WHO STOLE MY CULTURAL CAPITAL?
By Pete Castle – Editor 'Facts & Fiction' U.K. Storytelling Magazine.
A while ago I read the text of a speech given in Sibiu, Romania by writer Dr. Mike Phillips entitled, 'Cultural Capital: Migration, Identity and Heritage'. He described 'cultural capital' as 'the bank of cutural resources, which social groups, and individuals within them, collect and use, both as a method of asserting their identity, and as a method of pursuing desired goals within their society'.
In the west that cultural capital has been appropriated by a group of 'gatekeepers' he said, who defend 'official cultural institutions' from most of the population. Those gatekeepers are the cliques who run galleries, theatres, The Arts (with capital letters) generally - and they include the Government, the National Lottery and the Arts Council. Our cultural capital has been locked away in glass cases and we often have to pay to experience it: to buy back what is, or should be, our own.
The speech was given at around the time when Romania and Bulgaria were becoming members of the EU and Mike Phillips made the migration aspect of the title relevant to that event and the expected huge rise in emigration from those countries. (It did take place although smaller numbers than expected came to the UK, many went elsewhere – France, Italy etc. As a result there is such a shortage of working men in Romania many of the schemes to which the EU have granted money – building roads, infrastructure etc. are under wraps because there is no-one to do the work!).
Immigrants into a country, Phillips says, go one of two ways: they either accept lock, stock and barrel the culture of their new country and deny any worth in their original culture (I remember vividly driving through Hungary about fifteen years ago and being amazed at all the billboards for Macdonald's and strip clubs and casinos and every form of Americana which they had bought into completely as soon as the iron curtain came down); or they desperately hang on to the mores of the past long after they have become old fashioned in their homeland, as the more conservative of South Asian immigrants in this country have done.
He sums up by asking the Romanian people not to desert their culture. He point out that 'if you live in a village in Sussex, or near Doncaster, and you want to know about the history and culture which that village had 20 years ago you have to go to a museum (but) the artefacts in the Peasant Museum (in Sibiu) were by and large things that you could see (still in everyday use)if you go to any village in Romania'. I know first hand that huge and rapid changes are taking place in that country but there are many people working to keep their cultural capital intact.
Even in England it is not too late. Our heritage is known, it's not that far below the surface, but it needs a huge change of heart to put it back into our everyday lives. We have become a cultural colony of the USA. Mike Phillips quotes how he celebrates Easter: '(we) watch crap films on television and we buy chocolate rabbits, the Easter Bunny....and we buy chocolate eggs because they are chocolate....'
The Romanians he'd met didn't do that, they 'painted their Easter eggs in traditional patterns. And they didn't go to the supermarket to buy their ready made food, but they cooked their Easter Sunday lamb.....'
It wouldn't take much for us to turn the clock back in that way. Christmas/Easter dinner or the family lunch on Sunday has not entirely vanished. It would take longer before we could all sing an English traditional song or recognise an English story as opposed to a Continental one, and even longer before we could do our cultural dances. And we've never had a traditional costume! But for any of that to happen we need to be encouraged – granted access to it by those gatekeepers who have shut it away from us. At the moment we are being positively steered away from being English. We can't put it as our nationality-we have to be British. Political Correctness makes us scared of offending by stressing our our identity. Why should they be offended? I'm not offended by anyone else's identity and customs, in fact I positively enjoy them, so why should they be offended by mine?
The only people who do seem willing to celebrate Englishness are the Far Right who have hijacked a strange, incorrect and ignorant image of John Bullishness – ignorant because they are denied the true image; denied it by people trying, for all the right reasons, to counter them. Our local council had a rule that any storyteller or musician they booked had to be 'multi-cultural' – in other words come from any culture except England. That's because in a small number of towns in the area there is a strong BNP (British National Party) presence. The result is that English youngsters have nothing to compare with these other cultural traditions which they are shown. They just get more confused and belligerent.
What they actually need is the opposite to what they are getting; they need to hear English songs and stories, to learn about English customs and traditions, to see Morris Dancing done well* and not treated as a joke, and to feel some pride in those things. I did manage to persuade at least one local arts officer of this and she booked me to work alongside ethnic minority storytellers and musicians at several events. Now though, the whole Arts department has been axed in a cost-cutting exercise so there won't be anything happening at all!
It will be long, slow process to reinstate our cultural capital and we might find that it's all been spent before we get there, but we should all be trying.
In my view all English storytellers should make a point of learning a few English stories and, better still, some stories from their own locality, and then make a point of doing them at every opportunity.
Whenever I work near home I plug away at the Derby Ram (A local legend) and am always amazed at how few people recognise it, and that includes the elderly as well as youngsters. If nothing else I can explain why Derby County FC are called 'the Rams' and just now and again I discover a gem – such as the old man I have to chase up soon who remembers going Guising 'when he were nowt but a lad' and who might have some interesting stories to tell. That's a bit more cultural capital I might be able to save.
*The Morris Ring started the new year by warning that morris dancing was in danger of dying out because young people aren't doing it – perhaps that's because the media always treat it as a joke.