Scarborough Fair: Art at the cliff’s edge

The positive role of culture in the life of a city was amply illustrated in the second programme of the BBC’s series “Town”.  The series, presented by geographer Nicholas Crane, features four cities, their history and their present.   Scarborough , in Yorkshire, on the eastern coast of England was the focus of this second programme.  

 Many people will know of the song “Scarborough Fair” thanks to Simon and Garfunkel’s re-working of a traditional folk song, few will perhaps know the fair’s origin. The fair, starting in the 13th century, was for several centuries Europe’s largest fish market and an international trading centre.  As competition reduced the fair the town re-invented itself as Britain’s first spa and seaside resort until that gradually declined.  The town’s economy, as many tourist resorts, was based on a short six week season.

 Scarborough has had to re-invent itself again.  It appears to be doing so successfully.  By 2005 the creative and cultural industries accounted to 19% of the town’s economy. Scarborough won the 2008/2009 award for the most creative and inspiring entrepreneurship initiative in Europe.

 For many Scarborough’s main cultural connection is Alyn Ayckbourn.  For over 50 years the playwright has lived in the town and his plays are almost always premiered there.  He is, the programme noted, the world’s most performed living playwright. Productions start in Scarborough and the company tour the world.  Culture putting the town on the global map.

 For me the real revelation of the programme came with a more recent artistic intervention.  Scarborough has a geological problem.  The outer reaches of the town are built on the debris from the last Ice Age.  12,000 years ago Scarborough was at the southern end of glaciers. As they retreated they left debris on top of the sound sandstone rock foundations.  Now, slowly but inexorably, the surface is being washed away into the sea.  Houses are literally falling off the cliffs into the sea.

 An enterprising artist, Kane Cunningham, bought one of the houses for £3,000 using his credit card. It is not a long term purchase; the house will topple soon.  As well as a canny way of providing cheap studio space Cunningham has made the house an art installation in its own right. 

Home: the last supper”  

It’s the perfect site-specific installation – a stark reminder of lost dreams, financial disaster and rising sea levels. It’s global recession and global warning encapsulated. This little house is feet away from the edge of the cliff – it can go at any moment. The idea is to create an artwork on a scale never seen before in North Yorkshire and to stimulate within the imagination of the public that this house falling into the sea can become a work of art. If the aim of art is to stimulate discussion and debate on issues, then surely this will get people talking.”

 Crane voiced his scepticism before entering the house: is this really art?  Within a few minutes, as he reported afterwards, his view had changed.  Cunningham has linked the house and its fate to correspondents around the world. He invited local schoolchildren to write letters. Some are marked “Not To Open”; the letter will fall unread into the sea.  One letter poignantly expressed a child’s’ fears over a parental divorce.

 The house has indeed got people talking, taking time out to reflect and to imagine.  It is indeed “an art work reflecting the times we live in”.  It has become another key element in the cultural landscape of Scarborough.

A Writer’s Voice: Syria

Writers capture the essence of place and time.   The tragic events in Syria are underreported by the media.  Daily the government is killing protestors seeking nothing more than freedom.  As with the other North African and Arab countries Syria is showing what happens when trust breaks down within a country between the leaders and the people of a country. Egypt and Tunisia have started the long slow path to normality. Syria has not. Yet.

 But what it is like to be in Syria now?  We hear little from those in the country.   Samar Yazbek is a novelist, screen writer and was banned from leaving Syria last month.  In a recent interview  she said: 

“In recent weeks people have finally broken the silence and fear, I myself have participated in the demonstrations”, she says. “We have found the courage to ask for freedom and democracy, an end to emergency laws that oppress us since 1963. We demand real political parties and elections, the right to express ourselves. But the repression is very hard, with many deaths and arrests. As always, the regime makes promises, but does not maintain them.Tthe army and security forces control everything.”  More than that of the streets, she says, is the fear of speaking”      ” ……..  “The solution must come from within. From our youth who are the most important force, from women activists. In all there is much awareness and commitment, refusal to divide ethnic groups or religions.”

 As a writer she puts her thoughts into words.   Here is the opening of a recent work published on Babelmed ,  ” Awaiting Death”

It is not true that death will have your eyes when it comes.

It is not true that the desire for death is like the desire for love. These two are not identical, yet they both float in nothingness.

In love, one identifies oneself with another person, whereas in death one identifies with one’s existence and the metamorphosis from tangible substance to an abstract idea. People have always seen death as being more noble than their own existence: if not, why venerate the dead? The deceased, who was here among us only a few minutes ago, is at once turned into nothing but a spark.

I would not say that I am calm now, but I am silent. I can hear my heart thumping like the echo of a distant explosion: more clearly than the sound of bullets, screaming kids, and wailing mothers, and even more clearly than the trembling voice of my mother when she tells me not to go out into the street.

The assassins are everywhere.

Death is everywhere.

In the village,

In the city,

By the seaside.

Assassins are taking over both humans and places, and they are terrorizing people. They come to the homes of our neighbours, telling them that we are about to kill them. Then, they turn back at us crying: They will kill you!

I am the accidental visitor to this place. I am the improvisation of life. I do not belong to my own community.

Continue reading at

Cultural democracy in Walthamstow

A victory for local democracy; a triumph for the Big Society, the locals repel a rich outsider.  Walthamstow saw all of those on Wednesday night as the local  Council’s Planning Committee rejected an application from a religious organisation to change a cinema into a church.

It is not often that a Planning Committee attracts an audience of over 1,000 with more unable to get in.  Loft extensions, new fast food chicken take-aways and speed bumps are not that exciting.  But when Walthamstow’s last cinema is under threat then the stakes are higher.  The Granada cinema, a jewel of 1930s cinema architecture and design, closed as a commercial cinema in 2000. In 2002 a religious organisation called the United Church of the Kingdom of God bought it, sought approval to change it into a “help centre” church, was refused planning permission, appealed right up to John Prescott.. and still lost.

Eight years later they try again.  And lose again.  The seven councillors on the committee all voted to reject the application, agreeing with the report from their officers. Four more councillors also spoke to oppose the application. The local MP, Stella Creasy had also written to oppose.  This was not a party issue.

The meeting was charged.  On entering it was like  entering a wedding: “bride or groom”?  Down the right hand side the supporters of the UCKG, down the left the cinema supporters.  The UCKG side played a neat theatrical trick just before the start by putting on hi-visibility yellow vests and launched into a standing chant, giving a good impression of  striking building workers.   Not to be outdone the cinema side responded with  a heart-felt rendition of  “save our cinema” chants.    

The meeting began.   A low key presentation of the planning application, and the reasons for rejection, came from the Council staff.   Speakers rose to oppose; two speakers supported the religious organisation with  emotional tales of how they have been turned from a life of teenage crime or low self-esteem.   The Councillors on the Committee gave their views.  Vote: 7-0. to reject the application.

Celebrations began. What was at stake?   There was a clear hint of local resistance to a rich outsider; no different to opposing a Tesco.  It was clear that most of the UCKG supporters came from outside Waltham Forest, as does of course the UCKG which originated in Brazil.  Contempt was a word used frequently:  it was clear that UCKG had made not attempt to talk to the local democratic representatives.   A telling point was made by 10 of the Councillors that none of their constituents had spoken to them in support of the help centre church.  Stella Creasy  MP had made the same point.   Secular versus religion was an undercurrent:  with over 100 religious places already  in the area why do need another when there is not one cinema was a frequent refrain.  

I gained the impression that to UCKG it appeared quite simple, as their lead speaker proclaimed “It is OURS” as if this was a sound enough reason to do what they liked with a building and to the local community.  The brute force of ownership backed by lawyers was all they needed so it seemed.   Their lawyers letter seemed to imply a political motivation on the part of the Councillors: as if their own application was not equally political, witness the two speakers they put forward.  The local community was irrelevant to them undermining their claim to work for regeneration.  I can’t think of any city in Europe which has placed a religious building at the heart of its regeneration drive for jobs and prosperity.

The result: a triumph for local campaigning, for a cross party support for a local amenity, even the Big Society in action if you want.    Local people decided on a local planning issue based on local needs. Democracy came to Walthamstow.

The Future of Power Joseph Nye at the RSA

There is always a heightened sense of anticipation when you can see and listen to an author you have read for years.  The RSA provided such an opportunity earlier this week when Professor Joseph Nye Jr gave a talk.   

 Nye did not disappoint.   The hour long session fell into the standard RSA format: twenty minutes from the speaker; twenty minutes of questioning from Matthew Taylor, the RSA Chief Executive and twenty minutes for questions from the 200+ people in the audience. 

 Power is Nye’s theme.  In recent years he ha moved on from Soft Power, the ability to get what you want through attraction to Smart Power, a strategic deployment of both hard and soft power.  

Tonight it was simply power. Or rather the future of power in the future which coincidently is the title of his new book.  Power in twenty years time: what will it look like?   A book to sell and a consummate professional, dropping just enough hints to drive the sales.

 To start with he came up with a reiteration of the two well known trends: the shift from West to East and from the state to a multiplicity of others notably citizens empowered by the ease of communications.  Nye classifies them as power in transition and the diffusion of power. 

Both trends were aptly illustrated with historical references.  Thucydides, Martin Luther and AJP Taylor were referenced.  A nice headliner example: if cars had reduced in price the same as computing power we would now be paying £5 for a car.   (I bet the insurance would remain the same as the financial services sector inhabit a different world to the rest of us).

Nye came into his own with his analysis of current affairs.   A master class in liberal and establishment progressive foreign policy (which means not very progressive).     China worry? Not really.  Asia held 50% of the world population and economy in 1800 and will regain both in the near future.  World government?  More likely a variable geometry of groupings for different purposes.  Worried about China’s resources grab in Africa?  Not really, more important is the effect of the emissions of those resources.  Will China’s investment in soft power lead to attraction? No, not with domestic restrictions of which Ai Wei Wei’s arrest and disappearance is but the latest example.  Corporations more powerful than government? Nothing new, been there in history.  And a useful reminder that it is nowadays rarely “power over” but “power with”.  

 Cyber freedom?  Now we moved into the newer areas of international affairs and one Nye clearly thought governments have not woken up to.   A nice side trip to note that Mozorov’s Net Delusion provides a useful corrective against the cyber utopians as repressive regimes play cat and mouse with citizen’s net freedoms.

He saw the USA’s main threats as the debt crisis, (but didn’t expand on how long the US can continue to live on its Chinese credit card); a terrorist attack causing the US to turn in on itself.   He gave a wonderful anecdote from Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew who said the US had 7bn people to choose from such was its power of attraction.  Another useful phrase to use against the growing anti-immigrationists, progressive or not.   Nye’s third risk was indeed different from most commentators: the poor state of education in the US below university level.  I doubt if Michael Gove was listening.

 The final question introduced the EU and its current range of problems “It will muddle through” was Nye’s comment; (echoing BBC’s Robert Peston’s  recent comment) but the USA needs a strong Europe as Europe is the closest in values to the USA. And the EU needs a strong UK  inside.  A comment which sent this ardent European out into the warm May evening sunshine with a power spring in his step.

Wisden Reflections

The publication of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack every April is one of those key events in every year for cricket lovers.  Out come the journalistic clichés, the yellow covers signalling the real arrival of spring; the “Bible” of cricket returns and cricket statistics geeks study the small print for the slightest error.

The 2011 edition springs surprises.  Indeed such is the quickening pace of and marketing need for, change that a Wisden without changes would be the surprise.  This year the regular features are re-organised, a “cricket photograph of the year” is introduced and is it just my eyes or has the small print got ever so slightly smaller?

The headlining surprise is that the editor, Scyld Berry, has only picked four cricketers of the year.  Not five, but four. Of such subtleties is cricket made.  In truth he did pick five to maintain the tradition but one is currently embroiled in legal proceedings over allegations of spot-fixing.  An accolade suspended.

Tim de Lisle, a former editor, writes an engaging piece about cricket records “Cricket’s Love of Numbers”.  Towards the end of his survey of memorable, rather than merely the most or highest, he makes a shrewd comment “as international cricket has multiplied, so first class cricket has shrivelled.”

This is perfectly captured a few pages later in an article on the retirement of Freddie Flintoff. In his career he took 350 first-class wickets with 219 in Tests, 62%.   By contrast Fred Trueman, who retired in 1969, took 307 Test wickets in a career total of 2,304, 13%.

The ever changing nature of the game is making many of the hallowed records fossilised, as de Lisle points out.  Records are at the heart of Wisden. The annual arrival of the tome marked for many the chance to update their knowledge of highest run scorers, wicket takers, winners etc.  That was in the pre-computer days.  Now websites provide instant updates.  They even offer the chance to build your own enquiry; a luxury previously limited to the awe-inspiring systems of media scorers like Bill Frindall.

But Wisden’s arrival still holds that certain confirmation of cricket immortality and progress up the scales of statistical progress.

The key to many record lists is the entry level qualification.  Most centuries, well starting from 50. Most wickets, starting from 1,500 etc.

The thresholds have slowly changed: it is no longer enough to score 1.500 runs for your country and have your name recorded for ever in the tables; that increased years ago to 2.000 and now stands at 4,000.   The “Most runs in a career” has subtly moved from 25,000 to the “top 100”.  Robin Smith scrapes in at 100 with 26,155.  Until that is, I suspect, Mike de Venuto, Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid slip past him within the next couple of years.

These are but quibbles.  There are some records which now seem simply obsolete.  The pattern of fixtures around the world means there will never be any more entries into the lists.

Will anyone now make over 100 centuries?   Mark Ramprakash seems destined to the last.  Tendulkar, who else, is only 23 short. Will he make it?  He is scoring around 9 a year; and is Wisden’s International Cricketer of the Year.   If not, the list will remain at 25 for ever.

Will any bowler ever take over 1,500 wickets?  Murali Muralitharan is on the edge of retiring with 1.374.  Will a wicketkeeper ever reach 1,000 dismissals?  Paul Nixon stands, or should that be crouches, tantalisingly 44 short, perhaps a seasons tally.  But although he has a one year contract he is no longer the regular keeper for Leicestershire and took just four catches in 2010.    The once-famous Double, 1,000 runs and 100 wickets in an English season, is but a memory, as is the “First to 1,000 runs in May”.

With T20 as well as the 50-over one day version more hybrid career statistics are coming to the fore. Sachin Tendulkar is just one century away from 100 international centuries:  50 in Tests so far and 49 in ODIs.

Wisden records these changes, as it has done since 1864. Quirks remain, new features, new changes are incorporated. And we wait for the new season with one eye on the yellow almanack of April 2012 to remind us of what we have seen.

Culture and sustainable growth

The Hungarian presidency of the EU organised a conference on the “Contribution of culture to the EU2020 strategy” .  I was invited to give a speech and then moderate the discussion, on the role culture could play in achieving sustainable growth. 

Here is the speech.        Contribution of Culture to the EU2020 strategy Steve Green

New directions in cultural diplomacy and relations

This post was initially made in April 2011. and the article , New Directions, was written in 2010.  Three years later I think I’ll get round to reflecting on how accurate were my predictions!  Watch this space!

April 2014


The world of cultural diplomacy. or cultural relations. is changing.  Once upon a time a country simply showcased its arts and languages around the world.     It was very much a one-way activity.  But times are changing fast.   It is no longer the preserve of a few major western countries: the BRICs are engaged.  And the manner and intent has changed.  A move to mulit-national activity; far more focus on mutual work: being led by what the host country seeks and wants rather than an export business of culture and foreign ministries.  A clearer difference from the more overt public diplomacy.  A move to “people to people” diplomacy.

Here is an essay I wrote last year. It will be published in a book on Spanish cultural diplomacy by the Real Instituto Elcano later this year.

New Directions Steve Green

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