Friday, 23 September 2011

Festival and Future on Arran

Festival and future

It’s been quite a week, here on Arran. The annual McLellan Arts Festival has seen an Opera Gala, a performance of the Mozart Requiem, a night of archive film about Arran and a poetry get-together featuring Alexander Hutchison and five local poets. 12 post-grad opera students from the Royal Northern College of Music have been here for master classes with their tutors. Multitudes have been handsomely fed by two inventive Arran women, one of whom in fact is Dutch and the other Latvian. We’re nothing if not cosmopolitan.

Robert McLellan was an Arran-based poet and playwright whose centenary sparked the first festival, with such success that it’s gone on ever since.  This year, the outlook was grim. Grants were receding like a balding man’s hairline, and the only option was to see what we could find from our own resources. Poets were no problem. Arran is full of poets. It’s quite possible we’ll start getting poetry tourism, in the same way that people go to Ailsa Craig to look at the gannets, with the advantage that poets are for the most part quieter and less messy. There’s no shortage of musicians on the island, either, and there are countless artists and crafts people. The Royal Northern College is ‘part of the family’ as one of its tutors lives here. And of course, there is the interested public. We had not expected that 200 people would cram into Corrie Hall for an evening of historic Arran film, or that the Community Theatre would be packed solid with people eager to listen to operatic arias. Astonishingly, when one island resident heard of the local fund for a dreamed-of grand piano, he came up with the total cost, and the festival was enhanced by a gleaming black Kawai.

Arran has the huge benefit of oddball people who are willing to chip in their ideas and abilities. Cash isn’t the point – we are here because of the island itself. Last winter in the icy, treacherously sloping Co-op car-park, a woman turned with a contented sigh from gazing at Goat Fell, white against a blue sky. ‘Aren’t we lucky!’ she said. Yes. We all share that contentment – but what makes it active is the input of Arran’s people. David Cameron was perhaps feeling his way round some such concept when he first dreamed up his Big Society catch phrase. Arran’s society is not big – just 5,000, fewer than in the average mainland town. Paid jobs are in short supply, so a lot of people are self-employed. The average income is ludicrously low if you discount retired residents who have had a well-paid career elsewhere, but our terms of success are not cash-based. Values balance in a different way. Time and transport are given freely. Petrol is £1.50 a litre on Arran, but we share cars whenever we can, and in return for work and constructive imagination, we enjoy a cultural life that would cost a fortune on the mainland.

The Government evidently sees Britain’s population as an element in the notional balance sheet, (now deep in the red) and encourages us to purchase goods. Nothing much else about us matters, which is why all forms of social support are being withdrawn. All the Arran people I know dissent from this view, since it is obvious that cuts leave people with nothing to spend. We dissent, too, from being corralled into mindless obedience, and from an education system that increasingly encourages unthinking conformity.

Here, of course, lies the government’s central paradox. On one hand, they are all for free enterprise and self-help. On the other, they dislike the expression of opinion and dissent, as we saw from the hysterical response to the foreseeable London riots. We are supposed to be enterprisingly obedient. It’s a tautological impossibility, but that doesn’t seem to have occurred to them. Neither has the understanding that independent, maverick thinkers are likely to be the best survivors when it all goes wrong – which it will. Oil is on the way out, and the current desperate scratching around in shale and tar sands won’t help for long. The Scottish government knows this, as its sustainable energy programme shows, but Westminster continues in its purblind way, as though kerosene-guzzling air transport will always be on hand to bring us cheap food from all over the world. Sooner or later, it won’t. At that point, we are going to need self-reliant people with a good grasp of practicalities and an independent outlook. Our children need to be learning right now the skills of intelligent imagination and ‘out of the box’ thinking – but the Coalition is keen on the box. Its restrictive corners creep closer every day. As a small example, students at the West of Scotland University are not allowed to put paper notices or announcements on the boards in the communal areas. Electronic boards are provided, since they do not mess up the architectural concept – but nobody reads them. The same is true, to our exasperation, of the tourist board in Brodick. No hand-written flyers allowed – they make the place look untidy. But untidiness is part of the great compost-heap of entropy. It is a direct expression of feeling and ideas, and without it, we are belittled. Wordsworth knew it all those years ago when he railed against restrictive schooling. ‘Shades of the prison-house begin to close/ Upon the growing Boy.’

Arran, so far, maintains a sublime indifference to the official box. High winds and rough seas can stop the boats and cover the roads in snow, and do so at their own sweet will. They impose a discipline that is broader and more fundamental than any notional prison-house. Long may it last.

Alison Prince

No comments: