Dust Up: Business, Creativity, Nation

imageIn the Dove Cottage Tea Rooms at Grasmere we encountered a local artist’s portrait of Michael Jackson. It was of a standard retailed to busloads of retirees in safe day-trip destinations the world over. But also a reproof of sorts: paint-by-numbers-Michael gazed over the scorching cappuccini to say art in the Lake District need not always be natural, expert, English, and white. (The King of Pop himself, of course, was only ever one of those things.)

imageMy own childish resistance to the lavender-bags legacy of William Wordsworth expressed itself in passages excerpted from a perverse National Trust guidebook. The painting, we decided, was by poor Dorothy, whose commitment to celebrity portraiture was matched only by a propensity to ringbark trees, explaining the occasional dead trunk in the vicinity, and the coins pressed therein for good luck. Meanwhile William apparently ended his days scrawling gibberish in the Rydal caves, physically sustained by gnawing on the bodies of red squirrels; relishing, it seems, the fur.

imageCould the present future be any more bizarre to the real Wordsworth? Could he have imagined his reclusion—his commitment to contemplation, solitude, the social world they might occasion, and the English word—would lead to such a B&B bonanza, such a tourist gold mine? Yet this, too, somehow, has contributed to the preservation of his beloved lakes, and his poetry. We’ll forever have The Prelude, but we may have to blame that too, at least in part, on the boogie.

Big money and the arts are rarely more on display than at Opening Ceremonies to the Olympic Games. And the more so for Rio’s self-evidently pared down efforts. Projections disguised a comparative lack of squillions of dancers making shapes on the arena floor. The Ceremony—bad BBC sound notwithstanding (and was there ever an Opening where we needed more desperately to feel rhythms and hear singing clearly to gain the full effect?)—still appealed. It sent me back to the London and Sydney ceremonies on youtube to see how they stood up: very well in fact. But all three reminded me how much they depended on pre-existing performances, companies, and practices, moulded into shapes appropriate to the Olympic extravaganza. When we complain about how much nations spend on such events we should remind ourselves how much (and indeed how little) they sustain individual performers and are underpinned by the expertise of companies sometimes subsidized over many years.

And if the ‘arts’ there swing into action on behalf of the nation, the nature of art means it always contains elements that undercut prevailing myths, deliberately and inadvertently, and express, even in wonky timing, that not everyone on stage adheres wholesale to the political movements and big businesses that prompt the circus and pay the bill.

imageThe soil of the Lake District still seeps into your soul, doilies notwithstanding. The day we visited it was cold and misty, as appropriate to the general (though not to 2016’s) English summer. Water there was everywhere, nourishing, greening, running and still. The streams, the leaves, the breeze; the fount, the pages, the Aeolian harp, how readily the natural metaphors of poetry are to be found here. And perhaps the more so for our winding down from the M6 to these lakes and valleys, this micro-climate, this pause in the journey to explain the whole thing; this slowing, this attuning to the rhythms and circulations of wild English country.

Cimagereativity today might as easily find its source in pop celebrity, or in the view from the Pennine Tower overlooking Britain’s first motorway. Or indeed in the jostling and rush of the car itself, and the rubbish its 4g occupants strew across four lanes, into the air and the technosphere. These things, too, are the stuff of nations and identity. But while it would be inaccurate to picture even the romantics extracting themselves holus bolus from the social world of money and politics—or, for that matter, to believe ‘emotion recollected in tranquility’ was their sole fount—Wordsworth’s personal commitment to his method still tells us a lot about where and how even the noisiest of the arts are germinated.image

Traditionally, for Euro-Australians like myself, inspiration comes from above: from Apollo, the sun, whose statue presides over the eastern front of Australia House in London. Wordsworth, perhaps, found something more in its reflection in groundwater; or the upwards branching flowers, trees, and bushes water and soil sustain. Or the interacting networks and cycles of nature in process. Who knows? At least he stood still to think about it.

When I try, from my outside perspective, to contemplate a vision of creative inspiration in Indigenous Australian practices, I keep coming back to the dancing foot pounded into the ground, be it red desert or city grime. Up comes the dust, released from the earth, like water from a stricken rock. From country, not the sun.

The beginning of the academic year traditionally brings a wholesale rush: with all the energy and excitement that entails. And I myself, taking up again the directorship of the Menzies Centre, consider its busy-ness and business, its outward looking and future oriented research and teaching, its hosting of big names, its showcasing of Australian culture at King’s and with our partners, as part of what creativity means. But I will also be reminding myself constantly, that giving time to our human partners, our students, and to ourselves, that finding a Lake District of our own on the motorway, is also intrinsic to whatever crazy future higher education—and an institution like the Menzies Centre–has to offer communities here and abroad.

Menzies Centre for Australian Studies