It came to my attention recently that a fellow known by the curious sobriquet “Bartholomew Bard” had started a campaign on Facebook to have me installed as the chief columnist for the arts section of my local newspaper, the Northampton Chronicle. I thought this was a strange idea at first and considered refusing to co-operate with Mr. Bard’s undoubtedly very selfless labours. My writing is, after all, an acquired taste. I am sometimes intemperate, sometimes ungrammatical, my sentences are sometimes too long, and have too many clauses, and on occasion an idea will be perfectly clear and sensible in my head but read like gobbledygook on the page. My taste in the arts tends towards the new-ish and the Underground as well; I have little interest in the canon in literature or poetry (for example) other than in the sense that it can, approached with the right kind of critical irreverence, provide a springboard for intelligent new creations. Do the readers of the Chron want to be confronted with that every time they open the paper or go online? a literary Mr. Hyde who comes out at night with cloven hooves and too much body hair to stamp all over the rules and the status quo?
Well, maybe not. Or maybe. But that last question leads to another one: what is the arts section of a newspaper for? Is it the creative (and I use that term loosely) equivalent of the takeaway menus that get shoved through my door every day? A Willy Russell play and a Mersey Beats reunion, thirty pounds for both at the Derngate this week, if you book early? Does the arts section of a paper exist to drum up business for the local theatres (who will in turn advertise in the paper)? And why does it always pitch its message at people who aren’t generally interested in the arts? People who will only go to see a play if it has a tv actor in it. Or people who will only attend a literary festival if it’s in the grounds of a big house like Althorp and there are lots of tv chefs on the menu. Do the editors of these papers believe that their only audience is fat couch potatoes and middle class arrivistes? Their demographic research might show that, but people come to a newspaper because of what they know they’ll find; if the paper changes tone or direction, there could be a whole new audience. And what of all those serious consumers who are already out there, silently waiting for a reason not to flip over to the classifieds section? A real hardcore arts enthusiast is the type of man or woman who’ll cross the street when they see a researcher approaching with a clipboard.
You either need the arts or you don’t. I think you do. (I would, I’m a poet.) And in my town there are poets, painters, musicians, deejays and writers who never get near the arts section of the paper; but it’s their work that keeps
alive. And it’s the patronage of the minority of people who know about them that keep them going, by lifting their morale if not by lining their pockets. (No one has any money down where the real work is being done.) So I have agreed to co-operate with Bartholomew Bard, whoever he is, because I believe he’s right to say that an arts section should be written by someone who’s working in the arts, who has contacts in the arts, who knows about the arts and doesn’t have to look every reference up on Wikipedia before he finishes his article. Even a weekly column by a poet or a painter or a guitar player placed in the middle of all the usual blather about Pauline Quirke and this month’s magician and next month’s touring has-been would give the section some credibility, some meat, making it a part of the paper that people would turn to first. And though I’m not perfect, by any means – I don’t have to tell readers of Suffolk Punch that – I am the ideal person to write that column, looking at what Norman Mailer once called “the talent in the room.” Northampton
We’ll see what comes of it. I don’t expect Mr. Bard’s campaign to succeed, and I have told him so. To be so optimistic about the possibility of positive change in the turgid backwaters of local journalism he must be very young. But every once in a while, before I remember to be cynical, I catch myself thinking how marvellous it would be if the campaign worked. Once the word was out,
could become a real cultural hub; not just a middling town where the council spends large sums of money on luxury venues for dilettantes to sit in and watch the same old shit. (Bruce Hodder.) Northampton
Learn more at Bruce Hodder for the Chron Arts Section Campaign