Thursday, April 23, 2009

Death of Culture in the Europe of the Bureaucrat

European travel with a crumbled paperback in the back pocket, swapped or left en route as too much to carry. Though that cliche probably still rings true, my recent European trips have been short, businesslike trips for a particular purpose: a friend's marriage in Rotterdam; a meeting; a conference. I'm sat in a hotel room in Katowice halfway through the two day itinerary, and in that surreal place that exists when you've had much travel, followed by intense activity. It seems like I left England a month ago, now I'm in a surreal bubble. Perhaps, when I pack everything away in an hour, to check out the hotel, before today's conference, I'll feel that the trip back has begun.

I bought a paper on the way out, and carried two novels with me, but I've not read a word. Even the Twitter stream for the arts event I'd left prematurely in Liverpool, remains too much concentration - or rather, belonging to a different world and place. Like a wedding, these European trips as part of multiple partnership projects are coordinated to the degree that you have only this: a thirty minute window before going down to breakfast - as time to do any reflection/preparation or mental cleansing. It is the Europe of the bureaucrat of course; a couple of days shaking hands with mayors and city officials. In Manchester of course, I'd be lucky to get a nod in a corridor, but today and yesterday I represent the city, and am happy to do so. At one point in the conference meal I mentioned my MA in novel writing, and it brought up an interest from the Greeks I was sat next to. In the surreal world of European bureacracy, a little bit of culture never goes amiss - yet its rare that any programme will go beyond the strictly utilitarian. We expect the trips to the industrial works, just as, in coming to Manchester, they would expect to see our converted mills, yet I felt the snatched hour in a hidden bar, with an iPod for a jukebox playing country and western, Carole King and "All Tomorrows Parties", through the novel, but unwelcome fog of indoor smoke, was a welcome reminder or our differences, and similarities. A few hours before we'd been to visit a business park, which had transformed an industrial wasteland. I wondered how many business parks had been built over the last 10 years through European funding. It must be in the hundreds, if not the thousands. Like the stadia of an Olympiad, built more in hope than for specific purpose.

As we wonder where the "money" will come from for the next ten years, these large empty business complexes seem part and parcel with the age. The bureaucrat, home grown or European, can understand how the reclamation of some industrial land, the building of roads and tram stations, and the buildings themselves - easy erections in a frigid landscape - makes an obvious economic sense. But there's very little moral or spiritual sense. There are few poets of car parks; few bards of new buildings. Every pound (or Euro) spent on culture, it seems to me, pays for itself times over. Yet, when, on coming to Manchester, did anyone put a novel or a poem or even a CD of the Halle in the delegate pack?

I like Poland, and want to come back; our city hosts in Katowice have been exemplary in our hospitality; but in our spiritually bereft age, there's a need for culture on even these unexpected stages. I've seen the short film about the urban reclamation, or the eco-friendly water company; now I want to know how Polish artists and writers have been documenting the change of the last decade. Late tonight, on a bus back from the airport, exhausted, I wonder if some picture will come to mind, that turns into a poem or leaves some legacy behind of the short trip. I imagine it will be so. And as important a memento as anything I could pick up at the airport.

No comments: