Archive | Culture and Policy, Scotland RSS for this section

Quis Custodiet…

Arts funders rarely get a good press.  But, just before Christmas, suddenly there was good news, with the announcement from the Scottish Government of a budget settlement for Creative Scotland which was far better than any of us had dared to hope for.  Then it all went horribly wrong, and for the last few weeks, Creative Scotland has been the subject of a perfect storm of bad news headlines. I’m not going to enter the heated debates about who won and who lost in the recent funding round, but there was one headline you might easily have overlooked, but which I think gets close to the heart of the matter.

‘Creative Scotland spent £150k to deliver cuts’ claimed The Herald, on 22nd February. Like many such headlines, it only told part of a complex story, which was that the funding body had had to spend £150,000 on hiring external assessors to help to process other grant schemes, while its own staff concentrated on the huge and demanding Regular Funding round.

Much of the recent controversy has been about how those Regular Funding decisions—which account for by far the largest part of Creative Scotland’s budget—had been made, with many claims of a lack of transparency.  On the other hand, ostensibly, Creative Scotland have been entirely open about their need to bring in this team of external assessors: they were recruited by open advertisement, and once appointed their names were listed in full on the Creative Scotland website, together with their artform specialisms. Except they weren’t–not in full.  I know at least one person—highly qualified, I must stress—who was called in to take on assessments, despite their name not being on the advertised list. Despite, in fact, them having their application to be an assessor turned down in the first place.

So, which is worse for the harried, hard-pressed applicant for arts funding?  To know that their efforts will be assessed, and decided on, by an internal panel of Creative Scotland officers, or to know (or perhaps find out later), that a crucial role was played by a paid, and possibly anonymous, external assessor, whom, in the small world of the arts in Scotland, they probably know, and might even be in competition with? Myself, I don’t find either option very attractive.

There used to be another way.  When I worked for the Scottish Arts Council in the 1990s all but the smallest funding decisions were devolved to genuinely independent (and unpaid) artform committees and panels. As a Visual Arts Officer I looked after both the Exhibitions, and the Artists’ Awards panels. The former was made up of experienced professionals in the field: curators, critics, art historians and gallery directors.  My role was to work with applicants to help them to make the best possible case to this independent panel, and at the same time, not to waste the panel members’ time by bringing forward too many applications that weren’t worthy of serious consideration. I used to consider that if the Panel approved more than 75% of applications, they weren’t scrutinising them closely enough, but if they approved fewer than 50%, then I was failing in my job to bring forward strong and interesting proposals.

Of course this system was far from perfect, and in a small country no such process could ever be truly objective.  And it could readily be charged that, in the role of gate-keeper, I could show favouritism–or its opposite.  But for me the very strength of the system lay in admitting it was imperfect: that any panel or ‘jury’ would bring their own knowledge and prejudices to the task, and that the crucial point was to ensure as open a process as possible, with appropriate checks and balances. And it was a process that could embrace innovation. In the days before ‘craft’ was part of SAC’s remit I was able to convince the Panel to fund an exhibition by the Scottish branch of the British Artist Blacksmiths Association, and also, many years before there was any link between arts funding and the ‘creative industries’, I argued successfully for funding for an exhibition by an association of illustrators.  Both exhibitions were great successes which toured widely.  Neither would have been funded under a rigid application of SAC’s then remit and priorities.

But gradually SAC became obsessed with the concept of objectivity, with measuring applications against a publicly stated set of standards and priorities.  The only problem with this apparently laudable aim is that, the more objective you want the process to appear, the more specific (and restrictive) you have to make the criteria against which applications will be measured.  This method may have reached its nadir in the recent Regular Funding round, where applicants had to match their artistic plans for the next three years against five of Creative Scotland’s ‘ambitions’ and four ‘cross-cutting’ themes. I imagine three-dimensional chess would be easier to master.

At some point down this road, the committee and panel system had been abandoned, and all decisions on funding were brought ‘in house’, to be made by SAC officers.  Looking back, I’m not sure now how far that decision was philosophical, or simply pragmatic, on the basis of cost (though remember that these external assessors were not paid!).  And that ‘in house’ model was the one which Creative Scotland inherited, albeit with a smaller staff team trying to deal with a steadily increasing number of applications.

Even before this current Regular Funding round, it sometimes seemed that the sheer burden of assessing applications was bringing Creative Scotland to a standstill.  When I left the SAC at the end of 1993, one CEO of an arts organisation was kind enough to say that he’d miss the ‘pastoral care’ I was able to offer the ‘clients’ with which I worked. That’s a concept that has not entirely disappeared within Creative Scotland, but for those officers who still try to offer such support, it can be a huge struggle to do so while balancing all their other responsibilities.

And that’s, perhaps, where it all went wrong this January. It’s not just that Creative Scotland officers could not spare the time from the Regular Funding process to meet with their clients, it’s that the very process itself demanded that they should keep a healthy distance from those clients, to ensure that the decisions which they were advising on would remain truly ‘objective’. ‘Only Connect’ said EM Forster, and, going forward, that is what I recommend as Creative Scotland’s new motto, and opening up the funding decision process beyond the tight circle of their own officers would be a crucial first step.

 

Advertisements

Seabirds and Stendahl Syndrome

gannets

Gannets at Troup Head

Are gannets good for you?  Not as food, of course, though the former inhabitants of St Kilda would certainly have thought they were. Last week Judith and I took a short break to visit the gannetry at Troup Head in Aberdeenshire, just along from the village of Pennan, famous as the location for ‘Local Hero’.  Troup Head, an RSPB reserve, is the only mainland gannetry in Scotland, and our timing was perfect, as thousands of birds had already returned to set up their nesting sites, along with similar numbers of kittiwakes, a few razorbills, and some jackdaws playing at being seabirds.

We’ve been to similar seabird colonies on the Isle of May, and the Brough of Birsay in Orkney, but those are both island locations.  There’s something special about being able to just park your car, walk across a couple of fields, and then suddenly come across this vast seabird community.  By a quirk of acoustics you can barely hear the colony until you’re, literally, almost on top of it, and then the noise is deafening.  Gannets were everywhere: courting (that wonderful necking dance), fighting viciously over patches of ground (to the disapproval of their neighbours), flying—apparently—for the sheer pleasure of it, or just sleeping, head turned round and long beak lined along the back.

We sat and watched them for the best part of an hour, the closest birds barely 25 feet away.  We were the only humans there and we were completely ignored.  I guess it might be a different matter once the chicks have hatched! And I found that I felt a really profound sense of wellbeing, a sense of inner calm and unalloyed pleasure, to an extent that I’d not really recognised before.  I think it was being so close to so many birds, and those birds being apparently oblivious of us.  For the first time I felt I really understood what an Attenborough or a Chris Packham must feel like.

Afterwards, I began to think about the analogies between this experience of the natural world, and experiencing the arts.  The recent death of the great painter Howard Hodgkin had reminded me of when the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art had presented a major exhibition of his work, and I remembered standing in the centre of the largest of the four galleries involved, just slowly rotating, as my eyes and senses filled with the glorious colours and forms—never quite abstract—of Hodgkin’s large paintings. Much more recently, just last month, and in the same week, I had had two similar reactions, to the near-perfect playing of the Sitkovestsky Piano Trio in Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall, and to the astounding dancing of the Danza Contemporanea de Cuba at the Festival Theatre.

How can I sum up this feeling? Exceptional physical and mental wellbeing, inner calm, an absolute sense of rightness, and the paradox of feeling both excited and stimulated, and soothed and relaxed, all at once.  A sense of time standing still, and of wanting the experience not to end. When it reaches an extreme level, there is even a name for this: Stendahl Syndrome.

I’ve been googling whether anyone has been researching these parallels between how we react to nature, and how we respond to the arts. There’s plenty on how art might help us relate to nature but that’s not quite what I mean.  I’m interested in understanding if the two experiences are, fundamentally, similar or even the same.

At the moment the different arguments for the links between nature and wellbeing, and the arts and wellbeing, tend to march in parallel.  Those arguments are similar, but I’m not sure that they’re necessarily being linked up.  The Westminster Government seems to be accepting some of the arguments about nature and wellbeing, and this seems to have led a coalition of bodies to present a powerful argument for a Nature and Wellbeing Act . With the process of consultation for a new Scottish Cultural Strategy, should we be thinking about being equally bold and ambitious, and making the case for an Arts and Wellbeing Act?

Because arts provision is not a statutory duty of Local Authorities, support for artists, arts organisations, and arts activities, is drying up across much of Scotland.  The gaps in provision are often most acute in those communities which also score very heavily on indexes of Multiple Deprivation. Maybe it’s time for those who support the arts, and those who care about the natural world, to make common cause.

© Robert Livingston April 2017

Hidden in Plain Sight

photo: Nick Wright

photo: Nick Wright

 

We had the good fortune to spend New Year in Edinburgh this year, thanks to the loan of a New Town flat, and among the many cultural delights which we enjoyed was a visit to the National Galleries’ current exhibition Modern Scottish Women . Truth be told, we found the exhibition overall quite disappointing, but among the revelatory highlights were a number of sculptors whose names were previously unknown to me. Most impressive of all was the work of Gertrude Alice Meredith Williams, who, together with architect Robert Lorimer, created Paisley’s War Memorial, The Spirit of the Crusaders, which must be one of the most imposing of all UK War Memorials, fit to stand comparison with Charles Jagger’s Royal Artillery Memorial in Hyde Park.

In my Regional Screen Scotland role I’ve been doing some work with contacts in Paisley, so when I was in the town for a meeting last week, I took the opportunity to see Meredith Williams’ masterpiece ‘in the flesh’.  It’s even grander and more powerful than the exhibition photographs, and the plaster maquette, had suggested. Yet I imagine that most Paisley folk pass it on a daily basis and never give it a second thought. Like so much public art of the past, it’s effectively ‘hidden in plain sight’.

But as I stood at the base of the memorial and looked around me, it occurred to me that Paisley as a whole was also ‘hidden in plain sight’. The assemblage of grand architecture before me, from the 14th century Abbey to Victorian civic buildings, is truly exceptional, and only partially marred by some truly horrid 60s and 70s infill and a number of very poor quality shop fronts. Just round the corner are three grand churches in a row, one of them housing the Wynd Centre, which includes a handsomely equipped small venue, with retractable seating, lighting and sound equipment.

Paisley is of course bidding to be UK Capital of Culture 2021, an ambition that I can imagine being greeted in some metropolitan circles with disbelief, even ridicule. But those imposing buildings are testimony to a long and rich history, even if that history has become largely invisible to the rest of Scotland. With a population of 75,000, Paisley is considerably larger than Scotland’s three most recently created cities, and as I’ve been finding, there’s a creative energy in the community that, whatever the outcome for 2021, demands that Paisley achieve a more prominent place in Scotland’s identity.

It could be argued that it’s not just Paisley, but Scotland’s towns in general that are ‘hidden in plain sight’.  After last week’s meeting in Paisley I took a train back to Edinburgh that avoided me having to change stations in Glasgow, but took a roundabout route through Motherwell, Wishaw, Carluke and Carstairs.  Now, in my various professional capacities over the years I’ve visited very many parts of Scotland, including such remote spots as Barra, Unst, and the Mull of Kintyre.  But I don’t believe that, in all of my 61 years, I’ve ever visited any of those four towns.  Yet they have a combined population almost as large as that of Paisley, and each has a distinctive history and culture.

I also visited Dumfries last week, and in the bizarre world of Scotland’s rural transport system, I could get there from Edinburgh much more quickly by taking a train to Lockerbie, and then a bus to Dumfries, than by training it all the way.  So I set foot in Lockerbie for the first time. Like Dunblane, whose own sad history was being commemorated last week, ‘Lockerbie’ is a name that has become forever associated with a single atrocity, only mentioned in the media when inextricably linked to the word ‘bombing’. The reality, today, is that Lockerbie is a neat country town, with, as far as I could see, a pretty full complement of High Street shops, a piece of modern public art in the central square that should make anyone smile, and, as I waited for my bus, what seemed to be a cheerfully interacting community. But for the rest of the world the ‘real’ Lockerbie is hidden behind a single moment in history in which the town was only the victim of collateral damage.

Much the same could be said for the much larger town of Dumfries, which usually only comes to national attention as a result of one of the Nith’s frequent bouts of flooding.  Dumfries is a special place for me, as, at the end of my first year as a University Drama student, we took over the Georgian Theatre Royal for a three week summer school—a period of sheer, unalloyed, unforgettable pleasure. So I’m delighted that the theatre is now the subject of a major restoration project .

The more time I spend in Scotland’s many and various towns, and the more opportunities I get to work in places as diverse as Banff, Aberfeldy, Cowdenbeath, Galashiels, and Campbeltown, to name just a few that I’ve been involved with recently, the more convinced I become that, as Nicholas Crane argued in his TV series, towns are the future. Yet, despite the best efforts of bodies like Scotland’s Towns Partnership and Can Do Places it seems to me that Scotland’s towns, as a whole, are Hidden in Plain Sight, too often the subject of neglect, or the butt of humour. Deprived of proper political representation, yet home to almost half of Scotland’s populations, Scotland’s 500 towns deserve better.

 

 

In the Borders

I’ve been criss-crossing the Scottish Borders for the past few weeks, so I’m going to have to cheat, and instead of a new blog, post a link to what I’ve being writing for that blogsite!

 

Cultural Days

'Haining Dreaming' at the YES Festival

‘Haining Dreaming’ at the YES Festival

The haunting image of an Indian dancer, projected multiple times on to a length of woven tweed.

A packed audience straining to see the miniscule performances at a flea circus

Seventy children bringing back to life the memory of a 200 year old house through music and dance

An over-60s choir singing joyfully on a busy High Street

Scotland’s Makar reciting The Twa Corbies

One of the witches from ‘Macbeth’ delivering the ‘double double’ speech in the local Coop, as if it was a Nigella recipe

A magical digital panorama of toads creating new life.

These are just some of the haunting, moving, funny and downright bizarre experiences that I’ve had in the last two weeks.

In these difficult times it must take a degree of ambition and sheer nerve to embark on a new artistic venture, so it’s been gratifying to experience not one but two such new enterprises, within the same fortnight, and at opposite ends of the country.

Our first week of consultations towards a Cultural Strategy for the Scottish Borders happily coincided with the launch of the YES Festival  —not a political statement, but a new festival for Yarrow, Ettrick and Selkirk–and then, just over a week later and back home in the north, I went along to the first Culture Day for Forres, Kinloch and Findhorn, which is itself intended to be the forerunner of a new Findhorn Bay Arts Festival to be held in a year’s time.

Despite the geographic distance, these two events had a lot in common.  Though each centred on a Royal Burgh, the programmes of events in each also spread out to surrounding communities. Both transformed the town’s High Street with a range of exhibitions and pop-up events.  Both involved a huge amount of community and voluntary participation, of all ages, but depended at their core on the enthusiasm and commitment of a few key individuals, and thorough, professional promotion, management and coordination.    Both, as far as I could tell, seemed to be generating a lot of local interest and involvement, with sizeable audiences for most, if not all events.

'Culture Day' in Forres

‘Culture Day’ in Forres

The great thing about festivals and special days is that they’re so much more than the sum of their parts.  Throw yourself into the experience, and you’ll quickly forget or ignore those bits that weren’t so good, but feel exhilarated by the sheer imagination, diversity, and surprise of everything else.  And people will move mountains to make such an event work, in a way that can’t be sustained week on week, month on month, throughout the year.

But festivals are also like cake—very tasty, but you can’t live on that alone.  Festivals thrive best when they’re rooted in a mulch of year-round activities.  By a further happy coincidence, I’ve also in this fortnight been to the celebrations of the 15th anniversary of a very special means of delivering such year-round experiences, the Screen Machine Mobile Cinema.  Setting up, and for many years managing, the mobile cinema operation is one of the things I’m proudest to have been associated with, though the lion’s share of the credit has to go to the two guys about to cut the birthday cake in this photo—the driver/operators Iain McColl and Neil MacDonald.  Without their incredible dedication, and sheer love of the job, the Screen Machine would never have become the much-loved fixture it now is, in so many small communities across Scotland.

Screen Machine 15th birthday party

Screen Machine 15th birthday party

In a recent, by now notorious, speech to the Edinburgh Fringe, the English playwright Mark Ravenhill incited his audience not only to prepare for a possible future without public arts funding, but also, as artists, to in some respects feel freed up by not having to make the compromises that he believes are involved in accepting such funding.  But where does that leave the wider community? One central factor that all these ventures have in common—the YES Festival, Culture Day, the Screen Machine—is funding from Creative Scotland, alongside a host of other funders and supporters, regional, national and international.

in these times of spending cuts and tightened family budgets, cultural junkies like me, for whom the value of such activities is self-evident, nonetheless need to make a strong case for the wider impact and benefit of such events and services. Benefits, that is,  not only for those who take part in them, and for those who enjoy them, but also for those who only hear or read about them, and for those running businesses who might see some indirect benefit from them.  Like, for example, the butcher in Forres who was delighted with Culture Day, because he always sells more meat when ‘there’s something happening in the High Street’.

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

Towns: the Final Frontier

Are you a Trekker? If so, which Star Trek series do you prefer?  Although I can’t avoid feeling nostalgia for the original Shatner/Kirk series with which I grew up, I do have to admit it now looks pretty creaky, and I prefer its sequel, Star Trek: the Next Generation, chiefly due to the admirable character of Captain Jean-Luc Picard, played with such quiet authority by Patrick Stewart.

PatrickStewart2004-08-03

Mind you, I was already a Patrick Stewart fan.  As a schoolboy I had been taken to Stratford (overnight coach both ways!) to see Richard III, and in a powerhouse RSC cast that included the late Norman Rodway and Ian Richardson, and a luminous Helen Mirren, the youthful but already balding Stewart had held his own as an actor of real presence and integrity, qualities that have sustained his entire career.

He popped up in a different role on our TV last week, as we caught up with recordings Nicholas Crane’s second series of ‘Town’.   This episode was on Patrick Stewart’s home town of Huddersfield, where he has been Chancellor of the University since 2004, and by the time he appeared towards the end of the programme, extolling both town and university, we were ready to cheer him on.  In fact, Crane had presented such an inspiring picture of the architecture and the people of Huddersfield that we were ready to jump on the next train south and remedy a lifetime’s neglect by finally visiting the town.

photo: Richard Harvey

photo: Richard Harvey

One of the peculiarities of Huddersfield is that despite, with a population of 146,000, being considerably larger than many formally designated ‘cities’, it has never sought that city status.  The good folk of Huddersfield seem content with their town-ness, and one wonders, what are the virtues of being a ‘town’ that they want to hang on to? (Inverness, are you listening?) For the past few months I’ve been a member of an External Advisory Group to the Scottish Government’s Town Centre Review, the report of which was published earlier this month.  Inevitably, I don’t agree with everything that’s in the Review, but the process of working on it has been eye-opening.

Half of Scotland’s population live in its 500-odd towns, and yet those towns rarely seem to benefit from any specific and focused Government strategies or policies.  There have been Six (and now Seven) Cities Initiatives, and I’ve spent most of the last 20 years focusing on rural initiatives, but towns often seem like poor relations, as if there was something inherently dull or old-fashioned about the very idea of a ‘town’–exactly the prejudice which Crane’s series is trying to overturn.  It doesn’t help that the concept of ‘town’ is a wide and slippery one.  Like Huddersfield some Scottish towns–Paisley, East Kilbride–are considerably larger than the three new cities of Inverness, Stirling and Perth, but there are also anomalies at the other end of the scale.  I realised, writing this, that I have never actually lived in a town, although we’d spent twelve years in Anstruther, which is usually referred to as a village despite, with 3,600 people, being larger than many so-called towns.

Of course there are many handsome and prosperous towns in Scotland–St Andrews, Banchory and North Berwick are among those I know well–but the ‘problem’ towns are not confined to the obvious post-industrial areas such as Ayrshire or West Lothian.  Rural Perthshire towns such as Crieff and Aberfeldy, for example, have suffered from the steady retreat of their commercial sectors, while many Border towns are affected by their ready access to the metropolises of Glasgow and Edinburgh.

That the arts can play an important role in reviving a flagging town has been amply demonstrated by Wigtown (book town),   Kirkcudbright (art town) and West Kilbride (craft town), but also, without the need for such formal designations, by the development of cultural facilities, such as An Lanntair in Stornoway or the new Beacon in Greenock.  But what some of us were trying to argue in the Town Centre Review is that a cultural approach to improving our towns needs to go much deeper.  More technical interventions, such as changes to the process of business rates, or getting more town centre properties scheduled as residential, are only really going to be effective, we argued, if applied in the context of a thorough understanding of the different culture of each town—its history, how it grew up, the stories its inhabitants tell about it, what its young people think of it.

That after all is exactly Nicholas Crane’s thesis: that towns can be the machines for living in the future, that they can be capable of change and adaptation, but that you need to understand where each individual town is starting from to kickstart such change. For me, that message doesn’thatmachines for living in the future, that that can be capable of change and adaptation, but that yt come across quite strongly enough in the Review’s final report, but at least it’s a start.  Now we just need someone with sufficient authority to take the Review’s recommendations and declare, in the immortal words of Jean-Luc Picard, ‘Make it so!’.  

© Robert Livingston