The End of Culture

In which The Author releases the safety-catch of his Browning

Yes, boys and girls, I even went to the trouble of looking up the correct quotation, in an actual printed book, no less. In his 1933 play Schlageter, the German dramatist Hanns Johst wrote the famous (and often misquoted) line, ‘Whenever I hear the word culture I release the safety-catch of my Browning!’
In a footnote, The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (1999) points out that it’s ‘often attributed to Hermann Goering, and quoted as “Whenever I hear the word culture, I reach for my pistol!”’
That’s why I got the ODQ off the shelf in the Cosmic Tigger Reference Library last night and checked the attribution for myself. Call me old-fashioned, but there are probably a million incorrect citations online, whereas the compilers of reference books actually go to the trouble of checking their sources.
Regular readers will already know that Rhondda Cynon Taf County Borough Council have proposed a series of closures or downgrades across the borough. I’ve already told you that the plans involve the closure of the Cynon Valley Museum and Gallery in Aberdare (see Lost Heritage – What Future?) The Muni cinema/theatre in Pontypridd is also threatened with closure. The borough’s other two theatres, the Coliseum in Aberdare and Treorchy’s Parc and Dare, are earmarked to operate a ‘reduced programme’ – although it almost beggars belief that they can be reduced any further!
The meeting to discuss the future (or otherwise) of these amenities will take place in Clydach Vale tonight. Look up Clydach Vale on a map – if you can find it at all – and you’ll see that it’s in a side valley branching off the Rhondda Fawr near Tonypandy. The council headquarters itself is in a little industrial park; it’s (sort of) on a bus route, but only during the daytime. You can walk there from Tonypandy, but it takes about twenty minutes or so.
Call me cynical if you like, but the council’s headquarters could hardly be less accessible if they’d built them on top of the Maerdy Mountain. In fact, sticking local authority offices in out-of-the-way places seems to be a good way to keep ordinary people away from the centres of power. When I was living in Uxbridge in 1984-5, I noticed that Hillingdon civic centre was in the middle of a busy traffic intersection, and was a bugger to get to on foot. I was in Bridgend last autumn (see A Tale of Two Castles) and found that the civic centre there is on a similar site.
In fact, the parallel between medieval and modern Wales could hardly be clearer. The rich men (and women) still sequester themselves in their secure fortresses patrolled by private security guards. Meanwhile, the latter-day peasants are kept at bay, not by a moat, but by two or three lanes of constant traffic or a lack of public transport. After all, we know our place.
RCTCBC isn’t the only local authority faced with swingeing budget cuts, of course. Last month, the South Wales Echo reported that St David’s Hall and the New Theatre in Cardiff could face closure (Shipton, 2014). It’s hard to believe that the capital city of our country could lose two of its four theatres (the others are the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay, and Chapter, attached to the students’ union.) Mind you, it’s even harder to believe that they’re losing money to begin with. Consider that both venues accommodate a thousand people or more, and that ticket prices for most events start in the region of twenty quid apiece. You have to wonder where that money’s going, don’t you?
The Valleys of South Wales have a rich cultural heritage dating back to their economic height in the Victorian era. Wales is renowned as ‘the Land of Song’; our tradition of choral and instrumental music, our stars of stage and screen, our poetry and drama, have all put our little corner of the world on the global cultural map. However, it’s been slowly eroded over the last three decades as a number of factors came into play. Older people retired from the scene, and the membership of the old societies dwindled as a result. On the other hand, young people often left to study or work outside the area, and took their talents with them. Venues closed as the cost of upkeep became prohibitive. The old miners’ institutes fell into disrepair, often vanishing in ‘accidental’ but suspiciously convenient fires.
I once had a pint in The Market Tavern with a chap who was staying there while he was in pantomime at The Coliseum. His name was Graham Aitken, and he’d gone to school in a wealthy part of England, where money was readily available for subjects such as drama and music. From there he’d gone to drama school and become a professional actor. Graham and I chatted for a long time about the paucity of provision within schools for that sort of non-academic, non-vocational subject. He’d been lucky, in that his school had actively encouraged him to pursue his interests and he’d made a career out of it.
At that time I was involved with the Youth Entertainment Society, a voluntary group run by a couple of music teachers and a gang of enthusiastic amateurs (see Connecting People.) The kids who joined YES didn’t have access in school to the sort of skills they were developing in our evening sessions. We got some funding from the National Lottery, but on the whole we just about managed to break even.
Stuart H., the group’s musical director, was a peripatetic music teacher who spent more time driving between schools then he actually did in the classroom. However, budget cuts meant that his work was starting to dry up, so he upped sticks and moved to England. As soon as the kids finished their A Levels, they buggered off as well. After Stuart left, that was the end of YES.
In microcosm, what happened to YES was a perfect model of what’s happening across Wales (and the wider UK) at the moment. Upcoming talent is being driven from the area because funding isn’t available to support it. Small and medium-sized venues, where people could showcase their abilities, have disappeared or are threatened with closure.
But this is about a lot more than money. It’s about a vital link with our past, a continuous thread that’s in danger of being severed. My old friend Gwyn Morgan spoke eloquently at the public meeting to save the Cynon Valley Museum and Gallery a couple of weeks ago. He quoted a passage from the First Book of Kings:
Naboth of Jezreel had a vineyard near the palace of Ahab king of Samaria. One day Ahab made a proposal to Naboth: ‘Your vineyard is close to my palace; let me have it for a garden; I will give you a better vineyard in exchange for it, or, if you prefer, its value in silver. But Naboth answered, ‘The Lord forbid that I should let you have land which has always been in my family.’
Gwyn’s point was that Naboth’s birthright was also his children’s inheritance; if he gave it away, then his descendents would have nothing. That’s the danger we face in South Wales at the moment. Youngsters are already being driven away from the area because there’s nowhere for them to develop their creative talents. In another decade or so, the only source of ‘entertainment’ left to us will be the bloody television. An entire generation, a whole society, will be as dumbed down as America is currently. It’s not a pleasant prospect, is it?
While I was looking for the ‘culture’ quotation in the ODQ last night, I came across another one with ‘culture’ as a keyword. It’s by a Scotsman named Alan Bold, and comes from his poem ‘June 1967 at Buchenwald’; however, it could equally well refer to the meeting this evening:
This happened near the core
Of a world’s culture. This
Occurred among higher things.
This was a philosophical conclusion.
Everybody gets what he deserves.
The bare drab rubble of the place.
The dull damp stone. The rain.
The emptiness. The human lack.
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Adventures in the Book Trade (Part 6)

In which The Author fears for a young man’s life

One of my pals has just shared a nice cartoon on Facebook, based on an imagined (yet plausible) conversation between a couple of well-known comic book characters:

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It reminded me of a customer who came into our bookshop one morning, looking for an eighteenth birthday present for her son. All she knew was that he was a fan of Nirvana, and she’d spent some time looking through the various books about the kings of Grunge.
Eventually, with a worried expression on her face, she approached the counter. She explained the situation, and commented that all the books about Nirvana and/or Kurt Cobain went into detail about his death.
‘The thing is,’ she said, ‘he’s still quite impressionable. I don’t want to get him anything that talks about suicide.’
That put us in a bit of a predicament, as you can imagine.
‘Well, you see the problem is,’ I said, none too sympathetically, ‘that Kurt Cobain was a junkie who blew his face off with a gun. It’s probably the most famous thing about him. All the books are going to mention it.’
‘Oh,’ she said. ‘In that case, I might get him something else.’ She headed back to the music section and carried on browsing.
When I glanced over a few minutes later, she was leafing through a biography of John Lennon (who was shot, aged 40.) I carried on serving in the mean time. When I looked across again, she was holding a book about Jimi Hendrix (who choked to death, aged 27.) Then I went for my break, leaving one of the girls at the counter.
I returned twenty minutes later. By this time, the same customer had moved on to the Classical Music section. She was skimming through a book on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who famously died aged just 35.
I drew my colleague’s attention to her current selection, and whispered, ‘I really don’t think her son will make it to eighteen at this rate.’