Written for the New Statesman.
Culturally, the North-South divide is getting worse as the Conservative government’s cuts take their toll on museums outside London.
The North-South divide is real. It exists, more tangible than the increasingly nebulous concept of a Northern Powerhouse, more durable than The Big Society (Rust In Pieces).
A consistent critic of the North-South cultural imbalance, Melvyn Bragg is the latest to angrily react to the closure of another museum, Bede’s World in Jarrow, which employed 27 people and had a footfall over 70,000 visitors, but whose recent funding cuts have deemed it no longer financially viable. “Again and again, when authorities are in trouble, they take it out on culture, which they see as a soft target,” said Bragg.
It’s this phrase – “no longer financially viable” – that is surely the epitaph to be chiselled onto the tombstones of the many museums and galleries across the North of England that have suffered under the Conservative government’s cuts. Once again we are faced with an administration that singularly fails to judge the value of culture in anything but fiscal terms.
“What is totally depressing and gives no service at all to this generation and offers a bleak inheritance to the next generation and for generations to come,” added Bragg, “is the regularity of hundreds of years with which London has kicked the North in the teeth.”
With Lancashire County Council recently announcing the closure of five museums in towns including Preston, Fleetwood and Lancaster, there are plenty of statistics to back up this bleak decline. A report entitled Rebalancing Our Cultural Capital from late 2013 suggests outright discrimination. It revealed that the combined spending of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and Arts Council England amounted to £68.99 per head in London and a meagre £4.58 per head in the rest of England. Lottery spending on the arts in the previous two decades was judged to be £165.00 per Londoner and £46.77 elsewhere.
Some might argue that the regions only get what they put in. Not true. A follow-up report found that citizens of Westminster had contributed £14.5m and received £408m on cultural expenditure – a 28-fold cultural return. Meanwhile in County Durham, a Labour heartland whose ex-pit villages contains some of the UK’s highest rates of unemployment, £34m in lottery spending garnered just £12m in spending on the arts. Meanwhile, £60m in public funding has gone towards the capital’s new garden bridge alone.
Personally I’ve been to more local exhibitions since I left London for the North that I was previously unfamiliar with. Museums and galleries have been my gateway into towns – Rochdale, Burnley, Oldham – I had little reason to otherwise visit; places that, with all due respect and sympathy, need all the help they can get. Here exist collections that offer an insight into history and character, where one can unearth the oddities and eccentricities that make each unique. This fact should not undervalued. Many’s the time during my sporadic tour I have stood in a town centre shopping precinct, usually built in 1960s or 1970s, their ceilings feeling a little low and oppressive, the interior tones a little too autumnal for towns often starved of sunlight as it is, and completely forgotten where I am. It’s alarming to look round and briefly not know if you are in Wakefield or Keighley, Blackburn or Burnley.
Culture is what distinguishes these towns, and the North has some of the best museums in Britain. Yes, some are faded and tatty and their coffee non-frothy, but that is half the appeal and they are free. This bears repeating: they are free. For everyone, whether you went to a Young Offender’s Institution or Eton. I challenge any cynic to go to Whitby museum with its Hand Of Glory (a candle made from a human hand) and Tempest Prognosticator (a devise that used live leeches, hammers and bells to predict incoming storms) and not think: isn’t Britain weird and wonderful?
Or what about Bradford, once at the heartland of the industrial North, and still architecturally fascinating, ethnically diverse and full of generous people? Continually overlooked for nearby Leeds, attempts to turn it into a desirable retail destination haven’t entirely succeeded. Stoic Bradford does culture well however, and the National Media Museum (and nearby Impressions Gallery) always worth making the visit for. Between these two I have studied photographs by the likes Don McCullin, Martin Parr and Siirka-Lisa Konttinen at close quarters. Inspired, great chunks of my last two novels were written yards away in the NMM’s cafe.
But now, in a devastating move, it is selling off its renowned Royal Photography Society collection to the V&A in London. Writing about it in an open letter Simon Cooke, Conservative leader of the opposition at Bradford Council, was apoplectic: “We don’t have much up here and it fills me with a kind of sad rage that you felt able to visit this act of cultural rape on my city…a plague on you and your metropolitan cultural fascism.”
Cultural rape, plagues and fascism are harsh words but this move yet again reeks of metropolitan dominance. The North remains forever the whipping boy for the bad decision-making of those in Westminster, for whom culture is forever reduced to a diagonal on a graph.