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Beyond the Debatable Hills: is it curtains for the arts in education?

Back in 2016 I presented and wrote a piece ‘Predictive Texts’ that took a look into the future of the arts in 2026. I described a cultural landscape in which the arts had largely been stripped out of the educational experience of children and young people. I described the consequences of that policy on the live performing arts sector which was now being by-passed by a generation of students who had not received consistent, or in many cases any, arts education through primary and secondary education where the focus was on STEM education. I reflected on how that educational neglect had led to a kind of cultural blindspot or illiteracy which, in turn, had led to a severe decline in arts attendance as that generation of millenials now sought other avenues for their entertainment and spending.

As I write this (July 2021) the plans by the UK government – or that part of the government that is responsible for what happens in England –to cut funding for arts and creative subjects in higher education have been confirmed by the universities regulator. This is a major step on what has been a long and no doubt continuing attack on the arts in education. Some are describing it as the biggest attack on the arts in education in living memory.

Even before the Covid crisis there had been many dozens of articles written in the last few years voicing concern about state and future of the arts in the UK, particularly in education. The onset of the Covid crisis and the consequent economic crisis is now threatens the existence of the entire creative sector, particularly those parts of the sector in which live performance in an integral part of their raison d’etre: live theatre, dance and music. Almost daily there is news of another theatre or performance company announcing they are having to go into administration.

The decision to cut arts funding in higher education confirms that the UK Government (England) is quite prepared not only to see a drastic diminutions of the arts in education but also, as a consequence of this and other policies, to allow whole sections of the creative sector ‘go to the wall’ despite the fact that the sector as whole contributes massively to the GDP. The contrast with the government support of the fishing industry, which played such a huge role in Brexit, is stark. At present fishing contributes around £1.4 billion to the economy (Gross Value added data from the Office for National Statistics). The creative industries contribute around £111 billion to the economy.

Those creative industries are fed via a pipepline of skills and talent that are nurtured in our education system. By ensuring that the supply is cut off, the government is ensuring that the creative industries – and certainly those parts of the sector that are seen to be less ‘valuable’ in economic terms wither on the vine. Perhaps it is no coincidence that those sectors voted in large part against Brexit and against the Tories at the last election. Boris Johnson has a well-deserved (and well-evidenced) reputation for valuing loyalty to Brexit above all other considerations.

As a bleak future for the arts beckons, I am reminded of a sentence from a 2015 book by the eminent producer and impresario Michael Kaiser titled ‘Curtains? The Future of the Performing Arts in America’. Examining all the current but pre-Covid trends, Kaiser describes a ‘doomsday scenario’ in which, across America, many theatres, arts centres and other performance venues, hit by the decline in audiences and/or funding, “sit vacant, reminders of a different era, not unlike the Colosseum in Rome and the Parthenon in Athens”. Kaiser was projecting some years into the future, but in the UK the Covid crisis has massively accelerated the onset of that doomsday scenario.

Thinking about all this I was reminded of a book I read years ago, which remains one of my favourite books (it’s also on Neil Gaiman’s list of all-time favourites, so I’m in good company). The book is called Lud-in-the-Mist, written in 1926 by Hope Mirrlees. Mirrlees was a classicist, and much of her work dealt with the contested boundaries of Art and Life.

In Lud-in-the-Mist there are two countries. There is the land of Dorimare, a nation of stolid burghers, merchants and artisans. A rather prim and very proper place, where everyone knows their place, where the motto is essentially ‘it’s the economy, stupid’, and where the arts are relegated to activities such as needlework and country dancing: pursuits for the refinement of gentlewomen and gentlemen.

On the border of Dorimare, however, on the other side of the Debatable Hills, lies the land of Faerie, a strange, dark land full of mysteries and wonders…not all of them pleasant. The upright citizens of Dorimare so fear the land that lies beyond those dread hills, that the word ‘Faerie’ is never to be uttered.

Dorimare’s main city of Lud-in-the-Mist lies at the confluence of two rivers: the Dapple and the Dawl. The Dawl is like any other commercial river, but the Dapple happens to flow out of the land of Faerie, and brings with it fairy fruit, that is smuggled into Dorimare.  Eating fairy fruit has a terrible effect on the upright citizens of Lud-in-the-Mist: it causes people to start singing strange songs, to spout poetry, to dance with abandon. In other words, it turns them mad.

The plot revolves around the disappearance of a group of young ladies and the Mayor’s son who have been kidnapped and taken to the land of Faerie, and the attempt of the Mayor, a bumbling, self-important, rather fatuous man to rescue them. (Any resemblance to a real persons is entirely coincidental).  As a consequence of that quest, fundamental changes are wrought – to the Mayor and to Dorimare itself.

In Lud-in-the-Mist, Mirrlees is dealing with the division of the world into Apollonian and Dionysian aspects: the homely and the wild. There is also the long battle between Classicism and Romanticism, and Freud’s theories of the conscious and unconscious mind, and the relationship between terror and beauty.

The actor Mark Rylance, in an interview, said that the arts are essentially ‘mysterious’ which is why they frighten  politicians and policy-makers, because they can’t control them, they can’t measure them.

I imagine the educational curriculum in Dorimare’s schools is very much what like the one demanded by Gradgrind in Dickens’ Hard Times;

“Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the mind of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.“

And if you think that’s rather extreme, consider this – handed to parents at a primary school in London in 2015:

‘The new programme of study in English is knowledge-based, this means its focus is on knowing facts rather than developing skills and understanding. It is also characterised by an increased emphasis on the technical aspects of language and less on the creative aspects.”

So, alongside the plans for schools to drop all ‘non-core’ subjects i.e. arts subjects and a few others, from the school curriculum, in order to enable students to catch-up on everything they’ve missed due to Covid, we now have what are catastrophic cuts to arts subjects in higher education in line with the government’s insistence that all higher education programmes must align with  “economic and societal needs” – which the government believes will only be met by STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) programmes and some others such medicine and agriculture. One can only look with envy at the financial support Germany and other countries such as New Zealand are putting into supporting their creative and cultural sectors as they recognise the importance and value of those sectors to the well-being of society as a whole.

I was once asked, by the then German Federal Minister of Education as it happens, as we stood together in the queue for coffee at a conference on the future of Arts Higher Education in Europe, what it was that had made the UK such a world leader in art, design, fashion, music , theatre, etc?  He was comparing the UK with his own country and the fact that, with a few notable exceptions, Germany – with a relatively successful economy compared to the UK –  had demonstrated nothing like that level of consistent creative output over the years.

I didn’t have a rigorously researched, evidence-based answer to give him, but I did say that I thought it had something to do with our long history and tradition of non-conformity, of sticking two fingers up to authority, and our high and genuine tolerance of mavericks and eccentrics. Neither of which, I suggested humbly, were common attributes in his own country.

The Minister said ‘Ah, that’s very interesting’…and moved on.

I was thinking about Lud-in-the-Mist because it seems to me we are increasingly living in a country which is becoming more Dorimare-like by the day, where the arts are increasingly banished to the equivalent of the land of Faerie, where creativity is associated with the creation of goods and wealth, where any hint of an artistic or genuinely creative spirit is dismissed as bad influence, and to be actively discouraged and eliminated.

Across our education system, from primary through to tertiary, there is now a very real danger, evidenced by the significant drop in the take-up of arts subjects, of subjects like art, dance, drama and music disappearing entirely from the curriculum. The clear and present danger for the wider creative arts sector will be the cutting off the pipeline of interest, skills and talent on which the sector relies. We are facing the prospect, in many areas of the country, of the spectre of a cultural wasteland, not unlike Kaiser’s ‘doomsday’ scenario.

A hundred years ago, in Lud-in-the-Mist, Hope Mirrless asked how might we truly embrace the arts in all their wondrous, dangerous, life-affirming glory along with the eccentrics and mavericks?  Or are we fated to banish them, their works and deeds, to that strange, wonderful, forbidden land beyond the Debatable Hills?

The final, celebratory chapter of Lud-in-the-Mist, as the citizens of Dorimare throw open the gates of the city to allow those mysterious, dangerous, life-affirming Faeries to enter, provides the answer.

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Grief crept up on me, unexpectedly: a story of Christmas Eve.

As a Jewish family, we don’t really do Christmas. Yes, we’ll gather together, have a big meal, play board games, and watch far too much television. But that’s because it’s a holiday, everything is closed, and there’s not much else to do.  Coming up to Christmas that year we’d just had some building work done, and there was still loads of cleaning up, making good, re-decorating to do. So it was looking like a DIY Christmas and new year.

As it happens, the builders had found an old, crumpled newspaper stuffed into the gap between the window and the wall our bedroom. When they first found it, it reminded me of a dead bird.

On the afternoon of Christmas Eve I decided to have a go at ‘uncrumpling’ it using our steam iron. It turned out to be the Lancashire Post from 30th September 1943. The paper was very fragile – I suspect they didn’t use the best quality newspaper during the war years – and I became absorbed in the task of slowly but surely flattening the paper one careful centimetre at a time. I wasn’t even aware that the radio was burbling quietly away on the other side of the room.

As each piece revealed its flattened secrets, I read about the Fifth Army’s losses in North Africa, the Russian advances along the Dneiper, a successful bombing raid over Germany (only eight missing in action). I also read about a local woman fined for fiddling ration books, and a Polish aircraft man convicted of drunk driving.

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There was also a small item about how the German U-boats had failed to sink a single ship in the previous month. 70 years later, on Christmas Eve, the newspapers and television were full of the news about the Royal pardon given to Alan Turing, the man who had ‘cracked’ the German Enigma code used by the U-boats and, by doing so, had in no doubt saved thousands of lives and perhaps helped to end the war. But Turing was gay at a time when it was illegal, and had been found guilty of gross indecency, jailed, chemically castrated, and forbidden to undertake any work linked to national security. He was and should have been hailed as a national hero. Instead, he committed suicide two years later in 1954, and full recognition has only come very recently.

Those U-boat failures, reported on the front page of that 1943 Lancashire Post, were a direct result of the work Turing had undertaken at Bletchley Park.

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Absorbed in the task and on this fascinating window on history, I suddenly became aware of a beautiful, solo treble voice filling the room, singing “Once in Royal David’s City….”. It was three o’clock in the afternoon and the start of that wonderful, traditional Christmas Eve ‘Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols’ from King’s College Chapel in Cambridge. And as that pure, high voice soared…..I burst into uncontrollable sobs. A veritable tsunami of grief poured over, into and through me: disturbing and disruptive in its power and intensity.

It took me a while to realise what it was.

When my mother died the year before, I cried no more than a couple of times, and that was around the time when it all happened and usually  in response to an individual’s kindness and sympathy. But nothing like this.

Though, obviously, Jewish and very proud of her traditions, my mother also had a deep love for many things that were quintessentially English. Among them she had a particularly high regard for and interest in the great cathedrals and churches of England. After she passed away I discovered, amidst the thousands of documents she left, a neatly stacked pile of guides to virtually all the English cathedrals and some other churches, all neatly annotated with her distinctive handwriting. I always smile when I see those guides as my father did not approve of my mother’s interest in Christianity, and I know he would not step inside a church. So I have a very clear picture of my mother wandering around inside with her guide, no doubt quizzing whoever she could find about the history of the building and making notes, while my father sat patiently on a nearby bench doing his Times crossword.

Just before three o’clock in the afternoon on Christmas eve, without fail, and though Jews – on the whole – don’t do Christmas, my mother would sit herself in her favourite chair, turn on the radio, quite loudly, and wait until that beautiful, soaring, solo treble voice filled the room, singing the first verse of the carol, followed by the choir and then the congregation. Earlier in the day she would have called me to remind me NOT to call her between 3pm and 5pm.

As that deep pang of grief and my sobbing subsided, and I was able to collect my thoughts, I wondered how that boy’s voice could trigger such intense emotion. I remembered how some of Mark Rothko’s last paintings, those gigantic fields of deep colour, have a similar effect on some individuals, and I recalled that in some therapeutic contexts music and song are used to enable individuals and groups to confront severe trauma.

In my case, that moment triggered an intense ‘remembrance of things past’ and a huge sense of both loss and love. I suspect we all have those triggers, those Proustian ‘Madeleine biscuit’ moments, when something – perhaps completely unexpected – plunges us into the deep well of memory, love and loss.

That afternoon, as I ironed that old newspaper (something my mother would have loved – the newspaper not the ironing!) and listened to that young boy singing those famous words, I probably missed her more than I’ve done at any other time.