CHAPTER – this is the first ‘scratch’ chapter of a book I am writing. It’s working title is Everyday Uses for Creativity in Public Life. It is about how our collective creativity could be applied more usefully in various aspects of our public life – Oct 1st 2019
For the last twenty years I walked in to the same building to go to work. From when I was thirty to when I was fifty. Through the battered oak panelled doors, across the mosaic and in to Battersea’s former Town Hall, home to Battersea Arts Centre.
When I first started working there I was a producer who made stuff happen. Then I was a freelance producer who also made stuff happen but who didn’t get paid. And then for fifteen years I was artistic director.
The offstage dramas in Battersea were often as memorable as the shows: the time we were nearly evicted, the night the corridors became rivers of shit and the day the back half of the building burnt down.
Despite occasional misfortunes, Battersea Arts Centre is full of people with optimism and a determination to change things.
Earlier this year it was time for me to move on and let someone else have a go at running the organisation. I miss its energy and creativity. But don’t worry this is not an artistic director’s memoire. God please no.
I want to write down some stuff about the future.
I have my kids to thank as motivation. But not in the way you might expect – it’s probably easiest if I share a day in my current life as a parent…
I am walking up a steep hill along the coast. We have moved to the South West. My youngest daughter is on my shoulders. My son is strapped to my front. My wife is at work.
I am getting a bit healthier doing all this child carrying. I take note of the makeshift wooden signs which warn about snakes on the cliff – they seem a bit extreme.
The sun breaks through and the lavender blue ocean sparkles all the way to the horizon. I feel lucky to have escaped tube stations and traffic and be enjoying the wilds of the coast. This is what it’s all about!
My daughter ventures on to the ground because she wants to run to the sea. She sets off, trips and spectacularly launches herself in to the shrubbery. She yelps like a wild animal and screams that she’s been stung. I gather her desperate crumpled body off the floor.
She sobs all the way home and during dinner. By bedtime she just moans and mumbles. It’s not until she falls in to an irritable sleep that I realise that she must have been bitten by an adder!
Why didn’t I realise earlier? Should I check her for fang marks? Do adders have fangs? I begin to look up ‘adder fangs’ on google along with ‘symptoms for adder venom’.
I begin to feel sick and imagine telling my wife how our daughter died.
I think about whether I should text her now with the news, live, as it’s happening? Or wait until I see her tomorrow evening?
I’m a bad parent and should not have been left in charge.
The next morning my daughter is fine. She doesn’t remember her near death the day before and she can’t wait to walk to the beach again. I feel sick.
Parenting is about hoping for the best while always imagining the worst.
I currently seem to use all my creativity conceiving everything that has gone, or that is going to go, wrong with my children. Largely because of me.
Childcare is simultaneously uplifting and bloody bleak. One minute you’re in heaven. The next you’ve ruined your child’s life forever. That’s if they’re still alive at all.
At the time of writing this, I am six months in to my new role as dad; six months from the relative calm of Battersea Arts Centre to six months of daily threats to life and consequent wallowing in my latest botched attempt at parenthood.
Someone once said that with children, the days are long and the years are short.
So that’s the backdrop of my current life. And in order to provide a counterbalance to thinking about my children’s potential deaths, I have decided that I need to have something else to think about.
So I am writing this to think about something else.
(Note to self, the first thing you have written about is the near death of one of your children.)
So what is this?
This is me taking a step back from twenty years inside the same cultural institution to think about how collectively we could do things more creatively in public life – and what might flow from that.
As well as offering me essential escapism, I hope what I write will be a useful contribution to a wider debate about applications for our creativity – and perhaps the start of a conversation with others who are interested in this territory.
It has always struck me that debates and discussion about our creativity tend to focus on one of three areas.
- Creativity in relation to arts and culture – connecting to the life and practice of artists.
- Creativity in relation to the individual – identifying ways to enhance our individual creativity.
- Creativity in relation to business – innovation and entrepreneurship in the commercial sector.
And plenty of debate which crosses over between these three areas.
I think there is less written and discussed about the role of creativity in transforming public life.
For example, how can our collective creativity improve our modes of government, our education or health systems or civil society?
I do not mean how can there be more art in government, in education, health and civil society.
I mean how can we collectively develop a more creative environment and cultivate creative processes in these important areas of our lives?
I think there can be a good deal of squeamishness about the idea of creativity in public life. What do we mean by creative government? What is a creative school or hospital? How can creativity improve a community organisation?
These are not questions we regularly debate. I think this might come from the challenge of pinning down exactly what we mean by “creativity” in these contexts.
When we talk about creativity and the list of three areas I mention above – creativity and culture, creativity and the individual, creativity and commercial enterprise – we have developed an understanding and language which helps us define a clear role for human creativity.
We know it involves imagination, testing stuff and trying out new ideas, iterating and prototyping. Often there are specific people who we connect the creativity with – such as artists, inventors or entrepreneurs.
But when it comes to areas of public life we often struggle with creativity as a useful concept.
Perhaps it is less clear who is creative? Perhaps it is the idea that we might have to try things which may not initially work? Or that creativity can seem frivolous in areas which relate to public trust? Or maybe it is just that creativity is an unfamiliar concept in these areas?
So this is what I want to write about. Everyday uses for creativity in public life.
I want to write a book about how creativity could make a transformational difference to our public life – and I want to write it in an open and iterative way – publishing monthly blogs.
Of course I have no right to write this stuff: I have not had direct experience in government; of running an educational institution or hospital; or a lifetime’s experience in civil society.
But during twenty years at Battersea Arts Centre I was consistently drawn to these areas of public life to explore how creativity could make a big difference.
I hope by writing this in an open and iterative way that others who do work in these areas or who are also interested in this territory might engage and contribute their perspective and ideas or link to other existing materials.
I intend for each of my blog posts to be what I would call a “scratch” – a rough starting point.
And I will try to keep each monthly post real with some day-to-day domestic dramas as we go along.
Each monthly post will explore a consistent theme – encapsulated by Melvin Oliver’s and James Young’s song ‘Taint What You Do (It’s The Way That You Do It).
This was first recorded in 1939 and since then it’s been covered by many including Ella Fitzgerald and in 1983, in the incarnation I got to know, by Fun Boy Three with Bananarama.
I believe the central theme of this song can go some way to improving our public life. In other words, if we take a more creative approach, we can radically improve the way we live together.
So I’m aiming high with this thing I’m writing. Childcare by day, evolution of our public life by night!
I’ll put up my first post on the topic on Nov 1st. I hope you have a good October amongst the turbulence that is no doubt coming our way this month.
This month’s recommendation:
I am very interested in the role of creativity in helping to tackle climate change – if you are too then I recommend Rob Hopkins’s What If – coming out on October 17th – exploring the role our imagination can play in creating a better future.
Next post on 1st Nov 2019
If you want to read Nov 1st Scratch then click here