Small lungs shouting

July 2nd, 2014, 2pm

It was 21°C with scattered clouds. There was moderate breeze.

The NPO moment four years ago was outside McDonald’s at Valencia’s Joaquin Sorolla railway station, hooking into their free wifi to receive two emails from Arts Council England with their National Portfolio three year funding decisions for 2012-15. Yesterday the NPO moment came 3G on a train between Ilkley and Leeds.

Last time there were 53 organisations in the national literature portfolio, 27 (51%) of them in London. This time, for 2015-18, there are 46 organisations, 25 (54%) in London.

For 2012-15 London got 53% of the money, this time, 56%.

This isn’t about the relative value of the work of London and regional organisations. I only mention it because the prevailing narrative is about redistributing money from the capital to the regions. Not for literature.

Last time literature received £20.6m, 2.02% of the total grant to the portfolio, in 2015-18 it will get £19.9m, 1.96% of the total.

I only mention this because the narrative has been about redistributing money from the well funded art forms to those that have been historically underfunded. Dance got an uplift of £10m, literature in the regions got a cut from £9.6m to £8.7m.

On the London/regional discussion, some will argue that more funding goes to London because organisations that work and deliver nationally are based there.

This argument completely misses the point of every revolution that has taken place since the 19th century: in government, Europe, migration, in technology, in the way we place ourselves in the world. It also misunderstands the art form, which by nature is dispersed and mobile.

Is Peepal Tree Press, a publisher of Caribbean and Black British writers based in Leeds, a local, national or international player? All three of course. My own organisation, The Writing Squad, recruits in the north of England, but our writers are as likely to be from, or live in, Reading, Bristol and New South Wales as Rotherham, Bolton and Newcastle.

Along with Ilkley Literature Festival, the Squad and Peepal Tree are the only Literature National Portfolio Organisations left in Yorkshire now.

ACE will continue to support regional literature through their Grants for the Arts programme, but what the national ecology needs is strong and different regional ecologies in which promoters, producers, publishers and writers are supported over the long term and not from project to project. Investment is needed in a variety of people and organisations, not just regional super agencies who have to balance creating critical mass and proliferation with absorbing activity to justify their existence and ensure their continued funding.

There were some great decisions, it is brilliant and brave that ACE continued to fund The Writing Squad, vulnerable because we find it hard to raise charitable and corporate donations as an unashamedly elite programme for people who, in the main, won’t achieve success until some years after our programme. We also don’t have a building to leave an embarrassing public scar if we were axed.

It is fantastic ACE has recognised how Inpress, the organisation promoting independent presses, has developed and is becoming an effective player in the cut throat world of book selling. If I’d been putting money on any decision, I would have bet on Inpress being an easy victim because there is nothing else like it and, again, no public building. It is also great to see Tom Chivers’ wonderful London based press Penned in the Margins joining the ACE portfolio. So, hurray for the good decisions.

I have always scoffed at people who say they fear criticising the Arts Council, but I have to admit that I feel a little nervous, I don’t want to be seen as ungrateful, or biting the hand that feeds me, I don’t want to jeopardise the livelihood of my colleagues.

But as the wailing of the opera sector fades (English National Opera took a big cut, and they have big lungs opera) some slightly smaller lungs need to shout: let’s not lose sight in the prevailing narrative that literature as a whole, and especially literature in the regions, has lost out in this ‘redistributive’ settlement.

For info and transparency: I am the founder and Co-Director of the Writing Squad which became an NPO in the last round and was successful in this. I was the Director of the National Association for Literature Development which was chopped last time - quite rightly, it had had it’s time, though there seems to be a NALD shaped hole where this debate should be taking place, someone other than me pointing out the above. I am a (voluntary non-paid) board member of New Writing North the writer development agency for the north east of England and of Inpress both of whom are NPOs, Tom Chivers has recently joined the Inpress board, also in a voluntary non-paid capacity.

All the figures are based on the NPO announcements made on 30 March 2011 (there were in-term cuts made during the three years of the programme) and on July 1st 2014.

Adrian said thanks.

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Steve Dearden

Writer, producer and Director of The Writing Squad -

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