Saturday, December 9, 2006

Culture - it's what we do

Today's picture is courtesy of Maggie Smith, Australian photographer and member of the Melbourne Camera Club.

There's a famous legend linked to my ultimate heroine, Dorothy Parker who lives on in a small section of my frontal lobe and whispers inspiration to me - she is also in sole control of the temptation to drink copious amounts of gin at social gatherings), although this is not the only version of the story in town.

When she was asked to give a speech to the American Horticultural Society, Parker reached the podium and declared, "You can take a whore to culture but you can't make her think..." That was her entire speech. If it's a true story, I doubt she was invited back.

Friday evening, in true Parker spirit, I drank far too much and didn't post - oops! But I did spend a great amount of time appreciating, and thinking about culture (as one does when one has consumed far too much chianti).

I spent Friday evening with The Bean, my uncle. When I came home from work, Bean was watching one of the music channels on Freeview. It was showing the 100 Greatest Mobile Disco Classics (which we both found suitably obscure a chart) and boy, were there some terrible songs making an appearance on there! We spent the evening with the charts in the background, enjoying such classics as: Sonia - You'll Never Stop Me from Loving You; Two Unlimited - Ready for This and DeeLite - Groove is in the Heart.

However, I did enjoy a moment of weakness when Nena's 99 Red Balloons came on and I sang it at the top of my voice. It made me wish that someone had thought to play this as the soundtrack to last week's World Aids Day when the Council released 1000 red balloons into the sky from the Guildhall Square.

As I was howling convincingly along to Nena, I realised what an amazing responsibility the cultural services across the country provide, and how easy it is to forget why the people responsible for providing these services, in one way or another are all here. Here's a sermon I prepared in my mind on Friday night on the topic:

The thing about culture is that it is not an end product. Culture is not the library service, or the museum or the art gallery. It's not a commodity that can be sold (although our access to aspects of it can often be controlled - that even rhymes, dang I'm good). In the western world, where we as individuals have become defined primarily as consumers, this can be problematic. It makes our understanding of culture sometimes elusive. It fools us into thinking we pop down to the Wharf of Guns andbuy some culture in a box to take home. For me, one of the best things about culture is that it defies this categorisation. Culture is as much about the walk to the Wharf as it is about getting there, and the culture that you'll find pre-packaged is often of questionable value.

Culture is, in one sense, 99 Red Balloons (both the song and the moment they are set free into the sky). It's the song that makes you turn the radio to top volume and the bass up to full power. It's the moment the balloons are released and the brief second when the people watching fall silent and simply stare at the sky. It's the book that tells the story of your broken heart back to you and makes you feel as though you're not alone. It's the painting that takes you to the field where you can smell the cypress trees on the wind; and it's the film that sends you home with a head crowded full with just one question, What If?

Culture has the power to change the way we think and feel about issues we thought we had decided upon a long time ago. It can create or steal anger, allow us to cry and make us laugh. And ultimately, I think, culture brings us together in ways we cannot imagine. It's the guy in the desert humming Hey Jude as he plays it on his guitar, while a teenager in Wales plays the same song for the very first time, thousands of miles away. It may be the only thing we have in common with someone else.

I think it is this ultimate power of culture to unite us in considering the complexity of the human condition that makes people join the Culture services in their local authority: whether they love the power of books, the power of a museum exhibition, a play, a poem or a painting (although they may not phrase it like that at interview. They'll probably say something more specific like, 'Oooh, I love books, me.'). We all share the same passion. That's why we go to work each day.

It is too easy to forget this in a local authority, and even in the independent cultural sector, when so much of the work we do is wrapped up in finance and/or politics. I don't know how much most people know about the current crisis (and I don't think this is an understatement) in local government: the alienation of local communities from their local democratic power (exercised in the vote and in their participation in services which are rightfully theirs and belong to them), the swelling deficits that seem to be affecting most local councils, the cuts being absorbed year-on-year by almost every service whilst the demands placed on them to further extend service delivery and scope. You can find out about Portsmouth's financial position here

The knock on effect to the cultural services is that they lose money. When they lose money they lose staff and work doesn't get done that should. People get so overloaded trying to do their daily jobs that stress goes up and innovation, positivity and morale go down. Daily working lives are taken over with an endless list of tasks that is never completed. The power of culture is forgotten.

I'm not writing today with a list of easy answers as to how you get round this, but I suspect the frst port of call is remembering what we are here for. I would argue that I spend a lot of my day thinking about the volume of work I need to get through, the amount of time I have available to complete it and the competing deadlines that working three jobs can tend to create (and don't even get me started in the peanuts I'm offered to do this monkey work). These things become meaningless (and there have been moments the past few weeks where my work has seemed completely meaningless) if I forget why, ultimately, I am doing them at all.

Perhaps we have to look at the current crisis in local authority leisure and cultural services as an opportunity to reconsider why we are here. The sky's the limit!

OK, there the sermon endeth. As you were. Now take some time to examine the new stained glass window underneath the Bell Tower:
Today's Beautiful Things

1. Problem solving in the face of another's moment of madness

2. The mystery of low blood sugar levels

3. My mum - who is the best.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

Birthday Morning Madness


It's Shonagh's birthday today. I'm meeting her this morning for coffee, cards and presents. Everyone sing...........

Today's blog is cut short by the fact that I'm writing in the morning and need to get to work. Why is getting up so hard at the moment? Why is it so depressing to get up when it's dark? Does Seasonal Adjustment order really exist?

Pick a question and discuss.

Sigmund Freud had a theory, I am told (no, this is not the start of an elaborate joke). Well actually, I suspect Freud had a few, but this is a lesser known one. By me at least.

The Chief tells me that Sigmund Freud was asked for advice on how to make a difficult decision.

"Flip a coin," he said.

When challenged about the idea of leaving important choices to chance, he explained.

"When the coin comes down you will have some clue as to how you really feel about the decision."

I thought this was rather clever and began to wish I had some difficult decisions to make. Having said that, Christmas is coming and everyone keeps asking me what I want. Why is it that the rest of the year, if people asked me what I wanted I would be able to tell them but my mind goes blank at Christmas?

G and I went shopping last night at the Wharf of Gun, which I was sort of dreading. To my delight I bought lots of presents, although only a few of them were for Christmas!! We went for pork valentine at the CharBar afterwards, which was big barbecuing fun, and the best end to an few hours shopping. The waiter was fabulous, too, in terms of service over cuteness. Not that he wasn't cute, but not my sort of cute. Oh, you know what I mean.

So - what do YOU want for Christmas?

Today's Beautiful Things 1. Coffee in the morning 2. BBQ's inside 3. A sudden downpour

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Philosophy will clip an angel's wings. John Keats

The picture today is of the staircase leading to the Vatican museums, designed by Giuseppe Momo in 1932 and courtesy of photographer, Philip Greenspun.

Today has been all about museums, and not just because I was working in one, either, but because I came to a deeper understanding of why museums are such a vital part of our cultural life.

At the Royal Naval Museum, the exhibition text for Chasing Freedom is all written and today I held in my hands for the first time the mock-ups of the panels themselves. I'm not going to reveal any more because I want everyone reading to come and see the exhibition when it opens (on the 27th January 2007).

It struck me, looking at the combination of artwork, historical images, text and artefacts, that organising an exhibition has to be one of the best jobs in the world - not the easiest, by far, but one of the best. A good exhibition (and although I'm biased, I think Chasing Freedom will be an excellent one), it seems to me, is a combination of original artistic interpretation, engaging text and a strong core subject. In this way, museums can be the place where art meets education.

There are so many inspiring projects taking place for the Bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade next year, all across the country. Reviewing some of them on the DCMS website today, I decided that next summer, I am going to take a tour of the different exhibitions taking place nationwide so that I don't miss out on anything. Here are some of my favourites, click on the links to find out more:

  • La Bouche du Roi (it means the 'mouth of the king') at the British Museum from 22 March to 13th May 2007
  • William Blake and Slavery: A touring exhibition travelling nationwide, from the Hayward Gallery
  • Kenwood House will be revealing the story of Lord Mansfield and his grand-niece, Dido - a young woman of dual heritage brought up on the property - and exploring Lord Mansfield's legal victories for abolitionists in England
  • Even Parliament are getting in on the action with their own exhibition on the battle within Parliament to abolish the slave trade
You can keep an eye on all the exciting projects happening near and far to a musuem or site near you at the DCMS website (link above), or drop a comment here and I'll keep you informed of next year's tour. For those of you who think you have nothing to learn from re-visiting the slave trade, quit being an ass and look again.

And for those of you who really don't think museums are your thing or just can't be bothered to leave the comfort of your computer chair, fear ye not, I have something for you too. The ominously named The Dark is an exhibition that can be downloaded onto your pc via the internet and experienced at your leisure. Unfortunately, the download is only available to those with Macs at the moment due to pc security issues, but I'm waiting to hear from the organisers about a CD Rom, so watch this space.

Slavery still continues today with an estimated 12 million people living in slavery across the world . The history of Britain's involvement in the slave trade reveals a legacy that continues to affect and to dictate racial relations across the West and across the world today. If you need any further information to convince you, I urge you to look at Anti Slavery International
for an understanding of slavery in the contemporary world and Understanding Slavery for information about the Transatlantic slave trade.

Childishly funny fact of the day

In 1834, the Second Naval Lord was a man called Sir John Poo Beresford. Fact.

My Poem du Jour comes from C.P. Cavafy and is from 'Ithaka'. It's all about the importance of the journey over the destination, and reminds us never to take our eyes away from what we are travelling for, and not necessarily where we are travelling. I think it's beautiful.

As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery...

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you're destined for.
But dont hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you're old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you've gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvellous journey.
Without her you wouldn't have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won't have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you'll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

Today's Beautiful Things

1. The boy who made my mouth laugh, my eyes shine and my heart wonder

2. Learning to let another speak

3. Letting loneliness

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

S'Wonderful, S'Marvellous

Tonight's picture is from NASA (ok, I subscribe to customisable Google - what can I tell you, it's addictive; I got the pony today and all it does is eat grass and wag it's tail - I love that pony). It shows the Gemini VII satellite, currently orbiting some 160 miles above Earth. But don't take my word for it, check out the NASA Image of the Day site and see for yourself.

I love finding out about science. Not because I understand it - most of it leaves me baffled, especially cosmology and all things space ship - but because reading or learning about science often acts as a metaphor for me to understand something else. They say that what makes a witch is her ability to make connections between seemingly unrelated things. This picture makes me think about the simple effect of distance to change our understanding of a situation.

Beneath that satellite, on that beautiful planet in the picture are millions of people, living out their incredibly intricate lives. I know this because I'm one of them. I'm guessing that you probably are, too.

I think of my life right now, all the people I love, all the things I distract and fill my day with; I think about the past, all the people I have known and shared moments (yes, that's a euphemism) with, all the minutes that have made up my life so far; I think of my future, the millions of moments waiting to happen, the lives of other people edging closer to intertwine with mine in days to come - if I think of all these things and then multiply them by the number of people on the planet, then I can see how intricately complex it all is.

I think of my own perceptions like this tonight, too. Often I cannot see what is happening under my own nose because I am too busy reacting to a million and one tiny little things: I'm late and I'm tired, that meeting didn't go as well as I planned, someone's cancelled on me - all these small details of daily life that, when I pan the camera out, I discover are rarely important at all. I want to learn to be mindful. As much of the time as I can. I want to stop reacting (and in the process giving my power, my self, away) and start responding to the people around me. I want to see further than my own nose. I want to live as if I can see the whole picture.

Loads of fabulous things happened today. The first thing that happened wasn't fab, as the inspirational Chief wasn't very well and had to stay home and get better. The office isn't the same without him. Still, you know what they say about the absence of cats and the activity of the mice that are left behind...the entire office spent the day in the pub, having pool competitions, betting on the horses and organising our own pub quizzes.

Just kidding. Or am I? It could be a KGB double-bluff.

The gorgeous Clarky wasn't in today either, and Miss Sally and I were at first disheartened. We soon put our positive-thinking heads on, however, and decided that we would have to try double hard to have a good day even though two of our very favourite people were missing. As a reward, the Universe treated us to some special powers of making silence and an extra heightened sense of humour, which meant we spent a lot of the day laughing AND we managed to get work done!

We decided to go for an elevenses-pre-lunch coffee at Costalots and headed for the exit. Unfortunately the door downstairs had broken , so Miss Sally and I hopped in the lift to get the other exit. When we arrived at the first floor, the doors to the elevator opened. And then they didn't. That is, the first set of doors opened and there was another set of doors there that were closed. It was like some terrible incident in the Twilight Zone where hell turns out to be a lift in the Civic Offices that you can't escape from (or that other episode where hell was a job in the Civic Offices that you can't escape from - Just kidding, obviously, I love my job. No, seriously, I really do, it's not a KGB double bluff. Honest).

A lot of people may have been afraid at this point, but not the Fantastic Two - we started to giggle, as though being trapped in the lift was simply a piece of hilarious tomfoolery (I think I should like to write a story featuring a character called Tom Foolery, I like to think of unusable character names, it's my sleeping trick instead of counting sheep - last night I thought of Miss Paige Turner and laughed so long I woke myself up again). The ever-bold Miss Sally then bravely stepped forward and attempted to prise open the doors with her bare hands, which I thought extraordinarily bold. It didn't work and only made us laugh the more.

If it were down to me, we would probably still be in the lift, but Miss Sally (formerly a secret commando for some underground women's resistance movement, I'm certain) used her initiative and ordered the lift to another floor and back. Both doors obeyed and, when we arrived at the first floor again, both opened.

Such adventure, and all before 11.30. And even more fabulous, Miss Sally was at the Carols gig last night and someone asked her if she was 'the' Miss Sally from the blog. How amazing is that?! I've made Miss Sally famous - she is now officially the most glamorous, intelligent, super-spy starlet as well as a secretarial genius!

Quote du Jour

Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.

Anais Nin

Today's Beautiful Things

1. Saying nothing that I wanted to and by my silence meaning everything I cannot say

2. Stuck in a lift with Miss Sally, of course!

3. Wishing I was better and always trying harder

Most Surprising Moment of the Day

Shonagh calling me in the office, to sing the theme tune to the Archers and then hang-up. Awesome.

Monday, December 4, 2006

The public will believe anything, so long as it is not founded on truth. Edith Sitwell

No work today as I appear to have picked up a rather spiteful little D&V bug (see picture - this was the bug, I know this for fact) that severely limited my ability to be out of the radius of a bathroom. The less said about that episode the better, however, I can honestly say that my stomach has probably done well out of the deal, as the only things to have passed my lips so far is half a mug of cupasoup, a slice of dry bread and a shack load of plain hot water (Miss Sally's health tip).

This has inspired me to try a couple of weeks of detox, eating healthily, building my yoga practice back up and cutting down on the hideous amount of caffeine I drink every day (and a damn good excuse to stop giving money to Costalots).

The worst thing about being even slightly ill (and in general, I suffer illness like a man) after you've watched the entire series of House (wistful sigh), is that I am severely tempted to diagnose myself with some of the most obscure diseases under the sun, the majority of which I rather suspect I've made up completely. However, the boiling water diet has obviously done some good as I'm feeling much better this evening than I was in the early hours of this morning.

I re-discovered Radio 4 today, and spent this evening listening first to a series presented by Michael Portillo (what can I say, the content was good) about a re-examination of the Second World War and then a really interesting programme on the enforced deportation of Mexican Americans during the Depression in the 1930's.

This latter was exceptionally shocking, and the hardest part to listen to was when the presenter visited one of the only schools in California (we love California for their progressive politics) that is prepared to teach its (predominantly Latino) students about this shameful part of America's racial history. Some of the students found it very hard to understand why the state would have deported so many people, especially families and children. Some of them were also afraid that this could still happen to them today.

I've been lucky enough over this year to have come across the concept of telling 'Hidden Histories' from a lot of different sources. I think you can listen to the episode of Crossing Continents on Mexican-American forced deportation from Radio 4 at their website.

Today's Beautiful Things

1. Compassion and caring

2. Lions and tigers and bears - oh my!

3. The threatened tornado outside my window

Sunday, December 3, 2006

It's all about the K's

I spent yesterday with the women of the African Women's Forum visting the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol. It was a really enriching, humbling and inspiring experience. We were lucky enough not only to visit the exhibition on the history of the British Empire (and I thought the story of Chasing Freedom was huge - I can't imagine how these people managed to select the material for display, when you have the entire history of the British Empire to choose from), but we also had a really interesting workshop on the slave trade with Lucy, the Education and Outreach officer.

This gave us the opportunity to talk about some of the different artefacts related to the slave trade, including shackles and a yoke, a lady's whip used for 'disciplining' enslaved Africasn working on plantations and an identity bracelet belonging to an enslaved African, featuring the name of his or her owner. After the workshop, some of us were recorded for the Museum's exhibition next year talking about our own personal responses to the slave trade and all that we had seen and learnt about during the day. Make sure you have a look at their new online photographic collection, too: Images of Empire.

Unfortunately, getting up at 5am for my big day out in Bristol has been the straw that broke this camel's back, I suspect, as I could hardly drag myself out of bed to go shopping this morning, and I'm about to hurry back to it in a moment and it's only 16.15. Too tragic. Even worse, I have only one episode of House left before the series is over. Luckily, I have American Gothic lined up to follow it - but who can replace House?

Today's blog is a little short and sleepy, so I'm perking it up for you: first, with the Kings of Leon playing Bucket. These boys make me weak with desire and simultaneously whenever I listen to them I have the urge to drink whisky, get into a bar brawl and head back to my trailer in the early hours of the morning.

But before you press play - WARNING: Maybe not one for the Take That fans (I can't believe Gary Barlow and his limelight hogging ways - are the others' microphones even switched on?!).

Dang. And to close, a bit of Shoot The Runner by Kasabian.

I feel much better.

Today's Beautiful Things

1. Rain, wind, hail - everything but the three witches

2. Sleeping late...and later...and later....

3. Tiny satsumas the size of baby's dreams