Edition number 41; dateline 3 May 2011
Tricia and Derek's cultural day out
One of the downsides of being pompous, self-righteous and supercilious is that occasionally it can be hard work. Take for example the recent royal wedding. Labouring under the weight of a point of principle, not to mention a fast-approaching deadline, I was obliged to forgo the delights of a hastily arranged bank holiday and do some work. However, wearing my hypocritical contrarian hat, I also felt the need to nip downstairs to check out what all the fuss was about. And fuss there was aplenty. Streets full of cheering and waving, wall-to-wall coverage on all channels and a host of television presenters, many of them habitually erudite and capable journalists, parking their critical faculties alongside their historical perspectives to coo over a charming young couple taking their vows and kissing chastely for the delight of a large crowd assembled for the purpose. All was sunshine and celebration, bunting and banter while a sizeable part of the nation put its troubles to the back of its mind for a few hours.
Back at my desk I reflected on the conclusions that one might draw from someone’s televised nuptials. First, everyone loves a wedding. That seems undeniable. Second, in common with so many weddings, it looked as if someone had seriously blown the budget. Third, and equally undeniable, it seems that this taste for quasi-monarchical pageantry is, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, a significant part of our national culture. But if the marriage of the continuing lineage of the house of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha is part our national culture, what does it mean for the rest of the things that The Leisure Review and its (growing) readership tend to think of when culture is being discussed? How is Catherine and William’s walk up the aisle relevant to the rest of the sport, leisure and culture sector, and where does a royal occasion sit on the cultural spectrum?
While everyone loves a wedding (otherwise why would so many people get married so many times?), would there be the same turnout for Tricia and Derek from Isleworth (another unlikely couple from west London) if their big day featured horses, guardsmen and was on the telly? Probably not (although it would be interesting to see just how many people would tune in to enjoy the event). Perhaps the huge enthusiasm for the royal wedding has something to do with a general national affinity with the quasi-monarchical compendium of pageantry and pseudo-history that is British nationhood. Whatever its origins, people turned up in their hundreds of thousands to be part of the event and all of them would consider it to be culturally important, personally and nationally; and, whatever their motivation, they all turned up voluntarily. This voluntary aspect of culture, a point recently discussed most eloquently by Sam Jones in The Leisure Review lecture at our symposium, is clearly essential but serves to remind us that the last time people turned up on the streets of London in such (or greater) numbers they were protesting against going to war. What part does and should political protest be seen – and allowed – to form part of our national culture? After all, so much of what passes for elements of national culture are esoteric, contradictory or essentially simple, perhaps even mundane. Take the weekly pilgrimage of football fans around the country in pursuit of their teams’ fortunes as an example: huge numbers, a simple pursuit of hope in the face of experience but undeniably part of the national culture. Should that be facilitated and funded in a similar fashion to that of a royal wedding? Of course not; but why not?
Apparently Kate and Wills’ wedding was not an official state occasion. You could tell, we were told, by the fact that former prime ministers were not invited (apart from all of them except two, the ones that the father of the groom doesn’t care for) and that it was only close family and friends (apart from all the heads of state, ambassadors, dictators, murderers, arms dealers and, even more inexplicably, Elton John). State occasion or not, it was a fiendish drain on the public purse and if it is not a state occasion why is the state picking up the tab? The answer is, of course, that while it is not a state occasion it is part of the nation’s culture; not to mention the attendant security issues. But if the Home Office or the Treasury is happy to pay for security and policing for a non-state occasion why do football clubs the length and breadth of the country have to pay for their own policing at matches, irrespective of the size of the crowds and the likelihood of disorder?
All this investment in certain aspects of national culture is only justifiable and only acceptable if the government makes a genuine attempt to reflect the broadest understanding of the nation’s culture in its investment in cultural activities. A royal wedding, apparently a private event, will no doubt tick the box but so should the many and diverse activities in which people choose to participate, whatever it is they do and however many of them do it. In this issue there are numerous articles that articulate and dissect the impact that government spending cuts are having and are likely to have on the cultural activities of countless individuals up and down the country. Unless the government reassesses culture, its understanding of the cultural realm and the value derived from cultural investment – and here I would again point any ministers, members or researchers to The Leisure Review lecture – royal occasions may be all that is left. And if royal occasions are the only bit of culture that are left there is a very good chance that the next time a member of the royal family gets married the crowd will not be cheering quite so loudly.
letter from the editor
The Leisure Review editorial