Danny Boyle, who was born in Lancashire and studied in Bolton, is HOME's chief patron. Photo: Getty.
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Danny Boyle: The BBC is “as important to our democracy as Westminster”

Danny Boyle, the man behind the Olympics and the upcoming Steve Jobs biopic, speaks to the New Statesman at the opening of HOME, Manchester's answer to London's Southbank.

“Public funding of the arts represents about 0.1 per cent of government spending,” Sir Peter Bazalgette wrote this week, but “The creative sector represents 5 per cent of our GDP and has created jobs five times faster than the overall economy since 2010. We should set about doubling it.”

Few politicians will disagree with such words, but arts funding was one of the first things to be cut when the coalition axe fell five years ago. £1.3 billion was spent funding the arts from 2008-2011. Less than £1 billion was provided during 2012-2015, and inflation means a billion isn’t what it used to be.

But there is still money for a few new projects, and one of the most eagerly anticipated launched in Manchester this week. HOME is a new and very modern arts space: it’s a cinema, theatre and arts gallery all rolled into one. Or, as Danny Boyle, HOME’s chief patron, put it to us on Thursday, it’s “five cinemas, which is amazing, with brilliantly-sized seating ideas, two theatres and three art galleries.”

Boyle and HOME’s other patrons, such as Nicholas Hytner and Meera Syal, hope the space can be “not just for Manchester, but the whole of the North West – we hope it’ll draw people from all over”. For Boyle, “It’s a shining light of how we should make cultural investment in our great cities.” Similar spaces are needed in the North East too, he adds.

Why? What do these spaces do? Boyle offers two answers as we huddle in the corner of HOME’s bar/lobby, 5 minutes after the curtain falls on The Funfair, its inaugural production (from playwright Simon Stephens). The first is fairly formulaic – culture is critical to a “nation’s well-being and an individual’s well-being, in the way that hospitals are, and schools are” – the second is circuitous and more interesting.

“Have you read The Circle, the Dave Eggers book? You should read that, it’s an amazing book.” Boyle begins. He is fairly subdued after a day of interviews – and hours of being encircled by a new admirer as soon as each fleeting conversation ends – but Eggers animates him.

“It’s about these utterly benign institutions which are going to replace all these institutions which we take for granted. And some of the things they’re going to do are so benign and so useful, that they’ll be irresistible.

“Currency and money and barter have been replaced by data. You don’t just give your money to a company any more, they want your information, and they will find a way of monetising that. That information is deeply personal.

“That will need to be policed. But the vast majority of that isn’t illegal, and will never be. It’s a moral issue. And I think no greater policing of that can be done than by artists.”

Boyle's fascination with data seems to have been piqued in the past few months by his shooting Steve Jobs, the long-awaited biopic written by Aaron Sorkin and starring Michael Fassbender as Jobs.

It's unclear how much the film will deal with the significance of data, but Boyle thinks it's the role of artists to “inspire us to be alert”. “We need to be armed and ready for the challenges to come. There’s a danger, it looks like to me, that we’re sleepwalking into an abandonment of our individuality. When we’re reduced to data, individuality is lost. And it’s up to culture to insist on that individuality, and a place like this can do that.”

HOME will try to do so through film, theatre and art. But of the three, theatre seems to be its greatest focus—or at least Boyle’s, despite his cinematic background.

“A body like this that will allow a director like Walter [Meierjohann, HOME’s artistic director], and other directors, to work here – that’s a wonderful space to work in. It’s like the Royal Court Theatre, the size and the intimacy of it. That’s a wonderful opportunity.”


Slogans for the 21st century: the maiden exhibition at HOME.

Such flagship spaces are rare. Theatre is hard to finance, and a hard way to make money. “Even when it works – unless you do huge Broadway shows, or big West End shows – I’m not sure it’s designed to make money. You saw the big cast on-stage tonight. Economically that is very difficult to make work.”

It’s the role of artists to “inspire us to be alert”.

But Manchester City Council prioritised the project in 2012. They put up nearly £20 million of its £25 million budget, with Arts Council England providing most of the rest. And its theatres are what Boyle keeps coming back to.

“Theatre is the most extraordinary experience. When you see great, great theatre, there is no experience like it. It touches and connects with people. You rarely see it, but when you do it’s beyond all your experiences, and I come from film, and I love film, I love music, but when you get it… I remember seeing Jonathan Pryce play Hamlet, and I still haven’t seen anything like that, ever. And it’s never left me. And that was like, 30 years ago.”

I ask him about his universally celebrated Olympic Ceremony, and why no politician seems able to offer a vision of Britain half as compelling. We drift onto the BBC. He calls it a “a wonderful double-headed thing. It supports culture, and it’s as important to our democracy as Westminster is.”

“We have an independent and almost all-pervasive state broadcaster that is trusted and respected around the world, and I think pretty much trusted and respected by people at home.”

Boyle showcased the NHS in his Olympic ceremony, but he would have chosen the BBC if it hadn’t been inappropriate to praise the channel hosting the show. He thinks both institutions are “urgent and necessary and believed in by our people”.

“If you asked the British public whether the BBC should be funded by a specific tax, I don’t care who you are, I think they’d say yes."

He is confident about their importance in a way that recent left-wing politicians haven’t managed to be. Boyle has always been unafraid to champion his beliefs, and was unrestrained in his criticism of Maria Miller during her short-lived tenure as Culture Secretary. He is more subdued on this night, but, with a incoming Tory Culture Secretary known to be sceptical of the licence fee, he does offer one remark.

“If you asked the British public whether the BBC should be funded by a specific tax, I don’t care who you are, I think they’d say yes. I think they’d say yes about the NHS too.”

Although he adds, “I don’t know enough about it to say whether it’s an appropriate model for it anymore.” But he thinks we will be asked such questions far more in future. “I think as democracy becomes more electronic and instantaneous, it’s [voting] not going to be every five years.”


The central image of HOME's maiden exhibition comes with little explanation.

“There will more and more plebiscites. We’re going to have ring-fenced funding set against specific tax rises.” If Boyle is right, and we’re asked about taxes too, any attempt to cut budget deficits will quickly collapse. When asked, the British want well-funded public services – as Boyle says, few want to dismantle the BBC – but don’t want to pay the taxes they demand. Asking voters for approval to raise taxes nearly bankrupted California.

Regardless of whether Boyle is right, he and HOME’s many other backers hope such debates will be enlivened by the shows and art exhibitions put on here. Unlike London’s Southbank, its most obvious comparison, HOME is tucked away in a south-west corner of Manchester. It isn’t surrounded by the Thames and centuries of history. But it’s a hub of the sort Britain rarely builds outside London, and good shows are sure to sell-out.

Perhaps £25 million could have been better spent in the forgotten towns around Manchester, restoring places like the Victoria Pavilion Theatre in Morecambe, but the twenty-first century will be lived in cities, and HOME could become an iconic part of George Osborne’s great ‘Northern Powerhouse’.

Harry Lambert was the editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.

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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era