Culture and money

No one should doubt that festivals have an economic impact - but are the claims made for them overst

At a recent conference to discuss the story so far for ‘Liverpool Capital of Culture’, Phil Redmond, its lugubriously amusing creative director and all-round TV deity, put it bluntly: "Culture is not just about people holding hands and singing songs. It’s about bringing people together. It’s about footfall. With footfall, people spend cash. With cash you get regeneration. That’s what it’s about."

A trot-through of the relevant statistics suggested that his city can indeed walk tall at the moment. An estimated £35m worth of worldwide media coverage on the back of the opening event featuring Ringo Starr; 800,000 visitors from 189 countries since January; more than 2.75m people have attended a cultural event in that time; plus a 25 per cent to 65 per cent increase in attendances at major attractions.

The list was formidable. If you think about regeneration in terms of a physical action - with more blood pumping into the system, and greater vitality reaching every bodily part - then, on that basis, Liverpool’s regeneration - as a direct consequence of Capital of Culture - has some of the miraculous properties of a reincarnation on Doctor Who.

How long-lasting the process will be, can’t be certain; the city looks set to withstand some of the recession’s worst buffeting as more people look closer to home for their holidays, but even if things tail off in 09, it looks safe to say that Liverpool’s transformation is beyond easy reversal.

The pattern of a surge in economic activity as a result of cultural festivities is discernible across the country. Take three of the festivals that have just been and gone: The Brighton Festival, Norfolk and Norwich Festival and Fierce! in Birmingham.

As at 2006, when an economic impact survey was compiled, Brighton Festival was estimated to contribute £20m to the local economy every year, while Brighton Dome and Festival employs 260 people, and attracts £750,000 in sponsorship per annum.

Jonathan Holloway, artistic director of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival claims that his festival’s cultural offering brings a calculable benefit to a deprived region of Eastern England. "With 20 per cent of the audience coming from outside the region, we estimate that in all about £4m is pumped into the economy." Last year there were some 70,000 visitors - this year he anticipates the number would approach 100,000. One startling indirect social benefit, he suggests, is that crime levels drop during street festivals.

Finally, although Fierce! is a modestly sized, cross-arts programme, the positives for Birmingham were defined starkly in 2004: 32 per cent of questionnaire respondents had travelled over 20 miles to the event, and nearly a quarter of respondents (23 per cent) came from more than 50 miles away.

The Arts Council’s research that year (Festivals and the Challenge of Cultural Tourism) found that festival visitors from more than 20 miles away spent on average £145.71 per day and stayed an average of 3.5 nights per visit. An estimated 100,000 plus people annually engage with the festival’s programme, we’re told. You don’t have to be a maths whiz to realise that Redmond’s equation about footfall applies here too.

So does that mean that any benighted urban - or even rural - location with a name, a car-park and a marketing strategy can set itself up with a festival and watch the regenerative cash flow in? Holloway, former events manager at the National Theatre, sounds a strong note of scepticism: "I do think there’s a tendency to put two or three events on one plate and call it a festival. Creatively, we should have huge expectations of festivals. I expect them to transform people’s lives for the better - I have no truck with the idea of festivals as a marketing tool."

All in all, festivals can bring tangible - and less tangible - benefits; you can’t measure things like civic pride and a greater sense of a collective identity but clearly the uplift that flows from a well-run arts festival isn’t limited to the satisfying ping of cash registers. When the planning and execution go well, you should get a virtuous circle of increased economic, social and artistic vibrancy. The motor of passion behind it, though, has to be the desire by artists to engage people - and, well, ensure they enjoy themselves.

The danger lies when the claims made on behalf of festivals become not only overstated but the very raison d’etre of the festival. And I can think of no better instance of this than LIFT (the London International Festival of Theatre) which starts this week. For the best part of two decades, LIFT played an invaluable role in bringing over the best work from overseas that its co-founders Rose Fenton and Lucy Neal could find. About five years ago, shortly before they handed their baby onto Angharad Wynne-Jones, the organisation became intensively introspective.

The artistic programme this year looks pretty thin. There are ‘four global reports from Australia, the Pacific, China and Canada’ - which translates as four dance and performance pieces by relatively unknown practitioners. It’s hard to work out what you’d rush to spend your money on. There’s little to catch the casual eye besides an insistent need on LIFT’s part to ‘get into conversation’ with people. At the heart of that is something called the Lift Parliament, described by Jude Kelly, artistic director of the South Bank as "one of the most important cultural developments for London in the coming decade". This is "a new concept in performance space where artists from around the world and the people of London can gather together to share stories, exchange knowledge and imagine and rehearse new futures".

Forgive the reliance of press-release quotes at this point but the Lift parliament, along with many parliaments one could mention, seems to have an instinctive love of hard-to-apprehend hot-air. Maybe I’ll be proved wrong when I step inside this strange vertical portable venue, when it pitches up at the South Bank - and get stuck into meaningful discourse with another dropper-by. But to pretend that dialogue around art can be as transformative as art itself and as empowering as political enfranchisement strikes me as a kind of evasive piety. To change the world you need to engage with the political system not hang out in a surrogate hive. To make a change, you’ve got to make the leap - not just catch a LIFT.

Lift Festival 2008 Stratford Park, Newham E15. 12–21 June. Tickets: 0844 412 4317 Lift

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood