Civilisation as we know it


Culture is about our way of life, heritage and identity — all the things that go to make a rounded society. It’s easy, then, to see why in divvying up local ministerial portfolios, the three arms of life expression — Education, Sport and Culture — were placed into one pot.

There’s no question that education of our young is a vital commitment both to our current youth and to the future well-being of our community. Sport provides an antidote to all that intellectual cramming and also contributes to the physical and mental health of the land, and culture generates society’s glue, well-being and identity.

But they can be competing bedfellows. Given current budgetary constraints, under that ESC banner there is a scary danger of our having loads of Education, plenty of Sport and precious little Culture.

Inevitably the arts have a vital role to play in the overall cultural mix. It’s what breathes life into our existence and expression. But don’t just consign it to the Eisteddfod, or a few amateur splurges at the Opera House for Christmas pantomimes.

We are probably the richest 45 square miles in the British Isles, but how do we actually rate on the culture equation? It’s not just the amount of events and activities that are staged; it’s the value of all this activity to the community as a whole.

So where’s the strategy and the political input? How many members of the new States Assembly actually mentioned culture in their election manifestos? No prizes for guessing what’s hard to find in the latest 38-page Council of Ministers’ Strategy Report.

Everything has a price, of course, and there are competing claims on the public purse. It’s difficult to argue for handouts to ‘Jersey’s famous living poet’ against provision of a bank of kidney machines in the General Hospital. And that’s before the possibility of any large job losses with consequential calls on public support in the current recession.

Culture isn’t just a luxury. Nor is it simply a cash register for Tour-ism. Tourists are drawn here precisely in order to experience our special way of life — and that’s a whole lot more than the image of old castles and empty beaches, however attractively these are portrayed in dreamy TV ads.

The Isle of Man, which incidentally has cannily placed a tourism advertisement right in the middle of our nightly Channel Report — how clever is that? — spends two and a half times as much as Jersey on heritage and culture. So somebody’s got the message about how important a benefit it is to the local economy.

Ironically, it fell to the visiting Isle of Man cultural representative to emphasise here last week how the knowledge of a community’s achievements, and how it developed, was vital for successful future strategic planning.

There is indeed a huge amount of cultural activity in these islands, some publicly supported, some commercially sponsored and a lot more the product of sheer personal dedication.

But as the financial belt tightens, direct support is likely to be in ever shorter supply. You could argue, I suppose, that in these straitened times, culture could provide an antidote. Doesn’t great art thrive on adversity?

Perversely, it may very well be because of the wealth of amateur enthusiasm that we’ve taken our eye off our collective funding responsibilities and allowed the ice to wear thin on the cultural funding pool. Hence the knee-jerk reaction to the grave predictions by Heritage that cherished local amenities and attractions could be forced to close, while other publicly funded arts-related institutions are left to wither on the vine.

In the past the Island has proved that it can attract artistic honey bees. Jersey Live has emerged as a sturdy sapling from an acorn in a soggy Trinity field; last year’s Branchage film festival enjoyed huge popular acclaim. So the enthusiasm of the new Minister of E-S and Culture for a week-long fest to coincide with the annual commemoration of Liberation could indeed be timely.

I’m sure there’s more than a small spark of inspiration from Edinburgh, which offers military pageant, heritage and cultural extravaganza. Add open days at the various reprieved heritage sites, concerts, and the ‘open studios’ of artists, and as long as the event is not hijacked for commercial greed or political stuntsmanship, and respects 9 May for its real purpose, a cultural focus could provide a popular fillip.

Now, food is certainly a lifestyle element we do well, so with the proposal by the Constable of St Helier to add a little gastronomic pageant to the mix, the ingredients are all there. There is obviously an appetite for promoting our local image and way of life — witness the expensive rebranding of the Jersey logo, and the fortunes thrown at capital projects to enhance our waterfront area. But there’s no point in promoting it if it doesn’t stick or fails to enrich the community or the local psyche. So let’s spare a penny or two for the intangibles and avoid flushing culture, confidence and self-esteem out with the Business Planning bathwater.

It might be blindingly obvious to suggest that culture is something which we all value enormously. But if it is not actively encouraged and supported, it just falls between the decking. It’s all put so neatly by American singer, songwriter and cultural icon Joni Mitchell: ‘You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone . . .’


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