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.



Literature and the Malvern Hills

hillsAt the weekend, I went for a rather wet walk in the Malvern Hills with my small son. To him, this was an adventure, because we can see the Malverns from the top of our house, on a clear day, so to walk in them was exciting. I didn’t realise, however, what a literary history the Malverns had. I knew that Piers Plowman, William Langland’s fourteenth-century tale of the visions and spiritual quest of an Everyman, was set in the Malvern Hills – it is here that Piers had his dream.

Ac on a May morwenynge
On Malverne hilles
Me bifel a ferly,
Of fairye me thoghte.
I was wery forwandred
And wente me to reste
Under a brood bank
By a bournes syde;
And as I lay and lenede,
And loked on the watres,
I slombred into a slepyng,
It sweyed so murye.

This constitutes the earliest literary reference to the Malverns, and20160402_110418_resized_3
it is speculated that the mysterious Langland was educated at Malvern Priory, writing
as he does in a local dialect. And the rolling hills seem to me quite conducive to such exalted
visions (though there are too many walkers these days to dream undisturbed!) It’s thrilling to think one might walk the same way as Langland did, over 700 years ago.

These are also A E Housman’s ‘blue remembered hills’, recalled from his Shropshire childhood, overshadowing his life as the ‘land of lost content’. Less famously, perhaps, W H Auden, 20160402_111734_resizedwho taught for a while in nearby Colwall, wrote The Malverns, a long poem which also features a dreamer, though a rather different dream; but one which sketches in the views and atmosphere of the hills. C S Lewis also spent time in Malvern, being a pupil at Malvern College, and later visiting a friend; apparently local legend is that he was inspired by the local gaslamps to include one in Narnia. He als
o brought his friend, J R R Tolkien, to visit. The BBC website tells me that

The story goes that, after drinking in a Malvern pub one winter evening, they were walking home when it started to snow.

They saw a lamp post shining out through the snow, and Lewis turned to his friends and said ‘that would make a very nice opening line to a book’.

We began our day with cake at St Ann’s Well Cafe. This is a fascinating 20160402_105254_resized_5place which, luckily, also serves great cake. The building is early 19th century, though the well itself has a history dating back much further. The well was associated with the fashion for the Victorian water cure, from which Florence Nightingale, among others, benefited (or not, as the case may be), as did Charles Darwin, whose daughter died whilst staying in Malvern. It seems probable to me that the cafe at the well was also the inspiration for Kazuo Ishiguro’s short story ‘Malvern Hills’ in Nocturnes; it fits the location which Ishiguro carefully describes in the book, and, though smaller than the story suggests, has something of the same atmosphere. Nocturnes is literature which explores music; no doubt Ishiguro had the musical history of the Malverns in mind, including Elgar, who walked and cycled endlessly around Malvern and its hills, and whose statue now appears above the high street – looking away from the hills behind him, sadly.

We have much more exploring to do – years of it! – but I think we made a start this weekend.



Books, music and art at Port Eliot Festival

IMG_1976The Port Eliot festival is one of my favourite events of the year. Held in a beautiful country estate in Cornwall, it’s a weekend filled with books, music, food, gin and general jollity. It’s impossible not to find something to inspire you, and although it’s exhausting having so much fun it’s also inspiring (and I came home with a large pile of books to read). I even heard some comedy I found funny – Shappi Khorsandi (I don’t usually enjoy comedy). There are always small tragedies of the writers you don’t get to hear because they clash with something else you simply must do – but I’ll try not to dwell on that! I won’t test your patience with a rendition of my notebook, but instead will just go through a few highlights. First, music. I went to a singing workshop run by the Chaps Choir, where we sang gospel songs, a Finnish reindeer call, and a great arrangement of The Magnetic Fields’ ‘The Book of Love‘. I love to sing, and this has really inspired me to go and find another choir; I haven’t stopped singing since (especially as we got to perform the song in St Germans Church on Sunday). The singing was also inspired by hearing Fishermans Friends, the Port Isaac group who sing sea shanties (and drink beer and laugh whilst singing). I love the shanties, and sing them with my son, who would have loved their show, which had everyone singing along. We also heard Stealing IMG_1985Sheep, and the Unthanks, who were great in concert (‘The Testimony of Patience Kershaw‘, with its socio-historical roots, especially appealed to me).

The writers I heard included Rachel Holmes talking to Shami Chakrabarti about her forthcoming book on Sylvia Pankhurst. I’ve bought her previous book, on Eleanor Marx, and even had a quick chat to her about the nature of feminist biography, and the Pankhurst book should be a good addition to the canon of works on the Suffragettes. Next, I listened to Laura Barton talking about music and sadness – how we bring our own sadness to music we listen to, but how music can also be a way out of sadness, a concept echoed by Matt Haig the following day, talking about reading and writing as a way out of depression, perhaps because it forces us to IMG_1990externalise our emotions and make connections.

In the pouring rain we listened to Owen Sheers (whose book Resistance I have bought but have yet to read) talking about his new book, I Saw A Man, which I bought for my husband, as well as his diverse other projects including a film-poem commemorating the disaster at Aberfan. His comments on Welshness and poetry – that poetry is well-supported in Wales, perhaps better so than in England – interested me. As a complete contrast, we also heard Luke Wright performing his poetry; he’s a great performer, with poems about parenthood, suburbia, politics and failed dreams.

The biggest draws of Saturday were Sarah Waters and Simon Armitage, speaking to packed marquees (the strange angle of the photographs indicates that I was on the floor directly in front of the stage!) I enjoyed Waters’ talk, as I enjoy her novels (though her latest, The Paying Guests, is probably my least favourite). She talked about her research, the periods in history she is interested in (she plans her next novel to be set IMG_1982in the 1950s), and her apparent obsessions with houses, mothers and daughters, gender and class. In The Paying Guests she wrote about the Twenties because it was a period she knew little about, and intentionally undermined the stereotype of the Roaring Twenties, instead focusing on the class conflict and quieter lives of those bereaved after the war. Her interests are often in ordinary lives disrupted by extraordinary events, rather than extraordinary characters. I’m interested to hear that The Little Stranger is to be made into a film and The Paying Guests a TV series.

Simon Armitage, recently elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford, has a refreshingly down-to-earth approach for one of the most famous (living) British poets, He talked about his books Walking Home and Walking Away, in which he walked first the Pennine Way and then the South coast, ‘testing poetry’, as he put it – giving readings along the way to support himself, and asking what payment people felt he deserved; though he is an optimist about poetry, he felt that he should take poetry to people to see their response, and on the whole he seems positive about this (again, I have both books but haven’t yet read either!) The extracts IMG_1983he read are not only poetic but humorous too, and suggest that both in the people he met and in the landscape itself he found, unexpectedly, a strong and positive sense of Britishness.

I managed to catch some of a conversation between the sculptor Alice Channer, Nicholas Serota of the Tate, and Chris Stephens, focusing on Barbara Hepworth, the subject of an exhibition at the Tate currently. I was particularly interested in Channer’s comments about how Hepworth makes a solid, hard material look somehow elastic, as though she has changed its very nature in the process of her work. The relationship of people and places to sculpture is something the exhibition has encouraged me to think about too, and the three of them in conversation on Hepworth were inspiring.images

Finally, I was especially inspired by a discussion between Philip Marsden and Tim Dee. Both nature writers (or travel writers), they discussed, among other things, how we use language to construct nature, poetically, socially, historically, and these days politically and ecologically. This is, of course, to nature’s complete ignorance of it: a blackbird has no idea it is a blackbird, or that we have all kinds of cultural connotations of blackbirds; it just is. Obvious but needing stating, I think. And the naming of nature is itself a colonial project, they suggested, implying our dominion over it in a way which is uncomfortable. I’ve only recently become interested in ‘nature writing’, so was fascinated by their discussion about ‘the new nature writing’ – particularly around the resurgence of interest rising-groundin it which is, perhaps, stemming from our disconnection with nature in the modern world, as well as a desire to capture what seems to be a vanishing world (though both of these have been the impetus for much nature writing for centuries). It’s also politically motivated, very often, though, raising awareness of the changes in ecosystems, threatened species, etc; we are looking into the abyss. I’ve bought Marsden’s book Rising Ground, on the ‘spirit of place’ in Cornwall as a way of thinking about how we connect to the landscape more broadly, and how this gives both individuals and cultures meaning. It’s yet another book I can’t wait to read!

Sunshine and music at Elgar’s Birthplace

Edward_ElgarI’ve always had a passion for the music of Edward Elgar, and living in Worcestershire where he was born there are clearly many others who share this enthusiasm. So on a sunny Saturday we decided it was time we visited the Elgar Birthplace Museum, in Broadheath not far from Worcester. In addition to the picturesque cottage where Elgar was born in 1857, there is now a visitor centre containing items belonging to Elgar, including a drum he had as a child, his violin, and several manuscripts. (An excellent audio guide accompanies this, though due to having a three-year-old with me I didn’t get to listen to all of it!)Though the Elgar family lived there for less than three years after the birth of Edward, the composer visited the village frequently, often staying on a local farm, and retained a deep affection for the place throughout his life. His family owned a music shop in Worcester, where the young Elgar learned a great deal about music, composition and playing, and became determined to follow a career in music.

It seems that Elgar felt his roots in the Worcestershire countryside were important, and elements of this are always present IMG_1761in his music, so to visit his place of birth feels significant, as if we can access a particular aspect of what made him the man – and composer – he became. When choosing a title in 1931, he chose First Baronet of Broadheath, an indication of the place’s lasting place in his mind. In a letter to a friend (quoted on the Museum’s website), he wrote:

So you have been to Broadheath. I fear you did not find the cottage – it is nearer the clump of Scotch firs – I can smell them now – in the hot sun. Oh! how cruel that I was not there – there’s nothing between that infancy & now and I want to see it.

The cottage, then, is a tranquil spot, with a beautiful cottage garden as well as the Jubilee Family Garden, where my son happily played the outdoor instruments for a while. The cottage itself is fascinating as a period piece, even aside from its illustrious IMG_1752connections; quite small, perhaps, for a growing family, but a perfect example of its time and filled with objects which both make it feel like a family home – some furniture, for example, including curtains which once hung in other houses Elgar lived in – and also a piano from the Elgar music shop, as well as Elgar’s HMV gramophone. I was interested to see the range of hobbies Elgar pursued as a man – as well as being an avid reader, he played golf, cycled, did woodwork, and pursued chemistry; his friend W H Reed said that Elgar used to ‘ease the burden of his destiny as a composer by pretending to be a chemist’!

I also found a Pre-Raphaelite connection which intrigued me: Elgar’s friend (to whom the letter quoted above was written), Alice, Lady Stuart of Wortley, was the daughter of Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais. Alice was a close friend of the composer and influenced and inspired his compositions, particularly the 1910 violin concerto, ‘Windflower’. In the house hangs an engraving of Millais’s portrait of John Henry IMG_1750Newman, whose poem ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ was orchestrated by Elgar; the engraving was given to Elgar by Alice.

I’m always drawn to places where people whose work I love were born, or lived; this is no exception. Though many of the rooms of the cottage contain exhibition items rather than furniture, somehow there is still a lovely sense of it as a home, and from all the windows the views remind me of the beauty of the county. There is a room guide with information about each room and its exhibits on the website if you’re interested, and I recommend the Museum for a visit!

Listen to ‘Pomp and Circumstance March No 1’ here: 

or better still, the Cello Concerto in E Minor Op 85: 

Elgar at the Lunatic Asylum

Edward_ElgarOne of my research interests is in Victorian lunatic asylums and the treatment their patients received (and I’m editing a bookInsanity and the Lunatic Asylum in the Nineteenth Century which will be published in December 2014). I’ve also been researching the origins of Barnsley Hall Asylum, in Bromsgrove, which was knocked down in 1996, so I was excited to discover that this year’s Elgar Society Lecture was on Edward Elgar and the Powick Lunatic Asylum in Worcester.

In 1879 the young Elgar took up a post as bandmaster at the asylum, where he worked for 5 years. He was only 21 when he began, and among other work he composed a series of pieces for the asylum orchestra to perform. The Ken Russell film about Elgar (1962) is available in its entirety on Youtube, and haelgar-powick-asylum-barry-collett-1393934391-old-article-0s a sequence on Elgar’s time at Powick, including a performance of one of the asylum compositions. When Powick closed in 1988, the music was performed there one last time, as well as being recorded. In 2008 the score was published, and last year a new professional recording with members of the CBSO was produced; this was well-reviewed and reached number 8 in the classical charts (I own a copy and have very much enjoyed it).

The lecture was given by Barry Collett, a conductor whose research led him to find Elgar’s Powick Asylum music, neglected in a corner in books labelled ‘Property of the Powick Hospital’, and to conduct its first performances in over a century; and Andew Lyle, who researched and eventually published the scores. Though both were clear that these aren’t ‘lost masterpieces’, the music is cheerful, ‘charming’, appropriate for the setting – but most of all, it demonstrates the composer at work, learning his craft – how to write, how to manage an orchestra, how to allow the instruments to perform to the highest level, and how to write music which was appropriate to a particular setting yet with a wider appeal. The lecture Powick asylumhelpfully illuminated aspects of the music which appear in later, better known works by Elgar and demonstrate how valuable early compositions may be, just as the ‘juvenilia’ of writers is often a mine of gems which point to their later work.

The asylum band was composed of staff, not inmates, and the range of instruments played by the staff is impressive. The Medical Superintendent of Powick, James Sherlock, was sympathetic to music as a form of therapy – very advanced for the time – so one wonders if he deliberately appointed musical staff! He bought instruments for the staff, whose skill was considerable judging by Elgar’s music written for them, and arranged musical instruction on two nights a week. His view was that ‘No other recreation has such a curative effect’. Elgar rehearsed the orchestra and conducted 220px-Collett' for Friday afternoon dances for the patients to attend, as well as writing popular dances for them, such as the polka and the quadrille. Concerts were also held, again conducted by Elgar, and staff who contributed to the amusement of patients in these ways received a financial reward. No matter what the condition of the patients, the ability to enjoy and benefit from listening to music remained, an idea that is perhaps much more common today. Later in life, though, Elgar (who liked to shock people by referring to ‘when I was at the lunatic asylum’), said ‘I fear my music did little to alleviate the condition of the inmates’ – but when listening to the Powick Asylum music, I can’t help but think it must at least have provide a little cheer for them.

The Lunatics Ball

The Lunatics Ball

Dusty at 75

photoOn a wander through Henley-on-Thames at the weekend, we visited the churchyard (I spend a lot of time in graveyards, more for the ambience than for my research on graveyard poetry!) and came across the grave of Dusty Springfield, who died in 1999. Coincidentally, today (16th April) would have been her 75th birthday, so I thought I’d post a picture of her grave, which apparently always has flowers on it, though it is quite unostentatious.

I rarely blog about music, though in fact I love music, but I don’t feel I have anything sensible to say about it. However, Dusty was one of my first musical loves: my father had an old Dusty LP, which began with ‘I only want to be with you’. The intro skipped a little on a scratch, and I listened to that record so many times that I can’t hear it without that glitch. One of the first CDs I bought was a Dusty compilation, and it’s probably one of the CDs I’ve listened to most, over the years. I like to sing, and I sing those songs all the time and am word-perfect. More than that, when I was in my teens and went through a bit of a 1960s phase (I started early with the vintage clothes) it was old pictures of Dusty that got me started on eyeliner and back-coDustymbed hair.

Her music is almost always sad; even when it has an upbeat rhythm (such as ‘In the Middle of Nowhere’, it’s still not a cheerful subject. I gather she didn’t always have  a happy life, and you can hear that in her music. But her gentle, smoky voice catches any tune and makes it irresistible. Around 1990, I could find nothing I liked so much as this, and the songs on that first CD I bought still sound to me like a soundtrack of different events of my life. Though some of the covers she did later in her career grate a little with me, the early songs influenced by the blues, Memphis and soul singers are remarkable and moving.

If you haven’t heard it, this is my favourite of her songs: Son of a Preacher Man. Fabulous Sixties styling, too (though this isn’t the best recording of it).

NB For the record, when I was sixteen (in 1992 or 93) I made a list in my diary of my favourite CDs. They included: Bon Jovi, Tchaikovsky, Verdi, Nirvana, Judy Garland, Dusty Springfield, Elgar, Guns ‘n’ Roses, Telemann and Tori Amos.