Pittenweem and the Working Class Playwright

The 'Reaper' in Pittenweem Harbour

The ‘Reaper’ in Pittenweem Harbour

I don’t often find myself  linking Pittenweem and Monty Python, but our visit to the Pittenweem Arts Festival  this week brought to mind that great Python sketch Working Class Playwright . It goes like this: Eric Idle (long hair, suit, posh accent) is the son returning to his Hampstead home, which he left to become a coal miner ‘up north’, against his father’s wishes.  The father is Graham Chapman (collarless shirt, braces, boots, cod working class accent) who has stayed at home to follow the demanding calling of being a working class playwright, getting up at five, and attending premieres and gala dinners.  He suffers from agonising writer’s cramp, and berates his son for choosing the soft option of coalmining, dismissing him, unforgettably, as ’you tit!’, to which the son responds that ‘there’s more to life than culture!’.

Recalling this sketch is the best way I can pin down the very slight queasiness that I felt during an otherwise wonderful couple of days at the Festival, a life-enhancing experience greatly helped by the gloriously summery weather.   We lived in the neighbouring village of Anstruther from 1984 to 1996, and have returned to the East Neuk frequently ever since, and so we know Pittenweem very well.  Indeed, Judith and I both played small parts in the early days of the Festival, back in the late 80s. When we finally moved permanently to the Highlands in 1996, both Anstruther and Pittenweem were pretty depressed communities, affected badly by the shrinking fishing industry.  It took two years to sell our handsome Edwardian semi, and even then it went for a fixed price. There were many empty shops and derelict premises in both villages.

Anstruther has been saved, in part, like so many former fishing villages, by the introduction into the old harbour of marina pontoons, which have attracted so many boats that the system is now being extended, and the front at Anstruther now boasts three fish and chip shops, all, at busy times, with lengthy queues. Pittenweem, on the other hand, has been saved by Art.  When the Pittenweem Festival started out in the 1980s, I’m sure no-one expected it to become the mega-event it is today, with around 100 artists and makers exhibiting for ten days throughout the village.  This year’s event seems to have been particularly successful: the large festival car park was almost full on both days we were there, and almost every exhibition we visited (about a third of the total!) sported a healthy rash of red dots.  It’s estimated that it brings £1.5 million to the local economy—a lot for a community of just 1800 people.

And, of what we saw, we found the standard to be very high.  If there was nothing quite as unforgettable as last year’s installation of Jake Harvey’s sculptures in the little Old Men’s Club, there was a great deal of work that was accomplished, engaging and inspiring.  The Festival also deserves praise for the quality of its organisation, from the parking stewarding to the signposting, and from the festival catalogue to the programme of related events.  Best of all everyone—volunteers, artists, catering staff–was unfailingly cheerful and welcoming, showing few signs of fatigue, six days into the festival!

So, why that slight queasiness?  Well, Pittenweem is still the most active fishing port on the Fife Coast, with a large number of boats going after shellfish, lobsters and clams.  The harbour is often very busy, with a handsome Fishmarket that was built as recently as 1994, and a number of related businesses in the town itself—fishmongers, chandlers and the like.  But it seems to be the art that has brought prosperity back to the village: several galleries, studios, and art materials shops, many working artists living in the village, a number of apparently thriving cafes and restaurants. All the evidence, that is, of gentrification.

Other East Neuk villages—Crail, Elie–long since succumbed to such gentrification,  and possess little or no local industries, Elie in particular being dominated by holiday homes, while Crail has seen, in recent years, a drastic decline in local retail businesses.  Can Pittenweem continue to resist this process and retain a degree of authenticity as a working village?  Or is my wish for such ‘authenticity’ just another part of the gentrification process, wanting the undeniable picturesqueness of the harbour area to remain based in genuine working practices, and not simply maintained in some shadowy form for the sake of tourists? Is it my own sense of queasiness that I’m trying to assuage in wanting evidence that, for Pittenweem, ‘there’s more to life than culture’?

Although there are inevitably some dissenting voices, arguing that the Festival has become too commercial, too exclusive, and doesn’t put enough back into the community, a 2012 household survey by Pittenweem Community Council, with a healthy 17% response rate, found 76% of respondents had been to and enjoyed the Festival, and only a small minority had any negative comments to make. So maybe the two worlds of fishing and art can successfully co-exist.

Pittenweem is a very important test case for the role of the arts in community regeneration, for a number of reasons: the Festival was a truly local initiative, unprompted by any external strategies or incentives; it has always had both artists and representatives of local businesses working together at its core; it needs very little public funding (and currently gets none from Creative Scotland), and it is a survivor, growing and developing over a 30 year period.  But, as the excellent Radio 4 programme More or Less is always reminding us, ‘correlation does not imply causation’, and we should not leap to the immediate conclusion that Pittenweem’s current prosperity is rooted in the creative economy, nor even, if it is, that this is a replicable model.

The fact is that Pittenweem’s long and complex history has resulted in a very special built environment, and one of the great pleasures of the festival is being able to view parts of that environment that are usually private, or to gain, from those private settings,  unexpected perspectives of familiar sights and buildings.  Any study of the impact of the arts in Pittenweem, therefore, can’t just look at the economics involved, but would also have to take account of these more intangible factors.  At the end of five hours of exhibition-visiting, eyes narrowed in the glow of the late afternoon August sun, head full of images, I began to find it hard to avoid the feeling that I was moving through some sort of dreamscape, as I caught an unexpected glimpse of a shimmering Bass Rock at the end of a narrow wynd,  or came across the 110-year old ‘Reaper’ , a Fifie-class drifter from the Anstruther Fisheries Museum, making its way out of the narrow harbour mouth.

There’s an underlying truth to the Python sketch with which I started: making art may very rarely be as physically arduous or dangerous as the fishing industry (or coal mining!) but nor is it, for those who are really serious about it, a soft option either.  The financial rewards can be too often entirely disproportionate to the mental and physical efforts involved.  The Pittenweem Arts Festival, above all, celebrates artists, and that can’t be a bad thing!

© Robert Livingston

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