Daily Archives: August 30, 2008

Creative Scotland And The Obesity Crisis: Filling The Gap Inside – Column 30.8.08


JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 30.8.08

TO THE TRAVERSE THEATRE, on Thursday evening, to chair the Scotsman Debate on the arts, the latest in a series covering the whole range of Scottish life and policy.  Staged in the last days of this year’s Edinburgh Festival (once again an astonishingly huge and successful event, despite a quintuple whammy of atrocious weather, collapsing global credit systems, absent American tourists, meltdown at the Fringe box office, and the usual striking lack of television and radio coverage on an appropriate scale) the debate was a feisty and sometimes even testy affair.  At one point in the evening, the great Richard Holloway – former bishop of Edinburgh, and chair of the current joint board of the Scottish Arts Council and Scottish Screen – became so riled by the scepticism of the arts community about the rate of progress towards the setting-up of the new umbrella body for the arts and creative industries, Creative Scotland, that he roundly exhorted everyone concerned to stop “whingeing and bitching”, get behind the new body, and try to ensure that it works well.

It would be wrong, though, to give the impression that there was nothing to the debate but a prologed wrangle over arts funding bureaucracy; because every single members of the panel – and many people from the audience – also spoke ardently and  enthusiastically about the sheer creative energy they find around them in Scotland’s cultural life, and about its potential transforming effect on individuals and communities.  Colin Marr, of Eden Court Theatre in Inverness, talked about his theatre’s huge education and outreach programme, and its involvement in the Feisean movement in the Highlands and Islands, passing on knowledge in the traditional arts to new generations.  Vicky Featherstone talked about the role of the National Theatre of Scotland, the brilliance of the dozens of artists with whom it works across Scotland each year, and its aspiration to do ever better in representing the whole geographical and cultural diversity of Scotland.

And the two Tommies – the great jazz musician Tommy Smith, and the Stand Comedy Club boss Tommy Shepherd – spoke  inspirationally about the huge latent hunger for creative expression unleashed by events like Monday open mic nights at The Stand, or by schemes that allow access to musical instruments and teaching to kids who might otherwise never have such an opportunity, and whose talents might be utterly wasted.  Creativity, after all, is not called by that name for nothing.  As all five panellists could testify, it’s a force which can generate energy, pride, purpose, achievement, transformation, conviviality and joy, where none existed before; and it can do it out of almost nothing, given just a little friendly support.

And it’s at this point, I think, that the “creative Scotland” agenda – and the idea of culture and creativity in general –  begins to link with one of the other major topics of the day; namely the self-destructive and damaging behaviour that still disfigures many communities across Scotland, and the rest of the UK.  This week, the topic of choice is the obesity crisis, and the apparent determination of the New Tories to remind people that if they are morbidly fat, then it is their own fault.   Of course, many of us in Britain may be inclined to feel that given the track-record of the Conservative party, during the 1980’s, in wrecking the economic base of thousands of working-class communities, taking away their purpose in life,  smashing their social and cultural structures, and then – in a final twist of disempowering sadism – insisting on a cultural shift which would label the victims of this process as worthless losers responsible for their own misfortunes, then another couple of generations of abject silence from them, on the subject of the lifestyle of the underclass they so ruthlessly conspired to create, might not come amiss.

But whatever the brass neck of the Tories in daring to lecture the underclass about anything at all, the fact remains that unhealthy lifestyles are bad for you; and it’s not the sleek Conservative health spokesman Andrew Lansley who will end up dead at 60 from a combination of diabetes, heart and lung problems, drug abuse or drink, but hundreds of thousands of ordinary people whose lives could have been both longer and better, if they had somehow managed to break the cycle of hopelessness, helplessness, and underlying self-contempt that contributed to their poor health.

Now it should, of course, be obvious to every thinking person – although apparently not to the Tory front bench – that the last thing people need, when suffering from this kind of cycle of self-abuse and rock-bottom self-esteem, is punitive rhetoric and exhortation designed to make them feel even more inadequate, guilty and worthless than they already do.  Instead, what they need is positive motivation; that is, a restoration of the sense that somewhere at the heart of them, there is something beautiful and valuable, worth cherishing, expressing and – in the fulness of time – reflecting in their physical selves.

And in the absence of wealth, or power, or any guarantee of love, the creative life often represents the most powerful available source of that sense of personal magic and worth; the space where people – by experiencing beauty and excitement in sound, words and movement, and by moving into that world as appreciative observers or potential creators – can begin to rediscover their own unique value as human beings, and the reasons why their life is worth living and prolonging.   It may be a long process, in other words; longer than a short Scottish lifetime, longer even than the setting-up of Creative Scotland.   But I believe that in the end, a truly creative Scotland will be an ever healthier Scotland; one with the self-respect, and the sheer enjoyment of life, to take care of itself in troubled times; and with a natural resource that is truly inexhaustible, and sustainable to the last.