Storytelling defines a culture

I get a buzz from seeing talented people do their thing.  Whether it’s sport, comedy or plays.  I’m endlessly impressed watching the skills that have been honed over thousands of hours.  And the joy and passion at performers’ self-expression.  I love seeing people learning their trade, too.  Supporting up and coming talent. 

Edinburgh Fringe has all that in spades.  It’s the tapas of live entertainment.  Lots of little portions which add up make a satisfying meal.  We also ate actual tapas!  I’ve spent the last few days there with my family, and am writing my column on the train back. 

Nelson, my younger son, is learning the guitar.  His choice was “When Judas Met John.”  Two brothers performing and comparing the songs of Bob Dylan and John Lennon.  The lad’s got good taste – I raised him well!  The similarity between Norwegian Wood and 4th Time Around is obvious.

Now fifteen, my older son Leon liked Stand Up Philosophy.  Philosophy teacher turned comedian Alex Farrow hosts stand-ups, and the audience quiz them on their material.  Sitting in the front row, I got asked my occupation.  I always answer questions honestly, “I’m a politician.”  Groans and jeers from the audience.  “What kind of politician?”  “A socialist politician.”  That got a more positive response.  “What’s your name?”  Someone in the Edinburgh audience had heard of me, and I got a whoop. 

This led to banter between the comedians on the nature of democracy, online radicalisation, and a heckle from someone.  “Democracy will never work in the West.  95% of the wealth is owned by 5% of the people.” 

“If only,” said Alex, “there was a political philosophy that tackles wealth inequality,” gesturing to me, and taking the session full circle.  You can’t beat live entertainment.  

The act that will stick with me is Paddy The Cope.  A first-person storytelling of working class hero Patrick Gallagher, founder of the co-op in Donegal.  Accompanied by a fiddler, it took us on the journey of shale mining, love lost and found, oppression by the usury merchants, and the way a community fought back to gain some measure of economic democracy. 

Storytelling defines a culture.  I’ve heard it said that Scots and Welsh devolution is more advanced because of a stronger cultural identity.  Perhaps it’s time we invested in telling our stories of the North East, old and new. 

The Netflix model is to get the whole world seeing the same shows.  But the local variety is what gives entertainment its richness and allows youngsters to imagine what they are capable of.  Don’t get me wrong – there’s some good stuff on Netflix.  But the money we pay Netflix or Sky leaves our region. 

The Fringe shows the power of having a cultural centre to a city’s calendar.  It’s a staging post for launching other activity.  It attracts talented performers.  It makes this a better place to live.  It’s about the most cost-effective advert a city or region can have.    

We don’t want to cut and paste.  What works for Edinburgh might not work for us.  We have a solid base to build on.  Just the week before, we watched the Handlebards perform Macbeth in the grounds of Hexham Abbey.  In the rain.  The Stand Comedy Club is hosting live gigs again.  And I hope to support the Newcastle Improv Festival in coming years. 

This is the focus of our Culture, Creativity and Tourism work.  It’s not just about staging one-off events.  It’s about investing in the content creators and supply chain companies.  Performers and writers, yes.  And everything from make-up artists to lighting riggers.  Jobs people really want to do.  No alienation of labour here.  Providing a support network for creatives to grow sustainably and still be around in 10 years’ time. 

The gig-economy gets its name from the culture and creative industry.  The risk puts many people off following their passion.  Especially kids from working-class backgrounds, who can’t rely on financial support from parents.  Predictable work is the bedrock of flourishing creative and cultural industries.  Any industry in fact!

Hopefully in the not too distant future when asked where best to go for live entertainment, people will say “right here in the North East”.

*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 23 August 2021