Category Archives: social history

Love culture, love community

Ouseburn Open Studios, Biscuit Tin Studios - LOVE

Ouseburn Open Studios, Biscuit Tin Studios - LOVE (by at least 2 different artists).

Valentine’s Day came around again this week. The shops and the Web were full of love…for some lucky people.

I do not like this day. The only valentines I have ever had have been from friends who wanted to console me for never having a romantic valentine…oh, and one that was theoretically for me but I never believed was (and, in retrospect, I think my doubts were correct). Valentine’s Day is usually just a reminder of how romance has steered clear of me.

My love of culture has sustained me through the years and, appropriately for the week, one of the big public culture events of the year was also happening: the Arts Council for England’s State of the Arts conference. Consequently, there was much discussion about the state of arts and culture policy (or lack thereof) in my tweetstream. I also saw a number of tweets from people at the conference indicating that they felt some passion for culture was missing from the conference. It was probably just as well that I could not go to the event.

I am dismayed and angry at times when even the people who work within culture in the UK are defeatist in tone when discussing its importance. Yes, it can be difficult to be positive and rational when culture comes under such constant attack in the public sphere. Yes, it is frustrating to have to try to ‘prove’ its value constantly. Banks, car manufacturers and the construction industry do not seem to be under the same pressure to argue for their right to exist, even when they are struggling to keep going. Surely we love our culture and our communities enough to keep encouraging others to understand?

Last night, I was at the second of three workshops about local people getting involved with future planning issues relating to a specific area. The idea is that there will be a group of residents, people who work in the area, and other interested people who live nearby and visit frequently, who can look at developer’s proposals with an informed eye. It is an area with a special character, not quaint in a traditional sense but with a long industrial past. It has become increasingly diverse with a vibrant creative spirit in amongst current industry; green areas rich with wildlife (kingfishers have been seen along the river); and the sound of bands echoing off cobbled streets and walls covered in lively spray-painted art. There are an increasing number of buildings that have been converted into studios for artists, craftspeople, architects, designers and other creative businesses.

The talks at last night’s workshop were about how quality of design can be assessed in more objective ways. Infographics showing how people worked better and crime was less in well-designed places showed us the bright possibilities when design works well. People are healthier, work and study better when they have good quality culture. One study showed that psychiatric patients recover faster in a well-designed building. Love of a well-designed environment can help communities to form and be sustainable. This is not a new idea, of course. Idealists have been building places that would function better, look better, and foster community love, for hundreds of years.

Something that I had noticed at an initial project meeting was the enthusiasm that people generally had for the street art in the area. There are several locations where building owners have given permission for their walls to be covered in art. One building has a notice on it with a polite request that street artists do not paste on or paint certain parts of the building. This seems to have been respected, and there are two good pieces pasted on temporary window covers on it. It is this kind of response that makes me hope that culture and community love will continue to make that area very special.

People (especially, it seems, politicians) underestimate how much culture is the glue that keeps society together. The North East has been using culture for decades as a means to stop decline of post-industrial areas and to kickstart regeneration. Sometimes the culture initiatives come from the community, sometimes they are led by the local authorities or the universities. Some extraordinary love of culture has become apparent.

If you get a chance, go and see the Pitmen Painters play (it may cause a tear in the eye), or read the book by William Feaver, and go to see the pitmen’s paintings. They wanted to study art. They learned through painting and documented their own community along the way.

Baltic Mill near the end of the Turner Prize Show in 2012. JED2_72_020655

Baltic Mill near the end of the Turner Prize Show in 2012. Copyright Janet E Davis.

At the end of 2011 and beginning of 2012, the Turner Prize show came to the Baltic for the first time. The queues for it were lengthy, the audience very varied. There was even a long queue to see it on the last weekend. One of the local newspapers, The Journal, could not disguise its trumphant tone: “Turner Prize visitor figures at Baltic put London to shame.” Not all the record-breaking number of visitors were from the North East, but many were. The North East needs more of these major contemporary exhibitions. There was an immense sense of pride that the North East was hosting one of the big annual visual arts events. It is a pity that the North East does not have something like the John Moores Painting Prize because there would almost certainly be an enthusiastic audience for such a show.

The North East retained a remarkably relatively positive attitude through decades of industrial decline in the 20th century. It is an area with a very strong regional cultural identity that goes way beyond the sentimental stereotype of the flat-capped bloke who is accompanied to allotment and pub by his whippet. It is an area that also embraces national and international culture, from the Royal Shakespeare Company to the Tall Ships Race and everything in between. There is a warm spirit in the crowd, a sense of community, at such events.

For a culture professional, the best place to live is London because it has most of the best culture jobs in the UK. The love of culture in the rest of the country is at least as strong, however, and helps to sustain through the difficult times and to rebuild or remodel commnunities as circumstances change. Culture is about people. Love culture, love communities. That sounds like idealistic, sentimental mush but is, in fact, a true love that works.

'Euromarket' street art on Lime Street. Photograph © Janet E Davis.

'Euromarket' street art on Lime Street. Photograph © Janet E Davis.


Lest we forget


Mascot of the 5th Northumberland Fusiliers; Toutencourt, October 1916. The Somme Offensive on the Western Front, 1916 © IWM (Q 1368)

This photograph in the Imperial War Museum’s collections caught my eye. It was unexpected. The camera captures a soldier smiling as he puts a cap on a small goat. I imagine that the intention had been to capture a more formal photograph of the regimental mascot. This informal portrait of soldier and goat brings the man closer to us than a formal portrait could.

A few years ago, I did some transcribing and research on some recordings made in the 1970s in which men talked about their experiences of being soldiers in World War I (Northumberland Archives, Woodhorn). I found it tough to do. They were so young when they had gone off to war.

Sir William Goscombe John, The Response 1914. IMG_3516

Sir William Goscombe John, The Response 1914. Photograph © Janet E Davis

I have always found The Response 1914 by Sir William Goscombe John a moving sculpture. On the right hand side, he depicted an ordinary man leaving his wife and children, and then a man in uniform marching away with his son looking up at him.

Sir William Goscombe John, The Response 1914 (central group) IMG_3519

Sir William Goscombe John, The Response 1914. Photograph © Janet E Davis

On the main, long side of the group, Goscombe John placed a girl embracing her father who is marching off to war. Behind the mechanical engineer (with spanner in hand) to her right is a lad apparently younger than her, marching along with the men and starting to take off his jacket to replace his work clothes with uniform. To the left of the girl is a bare-footed lad, also possibly a little younger than she is. He carries a rifle and enthusiastically beckons others to join him.

Sir William Goscombe John, The Response 1914 (left hand side group) IMG_3522

Sir William Goscombe John, The Response 1914 (left hand side group). Photograph © Janet E Davis.

Finally, the head of the procession of figures on the left hand side shows two drummer boys leading the men forwards. Goscombe John has emphasised their youth. They really are just innocent boys. The artist knew what happened to these men and boys. His placing of children in this war memorial emphasises the youth of many of the soldiers in the First World War.

One of the men whose story is in Northumberland Archives told of how he had lied about his age to join the army. He really was just a boy. When I look at The Response 1914, I think of that teenager being so keen to join alongside the lads he had known all his short life.

The Imperial War Museum’s collection includes photographs of the actual soldiers who were in the Northumberland Fusiliers during the First World War. The men in the sculpture do resemble the real soldiers. Northumberland Archives has recordings of some of the men from Northumberland and Tyneside who survived the First World War. One man told of how time after time, the battalion in which he served was so decimated that they could not replace those lost and had to join the remains of others.

Such archives explain not only how tough such a dreadful war was, they help to explain why people were so driven to create new political solutions, to ensure a better world in which everyone had a chance to be well-educated, skilled, to have good health care and decent living conditions. So much of what we have in the United Kingdom today is the result that bitter determination that future generations would not go through that horror.

The archives and artefacts kept in local and national collections in museums, archives, libraries and galleries throughout the United Kingdom are there to ensure we do not forget those who died and were damaged by war, and to help us to remember that war should be avoided and be the last resort. My great-grandparents’ generation could not talk much about the First World War. I think that they remained too traumatised by it. The digitisation of records has helped to broaden access to the records and objects that tell a little of their stories.

Remember them. They were people like us. Remember them as you use the public services and resources that were created by the survivors to commemorate those who died and to try to create a better, fairer, and more peaceful world.

Further reading

Northumberland Archives, Woodhorn

Imperial War Museum – Collections and Research

The Royal Northumberland Fusiliers article on Wikipedia

The Royal Northumberland Fusiliers Museum