Sunday 15 March 2015

Is culture crashing? Scott Timberg: Part 2 review

I often tell my students that if they enjoy my lessons they should thank the rulers of the former Soviet Union. When they start to laugh I tell them that the story goes that the launch of the first Sputnik rocket in 1957 sent shock waves through the intellectual class of the USA. How could the world´s greatest country have been beaten into space by the USSR? The missing link, it was decided, was original thinking, so a new generation of bright sparks needed to be produced in no time at all. But how?  Creativity was the answer. 

Thanks to those lawmakers in the USA who expanded arts provision, the more genteel but equally ambitious rulers in London followed obediently and introduced music and drama courses at all levels of education  in a way that was unthinkable a short time before.

That generation of creative minds was meant to restore prominence to The West not in the arts themselves but in what really counted: geopolitical dominance. Of course it was not called that then: lots of things changed their names over the years and the decades.

Scott Timberg nails it in his   Culture Crash , The Killing of the creative class. In Chapter 6 he describes how those early days when the creatives were to save The Free World gave way to the view of those same persons as Idle Dreamers: the curse of the creative class. He cites Dan Quayle, intellectual giant as he is, VP that other man renowned for deep thought and er … well, maybe not. Anyway, he cites Quayle as using the expression cultural elite as an insult in a speech in 1992 in California. I am not going to quote the passage, better you buy the book for yourself, it´s worth it just to have yet another laugh at the mighty thinking power of Messrs Q & B.

Mr Timberg details how, while snide comments from people who know nothing like to describe those in the creative industries as cosseted and privileged, the real statistics show that  earnings in this field are lower than average incomes and working conditions are arduous and precarious.

I enjoyed Chapter 7: The end of print. It is a sad story that has been told many times and it has to do not only with the technological revolution. More profoundly it has to do with greed among business leaders and failure of governments to regulate properly.

Yes the digital dawn has played its part. Mr Timberg refers to the Guardian, a British newspaper founded in 1821. Here´s a thing, my beloved father bought it even when it was still called The Manchester Guardian. In 1959 they dropped the local tag as it aspired to be a national newspaper, and so it was and so my father bought it every day probably for 40 years even as the price rose from a shilling to I suppose 60 pence. Now I read the Guardian and I dip into it several times a day and find new stories constantly appearing, excellent graphics and high quality writing and beautiful photographs. Yet not only am I paying less in 2015 than my dear father paid in 1965, I am paying nothing at all. No wonder its owners are losing money daily: as Mr Timberg remarks, the Guardian continues to operate thanks to its almost unique support from the trust which owns it.

Today,  Will Hutton  writes in the Guardian/Observer about  different levels of internet connectivity available in different parts of Britain. What is the good of having all the world´s knowledge at your fingertips if the rate of download is so slow as to be ineffective? How is there a broadening of democracy and an increase of freedom if you access to information depends on the profit your neighbourhood provides to the cable provider? These are big questions and not all newspapers are prepared to ask, much less answer them.  

Mr Timberg makes an insightful comment about the loss of theatre and music critics in many newspapers in recent years. He points out that specialist bloggers may well write about local plays or concerts so apparently the loss of coverage in the press is not significant. Yet, he says, the danger is that the arts “become a tiny subculture, losing their connection to a mass middle-class public, surrendering their ability to be discovered accidentally.”

I agree totally, and I think the “ability to be discovered accidentally” is similar to the effect of large numbers of school students taking musical instruments to and from school daily. When it is seen as a natural thing to do to carry that strange long box  with a trombone, or that short flat almost weightless case holding a violin, other students are much more likely to adopt playing an instrument into their life than if selected students attend  specialist courses out of the normal school routine.

 Mr Timberg concludes that the artist and the journalist, two groups of workers who are suffering, are committed to uncovering the truth, be it of the human condition or of institutions. Truth, no matter what the cost “is something we cannot live without.”

Looking forward to reading the next chapters. Thank you Mr Timberg.  

Music, culture & politics: Somaliland at the Korzo in The Hague

Last night´s concert by the Sahra Halgan Trio at the  Korzo   Theatre in The Hague raises lots of questions.  It all added up to a fascinating evening of music, culture and politics, sponsored by the   Alliance Française  in The Hague.

First the music:  Sahra Halgan   was accompanied by 2 French musicians, Maël Salétes on guitars and Aymeric Krol on  percussion and kamala ngoni. Sahra has a wonderful voice which ranges from jubilation to powerful protest. Her fellow musicians are excellent: technically virtuoso and totally assured in this musical style. This was basically a presentation of their cd Faransiskiyo Somaliland, recorded recently in France. By the end of the concert the audience were on their feet, joining in the dance to the African rhythms and singing along to the call and response melodies.

I recognized the music as being very much in the style of other African music I have heard so my question was whether these songs were traditional or original? When I asked M Krol after the show as I bought the cd he said that all the music was original to the trio. I remembered that in the documentary Sahra Halgan pays tribute to a Somaliland elder musician called Abdul Nasir, saying that when she was young he taught her all the songs she knows. So I asked M Krol and he said no, some of the lyrics are traditional but others, and the melodies, are original to the trio. I am not sure how Mdme Halgan learnt the traditional songs as lyrics only and how she would have remembered them over 20 years in France, but if that´s how she sees it it´s fine by me. I suppose it is not important to get hung up on the matter of authorship in what is fundamentally an oral tradition of  music.

In the Q & A session after the concert one question was whether Mdme Halgan was influenced by English (I think the questioner meant American) blues or by French music. She replied that definitely not English, but yes, by the French musicians she worked with all those years away from home. She was very emphatic that when it came to singing she only sang in her own African language. 
Sahra Halgan describes herself  as a cultural ambassador for her home country, Somaliland. She has been resident in France for many years and recently decided to return to Somaliland. This is no small matter as the country is not officially recognized as an independent state by the world community: in 1991 it broke away from Somalia and declared its independence. Is Somaliland a country or a region?

Before the concert there was a showing of the informative and moving   documentary  made by   Cris Ubermann . He details Sahra Halgan´s difficult life in France and the challenges of returning to her home country. The documentary includes interviews with her 16 year old daughter, first in France, a European teenager full of admiration for Sahra Halgan as mother, singer and cultural ambassador; later we see her in Somaliland as a student of the American school, quite frank about the difficulties of adapting to boarding school and to dressing to fit the local codes.

Sahra Halgan describes her life in Somaliland in the documentary. She describes her achievements as an entrepreneur setting up a restaurant which employs 19 local people. Added to the normal difficulties of setting up a new business are the restrictions on women as owners and as bank account holders. She blames these restrictions on the international community´s refusal to recognize her country. Are these problems as a woman to do with the international community or more to do with the country´s own decisions on how it is to be run?

Was I the only one in the audience who was ignorant about Somaliland and its bid for international recognition? I notice on youtube there are numerous films about the diaspora returning to Somalia and the surrounding region, not just from France but also other European countries. There is also a UN mission to Somalia which, according to local reports,  is regarded as a threat to the continuance of Somaliland as an independent state.
Clearly there is a need for cultural ambassadors like Sahra Halgan to explain her view to the world.

Thanks to the Alliance Française in The Hague for this fascinating evening:  many questions were raised and some were answered, about Somaliland and its music, culture and politics.

Thursday 12 March 2015

Culture Crash by Scott Timberg: Review part one

First off: I bought a paper copy of this book in a specialist book shop because I was browsing through the Philosophy section and it jumped out at me. Yes, yet another great thing about living in   The Hague   is that there are quality bookshops which stock a wide range of new work in English.

The Killing of the Creative Class is the subtitle to this fascinating book. I have only read the first five chapters but the author has already made a big impression.

Scott Timberg   is one of the many victims of the first years of this millennium: you could say he was careless enough to be born at the wrong time. He explains how he was brought up to believe that hard work plus talent equals a middle class life style. In a few short years he found himself without a job and losing his home and at risk of living without medical insurance.

Quite apart from his professional  disappointments, he is angry at the way his bank foreclosed on his mortgage instead of working out an alternative solution. Yet his anger is dignified and contained. There are many  around who, by good fortune, were not so cruelly affected by the crash of 2008 but who share the despair of people like Scott Timberg and who are waiting for individual citizens who were responsible for bad decisions to be brought to justice: wrong things were done and the wrong doers should be held to account. Sadly, governments around the world, in the USA and in Europe, have failed, and failed miserably, they have failed the citizens who elect them and they have failed to live up to the standards that can rightfully be expected of the holders of high office.

Scott Timberg sets out his plan in the Introduction: that new technology, globalization and deregulation have changed the game in a few short years, with tragic consequences for a  whole swathe of people, including the citizens he calls the Creative Class. He includes in the creative class workers in recorded music and book stores, and I was struck this week by news of the closing of a renowned shop selling printed music in New York. After 80 years in business,   the shop   is closing down this month. Free downloads of often inferior quality prints have killed this supplier of high quality music scores.

One of the many things I like about Mr Timberg´s book is that he does not get stuck in distinguishing between art for art´s sake and commercial use of the arts: to him, the arts and creative artists are all one, whether they be clerks in a book store or musicians on the road.

Mr Timberg writes about how remuneration for creative work has been driven down over a decade. This strikes a chord. I know of musicians in Spain who in 1992 were paid 40,000 pesetas for a performance and who, in 2010 were offered 100 euros for the same type of gig. That sounds fine until you do the conversion: 40,000 pesetas is equivalent to 240 euros.  So a job that was paid 240 euros has been driven down to 100. This is one of many examples that bear out Mr Timberg´s  thesis.

I look forward to reading the rest of this interesting book over the weekend. Of course, not all of the creative class are penniless and homeless. Mr Timberg points out that the heavy hitters of the entertainment industry can still pocket huge amounts of money, but he rightly points out that  they are the exceptions. Recent  reports  of the court case brought by the family of Marvin Gaye claiming their share of the success of a recent hit tune by Pharrell Williams talk of receipts of 17 million dollars in sales of a single song. Clearly  the majority of the workers in the creative class will never come anywhere close to this kind of money.

To be continued … 

Extreme graffiti or ghost tram in The Hague?

There I was, huffing and puffing my way along the luxury 2 metre wide cycle path  (Boris please take note, that´s how it should be done!) and I was overtaken by a ghost. I mean,  I am used to  being overtaken by The Hague´s swish blue-liveried super-luxury trams travelling at 15 km per hour, yes a bit pathetic, but  I do it to get fit not because I am fit. And there it was, the silver lightening vision, gliding along, windowless and totally different. Lots of locals turned their heads at the vision, but only I had the inspiration, or the time to waste, to jump/fall off my bike and take some photos.

Monday 9 March 2015

How to treat our heroes? Hoorn has the answer

All countries have heroes. I suppose we all want to have people to look up to: those larger than life figures who have conquered far away lands or who have won unwinnable battles at some time, usually in the dim and distant past.
What happens when objective historical research shines its light on these heroes? In many cases, in the cruel light of day our heroes turn out to be human beings and their imperfections are all too obvious.
I remember when I was a t school in Liverpool in the 60´s I learned how Sir Francis Drake  was a hero who brought riches and honour to the court of the English queen Elisabeth I. Thirty years later I visited the maritime museum in Tenerife in the Spanish Canary Islands and found myself reading an inscription beneath a portrait of the same Sir Francis: “the English pirate who stole from defenceless traders as they sailed the high seas”. At what point did my history teacher´s hero become a Spanish museum curator´s villain?
In Spain the issue of the civil war which ravaged the country from 1936 – 39 is still very much alive.  In recent years numerous statues have been demolished or removed to hidden destinations and street names have been changed to respect current sense of right and wrong.

In Liverpool, England, there has been a vigorous debate about a proposal to re-name streets which were originally named after respected civic leaders who later were regarded as pariahs because they made their fortunes on the misery of their fellow humans who were bought and sold in the most miserable conditions and called slaves as they passed through the port of Liverpool as merchandise in much the same way as bales of cotton and sacks of corn. Some said we should take down the street signs bearing the names of the slave traders, as if re-naming the streets we all know and have walked along would somehow right a dreadful wrong in the city´s history.

Last weekend I was in the Dutch port city of Hoorn and I saw yet another example of the Dutch ability to put things in perspective. In the town square of Hoorn there is a monument to one its sons and heroes: Jan Pieterszoon Coen, born there in 1587. He was a founder of the incredibly successful and world-defining Dutch East India Company (VOC), which not only inspired the English to copy their working model, but opened trade routes which were previously unimaginable. At first sight Pieter
szoon Coen must be an indisputable hero, a model for all wannabe entrepreneurs who have never had it so good.

But take a  look at the inscription on the plinth of his statue and you see that there is a more complex story: the fortune which Pieterszoon Coen made for his investors was not without cost, and the price was paid by the human beings who inhabited the lands he decided were targets for his trade empire, among them were those who were murdered or deported from their own land for contravening his instructions.
So what do the sensible Dutch do? They do not tear down his statue and hide it in a municipal warehouse, neither do they change the name. Their practical, sensible solution is to maintain the statue in situ and to add a plaque in Dutch and English which explains the facts: that on the one hand here is a local hero and on the other hand a human being who was responsible for the terrible suffering of fellow human beings.

Thanks to the good citizens of Hoorn in the Netherlands who have given us all a lesson in how to treat our heroes: undoubtedly persons who have achieved great things, and who in some cases have achieved greatness at the cost of their fellow human beings.    

By the way, Pieterszoon Coen died in 1629 in the city which he called Batavia, now known as Jakarta, half a world away from the picturesque port of Hoorn.

Friday 6 March 2015

Spaander Art Hotel in Volendam, NL

Last weekend I had the great good  fortune to stay at the Spaander Art Hotel in  Volendam, Netherlands. 

You can find all the information on the hotel´s web site. I understand this lovely hotel was founded in 1881 and the idea was to create a sympathetic environment for painters in the picturesque setting of the Volendam village. Volendam is built behind a huge dam: the town itself is located below sea level and its origin and its future depend on the amazing achievement of the people of the Netherlands and their technical  expertise in  taking over land that was previously below water.
If you want to understand the fascinating story of how these clever people carved out their country step by step, look for the book   Amsterdam  by Russell Shorto. He tells an interesting story  in an un-put-downable way.
Here are a few photos of the art work which artists have left at the Spaander Art Hotel over the last century and more. I understand that many of these paintings were accepted by the owners in exchange for a stay at the hotel: if that´s the case I think the hotel  have made a good deal. In 2006 the current owners decided to revisit the hotel´s origins and invite a group of artists to stay at the hotel cost-free on the condition that they left a work of art for the hotel.
It seems to me that the Spaander Art Hotel is a perfect example of the practical efficiency of the people of the Netherlands which you see daily in this lovely country.
So here is a photo from the room: water, water everywhere....