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.




Clouds fascinate me. Their infinite variety and beauty appeals, and every evening I watch the sunset from my house and marvel at the cloud formations which surround it. Sky spaces, where the scudding clouds are framed as works of art, are a delight. Recently, I lay in bed looking out of the window and wondering what clouds mean – prompted by reading Alexandra Harris’s Weatherland, which discusses the importance of clouds for Shelley and the Romantic poets, in particular. Of course clouds are impervious to us, and our desire to find shapes in them is simply a way of trying to make them conform to human understanding, but somehow I wanted to know more; now, I do. At the Port Eliot festival, I was delighted to hear Gavin Pretor-Pinney, author of The Cloudspotter’s Guide and founder of the Cloud Appreciation Society, talk about the science of clouds, and why they are important.

The CAS has a manifesto:
We believe that clouds are unjustly maligned and that life would be immeasurably poorer without them.

We think that they are Nature’s poetry, and the most egalitarian of her displays, since everyone can have a fantastic view of them.

We pledge to fight ‘blue-sky thinking’ wherever we find it. Life would be dull if we had to look up at cloudless monotony day after day.

We seek to remind people that clouds are expressions of the atmosphere’s moods, and can be read like those of a person’s countenance.

We believe that clouds are for dreamers and their contemplation benefits the soul. Indeed, all who consider the shapes they see in them will save money on psychoanalysis bills.

And so we say to all who’ll listen: Look up, marvel at the ephemeral beauty, and always remember to live life with your head in the clouds!
Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps exhibited 1812 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

JMW Turner, ‘Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps’ (Tate Gallery)

I learned about what the shapes of clouds mean, and why they form in certain ways, which was explained using some entertaining experiments. They are not simply something which gets in the way of the sun, but the face of the atmosphere, which allow us to read its moods. Clouds, we were told, are ‘beautiful, dynamic, evocative aspects of nature’, an egalitarian display available to all, and also practical: we can read the weather through them. (Well, I can’t, not yet, but I hope to learn!) Cloud-watching is the sport of dreamers throughout history, from scientists to poets to artists (just look at Turner’s clouds, for example), and they are – I think – inspiring.

Shelley’s poem ‘The Cloud’ is a masterpiece of cloud art – read it here, and here is the last stanza:

Rene Magritte, ‘The Empire of Light’, 1950-4, MOMA

I am the daughter of Earth and Water,
And the nursling of the Sky;
I pass through the pores of the ocean and shores;
I change, but I cannot die.
For after the rain when with never a stain
The pavilion of Heaven is bare,
And the winds and sunbeams with their convex gleams
Build up the blue dome of air,
I silently laugh at my own cenotaph,
And out of the caverns of rain,
Like a child from the womb, like a ghost from the tomb,
I arise and unbuild it again.
 There is a lovely article about this poem by poet Sarah Doyle here, on the Wordsworth’s Trust blog.

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A visit to Mrs Gaskell

Gaskell houseLast week I visited Elizabeth Gaskell’s house in Manchester with a group of students who are studying North and South. I’ve always enjoyed Mrs Gaskell’s novels (yes, I find it hard to drop the ‘Mrs’, even though it has connotations of domesticity and cosiness which don’t really fit my view of her novels) and I think she was a fascinating woman, too. Like George Eliot, Charlotte Yonge, M E Braddon and others, Gaskell seems to come behind the Brontes in popular perceptions of Victorian women writers, and, much though I love the Brontes, this isn’t fair. Gaskell managed to be both a reasonably traditional Victorian woman (wife, mother, home-maker) and prolific writer with a high profile, writing for Dickens’s periodicals (although she was stubborn, and he was reputed to have said: “Oh! Mrs Gaskell-fearful-fearful! If I were Mr G. Oh heavens how I would beat her!”) I hope he was joking.

Gaskell has had a troubled relationship with critics: Patsy Stoneman’s book on Gaskell has a great chapter on this, pointing out how through the 20th century criticism has moved Gaskell from Lord David Cecil’s description of a vapid and ineffectual woman (which makes me wonder if he had read anything by her) to that of radical Marxist feminist. Cecil wrote:

The outstanding fact about Mrs Gaskell is her femininity…she was all a woman was expected to be: gentle, domestic, tactful, unintellectual, prone to tears, easily shocked. So far form chafing at the limits imposed on her activities, she accepted them with serene satisfaction…Mrs Gaskell was the typical Victorian woman.

Gaskell was deeply involved in life in Manchester, along with her husband who supported her writing career, understanding and trying to alleviate the suffering caused by poverty in an unequal, patriarchal, industrial society. ElizabethGaskellThese aspects are reflected in all her novels, though perhaps most distinctly in North and South, a ‘Condition of England’ novel which exposed the lives of those working in industrial cities, along with a nuanced and fascinating study of the economic problems of the factory owners. From strikes to costs, from domestic matters to the public arena of politics, the novel explores the problems of the world around her, and at Gaskell’s house, which is arranged as though the Gaskells were still in residence, the guides and information there clearly link Gaskell to wider Victorian Manchester, and point to how this underpins her writing.

I’m always thrilled to see where writers wrote, where they conducted their lives, and to stand on the same doorstep as visitors to the Gaskells such as Florence Nightingale and Charlotte Bronte is indeed exciting. There is a wonderful sense of real, living history here. The house is really a house, though, not a museum: the furniture and decor has been carefully researched to look as genuine as possible, but in fact one can sit on the sofas and touch the books, which aligns nicely with the Gaskells’ own hospitality; one can feel at home here (and even dress up in costume, as my colleague did). They run a series of great events, including reading groups, writers’ groups, sewing bees, musical events and book sales; I wish I lived closer. I find it very encouraging, though, to see the spirit of so many ’eminent Victorians’ carried on into the 21st century in a house which offers such a range of intellectually stimulating events.



In praise of libraries

I’ve always had a very close relationship with libraries. When I was small (probably six or seven) my parents left me in the library, each thinking I was with the other. I was quite happy: the librarians knew me and kept an eye on me, and I sat and read until my horrified parents returned to collect their missing daughter. I still like to make them feel guilty about it, but actually it’s a happy memory: I spent a lot of time in Chesham Library when I was growing up, attending their summer holiday events,and going there every week to pick new books. I was reminded of the excitement the library offered me when I went with my small son to our local library in Bromsgrove last weekend. They have recently moved, and now have more space and a great, colourful children’s area, and it’s a delight for children – even those who can only read a few letters at the moment – to go and choose their own books. His excitement rubbed off on me (and his father), and we all spent some time browsing and choosing our books. Last year Edward did the summer holiday reading scheme, where children have to read 6 books over the holidays, and tell a librarian or volunteer about their favourite book, what happens in it and why they like it. Although I was reading the books to Edward, for img_2528him this was a crucial period, because suddenly the library became a place for him, somewhere meant for children, not a boring place where he trailed round after me.

Of course nowadays there is the internet, so children are less likely to follow up their interests by going to the library and more likely to use a websearch. Nonetheless, there is no substitute for being able to curl up with a book, turning the pages, flicking through it as you find out more about a subject, or following the unfolding of a story – and I don’t think that appeal has gone away even in these days of e-learning. And what a library offers is the opportunity to browse, to consider your options without commitment, and that’s what the excitement is all about. You just never know what you’ll see as you explore the shelves, and consequently I currently have 9 library books on loan from several different libraries (I belong to 15 libraries, but that’s another matter – reading is part of my job!) The books I’ve borrowed include knitting books, poetry, fiction, myth, art and academic books. Although I’m all for buying books to support authors, I wouldn’t have bought any of them – but I might once I’ve read and loved them. And if they’re not what I wanted, I’ll return them none the worse off. So a library really is an invitation to learn something new, for free. The only constraints are how much you can carry home.

A library isn’t just a place to borrow books from, either. Over the last year or so I have
been spending more and more time at the Birmingham Midland Institute library: this is a private library (though very reasonable to join) and is the sort of place you can just hang out, which is what I do most of the time (in fact I’m here so much they’ve put me on a committee). I bring my laptop and read, write, answer emails – all the things I could do elsewhere, but without the usual bmidistractions. The Institute organises events, has a tea-room, and a members room where you can just read the papers over coffee, as well as exhibitions of art in the foyer. I’m currently sitting in the library working before I attend a course on web coding this evening. Last week I came to a theatre production here; in a few months’ time I’ll be giving a lecture on Gothic. This is perhaps the ideal concept of a library: where the arts and sciences and all kinds of learning are brought together and offered to anyone. It encourages the exploration of different ideas, fresh viewpoints, and the opportunity to learn something unexpected, as well as a comfortable place to study, and such a place is valuable.

As the headlines frequently tell us, libraries are under threat. They are having to adapt fast to new technology, threatened by forms of entertainment other than books, trying to suit a very different world from the one for which many libraries were established. Yet all libraries, whether local, public libraries, private institutions or university libraries, all offer the opportunity to explore the world: think of a library as a portal to who knows where. And when you go through the looking glass, you’ll never look back. Emily Dickinson should have the last word here:gladstone2.jpg

There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry –
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll –
How frugal is the Chariot

That bears the Human Soul –

NB: Other libraries I love: Gladstone’s Library (picture above) – you can stay there! And they have open fires and great cake!

Dr Williams’s Library – lovely place, and I have fond memories of researching 19th century theology there.

The Library of Birmingham – impressive building, which gets better the higher up you go!

The Hive at Worcester – lovely place, child-friendly and helpful staff.

The Morrab Library in Penzance – because some of us can’t help but work even on holiday! Wonderful independent library with comfortable chairs (and not just for academics!)

Women Reading

The Artist's Wife 1933 Henry Lamb 1883-1960 Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1934 have a particular fondness for paintings of women reading. I suppose this is because I spend so much time reading – and I like images that have a woman, alone, comfortable, engrossed in a book, ignoring whatever is going on around her (including the artist painting her). I love this 1933 painting by Henry Lamb (left), The Artist’s Wife, for this reason. I’ve just discovered the Tate’s Album facility, in which you can create your own digital exhibition drawing on their collection, so I decided to do one of pictures of women reading. There are quite a few, it turns out (although, of course, many from other collections, too). You can look at my album here. The range of images is fascinating – because, after all, women reading is a historically complex, socially-inflected topic. For centuries women were only encouraged to read the Bible, and, presumably, recipe books – that is, when they were literate enough to read anything, and many of the images I’ve chosen show a woman simply holding, or even near, a book, which at least indicates her ability to read. After all, why teach women to read when they could just memorise a few chunks of improving verses or household advice manuals? Although Jane Austen wrote in Pride and Prejudice that

“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! — When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent liCandlemas Day circa 1901 Marianne Stokes 1855-1927 Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1977”

nonetheless there remained a strong suspicion that women, with their tendency to hysteria, emotional outbursts and rather weak minds, were much better off not reading novels, which might drive them over the edge. The psychological consequences of reading fiction were potentially severe, leading women to expect romance and excitement, alongside an increased tendency to swoon at the sight of a man. In fact, well into the nineteenth century there was a view that reading as part of learning could, if taken to extremes, be very bad for a woman’s mental and physical health; it would take all the blood from her womb (thus rendering her infertile) and move it to her head (thus making her insane). It would – apparently – also give her cold feet. I read a lot, and I do always have cold feet, but things seem otherwise well.

The moral panic about women’s reading – whether they should, and if so what they should – provides the context to these images of women reading. Many of them, unsurprisingly, show a woman reading in a devotional context. These are often the most sombre, beautiful images, showing a religious devotion which is pictured as sacred as well as pictureMary Wollstonecraft (Mrs William Godwin) circa 1790-1 John Opie 1761-1807 Purchased 1884 One of my favourites of these is Marianne Stokes, Candlemas Day (1901), which shows a very pious-looking girl, totally focused, reading by candlelight. Appropriately, another name for Candlemas is the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, and this young lady looks very virginal indeed.

Another good reason for a woman to be reading, historically, was to share a (morally improving, no doubt) story with her children. That’s another good reason to educate women; so they can teach their offspring. Some of these are ghastly cloying images, such as Arthur Boyd Houghton’s Mother and Children Reading, but others, such as Harrington Mann’s The Fairytale, are less morally improving and more appealing. These domestic reasons for women reading are historically accurate, I suppose, but there are more interesting paintings, in my view: I was surprised by the number of eighteenth century women pictured with a book in their hand, or tucked under their arm.

Some of the women in the paintings are writers, and are thus depicted with a book to indicate their position as such. Robert Southey may have written to Charlotte Bronte that:

“Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life: & it ought not to be. The more she Lady on a Sofa c.1910 Harold Gilman 1876-1919 Purchased 1948 engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure she will have for it, even as an accomplishment & a recreation. To those duties you have not yet been called,  & when you are you will be less eager for celebrity”

but  literature – both writing and reading it – has, luckily, often been the business of a woman’s life, and many of the paintings reflect that. I love the famous Opie picture of Mary Wollstonecraft, looking up from her book severely but with just a tiny twinkle in her eye.

The late nineteenThe Reading Girl 1886-7 Théodore Roussel 1847-1926 Presented by Mrs Walter Herriot and Miss R. Herriot in memory of the artist 1927 and early twentieth centuries clearly took it for granted that women might read as a pastime – but, interestingly, they increasingly abandoned their books in aesthetic langour. There are a lot of books put aside in this period, such as Harold Gilman’s Lady on a Sofa (1910) and Matisse’s The Inattentive Reader (1919). The reading woman, then, becomes a much more appealing subject for male painters, as an aesthetic object to be looked at – presumably because while she is reading, she’s not paying attention to who is watching. I’m particularly struck – not in a good way – by Theodore Roussel’s The Reading Girl (1886-7) – after all, we all read like that, don’t we? Who needs clothes to enjoy a book? Perhaps most appealing, then, is Gwen John’s sober depiction of A Lady Reading (1909-11), in which a young woman stands alone, so engrossed in her book she doesn’t even sit on the nearby chair. I understand that absorption, and the painting speaks much more to reading women than the male gaze.

A Lady Reading 1909-11 Gwen John 1876-1939 Presented by the Contemporary Art Society 1917


Book Review: The Buried Giant

This is a highly unusual, and frequently disorientating, novel. The author, Kazuo Ishiguro, seems to write incredibly varied novels; in genre, in period, in approach and in characters, his novels differ hugely, perhaps sharing only his meticulous dialogue, sympathetically constructed characters and situations which haunt readers long after the novel is finished. They also, perhaps, share an attention to sadness, to loss, and to cultural memory, and it is these in particular that characterise his latest novel. The Buried Giant  is a historical novel, of a kind, set in a post-Arthurian world in which Saxons and Britons have mostly forgotten their fights, and where dragons and other magical creatures still exist. It is, as this great review from the Guardian points out, a novel which owes much to Tolkien. It’s also self-consciously historical, though, sometimes addressing the modern reader, aware of its own status as fictional historical narrative.

The story itself is deceptively simple. An elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, devoted to one another, set out on a journey to find their son. The journey is the story, because they are battling the mists that have descended and cause forgetfulness. They cannot remember much of their past lives, and both long to remember and also fear it. Snatches of memory return to them from time to time, some happy and some not, but they pursue not only their son but, ultimately, the source of the memory loss, the breath of the female dragon Querig. There are clear parallels with the dragon in Beowulf, but this creature is more problematic, it turns out: does the mist of forgetfulness serve a purpose? Because, of course, this is an Ishiguro novel, and the story isn’t simple at all: what are the couple, and everyone else in Britain, trying to forget? What will happen if they remember? Perhaps some things are better forgotten. The dilemma at the heart of the novel, I think, is the clash between the individual and society, and their different needs. The couple meet many people along the way, who have different, fractured recollections of the past fighting, and are coming to terms with it in their own ways. Forgetting makes the creation of individual identity – and indeed the consolidation of long-term relationships – difficult, but remembering would break the fragile peace of the country.
 The novel is playing with genre, then, pulling together and breaking apart fragments of different approaches and styles, yet weaving them together so skilfully the reader hardly notices. In some ways it reminds me of Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, which also uses a story of apparently ordinary people to express the effect of war. In The Buried Giant, the reader feels somewhat adrift from the start; if you begin this novel then don’t be put off by the sensation that you’re somehow missing something because, as I soon came to realise, you are, and that’s the point. Axl and Beatrice are adrift too, on the island of their own forgetting, and we are forced to share the isolation and confusion that this causes with them. This makes it a powerful read, subtle, but which will stay with you. It also reminds us that every society has its buried giant and its dragon to help us forget; this novel can be read as a powerful metaphor too.