I don’t think of myself as particularly cultural – I’m a working-class Yorkshire lad without much formal education, I’m not a regular theatregoer and there are more classics I haven’t read than I have. Nevertheless, I’ve found myself drawn to the current campaigns to save our arts, science and heritage. Just over our Kirklees border, Bradfordians are campaigning to save the National Media Museum. A little further afield the National Railway Museum in York and the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester know that if Bradford is successful then one of them probably has to go. Quite rightly the council leaders have joined forces to campaign together and pledge to save museums that ‘educate and inspire the next generation.’
While the reach of these towering monuments to our nation’s inventiveness cannot really be compared to local provision, I think we all know that every local authority is wrestling with what to close and how this can be achieved against a backdrop of stringent cuts that continue to devastate local government. Research by the Museums Journal at the end of 2012 found that 42 museums, galleries and heritage sites have shut over the past decade, most of them in the previous two years. I guess there will be more to add to the ever-growing list.
In Huddersfield we see the queue for the Citizens’ Advice Bureau get longer, the food banks increase in number, and Kirklees Neighbourhood Housing struggle to support those who can’t pay the bedroom tax who either want to move – shifting children from established schools and friendships – or risk rent arrears they cannot pay, and we all know evictions cost the public purse more in the long run – by far! The poorest in my borough are not those who can’t afford a holiday – they are people who can’t afford a bed or food or shoes for their children. This isn’t poverty, it’s destitution, and it’s all around us. A recent group of volunteers told me that their charity is having over 40 referrals a week requiring basic household items – not TVs or toys but cookers essential items like beds and chairs. These are people who have absolutely nothing. Many are women fleeing domestic violence, which has increased by nearly 12 per cent in the last year. Desperation, poverty and anger – a lethal combination for any family, and an ever-growing number.
In our ongoing fight against increasing social inequality, I wonder, why do I find myself looking at our cultural lives? Both Marx and Engels emphasised that our aesthetic sense is not an inborn, but a socially acquired quality. Simply put, without books and crayons and a place to observe beauty the poorest children in our society have even less. Marx also described the English realists of the 19th century including Dickens and our local Brontës, as a ‘brilliant pleiad of novelists whose graphic and eloquent pages have issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together.’
In times of war and poverty, in the absence of the most basic human needs, people create. Sarajevo art flowered during the siege and Vietnamese soldiers wrote and drew on the wall of the tunnels. In Rwanda, author and actress Odile Katese said, ‘Rwanda needs art so that it can dream again’.
Council parks, libraries, museums, events and galleries offer respite, aspiration and hope. In times of need, songs, writings and works of art can be a beacon of comfort.
As we witness the desolation of our poorest communities, the desperation of our poorest families and the destitution of our poorest people, are we really ready to permanently take away any remaining beauty, heritage, culture and art in their lives? People need as much light as darkness and in these dark times for so many. Surely we should offer some beauty, some light and some hope – but what a choice it is.
Mehboob Khan is leader of Kirkless council. He tweets @CllrMehboobKhan
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