The Path of Least Resistance

By Kenn Taylor

– I never thought I’d live in the countryside.
– This isn’t the countryside, it’s the edge of a city.


In Yorkshire though, the rural and the urban have a more indistinct relationship than elsewhere. Something not always appreciated by those born there. For those of us who moved in though, the ability to walk in an hour from Bradford city centre to, yes, up on a wild and windy moor, is not taken for granted.

The place that meant most though, was the Leeds-Liverpool Canal. I’d known the same waterway at its other end too. Liverpool though, is a river city, dominated in every way by the huge estuary. The canal there is an afterthought, just another body of still water amongst the many docks.

In West Yorkshire though, the canal has a central function, having helped define the districts and towns that it passes through. The shape of the cities too. When I shifted once more in my life, this time from London to the outskirts of Bradford, the Leeds-Liverpool became, by accident, hugely important to me.

Another canal, the Regents, had played a significant role in my brief time living in London. The dense urbanity of East London was exhilarating. To the point when I sometimes had to grip to manage the intensity of feeling. Like it had been in Liverpool too at its absolute best, but that was a deeper, more personal feeling of shared experience, communal understanding and expression. In London, it was an external force and you knew you were just a tiny cog spinning in it, which had its own allure. The canal represented calm in London. A long straight place to head along without a particular purpose. Somewhere to burn off energy when collected fears and ghouls and ideas threatened to overwhelm.

Moving from Bethnal Green Road to Bradford district meant no longer trains to Liverpool Street thundering past the front of my flat, instead expansive fields and skies. The canal though was a rare constant and still a place for mental space. In London, this had meant a deep walk through every shade of urban life, in that city now mostly polished to within an inch of its life. In West Riding though, it was a walk through increasing ruralness, striding into ever wider, open spaces. All along the way, the black and white mile posts at various angles of lean, reminding me that my origins in Liverpool were just a, long, walk away.

Without needing a car, the canal was a place to head where tension could be felt lifting from the shoulders, often with every step. Where tasks, troubles and frustrations could be put aside to go deeper about ourselves and everything else. On the surface, a straight graded route next to the murky mirror shimmer of water which required no thought or strain to navigate. Really though it is a winding, up and down route through the path of least resistance. The idea of this once deeply capitalistic functional waterway, now vintage leisure route, as a way of working out a way through lives which had involved some wandering and some extremes, was not lost on us. The passage of time felt slowed and so better to consider it. 

It helped. Both of us. Not having to think about the direction helped us to figure out where we should be going. Sometimes, breathing in as we passed further out with nothing around but fields sweeping away in the distance into hills, that same exhilaration again. Where you almost need to grip something, but now, sucking in fresh air rather than the dense electric hum of the city.

There have been more moves since, but I find somehow the canal keeps coming back. A much needed place to pace along the path of least resistance and think about then, now, the future, nothing at all. 

This piece was published in Elsewhere Journal in December 2020.

Trans-Mongolian

By Kenn Taylor

Lying on my back on a bunk bed, on a very long, very bare train. Going a very long way through a very bare landscape a long way from anywhere.

At this point, I’d been travelling on it for so many days, that whenever the train stopped and I briefly stepped onto the terra firma of a platform to buy food, I had sea legs. Well, train legs. So used to the constant shaking and rhythm of the railway journey that, removed from it, everything seemed unbalanced and off kilter.

Being on a train for so long, there is nothing but time. To be filled in many ways. Looking out for the arresting moments between endless tress and endless desert. Games. Chat. Drinking. Lots of drinking. Someone brought a laptop with downloaded films and music, which in back then seemed over the top and now seems like common sense.

With me always being a late adopter, I’d brought books. Although like everyone else I’d been very affected, if not traumatised, by the animated film, I’d never actually read Watership Down. She had recommended it in her usual passionate way, so I thought, why not get a copy for my travels. In what was no doubt another daft attempt at maintaining a connection.

So, with an incongruity recognised by myself and others, I found myself reading a novel about anthropomorphic rabbits filled with descriptions of the lush, green and wet English countryside, whilst sat on a train going through the depths of dry, summer, eastern Siberia. With this being August, Siberia of course was nothing like the snow covered images of popular culture. A week earlier we had sunbathed near the Kremlin. As you do. It was odd but all the more vivid to be down the, er, rabbit hole, of this book about the loss of an arcadian England, whilst being on the other side of the world in a moving metal box going through a striking but unforgiving landscape.

Of course, wherever you go though, you are still you. I dived into the depths of this book and this journey, trying to concentrate on reading whilst also sucking in the vast stream of everyone and everything going past. On this bunk in the quiet afternoon though, in the world of rabbits as the eternal human struggle, I still found myself thinking of her and the chest pressing gulp of the pain swept back in.

Back then though, the wider world seemed brighter. This journey just another example of it opening up ever further, ever faster. Here we were crossing continents, a multiplicity of backgrounds filled with camaraderie, in a world of expanding global interconnection, dialogue and understanding.

Yet the warnings of how thin a veneer this all was were already on display here. A guide telling us of the racism he experienced all the time. Russians more than happy with Putin telling us ‘we need a strong leader’. The call to Free Pussy Riot provoking indifference, ‘they shouldn’t have behaved like that in a church.’ No one likes us, we don’t care. What now stares us in the face as the growing threat to democracy in the 21st century was all there lurking in the background. We had thought then perhaps that this was just the leftovers of an old world that was dying. Really though, the post 2008 trauma was still just sinking in. The thwarted ambitions and dreams of millions, many struggling now even for a basic standard of living. Their sense of injustice ruthlessly diverted to other targets by those in power, so they could maintain the status quo, despite its diminishing returns for the majority.

The world has turned darker in the last decade. So many of the places we visited then, even if it still possible, we might not choose to now. Borders going back up. Minorities oppressed. Rights shredded. History coming roaring back to bite. Wherever you go, you are still you and you take your experience and culture with you. Sometimes though, what you see when you go elsewhere follows you back home much later.

This piece was published in Elsewhere Journal in November 2020.

Second Hand Life

By Kenn Taylor

I live a second hand life amongst second hand things. Over the way on the high street, the brands come and go. And nowadays, they mostly go. What I sell they never bothered with though: old books and bits and bobs. These days the customers have an infinite selection of books and bits and bobs at the click of a button. Funnily enough though, they still come here. Long after those places with supply chains, brand strategies and HR policies have caved in. My shop is, I’m told, part of what is called ‘experiential retail.’ So, my old bones and my old stock in this old shop, is in the same category then as Harvey Nichols and those coffee shops with big lightbulbs. Fair enough, I’ll take that. Though I don’t make as much money as them of course. I barely make any money at all. This is a vocation. Like being a priest, or an artist. At least artists get the girls. Priests too I reckon. Me, I get dust and people haggling over £10 for a leather bound volume that’s taken up space on my shelves for too long. Oh, but they love to browse. People older than me even looking for something specific from their past, to teenagers who think it’s like something from a film in here. So authentic one of the students said to me once. I guess so. They used to come for the prices, now they come for the authenticity. No skin off my nose, as long as they still come. I guess that’s something those brand strategists forgot about when they tried to predict what people wanted. I have been here for so long, with few pretensions but to survive and to work with things I like. And I have seen plenty of things I like come and then go again. Running a place like this, it beats punching a clock. There’s not much stress, no restructures or redundancies, but it takes up all your time and all your life. Thing I figure about authenticity, such as it is, is it usually comes through toil and pain and that is what most sensible folks want to avoid. Even if doing that leaves them pallid and bitter.

The stock here is never ending, I don’t even know what I really have. Good luck to the soul who has to deal with it after me. What are they going to do about the authenticity when I’m gone eh? There’s plenty of people who want to experience authenticy, who try to buy it, but they don’t have the commitment. Me, I long ago stopped giving a shit. I read and I know and I observe and I understand, but for what end I don’t know. They’ll carry me out of here in a box and, unlike some people and places, I don’t think I’m quite authentic enough to be preserved by the National Trust. So, all of this put together over all these years will go to a fire sale, skip, then conversion into flats. Sell the fittings to one of the students for their loft apartment.

At least I’ve been surrounded by things I’ve liked. Never had to work too hard. Been able to watch the sun coming in through the window and move slowly across the sky as it illuminates the flowing dust in bright shafts. Like a monk me, but without the shaved head and yes I do take contactless. I think even the monks do now too I reckon. Authenticity is hard to get, but trust me, when you have it, it means little. You still have to haggle over £10 and sit watching others watch you. I’ve had plenty of time to read. Lived all sorts of lives through these books and records and things. But it was all second hand. There’s still more knowledge and experience and art in all of it than you could ever get through in a lifetime. And looking after it all has meant I’ve done little with what I’ve learned. Though I have learned enough at least not to think about it too much anymore. I read and I know and I observe and I understand. For what end I don’t know.

This was published in Issue 47 of The Crazy Oik in October 2020.

Libre

By Kenn Taylor

Those 1950s American cars are a key symbol of Cuba under Communism, giving a bit of old glamour to all those Lonely Planet images and travel documentaries. They’re real enough, seen all over Havana. Many however are like ‘Trigger’s Broom’ – having had so many parts replaced they’re more new than old. There’s no denying though that they’re still cool. In Cuba, they are a key part of that desire for ‘difference’ that attracts people to a place. And their owners are only too keen to earn some extra cash taking visitors for a ride along the sea drive, the Malecon, under the sun and close to the spray of waves.

Less well photographed though are the Ladas. The reason the old American cars are still there of course, has largely been the lack of something to replace them, due to the ongoing economic blockade. Though now they’re so famous they are likely to always remain, as visitors will always want something of the past that meets their expectations. The Ladas from Mother Russia though, were the main replacement car for all those decades after the Revolution. They were popular locally for their ruggedness and relative modernity, though of course the Ladas themselves are now also ancient. While less well known as a symbol of Cuba, Ladas are a big part of the modest traffic that runs around Havana, in particular being used heavily as taxis.

I had little naivety about Cuba’s ‘alternative’ system. While there’s a general lack of the hunger and homelessness that marks much of the UK, in turn you are faced with a Government which tolerates no alternative political parties or dissent and heavily restricts its citizens. While basic needs are generally met, the standard of living is also low. Those old cars may have a certain romance and now a tourist income for their owners, but having to constantly repair a forty year old refrigerator has less allure.

The famous free education in Cuba also doesn’t always translate into liberation. In my final Lada taxi to the airport I spoke at length with the driver. He had a master’s degree in IT but saw little point in using it in Cuba when he could make more money by driving. As well as have more freedom, not having to work for the state. He talked about how he felt his education was wasted and how, like many, he wanted to leave. In turn he asked me about IT work in the UK. I said as far as I knew, it was well paid, but highly competitive. And that a lot of IT jobs were now being ‘offshored’ to other countries where labour was cheaper. He was aware also that we had to pay for university and asked how much it would cost to study for an IT masters. It took me a bit of time to work out the maths and then convert it into to Cuban currency. He was aghast at the expense. “Yes, it’s a real problem,” I said. “Especially if you’re from a poor background.” 

We were pretty quiet after that as we did the final leg towards the airport, pondering the madness of our two systems. Neither of which anyone really believes in anymore, both slowly falling apart. 

This piece was published in Elsewhere Journal in September 2020.

Liverpool and Wales: Longing and imagination in city and country

By Kenn Taylor

The relationship between Liverpool and Ireland is well documented. The relationship between Liverpool and Wales less so, yet just as deep. At one point, Liverpool had the largest urban settlement of Welsh speakers. From teaching to building to retail, the Welsh were a key part of the region’s fabric. The National Eisteddfod was held several times in Liverpool and Birkenhead. Relations were not always cosy though. In particular when Liverpool Corporation constructed the Llyn Celyn reservoir over the Welsh speaking village of Capel Celyn, helping fuel Welsh nationalism in the 1960s. Liverpudlians too, were also part of Wales. From the earliest opportunities the working class had for holidays, Wales represented open space, clear air, leisure and countryside.

Even now, Liverpool may no longer represent the economic powerhouse for Wales, especially as Cardiff has grown, but it’s still the closest major urban settlement to North Wales. A place to study, to go out, to shop. While, despite the advent of cheap flights, Wales remains popular for holidays and days out. And both still hold a pull to each other, particularly for the young of each place, long after cars replaced paddle steamers as the quickest route between the two. 

Possessing dramatic landscapes and cultures fired with passion and poetry, they are places separate but intertwined. Hills and tall buildings just visible through the distance on brighter days from up high. For populations with experiences so different, how each viewed the other was and is so much about perception, projection, longing. The Welsh idea of Hiraeth, is something many from Merseyside are also familiar with even if they couldn’t put a name to it. A bittersweet longing for homeland, for a lost golden age, even by those who never knew it or never left in the first place. A yearning to return to something which no longer exists, or maybe never did, but is a feeling which always remains.

In urban Merseyside, Wales is a place to escape to. Peace and space and blinding light. The intensity of openness. A bucolic place of nature, of school outward bound adventures, as much about crisps and kissing as mountain climbing and canoeing. Cheap, accessible holidays and golden if chilly beaches. The romantic weirdness of Portmeirion. Steam trains that go from nowhere to nowhere but at least the landscape looks pretty. This though, of course, ignores the vast holiday industry driven by Merseyside, Manchester and Birmingham, the undulating, boxy sea of caravans along the coast. There are the pseuds too who pretend they’re not tourists, that claim they come for the ‘real Wales’. What is real North Wales though? There’s the real of lakes, mountains and beaches, but also the real of intensive agriculture, nuclear power stations, Japanese factories and RAF jet bases. The holiday parks too are just as real.

In North Wales, Liverpool is a place to escape to, especially for the young. Noise and density and blinding lights. The intensity of urbanity. The possibilities are bigger in London of course, but also much further and harder away. Good times, clubs and music, different people and alternative cultures. Freedoms away from small town oppression. Anonymity and maybe even opportunity. A life closer to the edge, even if it’s easier to fall off. But of course, what is the ‘real Liverpool?’ All of this but also, pleasant suburbs, vast parks, technology hubs and polished shopping centres, like so many others. What both places have is a fierce awareness of themselves and their cultural uniqueness, but that sometimes blinds to what is more universal and what is shared. As well as that, living in cultures so strong, can create a drive for some to escape from it. 

The city in the distance. The hills in the distance. The distance is what matters, near but far. Something to daydream of, to work towards, to long for. A projection in the back of the mind, both real and unreal. The closer you get, the more the longing fades and you begin to think what you saw in the distance was a chimera. The longer you stay, the more you think back to what you have left and realise, maybe it wasn’t so bad. Maybe. Fresh eyes. Hiraeth again. The intangible feeling.

And it is everywhere. Strive to break from hard lives or particular places and we find we always take them with us. When we achieve our escapism, we find it’s just another different reality. What we’re looking for has never existed and it never will. Yet we still always look for it. In the distance, just out of sight. 

This piece was published in Elsewhere Journal in July 2020.

Building up: a shifting paradigm for cultural development in post-industrial Britain

By Kenn Taylor

International Garden Festival, Liverpool, 1984

As a baby I was, apparently, taken to the Liverpool International Garden Festival in 1984. It was arguably the first cultural mega event in Britain since the Festival of Britain in 1951 and the first to have what would become familiar goals of such events: urban renewal, creating a buzz and changing public perceptions of a place.

The event was largely a success. Based on the German Bundesgartenschau concept and backed by significant Government funds, it turned a former riverside landfill site into a varied garden and event space with activity across the year. It was popular locally and further afield and there were some significant ripple effects. It helped the region regain some confidence and think about what its future might be after a more than a decade of especially hard decline. The festival was also part of a wider Government-backed programme, which for example included the Mersey Basin Campaign to clean up the river, and started the long, still ongoing process of reclaiming the miles upon miles of abandoned industrial waterfront on both sides of the Mersey.

The legacy of the festival site itself is more ambiguous. It was sold off and turned into a leisure complex, which was successful for a while but later closed and lay derelict for years. More recently the gardens at least have been restored, but they have struggled for lack of maintenance funds.

The festival also did not in itself alter the fundamental economic challenges the region faced: a lack of decent quality well paid jobs, a solid local economic base and the tax base that comes with it to fund important services. 35 years later, while Merseyside has improved in many ways from when I was a child, even if things were never as bad as the media stereotyped them, this fundamental challenge has not really gone away. The event however was meant to be a spark for change, not a solution to what is an almost existential urban issue. One that has in the time since, sadly, gone on to affect more and more areas of the UK and the world.

The Garden Festival also inspired others. Similar events followed in Glasgow, Gateshead, Stoke-on-Trent and Ebbw Vale. Arguably the initiative influenced Glasgow working towards its 1990 European City of Culture programme, and Gateshead’s arts based regeneration projects including things like Sage Gateshead, BALTIC and the Angel of the North. The perceived success of Glasgow led to fierce bidding for the 2008, renamed, European Capital of Culture title, including between Newcastle-Gateshead and Liverpool, the latter who eventually won. In Liverpool itself, one of the regeneration projects which followed the Garden Festival was Tate Liverpool opening in 1988 in the redeveloped Albert Dock. Tate Liverpool’s first Director Lewis Biggs, went on to play a huge role in the city’s cultural development in a range of ways, including founding the Liverpool Biennial in 1999, one of the first attempts in the UK to hold a regular biennial in the general mould of Venice.

By the time of the build up to Liverpool’s year as Capital of Culture (CoC) in the mid-2000s, I had managed to get a first, tentative job in the cultural sector, as a zero hours gallery attendant, as well as being part of the alternative publishing scene in the rapidly regenerating city. What happened in that period was, after years of stagnation and decay and then slow, patchy development was a period of hyper development. Like many locals, I was torn between the positivity of finally seeing our region get such a level of new investment and construction after so long when so little was built at all – something hard to grasp if you’ve never lived somewhere facing hard decline. At the same time though, a wariness about whether all this was sustainable.

The Capital of Culture (CoC) programme was by and large varied and successful and had huge impact on changing perceptions of the city and giving it a new level of ambition. For me though, one of the most interesting things about CoC was that, initially intended or not, it made large, questions that may not otherwise have been addressed locally or nationally. Being held in Liverpool, it built on what began in Glasgow and to an extent deconstructed the idea of what a large scale cultural event (LSCE) should be in a city heavily impacted by post-industrial decline – a very different context to the first European City of Culture winners: Athens, Florence and Amsterdam.

Raymond Williams said that “culture is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language.”[1] This makes it hard to organise a LSCE, much harder I would say than organising the sporting equivalent, but to me, that’s what makes it a lot more interesting. Before, during and after 2008 the question pushed to the fore was a simple one with a complex answer: what is culture? Breaking that down: How much should things be ‘local’ and how much from ‘further afield’, how do you choose between art forms, between the popular and the niche, the traditional and the radical? Who are the intended audiences? How do you talk about a ‘local’ culture without excluding people newer to a place? Who decides all this and allocates responsibility, platforms and money accordingly? What do we want to change through all this? Such was political engagement locally, there was a huge level of critical debate and it was fascinating to watch received wisdom nationally about what and where was relevant in terms of culture getting unpicked by the region.

Vaivén Circo by Derren Lee Poole, National Festival of Making, Blackburn, 2019

What was also important, and I saw this later in Hull too when I worked there, was how the year and build up to it helped restore more confidence and pride to the area. Not that it had ever gone away, but it had been severely dented by years of negative stereotypes and media hatchet jobs, which eat away at the collective psychology of a place. The power and importance of this is little understood by those whose world view comes from richer, more powerful cities which inevitably dominate the arts, media and academic discourse, rather than those who live in places which may only feature in the media as the butt of a lame comedian’s joke or in an negative article by a journalist from far away.

Nevertheless, the nagging question, especially when I came from a local, working class background, was would a LSCE event make things better in a region facing multiple challenges? My experience was that CoC in Liverpool did, in many ways. Even just in cultural terms, in the late 1990s, the city’s Philharmonic Hall was on the rocks, the Playhouse and Everyman theatres had shuttered, even popular music venues like L2/Lomax had closed down. No new cultural buildings had been built since 1939 and culture was not high on the agenda of the local authorities. The situation now, even after 10 years of austerity, is very different. Though the impact of CoC itself cannot be separated entirely from other factors such as wider public and private investment in that period.

However, CoC did not remove in itself the fundamental structural issues the area faced, even if it reduced some of them significantly. The point for me though is, much like with the Garden Festival, it should never have been expected to in isolation, because, frankly, no one single thing would remove complex challenges many decades in the making and part of huge global shifts. The counter question I always put is, would the region be better off if it hadn’t happened, if it had gone to another city? Few local people I think would agree.

On a wider level, what happened in Liverpool for CoC also had a real impact in beginning the still ongoing process in the UK of rethinking of how culture is defined and funded and how LSCE are delivered, especially in terms of how they interact with the varied residents of a city. Something which has carried on in subsequent events. Demand and interest in such LSCE has kept on growing. After the popularity of 2008 in Liverpool, the Govt. launched the UK City of Culture model, held in Derry/Londonderry then Hull and now upcoming in Coventry for 2021, with several areas now developing bids for 2025. The Liverpool City Region launched a Borough of Culture and the Greater London Authority launched a similar scheme, with Greater Manchester starting a Town of Culture. Folkstone has its own art triennial, there’s the British Ceramics Biennial in Stoke-on-Trent, Brighton Photo Biennial, the biennial Manchester International Festival, Blackburn’s National Festival of Making, Whitstable Biennial, Glasgow International and so on. Britain was due to have a European Capital of Culture again in 2023, with several cities bidding, until the UK’s involvement was barred because of Brexit. Leeds valiantly has decided to deliver a year of culture regardless in 2023. In 2025 Rotherham plans to deliver a Children’s Capital of Culture, co-developed with children and young people. With it seems an ever increasing number of such events, is there the risk is there of diminishing returns – at some point will everywhere have had a big cultural festival of some kind?

Vicky Lindo and William Brookes, Dead Dad Book, British Ceramics Biennial 2019.
Photo: Jenny Harper

For me though, the question should be, why shouldn’t everywhere have a year of culture, or similar? When the Garden Festival began this whole trend in the 1980s, culture for many UK cities was at the bottom of the civic priority pile, in contrast to the past. Poorer cities didn’t see it as important given what other challenges they had, even wealthier cities saw it as something to give a bit of funding and support to, mainly via older established civic institutions, but few put it front and centre and rarely did it stretch out to all forms of arts and different interpretations of culture. Many cultural facilities were ageing and underfunded, with few built outside London between the 1960s and the 1990s. Artists were rarely considered in town halls if not dismissed entirely. The creative industries were low on the economic agenda despite their importance. All this has now changed for the better, with the role of the arts and culture in its many forms not just valued in itself but increasingly for many other reasons besides. Many fear negative aspects of instrumentalization, with good reason, but if anything, the conversation around culture, what it is and should be, who gets to access and create it, is wider than ever. With a growing understanding of the role it can play in planning, health and many other areas. Many cities like Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, have it near the top of their priorities, while authorities like Hull, despite the huge central Govt. cuts they have received, have maintained cultural funding levels.

All power to towns and cities who have this level of focus and especially those which are doing it off their own bat. Rotherham for example didn’t bid to have a Children’s Capital of Culture, they just decided it was something they should do. And there for me is something absolutely fundamental to the success of a LSCE at all levels, now more than ever, is that it is driven by local ideas, needs, interests and specialisms above all else.

To me, one of the most important Liverpool Biennial commissions ever was Homebaked/2Up2Down for the 2012 Biennial. This saw social practice artist Jeanne van Heeswijk work in Anfield, celebrated as home of LFC but also an area devastated by the Housing Market Renewal Initiative. Jeanne worked over two years to develop a project with the community, which resulted in the tentative re-opening of a local bakery, an idea for community-led housing and a tour/performance explaining the complex local context. I always got the impression the biennial team were surprised this project seemed to attract some of the biggest interest from the international art press rather than other aspects of the programme. I was not though. Here was something original, specific, that could not be seen, easily at similar events elsewhere in the world, even if some of the concepts were transferable. Something that had impact locally, but relevance internationally as more and more of the developed world faced up to a post-industrial future. Eight years on, Homebaked is now a larger, co-operative community business, employing 18 people and playing a big role in a more sustainable wider development of the neighbourhood.

Jeanne van Heeswijk, 2Up 2Down, 2012. Commissioned by Liverpool Biennial

For me this is an exemplar of how projects within biennials and other LSCE can have impact in different ways – plenty of time to explore, develop and build something up with a particular community, with a later event or other public face that engages a wider constituency, but then some sort legacy that can be taken forward. Of course, the very nature of such projects means that not all are guaranteed to be successful in the long term, but Homebaked demonstrates what it is possible to achieve when the conditions are right.

Even from a purely strategic point of view, such as getting on the ‘art world map’ featured in travel guides etc, doing what is already being done elsewhere over and over again, is I would argue, a hiding to nothing. Key is not to fall into the trap of replication, even tempting as it when looking at successful cities or projects elsewhere. To truly have local impact as well as gain the benefits of increased attention and visitors, originality is key. This will vary from a more specific event – a ceramics biennial makes perfect sense in Stoke-on-Trent, Glasgow, with its large number of studios and galleries makes sense to have its International, while having an outdoor focus makes sense in a seaside town. Even within wider, year-long cultural programmes which need to approach culture from a broad range of perspectives, a firm rooting within the city or town itself will always have most power and local specifics are what can make a programme really stand out.

Towns and cities often have specific cultural strengths. Artists and art organisations based in them usually understand these very well and how they relate to the wider cultural landscape and they should play a key role in the development of such programmes. This doesn’t mean though that the loudest voices, from the biggest organisations or the most well connected artists, should have all the power. Rather those planning such programmes should take this as a starting point for a wider conversation about what they want to achieve within a LSCE. This should involve people at all levels: already engaged audiences, artists, community organisations, but much further out to people on the street and online going about their daily lives. Asking questions such as, what part of town could most do with a boost, what local artist from the past has been forgotten, which project could do with help to get them to the next level, what themes are important to this place? Crucial also is to maintain this conversation throughout all phases of a LSCE. Keep asking people, how do they think the programme is going, what do they want the legacy to look like and how will we achieve it? For year- or six-month long programmes as well, there should be care also to taper an event, with a steady build up and wind down so it doesn’t feel like the LSCE was ‘it’ in terms of culture, overwhelming people and then stopping dead, instead acknowledging a particular time as a period of focus. I don’t think there’s a single ‘best’ way organise a LSCE, remember, what Raymond Williams said about culture. Key for me though is to take a key perspective of the local, then see how those ideas fan out nationally and internationally.

Barry Finan, WRRIGHHTINNGSERRS, British Ceramics Biennial 2019.
Photo: Jenny Harper

Wirral was the Liverpool City Region Borough of Culture 2019 and it was great to go back and experience some of the varied events as part of it. For me though the most powerful were a couple of photographic exhibitions, Tabula Rasa and Women of Iron, showing work by young people from the Creative Youth Development Programme ran by the Council. Using a LSCE event to inspire a new generation is so important but having the long term programmes in place so young people can develop themselves before, during and after such an event is vital. As are new employment opportunities. If it wasn’t for the increase in entry level paid arts roles in Liverpool in the build-up to CoC, I might never have been able to get to the role I have now. In a LSCE, plans should be made around what cultural employment opportunities will be created for people locally and how least some of these will be sustained beyond the event. Programmes in areas such as youth development and employment should be front and centre of long term cultural programmes in a region to help develop them as centres of art and creativity.

What the legacy of LSCE looks like should be as specific to a place as the event programme itself. It’s certainly possible to be too rigid about long term outcomes, when working in culture you have to allow for serendipity to an extent, but what the future looks like does need to be considered in some detail before such an event happens. A LSCE might have the big impact, but how to build on that long term needs to be thought about as soon as the event is being planned. When funders are looking at LSCE, they should consider their support in three or five year terms, tapering for developing, building up to the main phase and then afterwards, reduced but longer periods of funding to bed down sustainability and impact. One of the most powerful factors of delivering a LSCE is the scale of discussion and debate it can create locally about culture, how to nurture and further develop it and this should be harnessed. It’s crucial to ask early on, what can such an event help spark that does carry on after it? Could that be say, a permanent, low cost artist studio complex, protection through Agent of Change for local music venues, an ongoing commissioning programme in a certain field, a new annual festival, a neighbourhood cultural event that starts the conversation about long term local change, a new creative arts facility for young people. Again, this should always be driven by specific local needs. Though it’s important to ensure that space in towns and cities is developed or sustained to make art, as well as show it.

Women of Iron project

However, while we focus on arts and culture here, we cannot separate it from the wider context that LSCE operate in in particular locations. A LSCE in an area with a solid economic base but less of a cultural profile, will be different from a place with a good cultural profile but challenging economic situation, different again from perhaps a smaller place with limited profile at all and a small arts base. Liverpool for example, had to deal with decades of nasty stereotypes, Hull felt it wasn’t heard enough of at all in the media, upcoming Coventry meanwhile has a relatively solid economic base but feels it doesn’t have enough cultural recognition nationally.

This does not mean though, that LSCE should be the preserve of already successful places or that bigger, wealthier cities should have a monopoly on the arts. What’s been positive in recent years has been the increased focus on directing some more state arts investment in the most disadvantaged and under invested areas of the UK. However, developing and sustaining an arts and culture programme in a post-industrial area, cannot be done in isolation. LSCE and initiatives such as Creative People and Places are powerful, but they are not panaceas and must be linked in with wider plans and ideas for local economic and social development. Precious few places in the world operate wholly on a culture-based economy and those that do are fragile – Venice’s population has declined throughout the 20th century as its wider economy moved away to more modern places and it became purely a tourist city[2]. While cultural mega cities, say London, New York, Berlin, are employing tens of thousands in culture, arts, tourism and creative industries, those sectors still play second fiddle to things like high finance, professional services and public administration, which more fundamentally sustain them economically. A place cannot be regenerated without considering culture, but art and culture alone cannot be expected to regenerate a place. The Festival of Britain in 1951 is fondly remembered because it was just the celebratory part of a much wider programme of national renewal and investment and opening out of access to education and the arts.

Gentrification and ‘over tourism’ are also significant issues which need to be considered in this context. Though it must be remembered, in urban terms these issues principally impact on the most highly successful and well-off cities and receive so much focus because such places control much of the media and academic discourse. More disadvantaged cities face a different, perhaps even more stark challenge: to keep sustaining and further developing cultural provision at all with limited funds. While artists in these places can struggle to sustain themselves when faced with far fewer opportunities, even if rents remain cheap compared to wealthier cities.  

Silvio Palladino, I Wish to Communicate with You, Hull 2017.
Photo: Silvio Palladino

The role of arts and culture in post-industrial urban change can and does have many positive benefits. Yet these can also be fragile and easily be lost. Long term thinking is not something the UK often excels at, but now, as we’re getting closer to having (re?) won the argument about the importance of art and culture in urban areas and civic life, it’s time for a new paradigm, in which a LSCE is the showcase, the platform, for what’s been achieved and will go on being developed within longer term civic and community ambitions around art and culture.

If we do want to see our cities continue to transform for the better, LSCE’s should also be an opportunity, a catalyst to ask bigger questions about society, politics, economics, culture, and places. What we want them to be and how we go about achieving them. A way of exploring what changes people want to make in towns and cities in the UK and how to build underinvested places back up as we go through challenging and tumultuous times.


[1] Williams, R. Keywords: a vocabulary of culture and society. London: Fontana, 1976: p.87.

[2] Kington, T. Guardian News and Media, 2009. Who now can stop the slow death of Venice? https://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/mar/01/venice-population-exodus-tourism. Accessed 24 Dec 2019.

This piece was published in Engage Journal 44: Biennials and beyond in April 2020.

The Reliquary of the (Late) 20th century: Mark Lecky’s O’ Magic Power of Bleakness

Mark Leckey Dream English Kid 1964-1999 AD

“That over-reaching proletarian drive to be more, (I am nothing but should be everything)”
Mark Fisher

“Art inevitably arrives here to be celebrated. This is the world I belong to now. But at one point I belonged to another intelligence.”
Mark Lecky

By Kenn Taylor

Inside Tate Britain’s cavernous, Modernist extension, Birkenhead-born artist Mark Lecky has overseen the construction of a replica of the M53 motorway. Specifically, of the bridge at Eastham Rake. A place where Lecky spent a significant part of his youth, hanging out and having the kind of experiences that young people do, ones that burn into the memory with an intensity that few do in adulthood. The bridge has appeared with increasing frequency in his work over the past few years. Now, here, removed from context, reduced to a symbol, elevated to a monument, it is used as a canvas for the video and multimedia works that have formed the most well-known parts of Lecky’s practice.

Like Lecky, I also grew up in the shadow of the M53, the motorway’s bulk abutted my primary school, its grass verge consuming many sacrifices of footballs. Here the motorway cleaved through the heart of the various overspill estates of Birkenhead and snaked down along to Ellesmere Port, a route Lecky took himself when he moved aged nine to what was then still, just about, a booming new town of growing industries. Ellesmere Port may not be conventionally pretty, but it has a striking landscape. The elevated motorway, even still in the 1990s cutting through an oversized terrain of oil refineries, car plants and paper mills, all at night dramatically lit. A place where the houses and civic buildings of the town seemed almost an afterthought. Not unlike the Teesside landscape which so influenced a young Ridley Scott when he made Blade Runner. Much of this industry is now shuttered.

Already an admirer of Lecky’s work, on hearing he’d got Tate to rebuild a bit of the M53 in its hallowed halls on the elite riverbank of Pimlico, my immediate reaction was LOL, go ‘ead. This was something I must see. Yet of course, I should have known the actual structure, diligently fabricated by Tate’s technical team, wouldn’t have the atmospheric power of the sodium lit exhibition poster, a still from one of Lecky’s films. Looking to indulge in the uncanny of seeing something humdrum from my own youth made large, placed on the altar of culture, was always likely to result in a degree of disappointment. Though this motorway played a far less significant role in my life than it seems to have done in Lecky’s. Here in the Tate he is reconstructing his own remembrance of things past on an epic scale. Yet, the further time passed for me from being sat crossed legged under the fake motorway, the clearer I could see what Lecky was reaching for, how the installation embodies so much of what he has always been getting at.

The bridge serves as a base for a selection of his work from 1999 to the latest piece created for this exhibition, Under Under In, all played on a loop. Starting with his most famous work Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore, a cut up amalgam of recovered footage of young people in urban Britain, charting the passage of musical time from Northern Soul in the 1970s to rave in the early 1990s. Fiorucci has an uncanny, dream like quality, but at the same time flows with a rhythm intensely related to the cultures that it embodies. Often forgotten are the intercutting shots of post war housing estates and shopping precincts and the young people in them, forming these nascent cultures quite different from the earnest rationality the designers of such landscapes imagined. A deadpan voice reads out a list of clothing brands popular with the causals to which Lecky once belonged. A desire for individual expression and colour away from the mass concrete and brick of Modernism. A desire that still ends up with uniformity to an extent, though no more or less than most subcultures. In Fiorucci too the occasional glimpse of the possibility of transcendental feeling despite everything – and many more at least reaching for it. The potential for magic in bleakness. Northern Soul danced to by industrial workers, rave danced to by their unemployed children. Decades are cut through in 15 minutes.

The next piece is Dream English Kid, 1964 – 1999 AD another filmic collage. This one more personal to Lecky, exploring his own memories of time passing through found and created footage. A portrait of the artist through the images and culture that made him who he is. In Dream English Kid, the optimism of the 1960s abounds at the opening, from the images of the space race and the single twang of a Beatles chord, cutting to that more day-to-day vision of the future from that era – the ever flowing path of concrete, steel and tarmac, the motorway. A bright white sun shines down on it as Lecky overlays a fractured version of Harold Wilson’s ‘White Heat of Technology’ speech that talked about the optimistic potential for socialism driven by modern technology. Good Quality Well Paid Jobs and Better Homes in Bright New Town Britain. Few people remember Wilson actually grew up in Wirral and spent his career as a Merseyside MP. Ellesmere Port and many places like it were at the heart of Wilson’s dream. A record player spins. A chrome hubcap spins. The post war dream moving forward fast.

View of Dream English Kid 1964–1999 AD at Cabinet London 2015

In Lecky’s book of this exhibition, he has a picture of the first Vauxhall car made in their new Ellesmere Port plant, rolling out during the same period that Lecky was born. It was then and for some time after, the largest employer in the whole of Wirral. Across the UK, many families like Lecky’s moved, or were moved, along the motorways, promised a better life in far out new towns and overspill estates with new industries. All intended to replace the old darkness of inner-urban Victorian landscapes. Landscapes like the now long gone Liverpool sugar refineries of Henry Tate. The fortune from which paid for this very gallery and a packet of whose sugar Lecky lingers on in Dream English Kid. How soon though that dream died, the workforce of the Vauxhall plant more than halving by the 1980s and a host of negative social impacts cascading out from that. The populations of these areas then often written off and blamed for the arrogance and failures of others. The ghosts of lost industries, broken promises and hopes that were too rigidly cast in concrete still haunt much of the UK.

Dream English Kid shifts too from the warm, sunny white heat of the dream to the sodium lit, dirty, graffiti covered reality. The emergence of a new working class youth culture inside of the shell of the increasingly crumbling Modernist vision. In the film, urban decay grows. Amongst deteriorating brick and concrete, just a snatch of colour from a Benson and Hedges shop sign. The red glow and grey dust of a feared nuclear winter. A bottle of Cinzano and dancing. The interrelationship and disconnect between day to day life and geopolitics. Dream English Kid then moves to Lecky’s squat life in late 80s London, the undercurrent of culture carrying on in the cracks after Thatcher’s victory. The strange new alienation and optimism of the approach of the millennium and the empty threat of Y2K. As Lecky’s memories become sharper, more contemporary, the intensity of the film fades.

Under Under In is Lecky’s most recent piece, produced for this show and perhaps the most expansive. An extensive multimedia work, featuring young actors, dressed in casuals. Again, uncanny, they mess around, but in a strangely alien way, later contorting their bodies to ‘recreate’ the shape of the bridge. It’s now no longer a dream of a bright future, nor the underground base of young subversion, but a monument of uncertain origin, site of rituals unclear. “You’re away with the fairies!” is shouted at one point. A Merseyside phrase frequently said from adults to children who dare to question cold, dead, decaying perceptions of the world in any way. Lecky talks in interviews of a supernatural experience he had under the bridge as a child. It being unclear if his cleansing of doors of perception was induced by the sonic vibrations from cars overhead, fumes from industry, or just his own imagination.

It seems the further Lecky travels from his youth on the urban fringes of industrial towns, the more he reaches back into it. The more successful he his, the greater the complexity and sophistication with which he can reconstruct his own memories and snapshots of the cultures of the time he has passed through, cultures in the past rarely paid heed to in the mainstream art world. Leading on to now, one of the foremost art palaces investing in this huge replica motorway and complex multimedia production. Yet the further he reaches back, the more elaborate the recreation, the more distant it feels. Under Under In is I think the least resonant of the three pieces.

Like so many born away from cultural power, Lecky worked a long time before he was heard in the place where art is acknowledged and recorded in the official annals. Yet on reaching that point, the more he is listened to, admired and platformed, perhaps the greater his realisation that the most important stuff remains out there, in places that continue to be ignored and talked over. The harder perhaps it is for him to reach back and grasp something that is never quite there, really, that magic. As the DJ Shadow record says, You Can’t Go Home Again.

Jeremy Deller, another artist with a deep interest in the culture of dance music, is of the same generation as Lecky, but, as he freely admits, a far more privileged background. Lecky and Deller’s paths of experience intermingled in London squat culture, where wealthy ‘slummers’ and the working class in the arts once crossed over, but no longer. Deller seems more interested in placing that culture formally in an art historical background. Lecky’s response is more emotional, intuitive. One inside reaching out, one outside reaching in. Yet both respecting one of the most important aspects of culture of the last 30 years.

Still from Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore 1999

As Deller puts it in his film Everybody in the Place though, we should not forget that the hedonistic youth culture of rave was also in part of an admission of failure. Hedonism as a reaction against the state when it became clear they could not change the structure of the state. The time when the dream of the White Heat of Technology bringing a stable utopia of everyday life, changed into the dream of a temporary White Heat from Technology, the fleeting utopia of a rave in an abandoned warehouse or airfield. The pattern endlessly repeated to escape the cold tomorrow that reminds us of the decay of the everyday.

There’s something particular about being an artist from one of the many unloved, fringe places, where access to art and the ability to be creative is all the more important due to scarcity, discouragement and narrowness of stimulus. Especially pre-Internet. Romance and intrigue are in the eye of those who hold it and project it. The bleaker the situation, the harder the gnashing desire for magic, the deeper the thirst for colour and stimulation in whatever form it can be found. Lecky’s first monograph On Pleasure Bent has a brilliant choice for its cover, the alluring gold of a Benson and Hedges cigarette packet. In the late 20th century, cigarettes and stimulation and socialising and the close but always unobtainable magic glow of golden consumerism promised by packet and magazine, bus stop and billboard. B&H, Cinzano or whatever. A need to be away with the fairies. This intense craving never appreciated by those for whom art, stimulation and opportunity was not a dearth, but a deluge.

If like Lecky, you become one of the rare people who do get to fill marble halls with your imagination, why not tell people about what you are and where you are from? See people sit amongst it in appreciation of something few would be able to point to on a map. Demonstrate that such a place has its own drama and as much capacity to drive a fevered imagination and be worthy of depiction in culture as anywhere else. I see this too in the work of George Shaw, his paintings of the Tile Hill estate in Coventry he grew up on, imbued with the intensity of feeling that is more conventionally draped over the skyscrapers of Manhattan, the monuments of Rome or the streets of Berlin.

Yet if Lecky was haunted at the bridge, something about this bridge should haunt us. This installation is, to quote Lecky’s Exorcism of the Bridge @ Eastham Rake, a reliquary of the 20th century, containing now, finally, venerated and established relics of the past for us to appreciate. Yet however alluring nostalgia can be to all of us, I still pay heed to the historic view of nostalgia being a disease, a comfort that ignores the raw and uncomfortable of the here and now. This is all a culture of the past, no more or less valid or important than what young people create and experience now. Lecky reminds us that such cultures and experiences often don’t have their importance respected or acknowledged. That’s if they’re not actively demonised. This was just his and it deserves its elevation to monumental status.

But in absorbing a bit of the magic he recreates we shouldn’t forget that the social decay that accompanied the rise of these past youth cultures remains. The layers of paint applied to the bridge during the New Labour era have long flaked off. The future of the Vauxhall Motors plant at Ellesmere Port, having shrank even further in recent years, now hangs in the balance, overshadowed by Brexit, lost in the horse trading of the global motor industry. And little of the urban regeneration that has recharged Britain’s inner cities, many now increasingly reoccupied by the middle and upper classes, has reached out to the overspill estates and new towns where former inner city dwellers got moved. Young people living in Ellesmere Port and all the many places like it, are no doubt still having just as intense experiences. Loitering in underpasses, now both physical and digital. But will they be afforded the same opportunities as Lecky was, who was able to redo his O-Levels aged 20 and attend art college at no cost. Things which helped him to (eventually) be heard and represent the culture he came from. Will they get the opportunity to fill the marble halls of the Tate in future with their own dreams and memories?

This piece was published by The Double Negative in January 2020 and republished by the Working Class Academics Conference in April 2020.

Images: Dream English Kid, 1964–1999 AD 2015 (still) Courtesy of the artist © Mark Leckey; Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore 1999 (still) Courtesy of the artist © Mark Leckey; Installation views of Dream English, Kid 1964–1999 AD at Cabinet, London, 2015 Photo: Mark Blower

Distinctly

Helen and her Hula Hoop by Chris Killip
Helen and her Hula Hoop by Chris Killip


27th September – 24th November 2019

Williamson Art Gallery and Museum, Birkenhead
Part of LOOK Photo Biennial 2019

By Kenn Taylor

Distinctly
 features the work of ten photographers whose images capture aspects of life in Britain over the last sixty years up to the present day. The exhibition takes up two of the Williamson’s spacious, well-lit galleries, which give the diversity and volume of work in the show room to breathe. The Williamson is a great space for art and has been showing increasingly dynamic programming of late.

Some of the first pictures featured are from Martin Parr’s weather series; well known, but less typical of his work being in black and white. More than the weather, these images seem most to capture the physical landscape of much of urban Britain in the 1980s and early 90s – rain stained concrete and a general air of being run down. The people are just a small part of these scenes, hunkered down in resignation, even if only because of the drizzle.

The Williamson by Robert Darch

A stark contrast from these are Trish Murtha’s images of children playing, joshing and hanging around, in the 1970s ruins of Victorian streets. In these pictures the children are vivid and central. Images like these are a staple of British photography of that era, but contain more warmth than most, a product perhaps of Murtha’s familiarity with her subject, from her own upbringing in Elswick, Newcastle.

Ken Grant’s images of 80s and 90s Merseyside meanwhile, capture a landscape and community familiar to me, but his pictures are always more than just documentary, each heavy with a particular mood and sometimes the air of drama having just happened, or about to. 

Markéta Luskačová’s photographs of London street musicians from the 1970s to the 90s seem much older than their era, featuring people with dress and instruments appearing to be from the start – not the end – of the 20th century. John Myers’ 1970s images too, capture how many people were living in an almost Victorian way right into that decade, even as boxes of Surf and chipboard walls highlight the creeping advance of the consumer world we’re more familiar with.

Youth Unemployment in Elswick by Trish Murtha
Youth Unemployment in Elswick by Trish Murtha

Both Myers and Luskačová’s pictures show in many respects how slowly things changed in the 20th century for most people, right up until the 1970s, with other photographers in this exhibition capturing how rapidly things changed after that. The two roads of Britain after then, the decay and the hyper development that scars the country in different ways, run through many of these works, whether a central theme or in the background. Daniel Meadows’ portraits, first in the 1970s and then of the same people in the early 2000s, picture those who lived through and experienced that change.

Flipping this over though are Robert Darch’s recent images of agricultural life in south west England. While clearly contemporary, the traditional work seems to exist out of time. It’s almost a shock to see colour in his images after so much black and white, but colour is also central in Kirsty Mackay’s images looking at housing and landscape in her native Glasgow and their relationship to the city’s challenges with poor health.

Distinctly By Declan Connolly
Distinctly By Declan Connolly

Chris Killip’s large prints of work from his In Flagrante series are amongst the better known and the most dramatic works in the exhibition. The deep contrast between dark and light tones and sharp cropping making them at once intense, brilliant documentary and at the same time strikingly cinematic.

Niall McDiarmid’s recent portraits of people in high streets around the UK, happy to be photographed, confident, dressed in their gear to go to town, feel very different to the rest of the images in Distinctly and a necessary reminder of the expression of individual, sometimes vivid personality. Even some of these portraits, however, are also framed to a degree by the run down streets in the background, omnipresent.

Decay unnecessarily frames the images in this exhibition in a literal sense too, with the damp in the walls of the Williamson clear in one of the galleries. Like so many museums and galleries in Britain, no doubt a product of limited funds leading to endlessly deferred maintenance.

Images such as those in Distinctly, have resonance with audiences, I think, because they capture some essential aspects of humanity, as well as the specificity of certain cultures in Britain, whilst highlighting realities familiar to so many though not always seen in art. Over six decades in the UK, the brief periods of intense boom followed by long periods of stagnation and decay, the kind that leaves children playing in ruins and resignation on the faces of adults. These photographs portray people and landscapes from the concrete edges of the North East coastline to the ever-changing communities of East London, who are so often marginalised, mistreated, talked over, misrepresented; shown here instead with dignity, vividness and complexity.

Carrie Harris in Women of Iron
Carrie Harris featured in Women of Iron

Mention must be made also about the strong work by the young women photographers featured in the adjacent exhibition Women of Iron, which captures Birkenhead’s Cammell Laird shipyard, in particular its female workforce. Images which stand up just fine against the work in Distinctly by far more experienced photographers. This was a project developed by Wirral’s Creative Youth Development programme. Such programmes are amongst the most important part of public cultural provision and there are not nearly enough opportunities like that for young people. Wirral is drawing to an end this year as Borough of Culture within the Liverpool City Region. Now, like everywhere else in the UK, it deserves a lifetime of the level of arts activity and opportunities that has been seen within it.

This piece was published by Corridor8 in February 2020.

Images copyright: Chris Killip, Robert Darch, Trish Murtha, Declan Connolly, Suzanne St Claire

Socio-economic diversity in the arts: reflections on the Toolkit for Employers

The publication of Socio-Economic Diversity and Inclusion in the Arts is both timely and important.

I’m the son of a railway worker and a hospital cleaner and was the first in my family to go to university. When entering the cultural sector in a junior position, it was soon clear to me that it was, by and large, not really diverse
nor reflective enough of the communities it was funded to serve. Trying to raise the issue of socio-economic diversity (SED) in the sector in the mid-2000s was largely seen as unfashionable, irrelevant, something from the 1980s. An attitude that helped to hide some the inequalities that era glossed over.
 
Encountering classist cultures in the arts

Upon graduating, I got an interview for a diversity scheme for a major media organisation. I had been brought up in a culture in which presenting yourself well at interviews was seen as the main thing. So I bought my first ever suit for it on a credit card. I expected to talk about my portfolio of work, but was a little surprised to be asked to justify why I had been disadvantaged and why I deserved this opportunity. Being from a background were hiding poverty was key and that, ‘there’s always someone else worse off’, I was a bit stumped by this. In addition, in spite of being to a scheme to encourage the disadvantaged, it was led like a typical tough interview. These days I’d be able to answer all their questions quite eloquently, but then, I struggled, lacking the cultural capital that encourages public speaking and aggressive self-promotion from a young age.
 It was hard enough then to enter and survive in the cultural sector and it’s gotten worse in the last few years, especially in the more deprived regional parts of the UK where museums, libraries, youth facilities, further education colleges and theatres have all seen huge cut backs and closures.
 
The importance of measuring and monitoring socio-economic background  

The conversation on SED has, however, thankfully now started to shift and be taken seriously by the sector. When talking about measuring socio-economic background, quite often I’d be told ‘But how!’ as if it was impossible, rather than complex. The Bridge Group and Jerwood Arts’ Toolkit can help organisations to move into robust and applicable ideas, systems and actions. What’s great is it encourages a strategic rather than an ad hoc approach and uses methodologies with decent evidence behind them. Crucially, it advises how to practically gather this information properly and use it to make a difference in organisations.
 
The report highlights why this information really needs to be gathered: it exposes damming facts such as those from lower socio-economic backgrounds earn on average less than colleagues from more affluent backgrounds doing the same job.  

Top tips from the Toolkit 

Amongst the things that stood out for me in the Toolkit include being supportive, warm even to candidates in job interviews, so they can perform at their best. Rather than, sadly as I have personally experienced, some interviewers being cold or combative like it was some strange game. Another solid piece of advice is asking applicants to self-describe any barriers they may have faced in gaining access to the arts in an application statement. This is something that gives a candidate time to consider this in advance, as with the usual questions on a job description, rather than it being dropped on them at interview.  Its focus too is on recruiters considering skills and competencies over qualifications or direct experience is important, as is its advice on use of terminology. It’s also great that the Toolkit is split into baseline and advanced practice for organisations at different stages and scales.
 
The Toolkit also identifies where progress is happening in organisations. At Artlink, for example, we have already removed qualification requirements from job adverts, unless specifically needed, asking only for relevant information and stating clearly that we’re open to non-standard application formats. However, like any organisation, we can’t be complacent, even if we have made positive changes. Other areas we still need to think more about include avoiding, or at least explaining, cultural world jargon in job adverts, as well as ensuring adverts go to places beyond the usual outlets.
 
Next steps to make progress in diversifying the arts sector 

Practically, challenges remain with regards to gathering data. For instance, the socio-economic background survey for employees is long in order to ask the detailed questions needed for enough data for serious measurement. This could be off-putting for those filling in forms, especially if it is combined with gathering others forms of equality and diversity data. More work needs to be done as well to support the micro organisations that form much of the backbone of the cultural sector in how to get to grips with this area.
 
Change in the sector needs to happen though, with urgency, and positive action is crucial. Increasing socio-economic diversity in the cultural sector is harder in a society were inequality is increasing and some things are beyond what the sector in itself can achieve. For example, more work could be done around developing state-supported, multi-year creative apprenticeships.

Crucially this Toolkit also identifies correctly that this isn’t just a moral issue, a more diverse workforce, as a lot of evidence shows, creates healthier and more dynamic organisations that produce better art, which is something all cultural organisations should be aiming for.

This piece was published by The Bridge Group in November 2019.

Thirty Years: from the Berlin Wall to Brexit

By Kenn Taylor

My earliest real memories are of 1989. I can vividly recall the fall of the Berlin Wall. I had of course no understanding of the geo-political context, but the powerful images of people dancing on the graffiti covered wall as it was smashed down, have always stayed with me.

So too do the very different memories I have of that year’s Hillsborough disaster. I was not at the ground – as a family of Evertonians, our focus was on the simultaneous FA Cup semi-final at Villa Park. However, though young and, again, not fully understanding, I do remember the mood afterwards, the grim television images of the empty terraces.

There for me, the two sides of what followed, in the 1990s and 2000s, are laid bare. The freedom and optimism, the darkness underneath.

One impact the fall of the Berlin Wall played out in Birkenhead, where I’m from, was the end of the Cold War meaning a cut in naval orders for the Cammell Laird shipyard. With the Thatcher government having focused so much of UK industry on defence, this meant the closure of the yard around which the town had been built. The year the yard closed in 1993, in parts of Birkenhead – one of the poorest areas in Europe – the male unemployment rate was 52%. Economic decline and its social effects ate away at the local fabric. Many people moved away to seek work. My father, who worked for British Rail as a maintenance engineer, itself being decimated by cuts, had to work away for several years in the Midlands due to a lack of local opportunities.

Of course, when something is all you know, it’s all you know. It was only as I grew older that I became more aware that others lived differently. Not only were we a poorer region, many people elsewhere thought it was hilarious that our community had declined, jobs had gone, poverty had increased, that decay eroded our buildings and infrastructure, and that our cultural institutions were run down and closing. Not only did they find it funny, they thought this had happened not because of a complex range of political, geographic and economic factors over a long period of history, but that it was our fault because of our deficient character. As I consumed more media I saw this was rife, from Loaded magazine to the Sunday Times to the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, who said in a speech as an attempt at a joke: “You know scousers, always up to something.”

His comments were symptomatic of how easy it was to get away with this sort of prejudice in that era. On the football terraces, meanwhile, you could hear: It could be worse / You could be scouse / Eating rats in your Council House. And much worse. The towns many of the football supporters who sang the above and similar lived in, these days have worse poverty and unemployment rates than Merseyside, but those fans continue to sing it.

This was of course fuelled by the right wing corporate media. It couldn’t be denied that Government policies had helped impoverish certain areas, that life in them was getting worse. So, it suited the Government and its media supporters to pretend that places like Glasgow and Liverpool were poor through their own choices and, as such, were irrelevant, not to be worried about, that they even deserved it. Places to be wholly dismissed, certainly in cultural terms. However, let’s not just blame hacks like The Sun’s Kelvin Mackenzie, that lets people off too easily. A large proportion of the British public lapped it up and ran with it. They wanted to be told, even if they were on a low wage elsewhere, that they were still better than the Scousers or the Scots. This reached its grimmest culmination in the public reaction to the Hillsborough disaster. Of course now, finally, after decades of hard grassroots campaigning, most of the public has a very different view of what happened in that disaster.  Yet until the Hillsborough Independent Panel reported, this was not the case. Even as a young adult, long after the Taylor Report and Jimmy McGovern’s Hillsborough, upon hearing I was from Merseyside, random people would make snide comments relating to the disaster.

Looking back, I think it’s something to do with a particular deficiency of the British national character, the need to always think we’re better than someone else. Even those who consider themselves liberal-left often revel in sniffing at the tastes of others. This is fuelled of course by the fact that, in order to keep the current system ticking over, we need to keep buying into lifestyles that we think make us better or different from other people. From city centre dwellers who spend a lot in independent coffee shops to suburbanites straining to pay a mortgage they can’t afford for a double garage: We may be struggling but at least we’re not like them lot.

By the time Labour got into power in 1997, I was mid-way through my high school years in a tatty secondary modern in the Wirral suburbs. Educational resources in the borough were of course all diverted to the grammar schools in this 11 Plus area. My dad was a trade unionist. My family Labour. We’d been brought up to believe that things could only get better. Even in our school, not the kind to have a debating society, someone on the day after the Labour election victory stole a Vote Labour sign and propped it above one of the main doors.

It was a time of optimism, further fuelled by the opening up of many countries after the fall of the wall and other profound changes like the end of Apartheid in South Africa. Culture in many ways was booming too, especially the wild and hedonistic kind, embodied by the rise of dance music after the ‘second summer of love’ in 1989 and later the ‘Cool Britannia’ world of Brit Pop, all documented by a rising number of glossy magazines. All the sugar high joys of our consumer society, growing since the 1980s. Public spending went up after 1997. There were more university places. New technology it seemed would create new jobs to replace those lost. It doesn’t matter, we were told, if your old ways, your old towns, are doomed. Go to university, live in a regenerating city, get a new job in a new industry.

It felt like there was a new growing and exhilarating openness then. We could mix with a wider circle, helped by the ever expanding world of the Internet. With the advent of cheap flights, we could see more of the world. Borders seemed to be falling everywhere. It seemed too, we hoped, that racism, homophobia, misogyny, were at least on the retreat, even if still prevalent. Sexuality too was, a little, more fluid. What we lacked in declining security, was made up for in the appearance at least of more freedom, more options. The idea of a traditional structured life, deemed irrelevant, old fashioned, just as it was becoming slowly more unobtainable. The Government, media, society, did its best by and large to encourage you to look away from how shallow though a lot of this was and dream instead of the computer generated futures on the hoarding boards of regeneration projects.

Of course though, for people like us, in a place like Merseyside, things did not really get that better that much. Labour brought in Education Maintenance Allowance, but also Tuition Fees. It invested in the regions, but didn’t undertake serious economic reform, thus seeing ever more of the regional economic base of Britain slip away. Many Labour voters became sceptical of the party around the Iraq war. For those of us in small post-industrial towns, the scepticism began much earlier.

That era I think was never better described than by Sue Townsend, the creator of Adrian Mole, referring to it in the title of her book, The Cappuccino Years – it was all so much froth on the surface. While it seemed things were getting better, underneath, the rot of the 1980s continued to eat away at our economy and civil society. Those of us from working-class backgrounds were I think more sensitive to how thin much of all this was. Despite being just as into the cheap thrills on offer, we could not forget what happened to those at the vulnerable end of society in the 1980s and 90s, even if we had no faith in what had been lost returning. At the lower end of the economy where insecurity was normal, the gaps in the system were easier to see. It was also felt by many of us though, that we had fought, and we had lost. That some posh academics still wanted to pick over trade union banners and the like, tried to invoke a supposedly more glorious past, seemed tasteless. That culture, our culture, had been beaten to death. Leave it be, let’s embrace what little, unintentional good that came out of that destructive revolution: the dance music, the style, the freedom, the openness. We had no industries anymore, our towns had lost their reason to be, but at least we were no longer trapped by their traditional strictures. All we had was a small degree of liberation amongst the corruption and we were going to embrace it, because that’s all that was left.

Some would occasionally raise flags; the numerous unresolved injustices of the past, the unlikeliness, if you had even a scant knowledge of history, of this boom being sustained, that economies were still declining in more regions than ever, but so often to do so was to be seen as boring, a throwback, a crank.

On the eve of the credit crunch in 2008, I had a junior insecure job in the cultural sector, while Liverpool was caught up in the whirlwind of the being European Capital of Culture. It was all a lot of fun, much of the programme was really good too, but running around at the bottom of the cultural system, it was easy to see it was on shaky ground, with money being spent wildly with little thought to the long term. A booming culture sector built on the sand of money flowing into the economy from high finance. Of course, the culture sector saw only a fraction of the cash compared to what was being thrown around elsewhere. Culture was, as it does, merely reflecting the wider system, from the financial markets to the construction boom and all interconnected. Don’t stop that carousel! Because so many people deep down knew that as soon as the music stopped, everything would start to fall apart. And so it did. Those at the bottom were the ones to really suffer, while so many who had kept the Ponzi scheme going, ran off or had enough stashed to keep themselves afloat.

I wrote an article in 2009, soon after the credit crunch started to kick in, about what the future might hold for the UK. The recession was biting but the public cuts hadn’t come in, the wheels were still spinning just slowing down. I could not of course predict how long, how deep, how fundamental the decline would be, but I knew it was going to be a bumpy ride ahead. My piece was deliberately over the top, the theme of the publication was ‘apocalypse’, but I think I managed to capture some things that have, sadly, turned out to be true ten years on:

“Although many of these events have been happening on a global scale, the crisis has also served to highlight Britain’s inherent weaknesses and its seemingly terminal decline. Pretty much the same path it has been on for decades. We can now see the 90s as simply an opiated high amidst abject squalor.”

“Life would become much cheaper. Ignorance and disease would grow. Social mobility would become almost non-existent.”

I was far from alone in seeing some of this on the horizon. We couldn’t predict that the crunch was merely one of the more dramatic stages in a more fundamental shifting of tectonic plates. However, while people who had been spared the worst of 1980s and 90s thought it would just be a blip, like the dot com bubble of the early 2000s, then things would return to ‘normal’, those of us who could recall the bitter devastation of the 80s and early 90s to much of Britain could see the cracks spreading more easily. So much of the UK though was still in thrall to its supposed ‘betters’, the ‘leaders’ and ‘entrepreneurs’. They still wanted to be told the problem was that lot, over there and that lot would be the only ones to suffer. They wanted to be told that they would still be fine. Yet it all kept on falling, until it started to catch up with even those who’d been alright at the first hurdle. Those who thought they’d be okay.

For me, the tragedy of Britain in my lifetime wasn’t that Merseyside got worse, in many ways it has improved from the nadir of the early 90s. The tragedy is that so many other places have experienced the same decline or worse.  The economic decline of the majority of UK regions and its inverse, the overheating of London on the gilded roulette wheel of high finance to make it increasingly unliveable for ordinary people, has spread to impact on everyone.

But don’t say people in places like Liverpool didn’t warn everyone more than 30 years ago about all this and were mocked for it.

Now, over 10 years further on from 2008, people are starting to turn around and say ‘no more’. But the battle is so much harder. So much has already been lost. The anger being felt across the nation is from people feeling cheated. However, many people were being cheated a lot more for a longer period of time.

I visited Poland soon after the credit crunch and, by accident, ended up being taken around Krakow by someone around my age. We talked of the horrors of the past. The new openness. That we would have not been able to meet just a decade or so previously. It felt good. Just another personal anecdote, but these are the things we need to cling too. We must remember the fall of the wall. We need to remember too though the decades of darkness that accompanied its construction and how it came to be. And, indeed, remember that there was an emptiness underneath all that openness after the wall came down. Many people were still getting thrown under the bus even during the boom. Often forgotten by the mostly well-meaning, well-educated technocrats who had become much of the political class. Those who had absorbed the idea and parroted back to us that ‘There is no alternative’. When that system did, as they all do in the end, collapse, they had no idea how to respond. Other than wasting years propping it up hoping the magic would return while they were overrun by smarter and more cynical disaster capitalists who wanted to make sure, as ever, that they benefited from the chaos.

Meanwhile the dreams of ordinary people lay shattered and ever further out of reach. At the same time though, as the propulsive positivity of the Berlin Wall falling receded, hope grew elsewhere. The unrelenting, never give up attitude of the people behind the Hillsborough Justice Campaign, who should to a man and woman get OBEs for fighting every prejudice; against football fans, against Scousers, against the working-class, managed to turn the tide around the Hillsborough disaster. A campaign driven and led by those at the bottom with the least resources. We should not forget that in the case of the Berlin Wall and Hillsborough, it was ordinary people who led the path of change, taking down walls of different kinds.

Really, a lot of what is happening in Britain, is the scales falling from people’s eyes. We as a nation have to face up to our problems, not ignore them. The previous model of allowing just enough people with ambition to get on and giving everyone else just enough to get by and not cause any trouble has collapsed. In the end it always benefited those with the most and abandoned those with the least. We don’t need to try and ‘get back to normal’ because, while things may have been much better than they are now, really there was just a thin veneer over a set of huge challenges that helped us avoid facing up to the issues. What we need now is to go forward, address those challenges, acknowledge that the race to the top, the throwing of whole communities under the bus has not only screwed them, but ultimately, screwed the whole country and undermined the wider world.

Drunk on the freedom of the individual, too many people forgot about those who were, one way or another, losing their freedom. The great feeling of loss that this country has experienced will carry on and get worse unless we realise we aren’t atomised individuals. We need to remember, acknowledge where things went wrong, who has suffered and goes on suffering. Brexit, whatever it ends up meaning, approaches and things are more uncertain than ever. They may well get worse. We cannot forget the need for solidarity though, the need for working together, fighting injustice, not letting the weakest be crushed, because, the alternative is unthinkable. Things can be turned around again. If I live for another 30 years at least, I dare to hope, we may get back some of what we have lost. Perhaps even, gain some new things as well. Walls will still be built of course, and we will still need to make them fall.