Writing / Grizedale Arts Blog / 2009 / 1

A response to Simon Barnes

A picture of some country people concerned about culture, China, 1934

Dear Simon  

Thank you for making your points about Adam's article for Cumbria life (see entry under January 5 below), they are useful, but to my mind an acute illustration of the attitudes being increasingly forced upon rural communities. There are three pertinent statements in your text that need to be addressed:

I see nothing wrong with wanting to get away from the crowds and seeking a little solitude, or selected company.

You are absolutely right in that there is nothing wrong with this, the trouble is, as Adam indicates, the Lake District is packed to its rafters with people seeking solitude, from day trippers to lifestyle residents, and seem to get very cross when they rub up against them. This is not a wilderness but a working environment, even if that work is now predominantly the leisure industry rather than tilling. I would suggest Outer Mongolia but you'd probably find that's the same now.

Unfettered hedonism has its place too!

Again, I'm inclined to agree in part, but crucially, at whose expense? Unfettered hedonism anywhere crowded has an annoying effect on those unsuspecting bystanders. The problem here is that those folk seeking all-out-guns-a-blazing-pushing-themselves-to-the-brink-of-finding-out-who-they-really-are-experience tend to regard the rural as some neutral zone that's up for grabs, that you should be able to do what you want here and it doesn't matter. Well it does, because this is a social space like anywhere else and we all need to be considerate to those around us. You just need do hedonism where it won't get on someone else's nerves. All the outdoor pursuits centres specialise in what they term 'a beasting' which is basically is an initiation, dragging the innocent on a lung bursting and tortuous rampage through the hills, preferably in cold wet weather. You can transcribe this attitude to the landscape and its people and this is something that even the School of Outdoor Studies in Penrith (that trains the trainers) has now realised and is looking to correct.

We have a rural ideal which perhaps bears little relation to reality, and I don't think the dwindling numbers of country dwellers have much cultural impact on the rest of us.

Yes you are right once more. Your rural ideal bears little relation to reality. For the first time ever, rural populations are increasing and will do for the foreseeable future as long as technology and communications continue to enable increasingly mobile living patterns. In case you hadn't noticed the world recently got a bit global and with the odd flap of a butterfly wing and the odd carbon sink here and the odd eco-issue there the rural has shifted rather high up the list of important things. A bit like when Kevin Mcleod went to the top of the leader board in Top Gear's Star in a reasonably priced car. Most of my neighbours work in the local arms and nuclear industry and I'd say they have quite a bit of potential for impact on the wider world. The reason why Grizedale Arts is here is to ensure that the rural does exactly that, trying to influence culture in a major way like all those other country dwellers who did the same - Rousseau, Wordsworth, Ruskin, Darwin, Jefferson and the like who all had quite a bit of a say in how things turned out.

Posted by Alistair Hudson on 13/01/09 at 14:42

Article for Cumbria Life

Here's the unedited version of a very short column written for Cumbria Life, a magazine celebrating Cumbria.

A much edited version should appear in the New Year issue


Things I would like to see in Cumbria in 2009


Cultural relevance

I would like to see the presentation of the rural as an intelligent, valuable contributor and leader of national cultural development – it’s happened before, many of the most influential cultural developments have originated from the provinces. But the rural and particularly Cumbria has allowed itself to be portrayed as merely a beautiful place, but beautiful to no purpose. Beauty is not an end in itself it is a vehicle for ideas, an attractor to convey a message. The landscape is political, how it is managed, owned, used, portrayed and viewed all are political positions, this is complex and relevant to contemporary culture yet there is a definite attempt to deny, simplify and trivialise the complexity of landscape and one of the worst offenders is art. Art is increasingly used to market the landscape as no more than an attractor for visitors and consequently a source of income for the individuals willing to service the sector – not really an industry, more a collective of amateur opportunists. But the more dependant the area becomes on tourism the more any real culture is driven out, the very thing the tourists come to see is inadvertently destroyed by them and ends up being replaced as a vacuous commodity. It is interesting to note that the Cumbria tourist board is now directly commissioning ‘art works’, creating the culture it deems to be appropriate for attracting visitors. This is Disney, but this particular Disney world is being moulded onto a real place, squeezing out, suppressing and remodelling the actual culture of the area, much in the fashion of Victorian pubs being renovated to look more like Victorian pubs.

Let’s put a stop to prostitution in the Lake District, wrest the holiday cottages magnates into plough shears, and the gift shop empires into pruning hooks.


Joined uppishness

Lakeland villages are determinedly trying to position themselves as a Stag party destinations, petrol head nirvanas - a base for all petrol driven activities, green destinations, fair trade towns, local food towns, real communities, in effect as any kind of tourism, as a councillor stated ‘I would do anything to get more tourists to this village’. Which reminds me of a old TV show where they had a feature called ‘I would do anything to be on TV’ where people did the sort of things that all reality shows now do but back then in the 80’s people still thought was disgusting – snogging your own grandmother – that sort of thing. What I would like is a bit of pride, a few standards, some moral backbone, a stand against the apparently easy money of tourism, a clear and coherent message – some ideals. The Lake district needs to think about itself, what it actually is and wants to be. By default it is anything anyone wants it to be, normally in some hapless attempt to generate an easy income, this is rationalised as a kind of freedom – but just because freedom of the individual was invented here there is no reason that we have to adhere to it, as one of freedom’s earliest exponents said, ‘only the responsible can enjoy freedom, for the rest it just a licence to behave badly’ – be which I think we can assume he meant himself, bearing in mind he spent most of his life rolling in the gutter. 


Taking part

The landscape around us and the communities it has fostered have been used up feeding the tourism agenda, I would like to see tourism radically change its ambitions, it should take part, and contribute, not use and abuse. Instead of purely pointless leisure activity the visitor could take part in building the culture and economy, not by paying for overpriced services and pseudo culture but by active involvement in food production, skills development and labouring. The effect of decades of tourism is that the local culture has largely been replaced by people playing at local culture, sheppards translate to hill walkers, farm land rovers - off road driving, rural craft – gift ware. Most tourists have valuable skills outside of getting drunk, shouting and urinating in public. The rural is part of this country, its culture contributes to the national psyche, the countryside is not just a playground in which to play simplistic games. 


People being interested in people

The rural as an escape from other people is a very negative idea, not to mention entirely erroneous in Cumbria. The fact that in every tourist shop there are scores of postcards and not one of them including a person, most also excluding buildings and signs of human habitation says a lot about our attitude to one another. It is an attitude that it is easy to be sympathetic to, tourists behave selfishly, they are encouraged to seek their personal pleasure at the expense of others. I think the country code needs to be re-established and re written it may need some rather basic rules and understandings, for example; one person in a micro light should be aware that they are ruining any kind of peace and quiet for thousands of other people, a constantly barking dog equally can destroy hundreds of people’s afternoon. But further than this legion of irritants it should identify a positive involvement, don’t just shut that gate, mend it. It is no longer a matter of personal freedom it is matter of consideration and social responsibility in this very crowded land.

Lets stop exploiting our weaknesses (sloth and greed) and start exploiting our strengths (humanity, creativity, perseverance, community spirit and love of the area). 


Pretty upbeat for me I thought

Posted by Adam Sutherland on 12/01/09 at 13:40

Happy New Year

Well sighted heroic mice

The longest Christmas holiday in the last 2000 years seems to have passed in a frozen flash. Lawson Park remained frozen solid throughout, the mice have eaten an errant clementine - losing 3 of their number to the traps but the horde surged on, the deer have eaten all the purple kale and all the tropical fish have died due to the failure of their tank heater. All in all a little light death and destruction but nothing momentous. 

The builders are back with promises of mid March finish dates, although it does seem unlikely, the one official opening is booked for 10th July so seems like plenty of leeway.



Posted by Adam Sutherland on 05/01/09 at 13:56