It was Raymond Williams who in 1959 coined that phrase culture is ordinary against an exclusionary notion of culture that is only meaningful to a highly educated minority. (Williams, 1989, Pg 3 – 14)
As Williams suggests, culture is indeed part of our everyday whether you live in Merthyr or Kensington. Where the problem lies is of course in the notion of taste and what is deemed as respectable and of excellence.
We’re making the performance in an art centre. It feels important to ask the question about the elephant in the room inside an institution. The question of who gets to use these buildings and feel welcome in them is one that arises a lot.
For one of the performers it is only his second time here. He said he feels welcome here and that in places like this he can be himself. On the last night of the show in the car park as he is getting into his car he sees an elderly women fall, he tries to help her and the women (of a different class) screams at him to get away. When I speak to him he is furious, upset at being judged because he is a young man in a tracksuit. In this context I question whether space is the problem of if it’s the people who inhabit it that become the barrier. With the segregation of space we mourn the loss of human interaction and this is essential for a creative, collaborative society.
Of course the arts have always been part of working class communities, the 80s gave birth to incredible theatre companies such as John McGrath’s 7:844 and the film work of Ken Loach created a movement of radical working class theatre. And of course that isn’t touching the surface of culture in these communities. In places like St Mellons and Merthyr we see the rise of grime, a radical poetry network, panto and DIY theatre movements that take place daily.
However strong this movement it has always by the powers that be has been seen as an inferior form of expression. Marginalised by those who possess the power to define what excellence in art and culture should be.
Not only has ‘community arts’ received a battering from those tastemakers but the platforms to share and come together have also been removed over the years, leaving communities without space and resource to come together. We have seen closures and cuts to institutes, social clubs, miners’ halls, youth clubs, nightclubs, libraries, creative subjects in schools and the privatisation of public space (to name a few).
Growing up on an estate was the perfect breeding ground for creativity we had an playing outs unlimited resource of space to play and kids to play with. Art was part of our everyday.
I used to dress the kids up on my street and put on plays for the parents in my garden. I made shows because a) we were bored and wanted to make things up, have fun b) because the reality of our lives was harsh, unpredictable and complicated so we created a reality beyond our circumstances so we could just be kids. It was a strategy of escapism, one that kept our spirits high and our minds creative.
My dream was to be an actor, I was serious about it and the teachers at school saw that talent in me. Where I grew up there wasn’t a theatre, a theatre club or information about the theatres, art centres and programmes that already existed. There was a youth club, a Tesco, a pub and subways. Opportunities didn’t often come and when they did it gave a level of suspicion to why they’d ended up in our street and what did they want from us.
As most of the working class artists I have spoken to the library became a sanctuary, a place where I could escape to when things got tough at home. It was here that I immersed myself in Orwell, Dickens and Wilde. It was these formative years that taught me how important libraries and culture is to a community like mine.
A contradiction that there’s a drive for a society where culture is for everyone when we’re at a point where we’re losing libraries the very places where for many the journey into creativity begins.