£1.57bn: Getting out of this arts hole

The £1.57bn ‘rescue package’ (as it was described by Chancellor Rishi Sunak) announced by the government clearly offers some hope to arts organisations, venues and institutions, including those in Hull, who were facing a rapid descent into oblivion, closing their doors and winding up their operations. Thousands of people in the arts are facing the threat of redundancy and I don’t want to see any organisation going out of business and their staff thrown on the scrapheap so let’s hope they all get the urgent help they require so that the show goes on.

As a freelance, I’m used to living a perilous, hand-to-mouth existence and never knowing where my next source of income is coming from, so it’s clearly important that those that might provide this stay in business. Yet, looking at the amount on the table and the battle ahead, £1.57bn, which on the surface looks like a tremendous amount of cash, won’t go too far for too long once it’s divvied up. It will clearly enable many organisations to stay operational but, with so much uncertainty regarding what ‘normal’ might be when we return to it, I’ve got serious concerns about how much of that money may, or may not, trickle down to those of us that bounce idiotically from project to project.

For context, in the couple of decades that I’ve worked in the arts, it’s been a game of diminishing returns. While commissioning fees have generally moved upwards, there’ve been less and less commissions, and a declining amount of scraps thrown our way. Despite guidance on fees and payments to artists, often artist’s fees are palpably laughable when you consider how much time it might take to, in my case, write a piece of work. So, in real terms, income was already getting smaller and I know, because I talk to lots of other artists, that this was already the case for lots of us way before Covid-19. So, with the dramatic changes to life, and the arts only just hanging in there, the real concern is that things will get worse and it will be decades before everything recovers and we can get back to the business of being underpaid at the same levels as previously.

Like many artists, I have some revenue streams that I’d have the audacity to regard as ‘regular income’ – projects and work that are stable enough to allow me to plan long-term, pay some bills and buy food to eat. Yet even that work is under-threat right now and is serious cause for concern. If other industries are fighting for survival (which they are) and employees in other sectors are facing redundancy (which they are), then this amount of support for the arts sector is nowhere near big enough because, if the choice is between putting food on the table for kids and paying the rent or mortgage or buying a ticket for a gig, or an armful of books, or getting lost for two hours in an immersive performance, or going to see a play, we know where that’s going. 

Naturally, I’d be looking at the big arts organisations in Hull to take a lead once they’ve steadied their own ships but they also need to consider this changing landscape, rather than pick up where they left off. It’s time for them to reset and reimagine their purpose and role in the community. If the many freelance and self-employed artists that this city has, who do so many wonderful creative things, are to survive, then this resetting and reimagining also needs to factor their talent in and conversations going forward need to include them. We need to smash some of the old hierarchies apart in order that we’re strong together and to ensure that we’re all doing something that’s relevant to the city that we serve. Hull Truck, Artlink, Absolutely Cultured, Freedom Festival, Hull Jazz, Back To Ours, all good organisations who do good work, need to continually consider, and reconsider, how they work with freelance talent and grass roots artists as we all battle to get out of the other side of this mess.

I’d encourage freelancers to share their homework right now. I’ve spoken to a few other writers about their many concerns and fears for the future, what they’re doing for work, how they’re generating income, if at all. Lots of us have fallen through the gaps, that’s the nature of freelance work and life, and many have not been eligible for the Government’s Self-Employment Income Support Scheme, or found applying for the Arts Council’s Emergency Response Fund too difficult, and welcome the re-opening of Arts Council’s project grants but are already in fear of form-filling and rejection. We have to face the sad fact that some freelance artists, and other freelancers who make arts and cultural events happen, will turn elsewhere in order to survive and leave this industry which, even at the best of times, offers little in the way of security and stability.

I’ve spent time in the last decade reminding influential people whenever I can of the importance of investment in the arts sector, through the What Next? movement and during other conversations, so reminding politicians of the need for ongoing investment and support in the arts is nothing new, even in these unprecedented times of emergency. The argument for investment in the arts is an easy one to make and win but, sadly, the case has to be made with infuriating regularity. It’s always worth reminding ourselves of the numbers – the arts contribute £10.8billion a year to the UK economy and the sector contributes £2.8billion a year to the Treasury via taxation, and generates a further £23billion a year and 363,700 jobs. For every £1 of funding in the arts, the government recoups £5. Not my figures, those of the most recent report from the Centre for Economics and Business Research based on ONS stats. More broadly, the wider creative industries contributed more than £111bn to the UK economy in 2018, which is almost £13mn every hour of the day. Suddenly, £1.57bn looks like small change, doesn’t it? There’s no further case to be made here, no sob story, it’s a proven model of success.

Personally, I’m worried about what a future working in the arts might look like. But I’m not going anywhere. I’m a working class Hull kid who was encouraged to find his voice, battled hard to get it heard and wants to help others to do the same. I’m not in it for the riches – there aren’t any to be had, most of us just get by – but because creativity is the only way to make sense of an increasingly confusing world. The arts have never been more important than right now.

Missing people

There seemed to be a large, and somewhat banging, gathering of people last night somewhere behind the house. And who can blame them? Seeing other people is important for mental health reasons and, judging by the amount of fucking shouting going on, they were all at a cautious and state-approved public distance from each other. It was rather nice to listen to.

Earlier in the day I’d sent a text to a mate of mine. “I’m at the missing people stage.” The response was rapid. “Why don’t you come to the garden for a socially distanced beer next week?” Which was nice.

Not sure, though, that socially distanced meeting up will quite have the desired effect. If I’ve learned anything these past *sub, please insert the correct number of weeks here, I have no idea how long it’s been. But it feels like another lifetime ago since I sat in a beer garden wishing I could escape from the horrors of being in other people’s company because, ultimately, I don’t know how to behave appropriately in the company of other people, and return home to do nothing* few weeks, it’s that I’m rather tactile. I like a hug. I like to give a hug. I fucking adore a group hug. Without that tactility, it’s just talking/shouting/acting like Brian Blessed at someone two metres away.

Anyone that does creative things for a poor excuse of a living and/or that is on the autistic/artistic socially awkward ‘do we have to go out?’ spectrum will no doubt have found themselves convincing themselves of late that they have been preparing all of their lives for this moment in history. We live in our heads, we like our own company, we don’t like to get dressed and washed, there’s nothing better than escaping into our blank canvases and filling them up with the madness that runs through our minds.

There is that but if, like me, you mostly string words together in the hope that they might resonate with other tortured souls, kindred spirits and rather odd people you wish didn’t come see your work and email you feedback afterwards, it’s always useful to get out and about at some point (even if you don’t get washed first). If nothing else to fill up a notebook, like the thieving magpie that you are, with overheard conversations from beer gardens, cafes or public transport. And to keep your finger on the pulse of what people are worried and concerned about, or who they’re fucking. That kind of thing.

Mornings are usually productive for me. By 1pm, on a writing day, I’m usually throwing in the towel and pondering where to go and have a cold one and stare at and eavesdrop on other humans. With that out of reach, I’m now obsessing about who the dirty cereal bowls belong to at the side of the sink, or ordering shit I don’t need with money I don’t have from ebay. It’s not a healthy state of mind, is it? It’s insular and tedious and there’s only so far I can dig inside myself to yank out terrible memories before I realise I’ve already mined that seam for all that it is worth.

Anyway, it is Mental Health Awareness Week, which might never have been more important than this moment in time, as I imagine that we’re all suffering to a lesser or greater degree with anxiety, stress, depression, hopelessness and my favourite of all the French words, ennui. You’ll get more sense out of other people than me on the subject of mental health but, if it helps, I’ve rebooted the filing system that exists in my head on two separate occasions after total mental collapse and I can tell you that, however down you might be, however nonsensical and difficult life might appear right now, the light will shine on you once more. As Leonard Cohen wrote, there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in. So hang in there. Other people can’t wait to see you again.

So, yes, I’m at the missing people stage. That’s not to say I’m not seeing anyone else – luckily there are a couple of important others around me right now (most definitely their bowls sink-side). Sadly, my mum died in the early hours of April 5th, passing away to a dreadful and tasteless soundtrack of Aled Jones which, I hope, made her laugh in her final moments in her care home. We were not with her as she danced her way towards the afterlife to whatever tune she’d selected from her inner playlist to drown out the sound of the disgraced Songs of Praise presenter. I imagine the Glenn Miller Orchestra or something more kick ass. Yes, I’m missing her. She made me laugh. A lot. And encouraged silliness at every turn in life. And not being able to give her a hug at the end, and having to attend a funeral with only seven other mourners, has added to the surrealness of losing someone that meant everything.

I don’t write the above paragraph for any sympathy – I’ve had some tremendous and meaningful support, love and affection thrown my way so don’t feel in need of any more – but to serve as a reminder that, behind all of our closed doors, people are dealing with the normal pain and twists and turns of life right now. You included. All of us have shit going on and some of it is unbearable.

Life is more real and raw than ever. Yet, these moments are so much more difficult to deal with when our support networks are only reachable via Zoom, Skype, Whatsapp or by standing at the garden gate, flicking open a letterbox with a long stick and shouting at each other. People are losing other people, and not just to coronavirus, and realising that grieving is so tough right now; access to children that don’t live with parents is impossible; people are losing work; incomes are shrinking and bills are piling up; people are realising that those essential payment holidays will make living as hard as fucking nails on the other side of this; people are suffering, collapsing, feeling fragile, at a loss; so many people are falling through the net and have no support at all. And to think, we thought the only thing we needed to do was stock up on toilet roll and order a facemask off the internet.

So, yes, I’m missing people. Because people, and being there for other people, these are the only things that matter. In Mental Health Awareness Week we need to think about others and to work out how to best help them out. Don’t be like the shoddy state, who were willing to sacrifice some of us because they’re fucking inhuman, self-serving Eton educated toffs. Be the very best human you can be because, come the great day when we can enter the new ‘normal’, having each other’s backs and giving a shit might be the only thing we have left to sustain us as a species.

A trip to a place in my heart…

Those people that end up returning to their old schools on programmes like Who Do You Think You Are? always trot out the cliché that “it’s a lot smaller than I remember.”

Some parts of Paisley Primary School, where I attended 1970-1975, are a lot bigger than I remember. There’s certainly more space outside, more green, I think the two-storey building that housed the classroom that was home to most of my addled memories (including that time David Holland pooed himself in class) met the bulldozer a while back.

The office, where I sat after flying headfirst into an uncompromising radiator prior to dripping blood all over the then head’s rather beautiful beige Rover P6 en-route to Hull Royal Infirmary still appears to be in the same place. There’s a familiar looking Victorian-era corridor that has echoes of my former footsteps.

The kids are about the same size as I was. Thinner, maybe. The undersized furniture too. The place is a lot cleaner. There’s no sign of the bottles of milk that Thatcher snatched just after my time there and, as a result, there’s no residual sour stench hanging in the air. There’s a thoroughly modern whiff around this Newington ward, west Hull primary. It’s mostly the same but different. Fresher. The staff are super lovely, the pupils the epitome of attentive and well-behaved. Just the odd remnant that is as confusing now as it was then. The separate but never used for their intended purpose different entrances for Boys and Girls. “What was it like in your day?” Like this, really. Only with more dangerous, head-splitting methods of heating the room. Boys and girls all went through the same door. More running around the place, despite the staff telling me otherwise. Less order. A different coloured uniform. No, no, we didn’t use the separate entrances.

A member of staff reminded the gathered Year 5s that it was the Victorians that liked to segregate the sexes at the point of entry. Dave is not a Victorian.

I was invited in by a pal who teaches there after I let slip that I was a former student. I was to talk about my career as a writer, part of a series of visits by former pupils talking about the world of work. They had, in advance, been prepped on who and what I was. “I hope you’ve not learned any of the bad bits,” I sent flying over their heads.

I tend not to look back. The last time I was anywhere near this place was, I think, in 1976, when I went to a St John’s First Aid class, and managed, before the class, to get my foot caught underneath a gate that used to hang at the end of the street, and had to receive treatment and a lifelong love of irony from St John’s. Clearly if I go anywhere near Paisley Street I have an accident and I can’t say the thought hadn’t entered my head that I might leave this visit in the back of an ambulance.

Anyway, what a lovely bunch. “What inspired you?” “This place.” It was true. Weekly trips from school to Anlaby Road’s Carnegie Library were the highlight of the week, then reading in class, writing, sharing stories, telling stories out loud, doing funny voices, sharing my favourite Edward Lear, encouraging teachers the likes of which I never really encountered again. Watching Mark Howard bite those teachers every other day. Being rubbish at sports (although I only remember us doing bean bag relay races and nothing else). My flights of fancy supported, my creativity nurtured, my career in the choir cut short because of my fits of giggling.

“I was one of those kids whose head was never out of a book. And that was never wrong. And then I knew I wanted to be a writer. What about you lot?” There were a lot of readers in the room. A lot of budding writers. A lot of stories to tell and voices to nurture. I was among friends, albeit short friends in extremely red jumpers (I later christened a Year 6 group I was providing with writing tips The Red Army).

Quite what they made of me I may never know, but I had a blast. They’re writing some words and I’m selecting some winners.

The head took me on a tour. Here is a school, like every Hull school, in a tough area, with a high proportion of students entitled to Free School Meals and big class sizes the norm but where, thanks to the tireless efforts of dedicated staff, a beautiful learning environment has been created. It was good back in the day but it feels much more conducive to receiving a good education right here right now. That’s a magnificent effort in the current climate. The head also told me, proudly, that the school has recently been successful in securing a sizable amount of money to purchase some new books. So the readers will have plenty to read, and the budding writers will take those first steps, and their words will make a difference in the future.

I left the school and went to see my mother, now ensconced in a residential care home. We each ate a Breakaway, another 1970s throwback, to go with our instant cappuccinos. “I’ve just been back to school,” I told her. “Paisley? Oh, lovely. You liked it there. Was it a lot smaller than you remember?” Sort of the same, really, but its heart was bigger. A lot bigger.

Accept things as they are…

“For me – and for everybody else, probably – this is my first experience growing old, and the emotions I’m having, too, are all first-time feelings. If it were something I’d experienced before, then I’d be able to understand it more clearly, but this is the first time, so I can’t. For now all I can do is put off making any detailed judgments and accept things as they are. Just like I accept the sky, the clouds, and the river. And there’s also something kind of comical about it all, something you don’t want to discard completely.”

Haruki Murakami – What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

A world of plenty…

Here’s some thinking out loud I did last year when I was working with Invisible Dust on their three-year Surroundings project, writing about vegetables. A strange but fulfilling commission. Rather than let this little essay gather digital dust on the hard drive, I’m sharing it with you, here.

Romanesco Broccoli

A world of plenty

We live in a world of plenty. Yet still there are people that have nothing. We live in world where there is an abundance of food, yet still people starve. There are a shameful amount of people now reliant on food banks. There are growing rates of ‘food poverty’.

We live in a world that is divided into the haves and have nots. And we accept this as the norm because we choose to and a lot of us are greedy individuals, or rather we’re programmed to ensure our survival at all costs and, thus, we cling on to what we have. And tabloid newspapers and governments are rather keen to persuade us that poverty is the fault of those that are in it, rather than something that we could collectively change.

I have been poor, and not just during my time as an artist, and there have been times when I’ve been down to my last few quid but have had young children to feed. For those stuck in a poverty trap – and believe me, when you are poor, everything suddenly becomes more expensive, as anyone that has had to pay for electricity or gas with tokens or keys can testify – making ethical and educated choices regarding food purchases suddenly drops down the priority list, no matter how ethical and educated you might be. So piling a couple of baskets high with turkey twizzlers and smiling potato faces and lots of fatty, processed items from Iceland or Farmfoods or the like that will fill up plates and youngsters for a week, for hardly any money, is seductive. And it’s also about survival. Storing up fat in and on our bodies for the leaner times when we might have no money at all. Imagine that. Maybe you can’t.

I don’t recall the last time I couldn’t afford food. And that I couldn’t afford good food, and all the things that are rich in the right nutrients. Foods that will help me reduce the risk of heart disease, foods low in saturated fat and trans fat, and those that contain monounsaturated and polyunsaturated oils. I know what real food is; things that grow in the ground, on a tree, come out of the sea, run on the land, or fly through the air.

Humble brag but I am educated and, also, middle-class. I know what’s good for me. Yet such is the complexity of my relationship with food that I am often tempted by naughty things that will do me harm. Late night kebabs and curries, those packets of 20 (approx.) German meatballs you can get for a quid, a Peperami stick from the corner shop. Bombay Bad Boy Pot Noodles. A Ginsters pasty. Not only should I know better, I do.

About five years ago, when I was heartbroken after a failed relationship, I hit food and drink hard in the way that Keith Richards hit heroin in the late sixties and seventies. Wild, enjoyable, hedonistic times but then one morning I woke up alongside someone I didn’t recognise, feeling fat and bloated. And, having looked in the mirror unable to recognise myself, had a revelation that if I was to go on living, and was ever to have another long-term relationship that would end in heartbreak, rather than a string of casual flings that involved eating unhealthy food off other people’s bodies, I had to do something about it.

And so, literally overnight, I did. I bought some cook books and applied the knowledge that I had stored at the back of my mind – my personal food knowledge larder, if you will. And started to purchase vegetables with regularity from a local greengrocers, and revelled in food preparation and cooking with fresh ingredients. I ate my five-a-day. Cut down on the booze. Consumed sensibly. Stopped eating after 6pm. Actually concerned myself with ethical farming, local farmers’ markets, and reconnected with the food on my plate, and where it was sourced.

I became a cliché, yes, but one that may live a couple of years longer. Interestingly, as I returned to something resembling an average weight for a man of my height, and my body fat reduced, people asked me if I was ok. Which they hadn’t when I’d needed them too. And lots of people thought I was ill. Very ill. And possibly dying. Which I wasn’t. And they were relieved when I explained my regime, and sometimes congratulated me, but I often thought that their reaction to me revealed that they had body image issues, and food-related issues, of their own. Which, of course, we all do.

All too rarely do writers open their emails in a morning to find that someone has commissioned them. An email to me from Invisible Dust offered me the chance to “write a new piece of writing on the theme of food and food sustainability” for their three-year Surroundings project. An offer so wonderfully vague that my positive response was pretty instantaneous. I could, within a certain remit, do whatever I wanted. Which isn’t always possible.

I write this having written this new piece of writing. And as I sit here having contemplated food and food sustainability in order to get that new piece of writing written, I realise that I’m still gathering my thoughts on what is an incredibly ‘big’ subject. Which might sound odd. Writers, especially those given open briefs, flounder and flounce about not really knowing what they’re doing, attempting to grasp at something mercurial and, well, non-existent, because of course until you get something down nothing does exist.

Initially, for no reason other than I thought there might be comic potential in concentrating on vegetables and because I only had a vague sense of what I was trying to achieve, I decided to keep a log of my vegetable intake. I mistakenly presumed that this long list would then simply result in an automatic poem that I could submit to Invisible Dust and we’d all be happy. It didn’t; it just resulted in a long list that revealed that I eat a lot of peppers, chillies, shallots and, erm, chips. With no poetic merit. Although, as a non-poet, it was better than a lot of my previous attempts at poetry.

There was a point when I considered the personification of vegetables as the way forward. You know, Keith the Carrot, Paula the Potato, ‘Arry the Artichoke. We’d all dress in funny veg suits, sprout from the ground, waving at the sun, and it would all be like a bad children’s TV show. This is, I think, based on my main childhood relationship to vegetables formed by the BBC television show That’s Life, on which Esther Rantzen used to flash her marvellous teeth and hold up various root crops and make us laugh at how they resembled genitalia (the root crops, not her teeth). Which is why I would never go near turnips and carrots when my mum served them up on the dinner plate.

Thankfully, I didn’t head down that innuendo-laden, waving cucumbers around as phallus weaponry in a fight scene cul-de-sac. I have, rather predictably, written a love story. Partly because the word ‘seduced’ kept coming up when I was reading and talking and thinking around the subject – we’re seduced by supermarkets to buy their ‘finest’ and ‘taste the difference’ products, we’re seduced by community food networks, container gardens, urban food projects, we’re seduced by the Fair Trade mark, we’re seduced by middle-class values that might lead to us buying boxes full of organic fruit and veg, we’re seduced by marketing, we’re seduced by the earth and all that nature offers, we’re seduced by local food producers and market stall traders. Some of these seduction techniques will transform our lives for the better. At other times, we’re being seduced by manipulative devils. How I wish I was a movement director and could cover all those bases via the medium of interpretive dance.

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about our relationship to food. Thinspiration, a 2007 play, was about a young woman with an eating disorder who had come to view food as her “enemy”. She was in the midst of a battle but we didn’t present all that as binary conflict, because it isn’t. But it is interesting looking at the oppositional nature with which we regard foodstuffs and food production. Good food versus bad. Winter leaves wear a white hat in the cowboy movie, hot dogs clearly rock up head-to-toe in black. Factory farming is Darth Vader, organic veg Luke Skywalker. The whole world of food production and global resources is a battle of good versus evil.

A meeting with Dr Lewis Holloway from the Geography department at the University of Hull, who conducts research into food, farming and technology and most definitely wears a white hat, confirmed that my thinking was along the right tracks and also, ahem, gave me more food for thought.

When I worked in higher education I taught a module on semiotics but I’d never considered semiotics in relation to vegetables, until Lewis told me he taught a module on that. And, of course, I felt a fool that the cultural and religious significance of food, as well as the social, buying and sharing relationships we enjoy as a result of food, had barely registered on my radar. Even when I’ve broken bread with people I’ve barely known across a dinner table. Even when I’ve picked up unusual oddities from the world food store round the corner and they’ve explained various meanings that went with, say, the ingredients of Rendang for the people of Minangkabau, for whom the chilli symbolises ulama (the learned ones) and sharia (prescribed religious and secular duties). So, of course! Food is cultural as well as nutritional.

I left Lewis feeling wiser, as one should after having a cup of coffee and a natter with a leading academic. A lot of our conversation revolved around trust and how people currently have a need to rethink their relationship with food. For instance, supermarket food is intentionally disconnected from the soil, and their packaging and the clean, hygienic goods within were developed to gain consumer trust. But for others, that can’t be trusted at all because the dirt on something you’d pull from the ground yourself is a guarantee of authenticity and connects our food back to the earth.

We’re taking back control via ethical consumption, but also this is happening due to the rise in the number of middle class people, or people who perceive themselves as middle class, and the perception that to be middle class means certain things. Such as the pressure to buy, say, organic, and rejoice in that and tell everyone you bloody know that is what you’ve done, wearing it like a badge of honour.

Still, there’s a growing number of us asking those big questions of our food. Where’s it from? Is it safe? What damaging chemicals have been used in the growing process? Has it been ethically produced? And what about labour relations and bad working conditions for farm workers in some parts of the globe where our produce hails from? What negative environmental issues have been brought to bear getting this stuff to our plate? What’s the environmental cost of importing all those unseasonal foodstuffs we now demand all year round?

Then there’s the Commodity Veil that shrouds our consumption where, for our own psychological reasons, we actually like not knowing where the food we consume comes from. Especially when we think about cattle getting slaughtered or radishes screaming when they’re pulled from the soil.

We are clearly living in a world of re-attachment, after years of being detached from food production. The rise of alternative food networks and people taking pride in their purchases from farmers’ markets, buying veg boxes, the number of people on allotment waiting lists or developing veg plots in their own gardens. That’s all back to want to trust in produce and these alternative food networks are bridging the gap between people, place and production. And along the way farmers are changing their knowledge and thinking relating to farming and animals in order to keep pace with consumers, while developments in robotics, IT, and genetic science are all impacting on the food sector globally in positive ways.

Which is all very nice, isn’t it? And it offers us all hope.

Vegetables are mind blowing. It’s very easy to take them for granted and to stop marvelling at their magnificence. I genuinely recall the first time I saw a Romanesco Broccoli. Mainly, I think, because it was relatively recently and it arrived in the food box we have delivered weekly. And I held it in my hand and got lost in it for quite some time. It was quite a work of art. Psychedelic. Visually stunning and a maths lesson all in one. Fennel’s always thrilled me. And I rather appreciate a beetroot colouring my fingers.

All of which is a long-winded way of writing that, if I were to now start writing the piece of writing that Invisible Dust commissioned, then it would probably be a different piece of writing altogether. Because I’m still thinking, and I’m thinking more, and I’ve barely scratched the surface of my own thoughts on the theme of food and food sustainability, never mind being able to take those thoughts and turn them into something that might be useful to someone who would read or hear them. So I wrote a love story. Girl meets market trader. Falls in love. He gives her a bite of the apple. It goes a big wrong. But she learns something along the way and is much the better for it. That old trope.

And that is a long-winded way to get back round to the beginning of this essay, because I do like circular writing. I only ask questions, I’m not claiming to have any answers.

We do live in a world of plenty. There’s more than enough to go round.

You’re probably so intelligent that you’re ahead of me but we can’t expect supermarkets and freezer centres to lead us to a better world of food sustainability and ethically sourced produce, or to worry about the exploitation of farm workers, or to present alternatives to current models of food provision; they’re too busy locking food producers into terrible deals, capturing and attempting to monopolise the food market and constructing the demand they tell us we are asking them to supply in order to perpetuate their own myths and boost their own profits.

And we most definitely cannot expect governments to do anything other than pit us against each other, and encourage us to blame the poor for their stupidity because being poor is the fault of the poor, right? And being uneducated is their fault too. And you, from your middle-class, boastful organic food buying position are happy to go along with that, right? Because that way you get to hang on to what you’ve got and not feel guilty that you might, just might, be part of the problem.

Maybe that’s what needs to change, then?

Don’t worry. You’re off the hook. I’m actually addressing myself. Unless, of course, you recognise something of yourself in all this, in which case it’s most definitely all about you.

Surviving on this planet has always involved working together. Give a woman a three-pack of courgettes, and you feed her for a day. Give her the keys to your allotment and not only do you feed her and her family for a lifetime, you change their relationship to every other living thing we share the planet with, and we all get to live happily ever after.

That was the year that was…

What a year, eh? Never before has Hull played host to such a party, nor its people partied so hard.

2,000 events in more than 250 venues, galleries, museums and performances spaces, as well as countless other events on the fringes. I’ve not been to all of them, obviously. But we did see loads of things. Loads of different things. Loads of extraordinary things. It’s been a mind-blowingly different, positive and exceptional year of spectacles, shared moments, intimate events, world class artists and local purveyors of cultural shenanigans.

Hats off to the team that pulled it all off and, in the process, played a big part in restoring the sense of pride and optimism in the city that I recall this place had when I was growing up. What a city in which to be a youngster right now, surrounded by cultural activity and a can-do attitude and with arts high on the agenda in classrooms. May that bubble never burst.

In the weeks and months and years to come we need to keep riding the wave of momentum set in motion by Hull’s year in the spotlight. Can’t wait to see and experience what happens next and what the long-term positives for Hull’s citizens are. To contort a Ghandi quote, a city’s culture resides in the hearts and in the soul of its people, so this ride doesn’t stop just because 2017 now resides in the memory; the year is a gift to the future of Hull.

Happy New Year and all the best for 2018 and beyond.

And while you deal with your 365-day induced hangover, here’s a nice boilerplate…

  • At least 9 in 10 residents have experienced the hundreds of new commissions and artworks created to celebrate the UK City of Culture year.
  • 2,500 volunteers have given 33 years of activity, or more than 300,000 hours.
  • More than £32m raised to deliver the year, made possible by 80 funding partners. Building on Hull City Council’s £3.6 million investment as Host City, this represents a 9:1 return.
  • 79 per cent of Hull 2017 funding is dedicated to public facing activities, including the widest range of cultural events in every corner of the city and legacy.
  • 60 projects across the city involving local people and artists funded through the Hull 2017 Creative Communities Programme.
  • 85 events in the Back to Ours Festival, which took place during three half terms as part of Hull 2017, bringing circus, comedy, theatre, music and film to schools, shopping centres, community centres and other ‘on the doorstep’ venues, and seen by more than 8,000 people.

 

The Last Jedi…

The Dorchester Falcon

I dislike nostalgia. I’m never sure where looking back gets any of us. Very little gets me dewy-eyed about the past.

But there I was, in Vue, Hull, as the opening titles of Star Wars: The Last Jedi crawled in that familiar way, and I couldn’t help thinking of that time, in 1977, when I turned to look at my dad as the X-Wing Starfighters leading the Rebel Assault on the Death Star went on their dizzying trench run only to see he’d fallen fast asleep. He was 46. I was 11. 11 years of being my dad had taken its toll so who could blame him for taking the opportunity for a nap; the Empire could be defeated without him and he looked very comfortable leaving me in the capable hands of Luke Skywalker. Besides, we were in the safe and secure surroundings of Hull’s Dorchester Cinema, an 1800+ seat barn of a place, a cinematic Millennium Falcon, all faded-glory, dusty, smokey and specially re-opened for the occasion (it had closed earlier the same year) and not the kind of place where Darth Vader was going to rock up.

Back in Vue and the nostalgic wave continued throughout the next 2 hours and 33 minutes. I was struggling to calculate whether I was the same age my dad was back in 1977 (I’m not, I’m older), then I got caught up thinking that Luke, or rather Mark Hamill, might be that age (he’s not, he’s older than me), which would have been romantically convenient.

But there was some synchronicity; we’d taken an 11-year-old with us who happens to share a name with my dad. Roles reversed, I wondered if there’d be enough going on on screen to keep me awake so that his overbearing memory in 40 years wouldn’t be me dropping off mid-Haribo. I pretty much gave up on Star Wars after Return of the Jedi, have only glimpsed Episodes I-III on DVD out of the corner of my eye and was underwhelmed by The Force Awakens. Still, I needn’t have worried. I loved every second of The Last Jedi. The complexity of it all, the inventiveness, the fine plot, the new aliens, the endless convenient ways out of tricky situations, the SFX, the wit and humour, Carrie Fisher’s fine swansong, the return of Luke, Snoke’s rather pathetic and simplistic end (#spoiler – cut him in half!). This is Star Wars as it was meant to be; as it was 40 years ago; as George Lucas intended. It’s so watchable, enjoyable and in parts thrilling that my dad would have slept through the bloody lot.

Vote with your head…

You’re not stupid.

You’re intelligent.

You can make informed decisions.

You’re not swayed by the right wing press, the left wing press, press barons and media owners, or a media so overly obsessed with ‘balance’ that it’s lost sight of what balance is.

You don’t like the reductive nature of the debate.

You question why some politicians won’t debate in public.

You’ve read all the manifestos you can get your hands on and can work out what makes sense, who’s lying (because they have a track record of lying), and who’s paying lip service to what they think is important to you just to get your vote.

You won’t let opinion polls sway your vote. You’re not going to fall into the trap of backing a winner. Because this isn’t a day at a race meet. You know it’s more important than that.

You know that this isn’t X Factor. Don’t you?

You’re not going to put an ‘x’ in a box because your parents voted that way all their lives.

You’re not voting for anyone just because you have voted that way all your life.

You know how important your vote is, even if it’s the first time you’ve done this.

You’re not voting for anyone based on purely selfish reasons. You’re better than that.

You’re not voting for anyone because of how they look, how they dress, what someone else with their own agenda has said about them.

You care about other people that might become the victims of the policies of parties vying for your vote.

You give a shit about the future.

You don’t like the politics of hate. You don’t want anyone here to feel marginalised.

You know that the rhetoric about recent events is only that.

You spit out the propaganda they’re trying to spoon feed you.

You know we’re at a turning point. That this General Election is important, a crucial moment in history. That things could get worse should the wrong people end up in power, or cling on to power.

You know which parties that have formed Governments previously have a track record of being liberal with the truth, of being divisive, of ripping the heart out of communities, of plunging people into poverty, of underfunding essential services that used to be the envy of the rest of the world, and treating the people they’re supposed to serve with utter contempt.

You know we’re in the last chance saloon.

You’re fully conversant with tactical voting websites.

You’ve read widely. You can see through bullshit.

You know that you’ve built a social media bubble around you that means that your sources of information are limited, but you’re going to burst out of that bubble for a while to assess what’s what.

You know that politics and democracy in the UK is broken and that some politicians can make a move towards undoing the damage that’s been done over decades and start to repair that and get us in a better place.

You know that a shift is required and you’ve been thinking about that, and how to make that happen, and you want to encourage other people to realise that the status quo doesn’t have to be maintained.

You’re not stupid.

You’re intelligent.

You might have party political allegiances, or feel apathetic, or angry, or let down, have been ground down over the years, or think that all politicians are self-serving liars, or may even have had a fleeting thought that you might vote for someone because they’ve got a nice set of teeth. You might even have harboured thoughts of tearing Westminster down because it’s utterly fucked up. But you’re savvy enough to put all that aside to go out and vote and vote for a greater good.

I wouldn’t dream of telling you who to vote for. I wouldn’t expect you to listen to me.

You can make your own mind up. I’ve got faith that you know what to do and that you’ll make a decision that you won’t regret come Friday.

You really do know what to do.

So, I’ll leave you to it. And see you on the other side.

Heads Up Festival and The Rave Space: We are loved…

365/17. Daily notes from the City of Culture.

So it’s around 36 hours since Heads Up Festival’s eighth season drew to a close. And, as is the usual case around about this time, I’m still attempting to process what happened over the course of the last two weekends and the days between.

Also being processed is The Rave Space, a stunning festival finale provided by Will Dickie, who first joined us at our second festival with his exceptional outdoor piece Team of the Decades.

But more of The Rave Space later.

Heads Up. Every season I’ve had a momentary lapse about the point of it all and considered walking away. We’re a small team and sometimes this all seems to be an unfathomable burden that we brought on ourselves four years ago. The very real concern that I have, that runs through my mind continually but completely overwhelms and overtakes me with each and every season, when dealing with venues and ticketing and promotion and co-promoters and a host of truly amazing artists, is that this is a complete and total distraction that threatens our ability to make and create our own work. We’re artists who became accidental producers because nobody else was doing this. Silly us.

We’ll have a minor spat just before things get going as we attempt to get it together and what should be enormous fun feels anything but. This season, things were exacerbated by having to deal with the external juggernaut of a force that is 2017. It’s not true, but this is how I often feel, that, in the words of The Band (which I heard sat in post-festival comedown mode surrounded by people that I love in a boozer yesterday), in the extraoardinary effort required to shift a mere handful of tickets that will ensure that each production gets the audience it deserves, “you put the load right on me.” I write this in the knowledge that other producers and promoters in this fine city of ours, and beyond here, also feel the same way and might take succour from what is, most very definitely, an overshare.

Then the shows roll into town. And what we always knew to be the case when we put the programme together is writ large. Every piece of work is unbelievably brilliant. The tension subsides, the ill feeling slips away, we realise we like each other and that we’re good at this, and we start to relax and enjoy ourselves. Every piece of work is a highlight for entirely different reasons, every bit of audience feedback invaluable, every shared moment with, say, 1-3 year olds and their accompanying adults in Neverland, jaw droppingly beautiful, time spent with Battersea Arts Centre’s producing team a joy, every after-show jape possibly a late night too far, but sharing a corner of a dance floor with Theatre Ad Infitum at the Wow Hull after party sticks in the mind as a moment when I proudly, albeit briefly, thought, hey, we brought these people and their fine, important work to Hull.

And in the post-festival aftermath, in that short window when we’re thinking that this is great and absolutely what we should be doing, I’ve got a sense that Heads Up should get bigger and better and grow beyond our wildest dreams and be around forever, and that I’ll always be involved. I write this in the knowledge that the small team I’m a part of might feel this too and that we can chat about this later today, and so I don’t forget how I feel right now, when I start to get in a spin about us having to do it all over again for festival nine, which is coming in October 2017.

Some aspects of programming a festival are astonishingly and outstandingly self-indulgent. I love the Adelphi club, as every right-thinking, live music-loving scoundrel in the city does. I have never been in a band that made it beyond the bedroom, so one of the few regrets I have is that I’ve never stood on that stage with a low-slung guitar round my neck and a foot on the monitor. My DJing days also ended at the very point that superstar DJs rose to prominence, so, as much as I could see myself proffering the finest ever set at Residents, or boring people to tears with too much A Tribe Called Quest and Public Enemy at Represent, my inability to mix tunes seamlessly ensures that won’t happen anytime soon. We took Chris Brett Bailey’s This Is How We Die into the Adelphi in 2015 and Chris’s jaw-droppingly astounding rant and wall of sound left people reeling so we’ve always wanted to return there. I love dance music in all its forms. I love dancing like nobody’s watching. I meditate and know the power of taking deep four second breaths. Indeed, meditation changed my life. Will Dickie’s The Rave Space, a piece of work that fuses live art and club culture, and is a meditation on life and what it all means, gave me the chance to persuade Jacko to let us in to his venue once again, indulge my desire to dance and breathe, and for me to vicariously be involved in a piece of work there.

Naturally and understandably, Jacko was resistant to letting a load of theatre sorts in to his nocturnal nest at 10am on a Saturday morning. But, boy, am I glad he did. We got to hang out with Will, Hayley Hill, Chris Collins, Jesal and Fabiola for the day. We got to see the run. We couldn’t wait for 8.30pm to come round and for an audience to be in front of it.

There have been many memorable, life-changing shows at Heads Up. While I’m still processing and gathering thoughts on what it means and what it meant, The Rave Space feels a real highlight of four years of this. Poignant for Will, due to the recent real-life death of one of the characters and his friends within (Angie, represented by a vape), this is the finest close to our festival to date. Drum and bass and choreographed dance moves merged with MCing and cut-up actuality interviews, exploring rave and religion and a sense of community that is under threat. My life, as I imagine most people’s, feels like a series of disconnected fragments that very rarely make sense as a whole. While I may still be high on festival fever, The Rave Space felt, on Saturday night, like it was joining the dots for me. As Hayley went around the room, looked people in the eyes and declared “You are loved… and you are loved… and you are loved,” everything and everybody I’ve encountered was connected. And Heads Up Festival felt like home.

Heads Up Festival returns in October 2017. Visit www.headsuphull.co.uk for updates and news.