Saturday, 22 October 2016

Leave The Capital

"The tables covered in beer
Showbiz whines, minute detail
Hand on the shoulder in Leicester Square
It's vaudeville pub back room dusty pictures of
White frocked girls and music teachers
The beds too clean
Water's poisonous for the system

And you know in your brain
Leave the capitol!
Exit this Roman Shell!
Then you know you must leave the capitol

Straight home, straight home, straight home
One room, one room".

The Fall - "Leave The Capitol".

(I drafted this blog entry a long time ago, in a foul mood. I then left it as a draft for months, thinking "Do I really believe this is true? Do I want to have an argument about it?" But I revisited it today, and thought "Fuck it", and I'm about to press publish. So far as I'm concerned, it's ALL true). 

Technically speaking, of course, I left the capital a year ago, though it wasn't entirely planned that way, and the way in which I've done it would have been pathetic and half-hearted if it had been a sincere attempt at a protest. I'm now back in my birthplace in Zone 4, Ilford, a border town whose actual geographical identity seems to confuse local residents. A recent local newspaper poll showed that around 60% thought it was part of London, the other 40% considered it to be part of Essex. Given that the postal address is in Essex but the borough the town sits in is designated as part of London, you could forgive everyone for being muddled. As for me, whether I deem it to be part of London or not depends entirely on what mood you catch me in and how contrary I feel like being.

(Largely to see what would happen, I corrected my local takeaway owner the other day. He said to me "You know, sometimes I don't like living in London".
"You don't, though," I said. "This isn't London".
"Well... it is and it isn't", he replied). 

For today, I'm going to be a contrary sod and insist that I've left London, and I will do so only because I personally believe that it puts me ahead of the curve, meaning I can affect a pathetically superior air. Some time ago I interviewed Luke Wright about his brilliant book and spoken word piece "What I Learned From Johnny Bevan", and you can read the final results here (this is an exceptionally late plug, for which I apologise). Luke is somebody who has spent much of his career in either Norfolk or Essex, away from the financial pressures and distractions of the city, and is now one of the leading lights in live poetry, not just being a top draw himself but organising major events including the poetry stage at Latitude. At the time when Luke first began to gain a serious profile as a poet and performer, there was a bit of a dominant myth around the spoken word circuit that you had to live in London to get gigs and progress. Without being able to network freely, attend gigs and open mics regularly and be on call at the drop of a hat, you could forget it. A lot of poets in other towns and cities around the UK were occasionally openly angry about how much bias and preference London poets were shown. These days, I have to wonder if London is more of a hinderance than a help to anyone's development - it's true that there's a huge volume of poetry gigs and readings around the capital that probably rival any European city you care to name (much less British ones), but... well, let's weed out the problems, shall we?

1. The Cost Of Living

I hate to open with an obvious one, but unless you have a healthy trust fund or a constant flow of cash from willing sponsors, London is presently nigh-on impossible for an aspiring artist to survive in. Shelter recently published a tube map showing which stations were "affordable" to live near by. The results probably won't surprise you - the suburban concrete slabs of Essex are probably the cheapest places to get by, the rest is largely unaffordable.

Landlords in London seem to have a stronger likelihood for being greedy chancers, purely because the market dictates they can be, and very few people buy spare property with the aim of being a charitable service - their main concern is just extracting the maximum cash they can for their pension fund (at best) or expanding their business empire (at worst). If a flat or some shared accommodation happens to be within your budget this year, there's absolutely no guarantee it will be in 2017 - that Organic Greengrocers that's just opened up 200 yards from your house may be a signifier of gentrification and a huge rent hike. Back when I lived in Walthamstow, I'd see Real Ale pubs opening up and not feel any joy that I could now buy Chocolate Stout in a pub with a vintage pinball machine in it a stone's throw from my house, I just genuinely worried about what it meant in the broader sense. Nobody really wants areas to improve anymore apart from the people with mortgages. This is how perverse things have become (a few years back, my wife actually told me off for getting involved in a campaign to improve public transport in Streatham, because "if that actually happens, we won't be able to afford to live HERE either").

London, of course, hasn't been an easy city to get by in for decades, but the traditional support networks that existed for artists are being eroded away at a terrifying rate. Squats and co-operatives are disappearing as property skyrockets in value, with the relatively secure option of co-operative living being wiped out of the picture by councils of both Labour and Conservative persuasions (Lambeth Labour's anti-co-operative propaganda was interestingly one-sided and vicious for a supposedly "Co-operative Council". But the excessive dilution of the original principles of the Labour Party in its London incarnation are another topic for another day).

In the good old days, these obstacles were a bit lower and just about surmountable if, as an artist, you were prepared to take on a mind-numbing, simple day job which involved clocking in at 9 and leaving at 5 on the dot, providing you with a modest pay packet and an uncluttered mind. Local councils and education services used to be a brilliant source of all kinds of glorified data entry jobs and filing and post room work - however, as these roles now don't pay enough and are also often taking place in grossly understaffed environments, they're just not the source of a steady wage and a clear brain as they used to be. Also, a lot of the work I used to get paid to do in my twenties in London is now actually being done for free by people on "work placements".

2. The Focus Is Moving Away From London
Artists from other parts of the country may not actually hate London, but they certainly resent the focus it's had over and above other cities. Increasingly, the media are picking up on this and no longer want to publish stories about the latest Swinging Dick Whittington who moved to the capital to make their name. Rather, they would prefer to write about somebody who stayed loyal to their local community, helped to develop a scene (especially in a deprived or culturally desolate area) and came out with some unique sounding work, whether individually or as part of a collective. As the Government's drive for increasing artistic funding outside London gains ground, and more minor arts organisations in other areas up their game, this is going to become a more common story. And about time too.
If I were 22 years old now and two clear options were apparent - move to London to try my luck by myself, or attempt to join in to help build a poetry night or movement in a less obvious city, I'd probably take the second route for a whole host of reasons. Not only would I dodge the expense of the capital, but I would also be entering into exciting, unknown territories. The "streets paved with gold" tale is folklore, but creating something unique from scratch and giving a local environment something they possibly didn't even realise they wanted is far more exciting. Make your own myths and build your own movements - you don't have to join the existing machinery here. 
And as somebody on Twitter said to me recently: "If Bowie got a scene going in Beckenham, anyone can do it anywhere". (If you've never been to Beckenham, you possibly don't realise the significance of this statement. Take a train there and look around one day and wonder at how anything at all could have ever happened in Beckenham, even a thunderstorm).

3. The Supportive Environment
Poetry, like all niche art forms, has its arguments, spats and rivalries in any town or city you care to name. At its best, though, it offers a supportive community of generally like-minded people. Or at least, it should. 
When I first started performing in London, gigs were thin on the ground but everybody knew each other, and regardless of the genre of poetry they felt they were delivering, it was generally assumed that we were all roughly on the same side. It's true to say that some experimental poets tended to be slightly aloof and even argumentative, but we all generally moved in roughly the same circles and bumped into each other at events. 
As the circuit has grown bigger, however, the supportive social element has largely gone for a Burton.  If you attend a poetry gig in London these days, a poet is more likely to thrust a business card into your hand and bugger off after two minutes than actually make an attempt to befriend you and attempt to talk about the work over a drink. Networking has become fast and impersonal. The scene has also fragmented into different genres and different geographical bits of the capital, meaning cross-fertilisation of ideas is becoming increasingly rare. In the past, poets of all stripes would quietly absorb ideas from each other - these days, it's rare to see a page poet, slam poet, experimental artist and comedy poet in the same room at the same time, never mind the same bill.
None of this means that London doesn't also have some of the most well-organised and entertaining live poetry nights in the UK, but getting noticed here is harder than it ever was, particularly if you're trying to attempt something slightly outside the mainstream. Overwhelmingly, the promotional focus in London is on showing poetry to be an immediate, relevant and everyday force - a noble and necessary aim, but not one that's always fantastic for poets who want to find the time and space to develop a unique voice.

4. You're Not Wanted Here
I genuinely believe this is true (at least, we're not wanted by the powers-that-be). It's how I feel, anyway, often quite bitterly. If being born here counts for fuck all and London residents are steadily being forced out of the city, do you really think anyone cares about your latest collection of prose pieces enough to grant you easy access? "Money talks, bullshit walks". 
London now is a city that, through its financial pressures alone, only welcomes artists who have already accomplished something and are successes. It's where household names settle. It is not a city that offers developing artists the time, money or means to find their feet. If you've got a sugar-daddy or wealthy parents, or family who live within the London zones you're happy to cohabit with, then sure, you can while away your time developing your craft here. If not - you are coldly and unreservedly on your own.
This isn't something that's about to happen or might happen in the future, contrary to what you might read in the press - it's the state London is in right now. We lost the argument. Which is why nobody, not even those of us born in the general area, could blame any aspiring artist or writer from catching the first train in completely the opposite direction and taking their chances there. Go forth and seek your fortune. Just do it in Manchester, Leeds, Bristol or Hull. Only a complete idiot would chance their arm here. 
(These views are entirely my own and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone else at all. Sometimes that's just the way it goes.)

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