Sunday, 6 November 2011

Snip, snip

I attended the Northern leg of the Poetry Book Society benefit reading in Manchester on Friday night. The reading, which follows the ‘Poetry Cuts’ benefit in London in the summer, drew together some of the North’s finest writers in a ‘one-off, another-on’ mini poetry marathon to try and save the ailing PBS, who’ve recently had their Arts Council funding withdrawn. Or, if you prefer to be more brutal, who’ve been shafted by wider, symptomatic effects: namely, the coalition government taking the scissors to just about everything prefixed by £s that contain cultural or civic importance.

But this isn’t a political blog and I’m not here to clobber Cameron or crack Clegg one. It’s interesting and rather sobering that in times of crisis we often see the best of human endeavour. Manchester’s PBS benefit was a pristine example – only when the axe is prised to fall do we see such inventiveness and inspiration. I’ve only been following the world of poetry ‘seriously’ for two years or so, but besides at well-established festivals (which I’m yet to attend), I’ve never known it feasible to be able to hop on a train to somewhere else in ‘The North’, pay only ten pounds and hear readings from 16 of the country’s most popular poets.

As a young writer who’s just getting involved in the world of poetry, I found the evening bizarrely anachronistic. I just couldn’t get the nagging thought out of my head that perhaps more could have been done. I don’t just mean by the PBS, but by the poets themselves, as well as other, similar organisations. Why not a North Eastern PBS benefit, for example? Pleasant as the evening was, I’m sure many others, with many other readers, could have been organised in lecture theatres up and down the land. Am I being naive and blasé about this? Perhaps. But why was there not a Newcastle benefit; a Liverpool whip-round; a Leeds fund-raiser? Some might say that they did as much as they could, that (re)joining the PBS and attending the event is making good from a dismal situation, but I disagree. I’ll confess that attending the Manchester benefit was a ‘two birds, one stone’ situation for me: I hopped on another train after the gig and spent the rest of the weekend with my girlfriend. Many from Newcastle and other parts of ‘The North’ (and what about the rest of the UK?), will have been unable to attend simply because of geography. Okay, I’m sure people will have donated online, but that’s missing my point: where are these special poetry readings the rest of the time; the ones that save the cash under the mattress for uncertain days?

I don’t know. I probably am too misguided about how these organisations work. I’m not stupid, though and I remain an optimist: they could certainly continue on far less or no funding – they’d have to ditch the pitch-perfect microphones and the glitzy music halls, and I’m sure a few of the nation’s finest would have to have their aptitude measured more in bums on seats than zeros on cheques – but the PBS could survive and thrive. I’m biased, of course. I hope it does survive; which writer doesn’t want to be (re)commended by a prestigious book club? But it’s true – the PBS probably won’t survive merely on its ardent followers digging deep. Organisations like this are vital – and I should make this clear here if nowhere else in this blog, I fully support their work – but their survival, and that of similar establishments, will be decided by their ability and willingness to evolve and make concessions.

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