Turning point

The announcement of the 2008 Turner Prize shortlist has prompted the usual carping. But let’s not fo

Do you remember how people used to hate modern art? I do. Because it wasn't very long ago. Actually, I can be more precise than that. People hated modern art until about 1991. Which was also the year that Channel 4 began broadcasting the Turner Prize. I know. I was there.

Last November, as the corks popped on Horseferry Road and Channel 4 celebrated 25 years of broadcasting, I had something to celebrate as well. Last year was the 30th anniversary of my becoming an art critic. My first review appeared in the Guardian on 1 April 1977. April Fool's Day. I mention it here not because I, too, want to have my back slapped - parties cloud your judgement - but because those 30 years of incessant art cri ticism qualify me perfectly to write about the impact of Channel 4 and the Turner Prize. I was around before either of them. I know what effect both of them have had. I remember vividly the situation before the two of them got together.

These days, of course, it's all so different. Not only do we take modern art in our stride, but we appear to have developed an unquenchable thirst for it. Queues of excited kidults wind their way around Tate Modern waiting for a go on the slides. Newspaper headlines blare out virtually every day how much this hedge-fundist has paid for that Damien Hirst. It's a favourite nat ional topic. Yes, the odd grumpelstiltskin from Somerset can still be heard at Turner Prize time posing that tedious annual question: Is it art? But no one takes that kind of complaint too seriously any more. It's part of the theatre of the Turner Prize. It's not serious. It's not vicious. It's not like it used to be.

In the old days, I kept a box in which I collected all the rude letters I received referring me to the story of the emperor's new clothes. I called it my Emperor Box. It's one of Hans Christian Andersen's most quoted offerings. A king gets conned into believing that he's wearing a beautiful suit of clothing when, actually, there's nothing there - he's naked. But the king believes the conmen because he doesn't want to appear a fool. The same goes for his queen, his court and everyone else in the land. Everyone except for a little boy, who comes along to the procession, sees immediately that the king is bollock-naked, and begins shouting it out.

So many readers of my articles in support of modern art felt the need to remind me of this story that my Emperor Box quickly overflowed, and I ended up chucking it away in about 1985. Had I kept up the collection, there would now be no room in my house for me. What amused me most about this correspondence was the way that everyone who wrote seemed to believe that only they were clever or truthful enough to make the comparison between Andersen's story and the modern art con. Their hero was the little boy, with whom they identified fiercely. And whenever they encountered modern art that they did not like, or did not understand, they began frantically casting themselves in his role and insisting that all the other inhabitants of the land were being fooled.

When the rude letters first started arriving, I used to write back dutifully to their senders, pointing out a crucial flaw in their thinking. In Andersen's fairy tale, the people who believed that the king was clothed made up the majority, and the little boy was the exception. In the case of modern art, it was the other way around. In England, in 1985, the vast majority of people seemed convinced that modern art was a con. The newspapers agreed and kept up an incessant attack on any and all new art. Remember the Tate Gallery bricks? Critics like me, who were trying to write supportively about it, and who didn't believe that anyone was trying to con anyone else, were branded fools and charlatans, too, and subjected to a nasty barrage of mockery.

As I look back now on those days, it is hard to believe how much has changed. Today, Tate Modern is nothing less than the most visited museum in the world. People love going there. And the Turner Prize exhibition is usually the best-attended show of the year at Tate Britain. What has been forgotten is how much smaller and more local an event it used to be before Channel 4 took it on.

Frankly, the early history of the Turner Prize is embarrassing. In the first few years after its inception in 1984, even I could have won, because it was open to anyone involved in art - critics, curators, museum directors, the lot. You didn't even need to be an artist. No one was sure what the rules were. Or who was eligible. And although a few pictures were sometimes displayed in the rotunda of the Tate, there was no proper exhibition of shortlisted artists for visitors to see or judge. The winners just seemed to emerge in that mysterious British way you also find with knighthoods, or membership applications to the Garrick.

All this changed when Channel 4 got involved. I was at the channel at the time, and vividly remember the debate with the Tate over what the prize should be. Clearly it had to be a prize for artists, but what sort of artist, and how many of them? In previous years, there had been short-lists of five, six, seven and even eight. It was Channel 4 which insisted that the shortlist be kept at the manageable number of four. And set a younger age limit so that the prize could become an encouragement for artists in the first half of their career, rather than a good-service gong slipped to them just before the end.

The other big change was the exhibition. The Tate, which had struggled hopelessly for so many years to attract audiences to its displays of modern art, was reluctant to give over any space to an annual display of shortlisted artists. It was afraid no one would come and that the galleries would remain empty. That was what it was used to. These days, the Turner Prize show can be relied upon to pull in up to 100,000 punters. Back in 1990, when Channel 4 first got involved, if you put up a sign outside a gallery saying "Modern Art Inside", everyone would have gone the other way.

As it happens, the first year of Channel 4's involvement was worryingly quiet. Having been reinvented from scratch, the prize was finding its way. So quiet was the reaction that I remember getting called in to a meeting with the director of programmes at Channel 4, John Willis, and being told that we should drop it and sponsor something at the British Film Institute instead. I disagreed, and was granted another go. Then came 1992. Everything changed. Damien Hirst was invited on to the shortlist for the first time, and through some potent chemical reaction caused by the fusion of his pushy personality with the rightness of the moment, everyone suddenly noticed what was going on at the Tate. From a story that was buried somewhere after the obituaries in the newspapers, the Turner Prize turned abruptly into a front-pager.

The following year - when Rachel White read's sad and iconic plaster cast of a Victorian house in the East End was included, and won - was even crazier. One moment no one was interested. The next moment the whole world seemed to be. Looking back now on this extra ordinary sea change in mood and pace, I can see, of course, that it wasn't the Turner Prize alone, or Channel 4's coverage of it, that was responsible. Various forces were at work here. A rare generation of talented artists, the YBAs, had emerged in unison, producing work that appeared to capture a new national optimism. And the revamped Turner Prize, with its younger rules, became a brilliant shop window for them.

After all those years of Margaret Thatcher and the regressive Britishness that she embodied, the country was sick of grumpelstiltskin-thinking. A change in aesthetics was as desirable as a new prime minister. All those designer lofts that began springing up in Docklands didn't need frilly paintings in frilly gold frames to decorate them, either. They needed art that was fresh, modern and of its time. Basically, Britain had finally learned to accept modernity. It had taken a century, but, finally, it had happened.

Without a pixel of doubt, it was the biggest cultural turnaround of my critical life. And although you can argue for ever about the exact ratio of responsibility for this change that should be allotted to the Turner Prize and to Channel 4, what is unarguable is that both of them were involved in it, up to their necks.

A version of this essay appears in "25 x 4: Channel 4 at 25", edited by Rosie Boycott and Meredith Etherington-Smith, published by Cultureshock Media (£25). Info: http://www.cultureshockmedia.co.uk

THIS YEAR’S NOMINEES

For the first time in ten years, women outnumber men on the Turner Prize shortlist. Bangladeshi-born Runa Islam is now based in London and works mainly in film. Her 2004 work Be the First to See What You See As You See It (still, below left) follows a woman wandering through a gallery filled with fine china, as she gently starts to tip the pieces surrounding her to the floor. Islam’s influences include Ingmar Bergman.

Goshka Macuga is a “cultural archaeologist”, and produces sculptural arrangements that often include work by other artists.

The Belfast-born, Glasgow-based sculptor Cathy Wilkes explores issues of femininity and sexuality. She often uses mannequins, as in Non-Verbal (left), which was exhibited at the 2005 Scotland and Venice Biennale.

Mark Leckey, the only male nominee, is the favourite to win. His exhibition “Industrial Light and Magic” combined disparate media and featured pop-cultural icons such as Felix the Cat. Ladbrokes has put his odds at 5/6.

Natasha Periyan

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Moral crisis?

Chris Ball/UNP
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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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