Culture benefits society in ways impossible to quantify in any ‘strategy’ Fiona Hyslop might end up implementing, writes Kirsty Gunn
I received what I think of as a very chilling email this week. It came from the Scottish Government, from a department there called “Culture Strategy” and it thanked me for all my involvement on “the development of A Culture Strategy for Scotland” and assured me that as a result there had then been hosted a series of nine Scotland-wide events, which I had probably taken part in, they thought, and from which would be produced “an engagement report” – which I was invited to look over in due course, as, in turn, this would inform a “draft strategy” that would then be given over to “public consultation” later this year.
Now, it wasn’t actually the sheer fact all of these phases and stages, the turning and twisting narrative complexities, of the “Culture Strategy” that chilled me. Though goodness knows, I thought, that’s a scary amount of administration and management and bureaucracy and personnel being described in a process that the old Arts Council of Scotland would have managed years ago with just a handful of skilled, authoritative individuals operating out of those lovely low-key offices in Manor Place.
No, what chilled me was the fact that I had never been involved in the work I was being thanked for. Not one bit! And it reminded me, too, this email, that it was not the first of these thank-you letters I’ve received from the Scottish Government. The first one came about a year ago, thanking me then for my advice and input back at the first stages of the “process” – when in fact I had given no such such advice or been involved then either.
Mind you, that’s not to say I hadn’t been asked. I had been. Someone had written to me the summer before last asking if I would be prepared to have meetings with operatives from “Culture Strategy”, to give my views and ideas about the development of arts projects in places like Dundee – and Sutherland, too, I would have hoped – where I have direct involvement in literary activities and cultural events. I wrote back then, well over a year ago, and said I’d be delighted to give ideas, and to introduce anyone who asked from the Scottish Government to many people I know in the Dundee area and in East Sutherland, too, and Caithness, who are all doing sterling work at local levels promoting arts and culture in their communities. I thought that would be a fine opportunity, to enter into dialogue with the national centre about arts and funding and how Scottish culture might be enabled to flourish free of short-term political objectives and rhetoric. I believed them, you see, the people who wrote the letters. That they might actually be interested in hearing the views of those of us who are actually “doing” the arts, you might say.
But then I never heard a peep back. Not a word from anyone. No one so much as sent me a questionnaire let alone invite me to a “Scotland Wide Public Event” where I might make a “contribution via the online interactive ideas forum” – though that sounded prohibitively high tech and confusing to me, but still I would have made the effort. And yet there I was, getting the thank-you letter for my involvement even so. And I had even sent off an email to “Culture Strategy” in the meantime, asking when we were going to get together, and still not a whisper had come from Holyrood – until I received the first of the thank-you letters, and then this, assuring me that, on the basis of my input, a “Draft Strategy” is being created.
The thanks for helping reach a decision I’ve had nothing to do with – which means, I think, that all kinds of activity must be taking place across the “arts and culture sector” purportedly via the input of culturally engaged individuals but actually not – is making me ask here, and feeling that chill wind of centralised politics as I do so: Who exactly DID decide, then? And what was THEIR agenda? For we’ll never know, will we? If all the people who it’s being claimed were the people making the decisions were … well, people like me.
So, come forward all others who have received fictional thank-you letters from the Scottish Government! Let us unite! For this is unacceptable, is it not? To think that thanks to my – and your – imaginary input, there have indeed been “Scottish Wide Public Events” to which we’ve been fictionally invited, in places like Dundee and Inverness and from which “an overview” – another phrase from my thank-you letter – has been achieved. And more than 50 events, apparently, “held by partners and stakeholders” – terms that, I have to say, don’t sound much like they apply to the sorts of people I know who are hosting book clubs and writing groups and poetry and music events and so on around the country, who are just going about doing their cultural thing in their own wonderful way, not beginning to imagine that what they are interested in has anything to do with “partners and stakeholders” or that other word Creative Scotland and related bodies and centres also love to use: “industries”.
For when was culture an industry? As Muriel Spark wrote and The Edinburgh Book Festival director Nick Barley said so beautifully, quoting her at the big event for her at the Usher Hall earlier this year, culture can’t be forced. It’s like a tree. You plant it and it grows.
The planting comes from a society that values art and culture for its own sake, that wants to nourish it, protect it. That doesn’t require it to be an “industry”, profiting in pounds and pence and with partners and stakeholders. Rather, you might say, culture profits us, we individuals who are part of society, in ineffable, wonderful, impossible to be quantify and politicise, anti-capitalist ways.
We need help for a minibus to get older people with no transport to a book reading at Dornoch or to the Light of The North Festival at Dunbeath. Not a “Draft Stategy” or, worse, and from the same email, the nationalist-sounding “central ambition”. Just a love of what we’re already doing, all over Scotland, is what we want support for, please. Not politics, only common sense.