Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 27 August 2014

School's out for culture

Slashing public spending on the arts is a false economy. If Nelson McCausland wants to see the boost they give the province, he need look no further than Armagh, says Malachi O'Doherty

We often take our heroes for granted. The story of fireman Gavin Miller, who dragged a colleague out of a raging inferno where temperatures reached more than 1000 degrees, illustrates the point.

Every day firemen put their lives on the line to rescue others or to attempt to stop buildings burning down. Seldom do they get the praise they deserve.

When the current working party that's mulling over where the public service cuts are to fall picks up the file on culture it may be tempted to see a juicy, inflated budget which could be hacked into without too many people feeling the pain.

When it comes to choices between hospital beds, water rates and grants for artists and cultural events, then the easy logic says: no one really needs culture.

And we have seen that culture has been divisive.

Where it just involves a few writers and artists working contentedly in their studies and studios, then money can be stripped from them without others feeling the pain.

Where it involves culture expressing the great contentious issues which drive unionists and nationalists defensively back to their camps, cuts explained as economically necessary might be quietly relished by many.

In either case, those who want to fight for culture against the slashers and the bean-counters might be as well taking themselves off to Armagh this week.

Armagh on an ordinary July evening is a drab place. There will be a few people in tracksuits striding around The Mall.

Most of the restaurants will be closed. The tourists will be elsewhere.

Here is an historical Irish city almost sumptuous with architecture and set in glorious countryside and what appeal does it have to the backpackers and the cruise passengers? Virtually none.

But it comes alive in the last week of July every year for a cultural event, the John Hewitt Summer School. And the school is getting bigger every year.

I have a vested interest in saying this because I am a regular guest of the school. I chair the Friday afternoon debate.

You would expect that, by Friday lunchtime, people would be starting to drift away to be home for the weekend, but hundreds hang on to engage in discussion about politics and culture.

Executive ministers, quango bosses and media stars have arrived sheepishly, thinking that they were discharging a small responsibility to a wee club in a backwater only to find they had to lift their game to meet the expectations of a big, frisky and demanding audience.

What Armagh has discovered is that a city which goes broadly unnoticed - for whatever reason - can get a lift from the hundreds of people whose idea of a perfect holiday is not lying on a beach in Corfu, but gathering with like-minded people to listen to poetry readings and panel discussions on the arts.

Who are these people? Well, one of the recurring discussions among arts events organisers goes like this: how do we get more young people in? And no one has an answer.

What experience should tell them is that they don't need younger people, because everyone is getting older and more people over 40 than under enjoy readings and debate and creative writing circles.

The fear that these people will die off and that culture will die with them is unfounded.

The people milling around Armagh this week - some of them muttering about how few restaurants there are - are predominantly middle-aged and old, mostly Northern Irish and there will be more women among them than men.

And they will all be clutching their programmes and books they have bought from John Brown's stall and had signed by the authors and they will be saying things like, "Isn't Tim Brannigan lovely?" or "There's a lot of sex in your woman's poetry; you wouldn't know it to look at her."

A big man from Dublin at the back of the hall will stand up at the first event discussion and propose that all questioners should identify themselves loudly and clearly and the new ones at the front with their crisp notebooks won't know that he does this every year and that it makes no difference.

The theme of this year's Hewitt is: Back to uncertainty, considering other possibilities.

John Hewitt's poetry centres on questions about identity and roots; he agonised over his sense of belonging and sought to rework it into generosity and magnanimity and this is what people love him for.

This year's Hewitt features readings from novelists Blake Morrisson, David Park , Louise Welsh and Joseph O'Connor and poet Sharon Olds. There will be music on stage and in the bar.

I spent yesterday afternoon on a panel of memoirists who have written about their fathers.

It is going to take more than a few summer schools to regenerate the economy of Northern Ireland and bring life to rural towns and cities that are too long used to shutting down at six o'clock. But the demand for seats at this year's Hewitt is bigger than ever.

The Feile has lifted west Belfast; the Hewitt enlivens Armagh. The Wild Geese Festival and Write Down! are giving people reasons to come out in Downpatrick, Strangford and Portaferry, just as the McGill Summer School turns Glenties every year from a dusty, one-street town with the wind blowing through it off the mountains into the centre of debate on the crucial national issues.

When the Culture Minister, Nelson McCausland, finds himself in the coming months fighting to preserve his budget, he will no doubt have passionate concerns to defend.

But if he wants to know what cultural issues are so engaging that people will make a summer holiday out of them, and if he wants to know how culture can make a difference to the economic vitality of our towns and cities, then he should be going to the summer schools.

He should be in Armagh this week.

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