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Artillery Row

This is not where I live at all

Cynthia Erivo’s slighting of Sunderland was indicative of British arts establishment beholden to a homogenous, Americanised vision of culture

“Some cities are wonderful, other cities are not so wonderful”. This is the worldly-wise analysis of Cynthia Erivo, the recently appointed deputy head of Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA), when asked about a tour of Sister Act on an American talkshow in 2022.

In the clip, resurfacing around her appointment, she went on to explain “Manchester is incredible, because it feels like London” before celebrating Liverpool because “the accent is different” then singling out Sunderland — “you go to Sunderland and you’re like ‘where the fuck am I, I don’t know where I am, this is not where I live at all’” with a mock-confused grimace. Laughter.

Sat opposite, host Amber Ruffin summed up the implied sentiment: “Oof”

I grew up in Sunderland and moved to London for work in my mid twenties. It’s true that the two cities do not feel like one another at all. Sunderland boasts a surprising amount of high tech industry and car manufacture, a beautiful coastline, a football team that curses everything it touches and a city centre once known (allegedly) for more bars per square mile than anywhere in Europe, Where it departs London is the palpable sense of an ongoing battle against managed decline. Once at the forefront of British industrial might, Sunderland’s time in the sun was over before I was born. Its last shipyard closed when I was 2, its last coal mine closed when I was 6. Nothing since has come to lift my city to its former perch in the heights of English life.

We were never given any help by any large institution or funder. We expected none

On the day Erivo’s interview resurfaced I was passing through The Bridges, Sunderland’s city centre retail park, strolling past empty units around every corner. I used to joke with friends about the “to let” graphics that had been put up in the windows of vacant buildings in the city centre — Potemkin Village mockups of shops that might exist if a willing entrepreneur would only open them. The graphics chosen to attract a customer the landlord might think would be popular in Sunderland: “Bargins”, they read. “Bargains” spelled wrongly, missing the second “a”. Years later, the same graphics are still there, “Bargins”. Faded to yellow. it gets steadily harder to laugh.

I’ve worked in music and arts in Sunderland and around the North East in some form or another since I was 17 in 2003. My friend Steve and I organised gigs at our sixth form college, then at Sunderland pubs like The Borough (still open today) and Bar Pure (closed), Chambers — a strip club that had a function room upstairs where we hosted American punk bands (closed) and The Royalty (closed).

Sunderland’s arts and culture scene — as is the case with so many smaller towns and cities Eviro would describe as “not wonderful” — is a story of individual endeavour and determination. People taking risks with little to no recognition or nurturing. We were never given any help by any large institution or funder. We expected none.

My friend and I took cues from other people in Sunderland doing the same. In year 11 I’d learned of a gig night held at a cricket club, “Beats Happening” that made me realise that if some lads from the year above at school could put bands on themselves, so could I. The same Do It Yourself ethos inspired the late Dave Harper and his band Frankie And The Heartstrings to open their venue and record shop Pop Recs, which has become one of the only places in the city to find new small touring bands. It inspired Laura Brewis’ “We Make Culture” project to give young people from Sunderland the opportunity to make music and perform it around the UK — a more accomplished heir to the Sunderland Detached Youth Project that I attended as a teenager (Briefly. Nobody wanted to play Nu-metal).

There are few opportunities in the arts in the North East that people don’t build for themselves. Where institutions do exist, they are occupied long term, like a mediaeval monarchy. Someone has to die before an opportunity opens up.

So I moved to London, home of 50% of all UK creative industry output. Working in the arts, I was absorbed into what should now be recognised as a meat-grinding scheme on behalf of the upper classes to ensure their children never face creative competition from working class children.

Arts institutions in London pay wages that a working class person from outside the city will never be secure on. They are managed almost exclusively by privately educated property millionaires. At the same time, they seem compelled to maintain an aura of radicalism.

The figures that detail who works in UK arts are ever-more grave by the year. In 2022, the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre described how in ‘Music, Performing and Visual Arts’ just 22 per cent come from working-class backgrounds. Similarly, The Sutton Trust in 2019 found that 38 per cent of successful individuals in TV, film and music attended private schools.

The disconnect between this class dominance and the requirement for a radical aesthetic is inconvenient and requires the exorcising of a significant amount of liberal guilt. In London,  the radical veneer is maintained through EDI related initiatives (based on a plethora of gender and racial categories separate from class) and academic hand-me-down concerns like the adoption of ‘decolonisation’ practice. Both are relevant to a place as incredibly multicultural as London, but the fact remains: there’s a material inability to participate in culture in the city for those not from means.

Keynes spoke of a goal to “Let every part of Merrie England be merry its own way.” declaring “Death to Hollywood!”

The most stark difference between London and Sunderland is the enormous, longstanding gap in government support. In the last round of Arts Council portfolio funding, 2018-2022, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) reported that “The North” would receive £27 per head, compared with £71 per head in London. In 2017, IPPR reported that bridging the gap in funding between North and South would cost £700 million.

In the end, the much-maligned-but-actually-very-good former Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries oversaw the first real effort in my lifetime to address British regional inequality in the arts — moving £65 million from South to North, forcibly, to great outcry.

However, this movement still comes in a cultural context of an arts world utterly dominated by London and its priorities and neurosis. Let’s Create — the new Arts Council strategy, still struggles to recognise class. Moving the arts ever-more into a community, social and therapeutic context (a sort of cultural/medical triage of the country’s collapsing prospects) it also comes with extensive Equality, Diversity and Inclusion expectations. Expectations that a working class, non diverse and historically underfunded “priority” area, like South Tyneside, would find hard to meet without tokenism. It’s not enough that these locations have seen a famine of support for a generation or more, they must also try to somehow magic up more diverse populations to grab a subsidy. An easy ask in London, a much more difficult one in Sunderland. A formula that reiterates Cynthia Erivo’s definition of a “wonderful” city — one that’s like London.

The Arts Council that emerged in the post-war period had a much different vision for British arts. Announcing the organisation’s goals in 1946, chair John Maynard Kenyes wrote: “How satisfactory would it be if different parts of the country would again walk their several ways as they once did and learn to develop something different from their neighbours and characteristic of themselves.”

The vision was one of fierce resistance to the cultural forces of the American dominated, post war and trans-national culture industry. Keynes spoke of a goal to “Let every part of Merrie England be merry its own way.” declaring “Death to Hollywood!”.

The sight of a British actor on an American talk show slagging off a British city for not being like London would have turned Keynes’ stomach. For the founding vision of Arts Council to return, so would other original principles from the era, that “the arts owe no vow of obedience” and that “the arts are no schoolmaster”. It will be time to recognise and value the thousands of independently minded people that make the culture of small towns and cities.

It will be time to value the parts of England that make up our wide and storied culture simply for what and who they are, not as a collection of places queuing up to doff their cap to London’s socio-cultural elite and become another clone of the capital. To “walk their several ways”, rejecting the giant homogenising forces of modern political arts that present themselves as radicalism. Whether they come from Hollywood, or from giant government departments — or luvvies sat on a talkshow sofa, telling us who is wonderful and who isn’t.

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