Our final video in our 'Culture for All' series of short films, sponsored by the CWU, features Professor Selina Todd talking about why culture matters.
Why Culture Matters
by Professor Selina Todd
In 2021 I published a history of social mobility: Snakes and Ladders: the Great British Social Mobility Myth. Most studies of social mobility are packed with statistics, as if the story of social mobility is beyond politics and personal experience, able to be condensed into a neat statistical table showing how many people have gone ‘up’ or ‘down’. I was more interested in who had managed to define some ways of life as superior to others, and what this meant to the people who travelled across British society during the past century. And because of this, at the beginning of the book I placed a quotation that had echoed around my head as I wrote. The quotation is from the socialist intellectual Raymond Williams, and it is this: ‘Experience isn’t only what’s happened to us. It’s also what we wanted to happen.’
That quote is taken from Williams’ autobiographical novel, Border Country, which was published in 1960. The protagonist in the novel is, like Williams, from a Welsh working-class family but he has become a university lecturer in the south of England. In the course of the novel he comes to realise that he hasn’t got to where he is by escaping his background, but by using the riches he inherited from a community characterised by solidarity, and the hope that solidarity can bring.
He inherited other things, too, that speak to the harder side of working-class life: a knowledge of deep, often unspoken unhappiness and despair arising from political defeat, poverty and the thwarting of personal dreams. In a rural community there was also love of nature but appreciation of its strength – ultimately, an appreciation of the need to coexist with the natural world rather than attempt to dominate it. And there was the tension between solidarity and the claustrophobia that small communities or tight-knit neighbourhoods can cause. As Williams showed, the need to move outwards from this community to realise personal ambitions brought rich gains – but those who did so incurred losses as well.
Put simply, Border Country, like much of Williams’ work, and like much of my own, is an attempt to smash the much-peddled notions that working-class people are ignorant, uncultured, uncivilised or – one that I’ve had to grapple with in the 21st century – that they no longer exist, having disappeared with the mines and the steelworks.
In Snakes and Ladders I traced the importance of the labour movement in creating adult education in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The demand for adult education grew out of men and women’s thirst for knowledge – and a wide-ranging knowledge at that. They wanted to know about the history of their own communities and the socialist movement, but they also wanted to discuss Shakespeare, Dickens, philosophy and art. Later, in the 1970s, when feminists began to point out that women made culture too, it was the Workers Educational Association, not the elite universities, that introduced women’s studies and women’s history courses.
There was no single ‘working-class culture’, jostling in opposition to ‘highbrow’ culture. The kind of culture of which I write always arises from material life – from the experience of industrial work, or poverty, or being born a woman into a sexist society. But the art, writing or cinema produced from those experiences doesn’t only speak to those who have had the exact same experience as the producer. Culture can provide a map to solidarity, helping to forge connections across different social and political locations, providing that burst of recognition that you too feel those deep emotions, have experienced that fate, dream the same dream.
In 2012, the playwright Shelagh Delaney died. She was best known for her play A Taste of Honey, which she wrote as a Salford teenager in 1958. It’s the story of a single mother and her teenage daughter, who herself becomes pregnant during a brief relationship with a black sailor. I decided to write Delaney’s biography, partly because I found the obituaries so frustrating. On the one hand, Delaney was accused of not having written A Taste of Honey herself, a claim made by critics since the 1950s – they couldn’t believe a working-class women was capable of this. On the other hand, the obituary writers wondered where today’s Shelagh Delaneys were, not recognising that their inability to see young working-class people as more than ‘savages’ (how one critic described Shelagh back in 1958) might not exactly help young people from pursuing their dreams.
What made a difference to Shelagh Delaney, and to many of the so-called ‘angry young’ novelists and film makers who followed in her footsteps was the availability of local opportunity. There were local newspapers, regional television channels, and city theatres where they could cut their teeth. For Shelagh, it was the existence of a radical socialist theatre, in the form of Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, that made it possible for her play to be staged in London where it became a box office hit. Those opportunities aren’t there today, but the next generation of Shelagh Delaneys are there if anyone cares to look – in her old stomping ground, MaD Theatre Company, Salford Lads Club and Salford Arts Theatre give a home and a voice to plenty of talented young people.
Culture, as Raymond Williams once said, is ordinary. It arises from everyday life. But it is also extraordinarily radical. Think of the miners’ banners that still appear each year at the Durham Miners’ Gala. On one side of many of the banners is a picture of the colliery as it is. On the other is the picture of the world we want to come. We are living through some very hard times at the moment, and it is worth remembering that many of those banners were created before 1939, in times of great hardship, a lack of democracy, and the threat of fascism. No one knew then that socialist and feminist aspirations for free healthcare and education could be achieved. It was a dream, not a precedent or a focus group, that led to the 1945 welfare state – a welfare state that gave many young people, Shelagh Delaney included, chances their parents had never had.
How do we find them and give them their chance? We need more funding for adult education, not only because many people don’t fulfil their potential at school but because we want to know different things as we get older. We need to break down the artificial division between ‘community’ arts and ‘professional’ initiatives, by giving space on BBC television and the BBC’s Internet platform to local groups, and by inviting women’s groups, WEA classes and trade unions to curate exhibitions at our national galleries and museums. And our children should grow up knowing that girls are as capable as boys, and migrants and black British people as capable as those who are white and British-born.
This hasn’t been achieved by so-called ‘diversity’ initiatives in the early 21st century, because they fail to address the causes of racism and sexism. It’s time to rediscover the culture and campaigns of earlier feminists, like those of the 1970s Women’s Liberation Movement, who argued against sex and racial stereotyping and for equal pay, equal treatment at work and in education, and for liberation from oppression, not simply ‘diversity’. And, following the lead of Southall Black Sisters who have argued this since the 1980s, our culture should not simply celebrate ‘diversity’, but, in the wake of a new wave of religious fundamentalism, must stand up for the universal values of freedom from violence and freedom of expression.
Culture translates individual dreams and disappointments into collective experiences, explaining both where they come from, and where they might take us. It is a reminder that we are not alone; we are not solely responsible for our fate; but we might use our disappointments and defeats, as well as our achievements and victories, to weave a better life for the future. As the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War once put it: ‘Reality and dreaming are different things…because dreams are nearly always the predecessors of what is to come’.