I’m under mandatory isolation right now, so as a challenge will be writing a piece every day, with rules: no piece will take more than 90 minutes from first keystroke to publication; each piece has to be on a markedly different topic each day; each piece will be EXACTLY 500 words (excluding title/ float quotes, references and this intro).
Today sees my return to work with Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature after a few months of furlough, and as such it is a Very Good Day. I’m orienting myself with what we’re doing after a period of disengagement legally required under the Job Retention Scheme, and am delighted that a slew of projects are both underway and gestating. It’s also notable that these touch on a common theme: doing great things despite that nasty virus no one even knew about last year
Culture is in crisis, we cannot ignore that. I’m lucky to work for an organisation that doesn’t rely on possession of a venue, such as a cinema or a theatre, for its existence. I’m also lucky that we are a small, relatively young and therefore flexible organisation. Literature, literacy, publishing and so on are all important elements of what we do, and little directly impacted by the crisis. As more people take solace in reading and writing, our existence strengthens in value.
Larger, venue-based organisations sail choppier seas. With the government easing off financial support across the board, they are increasingly being exposed to the grim realities of covid restrictions: many friends are fearful for their jobs, some have already become unemployed. Things are grim. I have no remedy, no great panacea that will cure all cultural ills. I can’t force the government to bail out these jobs, and those in charge seem little interested to do so.
Yet there has to be optimism, however bleak the prognosis. Culture is not a frivolous luxury, it is integral to our very being. “The human soul needs beauty more than bread”, DH Lawrence correctly noted. There will always be culture, and the constant mutation of culture alongside technology and politics is the story of our existence. It defines and reflects our moral outlook, it gives meaning, communication and continuity. Yet when external elements – in this case a pandemic – steer civilization in a sharply sudden different direction, culture takes time to catch up.
During furlough I’ve been helping out with Nottingham Chamber Music Festival. Having had to abandon the traditional set-up of the scheduled events, the director behind it, Beestonian violist Carmen Flores, didn’t pack up her bow and hunker down. Instead she worked with local filmmaker Tim Bassford to produce a series of beautifully shot short films of Carmen playing Bach in iconic – and empty – Nottingham venues. I helped promote then, and in doing so came to realise the emotions they provoked – melancholy, loss / beauty, hope – were a metaphor for something much more: in these empty buildings, music played, and a flame flickered from the embers. Where there are humans, there will be culture and hope.
That won’t pay the wages of staff and creatives who face an uncertain future. They need support from elsewhere. Yet the pandemic will not kill culture. The truly creative are more important than ever, and are already on it.
Back to Lawrence: “We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.”