Creative Sensemaker #7

A woman on the telephone.

The seventh instalment of Creative Sensemaker, a new cultural series by Tortoise Media, the slow news agency

By Peter Hoskin    Above image: Search Party (HBO)   Friday 10 July, 2020   Long read

Welcome to the latest Creative Sensemaker from Tortoise Media. This week, we start by declaring: three cheers for politicians! Well, perhaps that should be two cheers. Or maybe just the one.

The cause for celebration is that, after months of pleas, open letters and hashtag campaigns, the British government has finally put together a rescue package for cultural organisations. The cultural recovery fund, which was announced on Monday and included in Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s fiscal statement on Wednesday, amounts to £1.6bn over the next year or so.

There are several parts to that £1.6bn, including £880m in grants and £270m in loans. From national institutions to small-town galleries, almost every type of cultural venue will be able to reach for a slice of this particular pie.

This is, we should emphasise and emphasise again, good news. The cultural recovery fund isn’t just, as the government keeps reminding us, ‘the biggest ever one-off investment in UK culture’ – it’s also more than many people expected. Cinemas, museums, music haunts and, crucially, jobs will be saved by this intervention.

Yet we can’t help ourselves from applying some caveats. The first is about timing. Britain’s Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden, has explained away the long wait for this settlement by referring to the ‘intricate discussions’ that led to it – which is no doubt true; this is, after all, the first major sector-specific package since the lockdown began.

But, during that long wait, cultural organisations have already lost employees and, in some sorry cases, closed entirely. We highlighted a number of them in a previous edition of the Creative Sensemaker.

And now there is another wait: the application process is set to open ‘in the coming weeks’. How long will everyone have to hang on for?

Then there is the issue of scope. Boris Johnson has described the cultural recovery fund as ‘world-leading’ – and it certainly compares well to the $300m set aside for cultural organisations in the United States’ coronavirus relief package.

But a recovery fund isn’t the only thing that can be done for cultural organisations, and the people who work within and alongside them. Even when you consider the full range of policy in the UK, including the furlough scheme and the self-employment support scheme, it’s clear that freelance artists are not well served by the government’s offerings. Germany, by contrast, provided €50bn for freelancers and others in March.

And, finally, we must talk more specifically about size. £1.6bn is a lot of money – but, in a very literal sense, it is not enough. As Dowden himself said this week, ‘Sadly, not everyone is going to be able to survive and not every job is going to be protected and… of course we will see further redundancies.’

That’s why people are calling for even bigger sums and bigger ambition – perhaps modelled on the Federal Art Project that was part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal for restoring America after the Great Depression, and which commissioned works from many of the country’s artists.

Of course, it’s not all down to government. Private sector bodies, charities and individuals have been doing a lot to keep culture going throughout the pandemic. Only a few days ago, Sam Mendes and Netflix created a £500,000 fund to provide grants to theatre workers.

And the simplest way to support cultural organisations is to keep on buying – and consuming – their wares. On which front, here are some recommendations:
Two book covers on a grey background.
A book cover on a grey background.
The novels of William Melvin Kelley

‘The Lost Giant of American Literature’. That was the headline to a New Yorker article in 2018 about the African-American writer William Melvin Kelley – and I quote it because it led directly to a handsome set of reissues of his novels from Anchor Books, with covers by his own daughter. A Drop Of Patience (1965) and dem (1967) came out a couple of weeks ago, adding to the already available – and brilliantly acerbic – A Different Drummer (1962). His remaining two novels are due later this year.

The Crown In Crisis: Countdown To The Abdication by Alexander Larman
US readers will have to wait another six months for this book that has just been released for us Brits. Although, if you can’t wait, you can always turn to the news stories based on one of its claims: that the British establishment ignored information that there would be an attempt on King Edward VIII’s life in the summer of 1936, months before his eventual abdication. In their way, those news stories tell you something about The Crown In Crisis itself – that it is a deeply researched, exciting narrative.  
A woman wearing a dress made out of flowers.
Search Party (HBO Max)

Have you got one of those series that you’re just bursting for other people to watch? This is mine. It began, four years ago now, in its first season, with a girl going missing and a group of twenty-something New Yorkers – led by one of the greatest characters on television, Alia Shawkat’s Dory Sief – trying to solve the case. What followed, through that season and the next, is a mix of noir, Scooby-Doo, biting social observation and murderous dialogue. And now, if you’ve got access to HBO Max, there’s a third season to enjoy. 

The Mad Fox (Blu-ray)
We’ve mentioned Criterion, the long-standing champion of home video, in the Creative Sensemaker before. Over the past few years, a number of other labels – many of them based in Britain – have become Criterion’s equals. Among them is Arrow, which has just released Tomu Uchida’s delirious Japanese period film The Mad Fox (1962) on Blu-ray for the first time outside its home country. And delirious really is the word; this is a riot of colour, invention and forest spirits.

Midsommar (4K Blu-ray)
No one really needs Ari Aster’s pastel folk horror Midsommar recommending to them – those conversations were had months ago. So, consider this more of a public service announcement: A24, the company behind the film, has made the Director’s Cut available in 4K resolution through its natty online shop. It’s a luxurious-looking package which, strikingly, comes with a written introduction by Martin Scorsese, who says that ‘there are true visions in this picture… that you are not likely to forget’.
A woman wearing a head dress.
Three women dancing.
Get In Union by Bessie Jones (Spotify)

‘The Mother Courage of American Black traditions’. That’s how the great folk-cataloguer Alan Lomax described Bessie Jones – and the description certainly fits. There was courage in Jones’ eagerness to preserve and promote her cultural heritage, and there was tradition in the spirituals she sung, many of which stretch back decades, even centuries. The compilation Get In Union is the best way to get into her music – especially now that it has been expanded with nine more tracks.

So When You Gonna… by Dream Wife (Spotify)
It started as a joke: a few years ago, Rakel Mjöll, Alice Go and Bella Podpadec decided to form a fake girl group as an art project. What that turned into, though, their band Dream Wife, is not a joke – although it’s definitely still tonnes of fun. This, their second album, is a lean affair: 11 tracks, spread across 40 minutes, that are punky, poppy and political. In fact, the very opening lines are a sort of manifesto: ‘F**k sorry, f**k please…’
A computer generated image of a steam train in a wild west scene.
Desperados III (PC, PlayStation, Xbox)

For anyone who grew up playing PC games like Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines (1998) – or, indeed, Desperados: Wanted Dead Or Alive (2001) and its sequel Desperados 2: Cooper’s Revenge (2006) – the new, long-awaited Desperados III feels like an old jumper; warm and familiar. It is, in essence, the same as those classics: you still mostly keep your little guys out of the eyelines of the bad little guys.

But Desperados III also feels like a new pair of Nikes; fresh and exhilarating. It shows off many of the advancements in game design since the last entry in the series, serving up Old West levels that are equal parts storybook and puzzle box. I can’t think of many better stealth titles. 

Best wishes,
Peter Hoskin,
Culture Editor,
Tortoise Media
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