The cities these cemeteries are in are no longer the commercial powerhouses they once were. Though along with the (sadly still more often than not) empty mills and dock warehouses that drove the need for such cemeteries, they are an echo of that time. Reminders that, however big the boom, the scale of wealth accumulated, or grand structures built, everything eventually goes the same way. To quote Geoff Dyer: “ruins don’t make you think of the past, they direct you towards the future. The effect is almost prophetic. This is what the future will end up like. This is what the future has always ended up looking like.”

This piece was published by Caught by the River in June 2020.