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.



Victoria, the Victorians and us

116365I often have conflicted views about books and TV programmes which deal with real historical figures. There are so many questions surrounding how we react and respond to history, how we filter it through the lens of modern thought, which problematises the narrative. These questions came up quite a lot at the recent British Association for Victorian Studies conference . The topic was ‘Consuming (the) Victorians’, and many of the papers addressed how we, as consumers – academics, writers, critics, and also readers and viewers – ‘consume’ the nineteenth century. The plenary panel began with this concept, as Professor Valerie Sanders asked why we seem to want to make the Victorians seem more like us. With reference to ‘Victoria’ the new ITV series on the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign, Sanders asked us to question whether our approach to popular historical dramas is a help or a hindrance. It’s a good question: no historical retelling is unmediated – there is no such thing as ‘pure’ history, and approaches to the narratives tell us more about us than about them. (For example, Cora Kaplan and G.B. Tennyson both pointed out that the search for hidden sexual innuendo in Christina Rossetti’s poems reflects more on the critic than the poet). This is true of ‘Victoria’, I think. Articles on the series have pointed out that this is an attempt to rehabilitate or recover Victoria from the ‘We are not amused’ image we have of her. Far from being obsessed with covering piano legs with tablecloths (an image passed on to us by Moderns such as Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey, rebelling against their stifling Victorian childhoods), Victoria was a child of the Regency, familiar with vice. This much is true, though her very quiet and isolated childhood implies she was hardly on first-name terms with debauched rakes, but certainly she was more cheerful than popular views have led us to believe (see here for hilarious tales of Victoria).

Television such as ‘Victoria’ is trying to make the dour, older woman of our collective imagination more approachable. The young Victoria is played by Jenna Coleman, young, pretty and well-known; she creates a character who is impulsive, stubborn, fighting with her mother, perhaps slightly drunk on the power she has suddenly been given, falling in love with attractive, unsuitable men (like many teenage girls), and demonstrating a gratifying desire to undermine harsh treatment of the Chartists. Coleman’s hair is also artfully arranged just as the image above left. She looks the part – if prettier – but she is shaped by modern culture. Sanders asked if we like the Victorians more when they seem more like us, and I think that’s the point: for example, Victoria wasn’t that interested in the poor, and not particularly sympathetic to the fate of the Chartists (it was Lord Melbourne whose intervention caused them to be deported rather than executed for treason), but liberal values are important in our society, so the introduction of this element provides an opportunity to show Victoria as relatable. I’m glad the Chartists do feature; they are a significant part of British history, all too often overlooked, though the way in which her dresser brought their fate to her attention, allowing the benevolent monarch to intervene, does have distinct echoes of ‘Downton Abbey’. The introduction of the ‘downstairs’ element has this effect throughout, in fact; I don’t dislike it (in fact I applaud the way in which modern TV and fiction, like academic work, has taken more interest in narratives of working class lives recently) but it does sometimes feel a bit irrelevant or even patronising.


Lord Melbourne

A similar approach is taken in Victoria’s relationships. Personally I doubt she had quite such romantic feelings for Lord Melbourne (who was distinctly less attractive than Rufus Sewell with his magnetic cheekbones), but she certainly didn’t offer him an almost-proposal, and while it makes good TV, it doesn’t reflect history. Does that matter? I rather think it does, but probably only to purists like me. Of course it’s a fictionalised story – it’s TV, it’s entertainment; the ‘truth’, if we could uncover it, would be far less entertaining (and I am entertained by ‘Victoria’). Instead, we are presented with a burden of emotion in every scene, and never allowed to forget that she is both an impulsive young woman, and a queen. I think this is because, as we are so frequently reminded, human nature never changes, so of course the Victorians are like us. This is something of a fallacy: emotions such as love, anger, jealousy etc might have been the staple diet of literature for hundreds of years, but the way in which we express them, and indeed the way in which we feel them, is subject to change dependent on the society in which we live. But because we want to understand the Victorians, we make them more like us, and this means that we have to fictionalise, turning Victoria into a consumer item neatly packaged for 21st century audiences who probably don’t know much about her.

Academics are encouraged to find ‘relevance’ (a term I dislike) in everything we do. How do we make the past seem ‘relevant’ to students; how do we find ‘relevance’ in Queen Victoria for TV audiences? One way is to suggest that issues we see on our screens are played out in other contemporary arenas. Valerie Sanders mentioned an article in the Telegraph by Kate Maltby which suggests that, despite rhetoric suggesting Theresa May can be likened to Elizabeth I, in fact she is more akin to a young Victoria:

the surprising brutality of Theresa May’s approach to Team Cameron – sacking men like Dominic Raab, Nick Boles and Ed Vaizey, for the crime of friendship with Gove or Osborne – recalls a different young queen. Victoria has a softer image than Elizabeth Tudor, but viewers of ITV’s current hit series … will know her reign started with a ruthless purge.  Sir John Conroy, the disciplinarian who had run her household, was dismissed, and she moved him, together with her own hated mother, to distant rooms in Buckingham Palace. Her refusal to compromise over the Bedchamber Crisis finds echo in the ruthlessness with which May has not accepted even a few token enemies in her Cabinet. Victoria quite enjoyed Swiss holidays, too.

As a woman in power, and one who clearly enjoyed the exercise of that power, both Victoria and May provide subjects for debate; we haven’t had many queens, and even fewer female Prime Ministers. The series is timely for raising this question of how a woman can rule, and one suspects the general confidence in Victoria as queen was only slightly lower than that in May as Prime Minister (based on her gender, not views of her politics). ‘Victoria’ suggests that naturally she was a good queen: she might have been impulsive, scared of rats and prone to falling for her Prime Minister, but she was pretty, soft-hearted and prepared to defy those who want to control her. In many ways I think Victoria was a fairly good queen, but ‘Victoria’ is setting her up to be effective only because she has gendered traits which make her recognisable and likeable to modern viewers.

We make the Victorians more like us, then, in order to imply lessons from history; to make the past sexy, if not educational, and also to entertain us. The vast differences between us and them are easily overlooked in the name of entertainment, and perhaps that isn’t too bad, as long as people aren’t simply learning their history lessons from TV. There are, after all, many ways in which the Victorians were like us: they were concerned, albeit in different ways, about the environment, about education, about poverty, health and living conditions; and also about their clothes, their relationships, and more personal aspects. We just can’t assume that this was the same as the way we think about such things, though, and while we might feel closer to the nineteenth century for watching ‘Victoria’, this is an illusion. We need, and enjoy, stories, but narratives constructed for entertainment are just that, not history.

Life in Squares

Life-in-SquaresWatching ‘Life in Squares’, the new BBC drama about the Bloomsbury set, is a matter of watching people self-consciously try to be unconventional, which is slightly painful. Somehow the ‘liberated’ approach in which, as Vanessa Bell says, if we are not free we might as well be our parents (that is, Victorians), seems stifling and uncomfortable much of the time, and I suspect that really is how it was. Freedom doesn’t lead to happiness, is the moral of this series, even if it does lead to changing society and great art.

The title is taken from Dorothy Parker’s quip that the Bloomsbury set ‘lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles’, or something like that. The first and the last of these are emphasised more tbellhan the painting, or writing, in ‘Life in Squares’, despite claims that this series was not simply prurient about the lives of those involved (‘sniffing the bedsheets’, according to Virginia Nicholson, a descendant). There is a lot of sex, and conversation, much of it trite, and although we are occasionally reminded of art (a shot of Vanessa Bell painting, Virginia Woolf mentioning her writing) the priority is on relationships.

The so-called ‘Bloomsbury Group’ were a collection of artists, writers, critics, publishers etc (many of them related) who, in the early twentieth century, rebelled against the stuffiness of society, trying to change everything about how we saw the world. Indeed the opening scenes are very late-Victorian, giving the viewer a real sense of what they – especially the Stephen sisters Vanessa and Virginia – wanted to escape from. The first episode set up this sense of a new generation forWoolf (1)ging the way ahead, from the sisters throwing their corsets out of the window to a genuine sense of the women’s desire for what men had – education, freedom, power. This sense is lost somewhat by the second episode, though, as relationships become increasingly tangled and we see ahead to their future beyond the heady days of youth and freedom.

Everything is very loaded; references to future events – Woolf’s depression and eventual suicide; her bisexuality; the death of Vanessa’s son Julian; the future marriage of ‘Bunny’ Garnett and Angelica Bell – these are all alluded to in a way which makes those who know about the events nod knowingly. This seems heavy-handed sometimes, as well as charleston-3_1910932ithe way in which the characters appear so much what I expected that they are almost caricatures of themselves. The series is clearly attempting to do the characters justice, but with insufficient focus on their art it’s difficult to achieve that. The focus on Vanessa Bell is nice, though: it can’t have been easy being Virginia Woolf’s less-famous sister, apart from anything else, so it’s refreshing to see Bell, with her muted sadness, as a central figure (and I have always enjoyed her paintings). The aesthetics are wonderful, too; the clothes, the houses, reflect the post-Victorian-ness of the time, and no doubt will bring further visitors to Charleston, the Bells’ country home. It also perhaps asks the viewer to reflect on whether these somewhat naive fledgling attempts to forge a new kind of society, and a new kind of art, were successful, worthwhile, or doomed from the start. It will be interesting to see if the final episode brings any answers to these questions.

Jamaica Inn

Jamaica_Inn_novelThe first of Daphne du Maurier’s novels I read was Jamaica Inn, which thrilled and rather scared me when I first read it, aged about 12. I even made my parents take me to the ‘real’ Jamaica Inn – the old inn on Bodmin Moor which inspired the story (which rather disappointed me when we got there). So I was rather looking forward to the BBC’s adaptation and to seeing how they achieved the menacing atmosphere and drama of the novel. The book unfolds how Mary Yellan begins to understand the significance of what is going on at her uncle’s inn, the wrecking and the violence, and also falls in love with his brother Jem, and while there is plenty of description of Cornwall and of the scenes Mary sees, the tension is palpable; it’s the kind of book where you keep wanting to know what happens.

The biggest issue with the BBC’s version was the ‘mumbling‘, variously blamed on the sound mixers and the actors, and moaned about all over the internet. And this was a problem, particularly with Joss Merlyn’s lines, and it didn’t really improve across the three episodes. But that wasn’t the biggest problem, for me: what I can’t understand is how, when the drama seemed to stick fairly closely to the plot of the novel (though lacking much detail), the novel is so much more exciting. I can only assume that in a desire not to overplay or overdramatise – that is, n an attempt to show some restraint which is often appropriate in adapting a novel for screen, the events were slowed down a little too much. Much of the dialogue comes straight from du Maurier, and the action is little changed too, though the bedroom scene in Launceston was added (of course). The scenery is beautiful (though it was filmed in Northern Ireland rather than Cornwall), and Jessica Brown Findlay is well-cast as Mary, both innocent and fiery, unsure of her place in the world but with a distinct and strong personality. Joanne Whalljamaica_2868239bey was perfect, in my opinion, as Aunt Patience, unhappy but determined to stick with her abusive husband (something she wrote about on the BBC blog). But Joss Merlyn is physically unlike du Maurier’s description (hardly a ‘great husk of a man’), and lacks the physical and psychological power that is crucial to the plot, and Jem is too shallowly drawn by this production – it is difficult to see why Mary was attracted to him, since he shows little sign of any real depth or interest. And Francis Davey, the Vicar of Altarnun, lacked any sinister atmosphere, despite being quite terrifying in the novel. The paintings which scare Mary and the way in which he reveals to her his part in the wrecking and murder are glossed over here, which causes the ending to lose its force.

608The real issue is the one usually faced with adaptations of novels: the drama and tension of a novel lies in its detail, its description, its careful building-up of character, place and storyline, and this detail is necessarily lost in performance. The historical and social contexts which du Maurier brings out so well are also lost, which is a shame. Most of all, Cornwall itself is the great hero of du Maurier’s novels, and despite the (mumbled!) accents, this is lost here: the sense of place which is so significant in the book seems somehow obliterated. The best I can say for this adaptation is that I didn’t hate it; but I was a little bored by it, and probably only stayed with it to the end because I wanted to see how the novel was adapted. I suggest you read the book.

The Hour

I enjoyed the first series of the BBC drama The Hour, despite its somewhat far-fetched plot, and had been looking forward to the start of a new series. Apart from anything else, it’s impressively aesthetically accurate, the clothes, the colours, the sets seem to be perfectly 50s and if, like me, you are a vintage freak, this is extremely appealing. This series sees the characters continuing in their personal and professional lives on the trajectory begun by the previous series, but what particularly struck me about the first episode is how it seems to be a catalogue of women’s despair in a world with fewer options open to them. Bel (Romola Garai) seems to be in the best situation: she’s a woman in a man’s job, and clearly relishes the power she wields. As Caitlin Moran, a fan of the show, pointed out in Saturday’s Times, Bel’s wardrobe is awash with jewel colours in a sea of monochrome, and this rainbow in many ways sets her apart, as a successful and independent woman. She has done well, but is not as happy as one might hope because, after her fling with Hector ended, she is alone. Freddie’s (Ben Wishaw) return was accompanied by a new wife as well as improved job prospects, and her romantic prospects look gloomy. This is, of course, because in Fifties terms, she can’t have it all: a career woman is likely to end up alone, and perhaps somewhat embittered, like the mysterious Lix (Anna Chancellor), with her discreet affairs.

In a man’s world, the alternative is to be like Marnie (Oona Chaplin), Hector’s long-suffering wife, destined to play the perfect housewife by spending the empty hours baking pastel confections in her pastel flat while her husband is out drinking and womanising. The sadness of her empty nest, her unfulfilled dreams, is one of the most striking things about the first episode, and is perhaps a good indicator of why feminism became so important in the subsequent decades. Another alternative is Kiki Delaine’s (Hannah Tointon) life: she is a singer, performing in the cabaret clubs that Hector goes to. Dressed in skimpy clothes and singing daft songs (Alma Cogan’s ‘Never do a Tango with an Eskimo’), she is as far removed from Bel as possible, though she also has a successful career. But she is subject to (presumably male) violence as well as performing for men; autonomy and independence still seems a long way off here.

Hector, meanwhile, seems to have it all: heading the news show The Hour, a beautiful wife waiting at home, whilst he lives it up in Soho nightclubs. I suspect this is about to all go wrong for him, though; after all, this series is set towards the end of the Fifties, and feminism must be just around the corner. The domestic family centre with the home-making woman at its heart was beginning to disintegrate, and Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique would begin second-wave feminism across America in 1963. Yet the issues of womanhood in The Hour are in many ways still pertinent: the clash between home-making and working, between career and family, are very different today but they are still clashing, and articles in the newspapers nowadays are still asking if women really can ‘have it all’. The women in The Hour show some of the difficult choices women make, and I am hopeful that the rest of the series will offer some kind of justice or recompense for them.

How to Change the World (according to Caitlin Moran)

As part of the Birmingham Book Festival, this week I went to hear Caitlin Moran and Stuart Maconie in discussion, and had, as I had expected, a hilarious time, with some serious notes. The stage was set up as a bar, and Moran and Maconie chatted away about politics, writing, television, life in showbiz and Twitter, and at the end of the evening I did rather feel as though I’d been listening to a conversation in a pub. Moran, who ‘collects anecdotes the way a battleship collects barnacles’ according to Maconie, launched into a description of her journey to Birmingham, involving lost tickets, Samantha Cameron and some drunk teenage Guns’n’Roses fans: she talks fast (as do I) and has so much to say for herself, so many ideas and opinions, that it will be difficult to give more than a flavour of it in a blog post.

Moran’s book How to Be a Woman encourages young women (and older ones too, no doubt) to think about feminism as an obvious, necessary thing, not an ideology that’s full of theories and dull ideas but something that pertains to everyday life. It’s difficult not to be caught up inher infectious enthusiasm, and I’ve encouraged my students to read this book for a different, modern approach to feminism. This approach was much in evidence: Moran and Maconie talked about how television, for example, is a space arranged around men, and how women and other ‘outsiders’ can feel sidelined, forced to fit into a space they don’t fit. Moran’s advice, therefore, is that women should find their own space and do their own thing. Revolution, she says, is a great hobby for a girl, alongside fashion and practising kissing. Her sister describes herself as, not a feminist, but a ‘rogue suffragette’, which is a great term!

Similarly, the discussion covered Moran and Maconie’s backgrounds, as working-class writers who felt automatically excluded from ‘establishment’ structures such as television and newspapers – areas in which, of course, they have both excelled. Their feelings of being frauds, about to be fired, clearly lasted a long time, and in many ways their conversation was a celebration of how they have realised that their work is no less relevant because they are not part of an old-boys network. Moran admits that when she started writing for The Times she ‘adopted the tone of a nineteenth-century gentleman at his writing desk, who was slightly peeved’, but has come to realise that in fact when she is herself – strident, political, opinionated, feminist – people relate to that, and like it – even if they don’t agree with her. As she pointed out, she offers an opinion to people who don’t have one, which they can agree with or argue with,  but at least it gets them thinking. For Maconie, who, like Moran, started off in the music press, adopting a northern-working-class persona seemed the way forward, and he described himself as ‘Alan Bennett with  a flick knife’ (now there’s an image!)

Both Moran and Maconie are refreshingly excited about ‘celebrity’ life: while Moran makes a point of ‘looking rough’ for photos, because the world needs fewer airbrushed over-made-up women in the media (hooray!), she was also excited when the launch party for her latest book was attended by Claire Balding, who brought Jonathan Ross, who brought The Killers, who brought The Pet Shop Boys. Maconie’s showbiz ‘moment’ was when, at the Comedy Awards party, he found himself dancing between Sophie Dahl and the Chuckle Brothers. Popular culture, and its importance as something which can educate and change the world, at the same time as entertaining, was a major theme of the evening, though there was clearly the view that things have gone wrong in both television and popular music – but Moran, particularly, remains optimistic that things will get better, ‘because they always do after a slump’.

The evening was also celebrating the soon-to-be-completed new Library for Birmingham, and Moran in particular is vocal about how wonderful libraries are as free resources where one can educate oneself (as she did) and access a whole world of information and entertainment. It’s difficult not to be enthused by her ideas, which come tumbling out in soundbites, from wanting to normalise the word ‘socialism’ (‘Would you like chips with your socialism?’) to how to change the world by telling stories, looking cool and doing things right. This post doesn’t really do justice to the humour of the evening, but does, I hope, cover at least a few of the interesting ideas which were discussed.