Sunday, 24 February 2019

"Which organisation are you from?"

With Rachel Connor at The Northern Short Story Festival, 2018

David Cundall & Koyejo Adebakin at the
Remembering Oluwale launch.
A couple of weeks ago, I helped with the Northern Short Story Festival / Big Bookend event, a free event that we called "Speed Dating for Writers." It wasn't a 'dating' event (yes, I know the name's confusing.) It was an event aimed at helping writers meet & network, for support and solidarity.

It's a simple format. Writers get paired up, they're given a question, and allowed 2 minutes to talk. At the end of 2 minutes, Rachel Connor rings a bell, and one writer from the pair has to get up and move around, so that everybody forms a new pair, who then chat again, for another 2 minutes. And so on, and so on, until the discussion at the end.

At one point in the evening a lady turned to me and asked, "Where are you from?" meaning not where do you come from, but which organisation. It had slowly dawned on me during the group discussion, that there were certain things this group of writers wanted that we, as a voluntary-led organisation ("we" being The Northern Short Story Festival) couldn't provide, either because we haven't the time, or we haven't the resources, or the infrastructure, and that some of them wanted to know WHY NOT?

Afterwards, Jenna and I got to talking, and she said, "You should do a blog post about running a voluntary arts organisation", and she was right, I should, so here it is.

Hello. My name's SJ, and for the past 4-10 years, I've been a voluntary arts organiser. I started out running a writers' social night called Fiction of Every Kind, back in 2010. Later on, I edited an anthology called the Remembering Oluwale anthology, which won a Saboteur Award. More recently, I've been director of the Northern Short Story Festival, which is part of Leeds Big Bookend. [I recently wrote about 'My Small Press Writing Day' about how I manage all this alongside a day job, and you can read that post here.] I also am Fiction Editor at Strix magazine.

Every single one of these endeavours is run by volunteers. Fictions is a voluntary organisation, Strix is a voluntary organisation, the Northern Short Story Festival is a voluntary organisation, and none of us who do any of it, including me, don't get paid anything at all.

So why bother?

Quite aside from an almost pathological need to be busy, there are a couple of reasons why I organise cultural stuff. In short: I want cool stuff to happen near me, and if I want cool stuff to happen, I'll either have to do it myself, or get involved with a group who are.

Years ago, when I first moved to Leeds, I got pretty involved in the strong DIY music scene here. Around that time, 2001-ish, there were loads of exciting things going on. Bands like Send More Paramedics, Bilge Pump and later on, Cowtown, were bands who organised their own gigs and played and put out their own music for the love of it. There was a strength of feeling against the mainstream way of doing things, where bands got ripped off by unscrupulous labels and managers, and where so much personality and truth was ripped out of the music in pursuit of producing something with mass appeal.

It was an exciting time. I put on gigs and played in bands myself. I went to gigs in basements and in squats, and drove around the UK in the back of a Mercedes splitter van playing gigs in rock clubs, in houses, and on one particularly memorable occasion, inside a flat, where the guy who lived there set off a couple of glitter cannons at the end of the gig. We all slept on the floor and I left my towel there, a moment you might recognise if you've read Guest.

Photographic proof that I used to be in a band.

There were only two of us in the band: me, my friend Nicky, and our Yamaha QY48 sequencer. We were quirky and poppy and weird. We were unique amongst DIY bands in that our ouevre was pop melodies, programmed drum beats from general MIDI sounds, and synchronised dance moves.

Unforgiveable! To have a sense of humour, to dance, to be stupid, not to care about not being cool, unforgiveable! To actually not care about being cool, as opposed to just pretending you didn't care about being cool - these things were Verboten in some parts of the DIY world.

A group from Fictions at Chapel FM 'Writing on Air' festival,
April 2017.
We were unpopular. People didn't like us. They wouldn't put us on. Somebody once wrote a review of one of our gigs that said we both deserved to be shot in the face with a big gun. Another time, we played a gig in Harrogate, where everybody left and we played to the sound guy, the band we'd gone there with, and a bloke from one of the other bands who, inexplicably, was wearing a Viking hat.

All of these experiences taught me, more than anything else, not to worry about what other people think. That if you want to do something, you should go ahead and do it. (There was also certainly a misogynistic element to some of the bad reviews we got, but that's a topic for another post.)

If you do something, not everybody is going to like it. Also, if you want something to happen in your backyard, go ahead and do it, don't wait for somebody else to do it for you. A fine example of DIY attitude is Strix magazine, started by Andrew Lambeth and Ian Harker. It's an excellent print magazine which is based in Leeds and which you should definitely buy.

L-R Sarah Brook, Moira Garland, Fay Kesby, Ian Harker,
Lizzie Hudson
Strix reading event, NoShoSto 2018.

Because here's the thing. Publishing industry, all of its infrastructure, and the corporate and mainstream parts of the "corporate arts world", if you want to put it that way, are based in London, and getting projects funded by the Arts Council is a lengthy and bureaucratic business. I realised that nobody is going to come and rescue you. If you're in certain parts of Yorkshire, or maybe Stoke, or parts of Wales, say, there's not really much point in sitting around waiting for somebody else to do something. If you want somebody else to organise the events your local area needs, whatever those may be, and you're going to sit around and wait for some statutory body to come and organise them, well... you're going to be waiting a long fucking time.

The ideas that I was introduced to during my formative years - those ideas about doing it yourself, about creating your own culture, about making the things you want to happen, happen - those ideas stuck. Those are the ideas that led to me starting Fictions of Every Kind and later, the Northern Short Story Festival.

A photo of my cat for no real reason.

In all of this, one thought that's guided me is something that the much-beloved and much-missed Archie once said to me at a house gig: that if you're doing something voluntary led, that if you're trying to provide something that exists outside of the mainstream, that's not an excuse to do it badly. "If you're trying to provide a true alternative," he said, "You should always try and do something better than what's out there in the mainstream." Do it with everything you've got, and do it to the best of your ability, and that's what I've always tried to do.

Running a voluntary arts organisation is sort of fun, in a weird sort of way, and it's definitely something that you need a particular mindset and set of skills to do. Having said that, anybody can learn skills, given the guidance and opportunity. There are lots of different ways to be an arts organisation, and arts organisations do lots of different things. You can be a charity or a registered company, or you can have no formal structure at all (though if you want to do bigger things and apply for funding, this last one's a no-goer.) You can run no-budget things, or you can spend time applying for funding, and run some-budget things. Either way you'll forever be teetering on the edge of having no funding, and wondering how you're going to manage, because there's no money, and not enough time. Again, this is something I'll write about in more detail another time.

FYI, the NoSho does a mixture of no-budget and some-budget, and we are extremely grateful to arts@leeds and to our supporting organisations for helping keep going. We pay every single writer who appears at one of our events. Fictions also pays authors, but it is much more locally-based. As an organisation, Fictions is pretty much no-budget, so we rely on our door take at events to pay authors. Another time, I'll write a bit more about running low-budget vs. no-budget organisations, and what the hurdles are. Warning: expect ranting.

Currently reading

On the Beach - Neville Shute
Fresh Complaint - Jeffrey Eugenides 







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