Book Review: The Arts Dividend

imagesI think a lot about the value of the arts. I’m interested in most art forms, from literature (well, obviously; I’m a lecturer in Eng Lit) to ballet, music to theatre. I’m aware, then, of the benefits of cultural life: of the pleasure it gives me to go to an exhibition, say, or to learn to play a piece of music – and not just a transitory pleasure, but – because it makes me think – one which stays with me for a long time. I try to find ways to get more people interested in the arts for this reason – it will make them happy – and, especially for children, because early exposure to culture encourages creativity and helps learning, among other things. I am, therefore, not really the target audience for this book, because it confirms what I already know, but the anecdotes and examples made it worthwhile for me. Darren Henley is Chief Executive of Arts Council England, and as such is well-placed to write about both how the arts are funded, and why they are important, and he does this efficiently.

Henley is clear from the start that the arts are not ‘subsidised’, they are ‘invested in’, because money used (appropriately) to support culture is repaid many times over in the multitude of benefits the arts provide. The book (rather like the Arts Council website) is something of a manifesto, with the aim of convincing people that culture deserves investment; it’s very clearly laid out – actually too clearly for me, with the seven bmag‘dividends’ each given a chapter, each chapter beginning with a summary, and with large orange quotations appearing throughout. This is – as no doubt it’s meant to be – a gift for journalists looking for a good quote (or those who want to talk like they’ve read it without actually having done so) but it’s quite annoying if you’re reading the whole book when you read a passage and then read the same thing in orange. Still, that aside, it’s structured in a way that Henley’s argument is unmistakable, and effective. The ‘arts dividends’ covered are ‘creativity’, ‘learning’ ‘feel-good’, ‘innovation’, ‘place-shaping’, ‘enterprise’ and ‘reputation’, and each of these in discussed in some detail, with examples of best practice given. Henley has clearly travelled a great deal across England and cites theatres, libraries, concert halls and more from Penzance to York,  and the mini case studies he provides are worth reading both because of the inspiring nature of the diverse, community-focused art projects going on, and – more prosaically – because if you are someone who has to write funding bids, or works in the arts and culture sector in any way, this book provides some invaluable models of projects.

The chapters provide evidence (everything is well-referenced to research and reports) that instrumentsthe arts inspire creativity, promote diversity, help children learn and develop, make us happy and keep us healthy, encourage innovation and entrepreneurship, regenerating places whether urban or rural and fostering a sense of community, and even make money. Graduates from arts degrees might not be making as much money as those with dentistry skills, but they are able to set the world on fire. (A recent league table indicated that dentistry graduates earned the highest salary, while creative writing earned the least. However, the writer has a better chance of being remembered in a hundred years time, in my view). Culture isn’t, and shouldn’t be, the preserve of an elite, the wealthy or highly educated, or those with arts degrees or interests. Poetry, painting, music, theatre: they all can be enjoyed by and a benefit to everyone. Henley describes a ‘cultural education’, and this isn’t just applicable to school children; there are

four elements of cultural education. The first is knowledge-based, and teaches children about the best of what has been created (for example, great literature, art, architecture, film, music and drama). … The second part of cultural education centres on the development of critical and analytical skills, which can also be applied across other subjects. The third element is skills-based, and enables children to participate in and create new culture for themselves … And the fourth centres on the development of an individual’s personal creativity…

If you haven’t thought about why your children should learn a musical instrument, or whether government funding ought to go to galleries, or whether you should bother going to the theatre, read this. Equally, if you know all that and are putting together funding bids, it’s useful for you, too. Also, it’s timely and encouraging. In a period of austerity, the arts often thrive despite a lack of funding, and it’s at these times that we need them most. Recently I heard Julian Lloyd-Webber give a lecture in which he voiced his concerns over the future of music education (I immediately booked tickets for a children’s concert!), and lots of people (including me) are distressed about the end of Art History A-level. Education plays a huge part in cultural participation and enjoyment, and it is important that investment in the arts continues on a large scale in order to prevent cultural pursuits becoming the preserve of the wealthy alone.



Testament of Youth

images (4)One of my favourite books is Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, which I’ve read at least five times. I’ve read all of Brittain’s novels, diaries and letters available, as well as those of her friend Winifred Holtby, and other contemporaries who appeal to me. In fact, because I find it so interesting, I make a point of not including this as something I work on; this isn’t a ‘research interest’; it’s just an interest. There is something in the way Brittain writes which speaks to me; I think it probably has a lot to do with her descriptions in the book about her education, as a bookish girl who was desperate to go to university, which struck a chord with me when I was sixteen and first read it. Her response to the events she experiences during the First World War – the death of young men close to her, the blighting of her own opportunities (in the short term, at least), the physical struggles of nursing wounded soldiers – are described clear-sightedly, and her growing political convictions (pacifism, feminism) have evident experiential roots. The myth of the ‘golden age’ of Edwardian life before the war is one which has been repeatedly proved untrue; for downloadmany in Britain, 1913 wasn’t much easier than 1914. But for some, particularly idealistic, middle-class women such as Brittain, it’s easy to see that the shattering of ideals by war did make the period before seem like a never-to-be-recovered time of innocence. Brittain is clear that this golden glow was imparted as much by ignorance as innocence, though, and the book is careful not to romanticise anything, though it has become (mistakenly, in my view) seen as a kind of romantic classic of war due to Brittain’s engagement to Roland Leighton.

That’s the book, then – and if you haven’t read it, then do, while we are in the centenary period of the Great War; Brittain wrote to show the devastating effect of war on young people and the way in which it blighted the lives of a generation, and her work has much wider implications for politics and is worth images (2)considering even if you’re not interested in the period.

As you can imagine, then, I approached the film with some trepidation. I’m probably too much of a purist and am almost always disappointed with films of books, perhaps because I don’t know enough about cinema, adaptation etc to understand why they have to change my favourite bits, etc… And some of this is changed for dramatic effect too, including some seminal scenes (I don’t want to give away any spoilers so I won’t say more!) The review by the Guardian criticises the film for drifting into ‘heritage inertia’, avoiding the ‘necessary’ pain and anger, but I don’t think this is fair; the film unavoimagesidably has a ‘period drama’ look about it (to change that would undermine the essential historicity of the narrative) and, of course, it will have an appeal to lovers of period drama and heritage cinema. But the restraint for which the review criticises the film is also present in the book; Brittain is determined to change things, to make the world a better place, by writing a book which explains how she feels, and being excessively emotional is not how that works. In the film, we see her cry, anguished, several times, we see her frustration and anger, and while it isn’t excessive, the restraint rings true, and all the more because earlier in the film we see her restrained happiness, too. Excessive display of emotion is what women were criticised for, and Brittain, well aware of that, reined hers in, images (1)publicly at least, and Alice Vikander’s (and others) beautifully restrained performance reflects that mood.

The film is one of those where everyone watching it will know that the eventual fate of the happy teenagers we see at the beginning will not be so cheerful, and therefore there is a hubristic feeling hanging over the characters from the beginning, again a trope shared with the book. I suppose my conclusion is that the film, while not strictly true to every detail of the (long) book, is true to its mood and its convictions, and of that I approve. Though I must admit I did spend quite a bit of the film wondering about knitting a new beret (see picture above).


A Bear Called Paddington

paddington-bear I’ve been a bit obsessed with Paddington for as long as I can remember, and I still think Michael Bond’s original books are some of the funniest books ever written. The night before my viva for my Ph.D., I read one of my favourites, in which Paddington gets stuck in a box camera and careers into a flower-bed, and felt much more cheerful. There is something about the literal and slightly daft approach of this endearing bear which I found irresistible as a child and as an adult (and, incidentally, my small son in his wellington boots with his surprising questions rather reminds me of Paddington). The books were some of the first that made me feel that just to read a book wasn’t enough; I somehow had to live it (a feeling which got me into all kinds of ‘situations’ as a child, especially once I wanted to be a part of the Just William books). Now, I knew that when I went to see the new Paddington film, I would have to try to mentally suspend my history with Paddington and see the film as something separate, and I sort-of managed this. We took my son (who, Paddington-like, was too small for the fold-down seats in the cinema, which promptly flipped up with him inside), and he seemed to enjoy it – at any rate, he sat still throughout, possibly helped by the mountain of snacks he ate. Paddington

I was more ambivalent about the film. It’s always difficult, watching a film of a book you love and know well; in fact, much of the plot of the film bore little relation to the books, and seemed closer to the film of The Golden Compass, since Nicole Kidman plays a villain in both. In this film, she wants to have Paddington stuffed and displayed in the Natural History Museum, and much of the film is taken up with this plot, which seems far too out-of-the-ordinary for Paddington, whose adventures usually involved getting lost, getting tied up in string, DIY disasters or other well-meaning but doomed attempts to be useful. The plot was fairly well-put-together, with Kidman playing the daughter of an explorer who had met Paddington’s Aunt Lucy and Uncle Pastuzo (and taught them to speak English, which nicely explains the Anglophone bear); but the explorer was too humane to catch and kill one of the bears and consequently his career was ruined, hence his daughter’s desire to catch Paddington. The opening scenes in which we learn a little of Paddington’s history, and his family’s wish that he go to London where everyone was friendly (practising the many ways the British have of saying ‘it’s raining’) were entertaining, and the Brown family were likeable (if surprisingly well-off, given the house they lived in). But for most of the film, I was trying to push aside the thought that this wasn’t my Paddington; he didn’t even look quite right to me, and some of the things he did just didn’t seem quite appropriate. However, I can see that perhaps for today’s audiences the more restrained antics of Bond’s bear (bailing out bathwater with his hat, for example, rather than flooding the bathroom and sailing down the stairs in the bath) might have seemed rather tame; and there are many genuinely funny moments in the film. My favourite of these was when Paddington, having run away from the Browns, shares a sandwich with a guard at Buckingham Palace – and it turns out he isn’t the only one who keeps things under his hat; the guard has a thermos under there.

Despite my reservations, it’s a nice, cosy film, which also manages to have a subtext about being welcoming to strangers, being inclusive and understanding, and the value of a warm heart. Much has been made in reviews of the film about the concept of Paddington as a migrant, a refugee looking for a better place to live and for new friends, and the welcoming, middle-class Brown family, seemingly dressed in Boden, chaotic, tea-drinking and generally cheerful, seem the archetypal Best of British, a central concept which I quite liked but also found a little overdone at times. Still, it made me smile, and reminded me to return to the books I loved, this time with my son, and I hope it will do the same for others who see it.

Frankenstein: A monster of a different kind?

images (1)For a while now I’ve been annoying people by saying that Frankenstein isn’t Gothic. Now I’ve seen the National Theatre’s version (on film) of FrankensteinI still don’t think it’s Gothic. More of that later, though – because it was an amazing production which plays with the text and the ideas behind it in some really thought-provoking ways. The NTLive screenings are a great way to broaden access to plays, and it’s an interesting concept anyway: although it’s filmed, you never forget that what you are watching is a theatrical production, so it doesn’t look like a film (and as a result I found it difficult not to applaud at the end!) Directed by Danny Boyle, it has elements early on which are distinctly reminiscent of the Olympic opening ceremony (which was the year after Frankenstein) and the set is innovative, turning the stage into the different settings required by the action using apparatus which appears from the floor.

It seems to me there are two, linked, concepts which make the play an unusual and interesting adaptation of Mary Shelley’s book. Firstly, the Creature and Dr Frankenstein are played by two actors who switched roles night after night (we saw it with Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature and Benedict Cumberbatch as Frankenstein; I can see why people went back to see the roles reversed). Secondly, as a result of this switch, the links between the two, creator and created, are much stronger than in any other adaptation I’ve seen, and thus perhaps closer to Shelley’s novel. This also means that audience sympathy is with the Creature from the start.

The play simplifies the plot, doing away with some of the minor characters including the explorer Walton who tells the tale in the novel, and imagesopens with the Creature’s ‘birth’. This is a master-stroke which sets the tone for the whole production: the opening scene sees the Creature emerge from a womb-like space and struggle to make coherent movements, uttering guttural noises and eventually delighting in his successful attempt to stand upright. As a result of watching what is essentially an adult toddler developing, and with his subsequent attempts to learn language, until he can converse and even recite Paradise Lost, it’s impossible not to see his potential and to be rooting for him despite his hideous appearance. His delight in the stars, in rain, in food, language, poetry and movement are irresistible and utterly believable. Yet Frankenstein is, above all, a critique of humanity and the civilised world, and since his status as outsider is so clearly marked by his appearance, he is reviled, beaten and shunned wherever he goes. The greatest pain, however, is his Creator’s rejection of him, an agony manifest throughout the play though most moving at the end, when he lays bare his soul to Frankenstein. This much is evident in Shelley’s writing, but not in most adaptations of the book.

article-0-0D53A708000005DC-36_472x486As Creator, then, Frankenstein is cold, inhumane and blind to the inner beauty of what he has created. Failing to see that the Creature might be good, he only fears it and wishes to destroy it. It’s clear throughout that the real ‘monster’ is the scientist who fails to understand the beauty of human life, confessing that he doesn’t know what love is while his creature has learned that as well as the brutality of the world. As a result of the dual roles the actors play, there are moments when the movements and expressions of the two mirror each other, strengthening the concept of the bond between the two. Both are outsiders, and they are also mutually dependent, which is made most clear in the bleak conclusion of the play. I could make a few criticisms – some slightly stilted dialogue (by far the best scenes are monologues, or dialogue between Frankenstein and his Creature), and some slightly odd casting for Frankenstein’s father, but really these things don’t matter in the sweeping movement of the play.

I said that I don’t think that Frankenstein is Gothic (though I am having an ongimages (2)oing argument with a student about this!) This is because it manifests so little of the traditional tropes of Gothic: it isn’t set in the past; it doesn’t have a central place as a focus for the action; it isn’t concerned with the family or heritage in the way in which Gothic normally is. However, what it does – and what this production brings out particularly well – is focus on the creation of the individual, the idea of the ‘self’ as ‘other’ – that is, it looks at how we are shaped by society, and how not conforming to society’s rules creates outsiders who are disenfranchised, and often become violent as a result. This idea of creation and selfhood is something we see in psychological Gothic, though nowhere so clearly and effectively as in Frankenstein. Shelley’s tale has taken on mythic proportions, as a seemingly endlessly adaptable metaphor relevant for all time; this play emphasises the disenfranchised outsider, with Elizabeth’s speech to the Creature focusing on her desire to support those who do not fit in perhaps over-emphasising the play’s values. The book is as much science fiction as it is Gothic, but whatever genre it is, its concern with society, science, and the myths of our own creation make it enduring.

Mary Poppins and social anarchy

Sister SuffragetteWhen I was about eight, I frequently marched around the house singing ‘Sister Suffragette’ (actually, I still do). Mary Poppins was probably my favourite film for years, because I loved the music and knew all the songs, but perhaps it also appeals to a child’s sense of anarchy. It opens with chaos, as Katie Nana leaves the Banks household because Jane and Michael are too naughty. Into the disrupted household comes Mrs Banks, fired up by her attendance at a Suffragettes’ meeting, wearing a ‘Votes for Women’ sash;

the women of the household, whether willingly or not, join in, with mistress/servant divisions temporarily set aside. ‘Though we adore men individually, we agree that as a group they’re rather stupid’, Mrs Banks sings, knowingly. Yet when Mr Banks enters, home from his work at the bank, it is clear that his wife adores him and supports his masculinist construction of the world. Mr Banks knows his place in the world, and everyone else’s: ‘It’s grand to be an Englishman in 1910. King Edward’s on the throne, it’s the age of men. I’m the lord of my castle, the sovereign, the liege; I treat my subjects – servants, children, wife – with a firm but gentle hand; noblesse oblige!’ His search for a new nanny shows his desire to perpetuate this patriarchal world, yet he is an appealing figure in many ways; a bit of a buffoon, but well-meaning, though deluded.

The film focuses, of course, on Mary Poppins’s reign in the Banks nursery. Her magic comes much more easily to Jane mary_poppinsthan to Michael, but both children benefit from the magic of walking through pavement pictures, tea-parties on the ceiling, and dancing chimney sweeps. The anarchy she brings into the well-regulated life of Mr Banks is delightful, but it also indicates a deeper anarchy, that of a world on the brink of change, both in the period depicted, and in the time the film was made (1964). Based on the books by P.L. Travers, in a series which started in 1934, the premise is that chaos appeals to children, but also that chaos can have its own structure. With Mary Poppins in charge, the children learn that the world can have many different types of logic, from that of magic to that of the ‘Fidelity Fiduciary Bank’. They also learn that happiness comes more readily in Mary Poppins’s world than in their father’s. The film seems to offer a critique of patriarchal values, from Mrs Banks’s suffragette song, to Mary’s interactions with Mr Banks, where it becomes obvious that his background and values do not make him happy, and that he is himself as much a victim of a rigid, patriarchal society as women and children. In ‘A Man has Dreams’, when Mr Banks sings with Bert, he finally seems human and vulnerable, and one of the loveliest moments in the film has to be his eventual rejection of the oppressive world of the bank when he instead goes to fly a kite with his family. ‘Feed the Birds’, the central piece of the film, demonstrates the love and compassion which Mr Banks is lacking, but which he eventually finds with the help of Mary and Bert.

Mary Poppins kitesUltimately, I am not suggesting that Mary Poppins is a feminist film; it’s not. Mrs Banks is more excited by the idea of suffrage than by a deep commitment to a reform of patriarchal society; even Mary is easily flattered by Bert’s compliments and enjoys looking in the mirror, and traditional gender roles are entrenched in every character (as are class divisions). But its critique, and its demonstration of a how a specifically female force can change the world forever remains significant for generations of children. The very house itself, at 17 Cherry Tree Lane, is shaken by Mary Poppins, but what she brings is not really chaos, but a different kind of order, one which follows its own rules and intentionally undermines the rules of Mr Banks’s world, offering a new freedom for the whole Banks family, without undermining social rules to the extent that it becomes ‘dangerous’; class, manners, respectability and afternoon tea are important to Mary, who prides herself on being ‘practically perfect in every way’, but the patriarchal institutions of society, the well-ordered family and the bank, are shaken up as if to demonstrate the possibility of social anarchy, which can be combined with a loving family and also guidance and boundaries for children.


Daniel Craig;Judi DenchPerhaps surprisingly, I have seen most of the Bond films many times, though I could only bring myself to watch Quantum of Solace once. But Skyfall, I’m pleased to say, I really enjoyed. It’s both closely linked to, and very different from, the other Bond films, and, as Bond celebrates his 50th anniversary, it provides some nice tensions and links between past, present and future. The villain, Raoul Silva (played by Javier Bardem), who provides the threat to be overcome appears from MI6’s past and seems to be on the verge of cutting them off from the future. The plot, unusually, also examines Bond’s own story in an unexpected way, relating to his childhood, and indeed it is his childhood home, the Scottish estate of Skyfall, which provides the setting and also, in many ways, the solution to the dangers faced in the film (I don’t want to say too much about the ending for fear of spoiling the film for those who haven’t seen it yet). I like the neatness of the idea that the past may provide a solution to the threat of the present, although, naturally, such a straightforward solution is unlikely to work out. Instead, the film complicates matters by moving backwards and forwards, with references to the past films – such as the revival of the Aston Martin, and the return of Moneypenny, in Craiggun_2376904b21st-century form – combined with references to the future, such as the technological new Q, played by Ben Whishaw, and the future direction of MI6 as an organisation.

Throughout the film, then, there are links to the past. On the island owned by Silva, we see the remains of a statue of (presumably) a former leader. History is shattered into pieces, here, though what has replaced it seems even more terrifying. Back in London, Bond and Q meet in the National Gallery, looking at a Turner – ‘The Fighting Temeraire’; their responses to the painting are interesting. Is Bond really an old warship, past his prime and ready for pasture? This symbol of the disintegration of the naval past of Britain might seem an odd metaphor for Bond, but at this stage in the film we are still meant to be doubting how well he is coping, as though we might actually believe that Bond might soon also be towed away for dismantling (so to speak).

To me, the most significant way in which the past meets the present is when M (Judi Dench), accused of being out of touch with the modern world and failing to do her job properly, quotes Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’ to a House of Commons Select Committee. Not only is she the kind of woman who knows that poetry will say it better than anything else, she also says it beautifully:

Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

In Tennyson’s poem, these words are spoken by Ulysses at the end of his life, knowing that change will come, but that a necessary skyfall+02strength remains – a pertinent sentiment for M. This quotation unites the past and future in a present in which the power of will can overcome everything: it provides a lovely moment in the film when M speaks of the serious purpose she sees in MI6, which also links to the Britishness of this film: lines from ‘Ulysses’ were inscribed on the wall of the Olympic village. It does seem to be a good year for Tennyson. Yet one could argue that these lines suggest a kind of misplaced nostalgia for a British past that we can’t hang on to. The film seems to be asking, over again, what role a652383748002_lg character such as Bond can play in the 21st century; this quotation seems to be suggesting that he represents history, offers a necessary courage, and can move forward into the future as well as fulfilling a nostalgic role.

Perhaps one of the most potent symbols in the film, however, is one of the smallest: the British bulldog which lives on M’s desk. Linking a military past (WWII) with the present, the Union flag marked on its back, this bulldog links past and present, representing what  are clearly meant to be the virtues of Bond, M and MI6, and wrapping them into one patriotic little dog, making this film not only a meeting point for Bond-themes past, present and future, but also the film which sets up the modern Bond as the ultimate British icon.