Posted inOpinion

Against the Tide: Cultural Production and North-South Migration in the UK

“If the eager and gifted (…) are to feel as much at home in the north and west as in and near London, each region will require high points of artistic excellence.” (1965 White Paper, ‘A Policy for the Arts: The First Steps’)

A child is lying on his back, looking up to the moon. Around him, the audience are pointing. The moon is suspended from the ceiling, etched with NASA images of the lunar surface. It sways in the wind to the swings of the theatre door. The boy is still. His arms are outstretched, ready to catch the moon in case it falls, to carry it home.

I think for a moment he seems part of the installation. Very avant-garde. I wonder how they managed to keep the boy lying there for so long and whether it is legal. 

The boy hops up and runs to a lingering parent. The stage becomes empty, but another child, inspired, quickly takes his place. 

I am in my local theatre, the Coronation Hall, to see Luke Jerram’s visiting installation, ‘Museum of the Moon’. I live in a rural north-western town called Ulverston, a place whose Janus-like gaze looks backwards to the quaint Lake District, and forwards to an industrial coast. Neither here nor there, Ulverston’s liminality captures the sense of remove felt by many Northern towns from the world around them. 

Perhaps the tides are turning. As I look at the crater’s curves, I think this could be the second-best moon I’ve ever seen. 

Everyone is talking about it. I repeatedly hear the same two phrases: it’s come all the way from London; and, it’s free. 

The comments feel incongruous. Normally Northerners must go all the way to London and pay large amounts of money to see this stuff. The kind of culture we have here centres on the Lake District, on Wordsworth and his never-ending daffodils. Seeing something so untethered from the ‘local’ is astronomically unusual. 

Cultural production is split along the North-South divide. If we want to admire the acclaimed artist, network with noteworthy newspapers; if we want to party with pivotal painters, or have a bitch with the best in ballet, we must cast off our raincoats and head down, down, down, until we are over the gap. Based on the 2010-2020 Arts Council Strategy, London received £69 per head of the population, against a mere £4.60 for the rest of the country. Lottery funding tells a similar story, despite the fact that those who play are from the poorest regions – the very areas least likely to see the benefits. The most recent Arts Council Strategy for 2020-2030 is admirable in its focus on ‘towns, villages, and grassroots’. However, critics denounce its ‘vague generalisations’. A counter-strategy calls ‘the current system of cultural funding (…) deeply unjust’.  

Source for figure: Rebalancing our Cultural Capital: A contribution to the debate on national policy for the arts and culture in England

This inequality is not new. A 1965 White Paper called for an end to Art Council England’s ‘few, but roses’ policy, which favoured national institutions at the expense of ‘the rest’. We still pursue a similar theme. Recently, the government announced a £1.57 bn emergency package aimed, as the Culture Secretary stated, at supporting the ‘crown jewels’. Perhaps it is time to think of things not stored in London, to stop ignoring the thorns around those roses. 

Because they prick. As polling from Brexit and right-wing swings suggest, many from the North feel left behind. Lots leave. With London outstripping the rest of the UK in creative industry production, it is no surprise the capital drains the North of those most key to its development. One study deemed selective migration the most important factor for northern socio-economic decline. It mentions the draw of cultural amenities in influencing this movement. The ‘brain drain’ has seen 31,000 qualified British workers leave each year. Normally replaced by foreign labour, a post-BREXIT world could, for the North, be a rather empty one. 

I spoke with the High Sheriff of Cumbria, Julie Barton, on the issue. She highlighted the rising importance of tackling social isolation in our region. I see this where I live. Cumbria’s population is becoming older and lonelier. Communities break apart. 

Melvyn Bragg has talked of the need for London to ‘irrigate, not drain’. On the one hand, London is a global hub of cultural capital, necessitating a larger share of funding. However, it is also our cultural Capital, and has a responsibility to the rest of the UK. Local cultural enterprises in my area find it difficult to receive ACE funding due to high competition. The moon installation, for example, is paid for through donations. Funds should be designed to encourage collaboration, not competition, helping to grow an integrated local ecology for art and culture between different sectors. By touring and live streaming, by devolving power and providing more equitable funding, long-term and effective change is possible. 

It is important not to oversimply. The north-south dichotomy homogenises interregional inequality. We should also not brush-stroke ‘culture’. Jennie Lee’s article called for ‘high points of artistic excellence’. She speaks in the language of ‘high art’, of ballet, opera, the West End. But other types of art do not fit so easily along our north-south map. The music industry, for example, thrives in Manchester and Leeds; design is also a growing sector in the north. But the north-south divide does help us grasp a bigger picture. It speaks to an overall trend – one we should not ignore.  

There is a poem by local writer Norman Nicholson. He describes the flight of a flock of Guillemots: 

‘Turn the page of the weather,

Let the moon haul up the tides (…) then,

The hundred white and the one black flock

Back to the same rock’ 

Nicholson stayed in the North throughout his career, and his work has disappeared into relative anonymity. His refusal to migrate is caught in the flight of the Guillemots, who ‘flock / back to the same rock’. For Nicholson, the motion of the moon provides a contrast to our relative stability. I see that in our installation. Bringing art to our doorsteps means we can move less. It helps us share a similar vision; it makes us feel less forgotten. After all, never mind where we live, we all see the same moon.