They say that patriotism is the last refuge to which a scoundrel clings…

Last night I watched the film The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, for the first time. Richard Burton as John Le Carré’s hero Alec Leamas. I think he’s a hero, anyway. A spy disillusioned with corruption, with the price paid for loyalty to national security, with the concept of national security, with the moral self-righteousness of nations, with the soul-destroying nature of espionage and the cheapness of human life that it involves. It wrote large my current preoccupations over the current desperate move towards nationalism, patriotism, clan-based responses, isolationism, countries breaking away from each other rather than pulling together, and all these things at a local level as well as a national and international one.

As I said before, the thing that has been most difficult through this pandemic is facing the introspection of a small town, the introspection of lots of people, the sense that ‘community’ is a local thing. I loathe the rise of overt nationalism that has come to the surface in the wake of the Brexit referendum, and has grown – not just the thugs and Farageites of this world, but the kind of isolationism at different levels of society that is painful to see. At the moment, there is a trend for politicians to appear in Zoom calls with the union flag in the background – often two. We are in danger of starting to worship the flag, as Americans are wont to do. People say, Why are other countries not allowed to be proud of their flag but not us? That’s not the right question, for me: no one should be proud of their flag. Nationalism and patriotism are destructive. The flags are an emotive thing that undermines careful thinking. Lately a Tory councillor has taken to putting up quotes about how many here have been vaccinated with a union flag as the background to his posts, and it’s nauseating.

Why am I ranting about patriotism and nationalism? Because this emphasis on local places and local people is patriotism writ small, and narrows the world for everyone. This year I have spent a lot of time grieving for Kenilworth Arts Festival. It is still going, and the current committee did a lovely job of putting on a small festival with online events. But for four years, the amazing Lewis Smith organised the most beautiful Arts Festival for Kenilworth – put together quite fabulous events bringing some of the most interesting and exciting writers, musicians and creative groups to Kenilworth. Whenever I tried to spread the word, people would say. ‘But what’s it got to do with Kenilworth? Where are the Kenilworth artists?’ And it always broke my heart. It was never meant to be about Kenilworth, it was about bringing the highest quality arts events TO Kenilworth – like Edinburgh, Cheltenham, Hay-on-Wye and others. The parochialism is soul-destroying. It was a shock when someone just mentioned almost casually that Lewis would not be part of the Festival any more, and I have been crying over it ever since, and still going through a grieving process for something that we should have nurtured, developed, continued to grow into a nationally-respected festival. But all people want is a platform for local artists.

The musicians who have come to the Tree House have all been professional musicians on national – sometimes international – tours. They may not be household names, but they have all been significant, sometimes stellar, names on the folk and acoustic scene, which is producing some of the most talented singer-songwriters around. We should be excited that these musicians made Kenilworth part of their tours, but Kenilworth rarely was, beyond a handful of people who were either knowledgeable or adventurous. There was very, very little in the way of sharing our gigs, encouraging others to come to them, spreading the word about how good these musicians are. Lots of businesses and individuals ask me to retweet their stuff on a daily basis; I can count on one hand the number of people who regularly share(d) our events, and three of those are personal friends. We are a very small venue, and without selling 30 tickets each time, we struggle to meet the fees of those musicians, let alone pay for extras such as giving them food, and the shop almost never gets anything to help with rent and paying for my time. This is my livelihood too.

I am being unkind, I realise. But I don’t mean to be, only honest. Having the shop closed for eight months of the last year has given me plenty of time to think, and seeing people not just locally but around the country responding in inward-looking ways to this pandemic has been very sad. For me, sadness and anger can be emotions that overlap and it can be hard to find the line that separates them.

The quotation in the title of this post is from Bob Dylan’s Sweetheart Like You, and is adapted of course from Samuel Johnson. Bob’s song goes on to say, ‘Steal a little and they put you in jail, steal a lot and they make you king.’ We have had a chance over the last year to change our way of thinking about society, about capitalism, about lifestyle, about our place in the world and the cosmos, and it feels as though we have largely failed to do that.

One of these days I will list the things I am most proud of at the bookshop, and half of it won’t mean anything to the people of Kenilworth, but we have done lots of things. The live music, however, is the pinnacle of what we have achieved, though hardly anyone acknowledges it as anything at all. That’s OK – those of us in the know, know! Thank you to those who have supported our gigs.

Enough rambling for now. Others may be looking forward to returning to their normality, but I don’t want that at all. This is a chance to change, a chance to rethink and re-evaluate, and as I said in my previous post, I am not going to go back to how things were before. We may lose followers and customers, but ours is not a business in the conventional sense, and I am not going to compromise my beliefs and hopes in the interests of commerce-led values. I hope my accountant does not read this.

Here is Bob’s song. On a more positive note, here is something that my other hero Nick Cave wrote the other day: ‘The world still turns, ever perilous, but containing its many joys. Music remains a balm. Friendships endure.’ Thank you Nick. Thank you Bob. Music transcends national boundaries and cultures and languages, music is fundamental to us as humans and so it unites us in a way that being part of a political clan never can. It teaches us to look both deep into ourselves and then out, as stronger people, to others and to the world and the universe of which we are all a part. I will continue to champion music – and live music – in whatever ways I can, and there will be the occasional live and fabulous gig at the Tree House, and we will support Bob and Nick and Nick’s friend our wonderful patron Warren Ellis in all their endeavours. Music Matters.

Next time I will focus on beautiful things not the ones that make me angry.

Day 3: creativity, responsibility, knowing we exist

3 November 2015

chauvet-cave-horsesI feel I have to keep reminding everyone that these posts are just written and not edited!  That’s the one thing this project has in common with NaNoWriMo, as well as the daily discipline.  The original purpose is to get things written, and then refine afterwards, so publishing as you write is not part of the intended plan, and may be a bit crazy.  I do sometimes change a word as I go, but I don’t go back and rewrite anything.  It’s liberating, but because I’m making it public, also a bit risky.  I would love to write well-crafted prose, and above all to develop a style of writing that is engaging and distinctive, but that will have to wait!  It’s good to learn to swallow your pride and just put stuff out there.

One of the things that’s hard about running the bookshop is that I don’t really like being the centre of attention.  In a way, I’m not – especially now that there are lots of other people involved; but I do still do most of the organisation of events, make the important decisions, and am the most obvious face of the Tree House.  (As if treehouses had faces…)  On the other hand, I do like indulging my own ideas – the films we show, for example, are pretty much all my choices!  Responsibility – that sense of knowing you will be judged in some way for the choices you make – is at odds with my lack of self-confidence, but it’s also a chance for me to be creative.  I can’t do the more orthodox creative things – art, music, dance, acting, and those sorts of things – but I can be creative in how I decide to run and develop this venture.

I am always thinking of how to develop what we do.  I am inundated with ideas from other people, and I mostly listen but it’s rare that anyone says anything I haven’t already thought of.  As I said yesterday, it’s not the ideas that are lacking, it’s the energy and sometimes the know-how to put them into practice.

One area where I do wish I had more flair is in the interior design of the place.  I spend a lot of time looking around at the shelves, the walls, the ceiling (I love those two big wooden beams across the ceiling!) and try to work out how I want to decorate those surfaces, to make the place more magical.  I want people to come in and feel a sense of wonder.  I just don’t know where to start, despite the inspiration of many other places!  But I am sure I will start to work on that side of things soon, and there will inevitably be a lot of trial and error, especially as I can’t afford to pay artists and artisans so will need to do most of it myself or press-gang my noble and willing volunteers.

Creativity is not just about those more obvious things, though – there is a creativity in relationships with people, in transforming abstract ideas into things that work in reality, in creating an environment that then sets in motion its own dynamic.  The latter is probably the bit that relates most to me.  I get disheartened quite often, but then I sit during a live music gig or an open mic or a poetry reading, and look around at engaged, happy people interacting with each other and sharing or enjoying a particular talent, and I tell myself that all this is happening because I have created a space where it can happen.  Other people do most of the rest, but that’s what keeps me going when I feel like giving up: this is here because of me, these people are here ultimately because of me, we all know each other and are developing lovely friendships because of me.  Not in a hubristic way, but just as a means of acknowledging that I am actually doing something and it’s good!

As a child I often felt I didn’t exist; I was always surprised at little things that reminded me that I did – being counted with the others on a school trip, for example, being picked for a sports team (I was useless at sport so that was always a test of self-esteem), little things like that.  So apart from anything else, this project is a way of proving to myself that I do exist!  Or maybe none of us do, but then it doesn’t really matter.  I exist as much as anyone else, that’s all I need to know.

Getting a bit philosophical, though philosophy is real!  It’s about reality.  At the bookshop, we have a resident philosopher, and he makes us all think.  I realise I haven’t had a good philosophical discussion with him in a while, that’s something to remedy!

The bookshop is partly about making elusive things real.  It’s about those things that are not of commercial value or measurable in rational ways, it’s about exploring and promoting the importance of those synapses between the areas we do understand or can put into words.  Literature is about words too, of course, but it’s also about conveying something in words that goes beyond words.  The symbol of creativity for me is a tiny part of the magnificent ceiling that Michelangelo painted in the Sistine Chapel five hundred years ago: that famous scene where God creates Adam, with Adam as a kind of Greek godlike human figure, and God swirling in majesty, and the whole thing surrounded by Michelangelo’s huge, muscular figures.  But the symbol itself is that tiny gap, that synapse, he leaves between the flaccid finger of Adam and the turgid finger of God – that moment forever caught where the spark of life is about to be transmitted.  That’s where we all live, and everything we do is about reinforcing that creative moment – I don’t mean in a religious sense at all, just that the gap between our understanding of the world, the universe, and our sense of mystery is at the heart of anything creative.

Nick Cave – one of the household gods of the Tree House (more of that in a future post!) and someone who exudes creativity from every pore and every word he speaks publicly – says it better than me, in these final scenes of the wonderful film 20,000 Days on Earth.  Watch this clip to the end – his last words are truly beautiful and resonate profoundly with my own understanding of what creativity is and what life is – ‘this shimmering space where imagination and reality intersect, this is where all love and tears and joy exist, this is the place, this is where we live’.