Guest Blog from Artist & Writer Dan Thompson, Board Member at Talking Birds.
Here on the Kent coast, we’re well aware that the British Isles are – well, unstable. The White Cliffs of Dover stay white because they crumble, and the old chalk falls into the sea to reveal a fresh white face. Over the time we’ve been locked down, a couple of homes on the edge of the Isle of Sheppey have fallen into the sea. From the Brutalist towerblock I live in, on the front at Margate, Sheppey sits on the horizon, looking like a mysterious island from a Famous Five adventure. It’s inspired me to imagine how far coronavirus might take us, with a monologue about a country emptying out.
When you live on the coast, surrounded by crumbling cliffs, changing tides, and where a storm can reshape the beach in a few hours, collapse and change are just part of everyday life. But when I have worked in Coventry, Stoke-on-Trent, or Leeds, there’s a more permanent landscape. Occasionally it throws up a surprise, like the Victorian tiled doorstep found in the precincts, but it’s fairly stable.
The coronavirus, though, has made it really clear that in the UK, 75 years since the end of Empire and after 10 years of government cuts, everything is unstable. Not just the ground, but history itself – statues can tumble – and so can many of the assumptions we have built our country and our economy on. In Margate, an economy built on tourism was always precarious, but cities like Coventry thought a student economy was sound (just as the car industry once seemed unstoppable). It turns out, with a decline in foreign students started by Brexit and accelerated by Covid 19, and with UK students unsure about their options, it might not be.
Meanwhile, the death of the clone town – the end of big chains of shops, of every High Street looking the same – seems inevitable. I sat in on a briefing from Coventry’s city centre manager recently, while she explained that ‘The New Normal’ will be pretty much the old normal, but with bigger spaces in the queue, and more tables and chairs outside. Having worked around town centres and empty shops for 20 years now, I don’t think it is. I think this is a more radical collapse, although it may take a few more months to happen (remember that house, on the edge of Sheppey’s cliff, was there for a long time with the ground underneath being washed away with each tide, the house hanging on, the moment it fell always inevitable…).
A few months ago, on 16th March, my tough, athletic, dancer daughter was taken ill. With all the symptoms of Covid 19, she developed a fever, and delirious, was out of it for about 10 days. In that time, while she had no idea what was going on, shops boarded, schools closed, lockdown began – and when she came round she couldn’t comprehend how the world had changed. Change comes quickly.
Like her, we’re so caught up in the moment that we’re not really aware of what’s changing. So far 64,000 people have died who would, under normal circumstances, still be with us, and many – like my friend’s mum, Kathleen – have had unattended cremations. We haven’t had time to mourn yet, but with a death rate roughly equivalent to the civilian deaths in the UK during the Second World War, we will need to.
Unemployment is up, and will accelerate once the government’s Job Retention Scheme ends. While we saw queues at Primark this week, the truth is our towns and our city centres are about to fall apart. The tides are battering the bottom of the cliffs. Our education system is close to breaking too, because while teachers have tried their best, coronavirus has exposed the underlying inequalities of a system that needs families to provide textbooks, laptops, and a quiet study space. And while the government, like Jim Hacker at his Churchillian worst, say they’ve strained every sinew to save the NHS, the truth is, after years of underinvestment, it is close to collapse. A brutal Brexit would be hard in good times: but when we are, as a nation, already down it is going to have huge consequences.
And somewhere in this, we have to find a way for an organisation like Talking Birds to work. We are agile so can respond to shifting circumstances, and in good financial health: in fact, we have been able to help others during the crisis. But theatres will close, museums will shut, and galleries won’t reopen. Around three in ten of the artists, performers and small artist-led organisations that went to Arts Council England asking for help were declined.
During lockdown, people have consumed more culture than ever before. It’s often said that people don’t like ‘the arts’, but it’s the arts that writes the narrative, designs the characters and creates the settings in computer games. It’s the arts that writes the scripts and creates the characters and designs the sets for television. The arts is the music that is downloaded, the books that are read, the films watched, the dances on TikTok and the Instagram poetry.
And all that has a huge impact on the UK’s economy. The arts generate £306 million every day. They’re a bigger economic sector than the car industry, aerospace, gas, and oil – combined. The arts is jobs, is our power in the world, is our national character. Even in shifting times, the arts provide not just employment and enjoyment, but meaning. They help us explore and understand the world. The give us different perspectives, new ways of seeing. They teach empathy and kindness.
Talking Birds has been part of Coventry for nearly 30 years. As a company, it knows and loves and understands this place. With the number of the dead too big to understand, with coronavirus still spreading while other countries have halted it, with the worst recession since the 1930s ahead, and when nothing is stable, we’re going to need the arts more than ever, and Talking Birds is here for Coventry.