Tyneside poet Keith Armstrong interviewed by Sandra Biebl
I was born in Newcastle, my father was a shipyard worker, so, if you like, I come from working class stock. And so, if I speak for myself, I do find there are conflicts. I mean I am a freelance poet/writer, who tries to survive in this region – I am born and bred. I travel a lot, but my roots are in this region through my father being a shipyard worker and my grandfather before that being a miner and, at the age I am, in my 50s now, just about a post-war kid. Things have changed dramatically in the last 20 or 30 years on Tyneside, Newcastle, Gateshead, the mines are gone, the shipyards are gone, all that traditional manufacturing base is gone and you could say there is an attempt to superimpose on that a commitment through the city council and business towards service industries and towards culture. I am finding this struggle every day of my life really, as a person who writes poetry and is committed in a strong sense to the indigenous culture of the region. Certain things have happened almost too quickly for a lot of people like myself to absorb and I think on a political level there is insufficient consultation going on. There was this mushrooming of National Lottery money which was available – it has changed now but a few years ago it was available to make great arts buildings such as the Baltic and the Sage and the money – the Conservatives were still in - the money was allocated to buildings, that is why in most major conurbations, like Newcastle or Manchester, you have got these huge cultural complexes – some of them work, some of them don’t. For example, the Baltic doesn’t work for me. As a struggling local artist myself, who finds it difficult to get grants out of the regional Arts Council, I am not particularly enamoured to find they are importing an American conceptual artist on a fat fee of 50,000 pounds to photograph naked bodies and the participants get paid nothing - I don’t know why they do it, I am not prepared to myself. I resent the imposition of a culture which is alien to our history, and dignity to some extent.
There seems to be a strong striving for consensus amongst the City Council and Newcastle Gateshead Partnership. They are trying to get every one on board and they don’t seem to handle conflict very well.
They’ve rendered the word ‘culture’ pretty much meaningless in a sense that everything is culture – so where is the debate? I wrote a poem just the other day called ‘Naked’ which is dedicated to this American conceptual artist, it is a response to that. In a way, it is a criticism of conceptual art, of the imposition of these pseudo-international megastars who descend on places. And I resent my own city being used as a back drop for the careers of these people. So I do speak out, but it is rather wearing, because the local newspaper is so tied up with promoting it, it is so linked with tourism and promoting the region, that dissenting voices are excluded – there are a lot of dissenting voices but it is very hard for them to be heard in the mainstream media. As a poet, it feels part of my job to subvert, you’ve just got to fight for it.
I try to avoid appearing to be an old, boring git. I would say I am very cosmopolitan. I mean, I am rooted here but I travel a lot, I do poetry readings in Germany, among other places. We still have class conflict in this country and you can’t just sweep that under the floor-boards.
There was a time when all the mines and all the shipyards were working and working class people were respected. The Miners’ Union was strong; they were a force to be reckoned with. Since Thatcher and the continuation of her policies by Blair, that has all been broken and now I feel in a way shat on by the aspiring middle classes and, as I say, I resent that. Life is short but you should show respect for traditions. Well, I do tend to the extremes – I don’t even like the Gateshead Angel and I know a lot of people do and you have to go along with that. I think we are stuck with it, unless you blow it up! That was a creation of a guy called Anthony Gormley, another conceptual artist who managed to impose his backside on this region and, you know, we have a great tradition and people aren’t confident of their own roots and artistic traditions. There was a guy called Thomas Bewick, 18th century wood engraver, he was born on the Tyne. He is a major international figure – I don’t see why we don’t have a gateway sculpture like the Angel but based on a creation of Thomas Bewick. If the councillors were confident enough or even aware enough of their own regional identity, they wouldn’t be so ready to embrace this stuff from London or wherever. I mean, Leeds Council rejected it, the plans for the Angel of the North, but Gateshead Council here, he hit them at the right time, they were looking for something prestigious out of their desperation, so they went for it and we always hear about him now. I actually think it is quite an ugly statue, personally. The Christ figure in Rio de Janeiro is a lot better, has a lot more spiritual meaning, but it is hard to get that debate going. At the moment, all we get is blanket coverage of the cultural scene in the local media and it is stifling, it is actually lazy - most journalists don’t go out and inquire, they are almost scared to. A journalist should stand aside from these things and try and present some objectivity.
We have our own culture, we have our own roots and a lot of that is being killed off. That’s not just in the North East, that’s happening all over the world. Well, you could look at other parts of Europe, similar pattern going on.
They are not clever enough in the Labour Party, if they were clever enough they would have left the Labour Party. And that’s another conflict – with the inbuilt political structure. I never trust these philistine councillors. When I was a community development worker in Newcastle years ago, trying to get things going at the grass roots in terms of art festivals, they scarcely wanted to know. Now that the mines have gone, the shipyards have gone, they are so desperate for inward investment, for jobs, that now they have latched on to ‘culture’ and I don’t trust them with ‘culture’, because they are philistines at heart. It’s almost like there is a contempt developing for the grass roots. I like music, but subversive and experimental music, and you don’t get much of that at these lottery funded cultural complexes.
There is a fear of doing anything too radical that might break the glass, cause a scene. They want to give that glossy image to the region; you know it is a region which just a few years ago recovered from foot and mouth disease, actually. That’s part of the truth as well but you don’t get that in the papers. I mean there are some good journalists with integrity but most them are sucked into this cultural programme.There is this definition of culture which encompasses about everything, sport, basketball, athletics, music. Well, it’s actually intellectually insulting that there isn’t any debate about it. I mean a lot of people don’t like football, especially the way our football team plays! I think if you pick up a local newspaper, say the Evening Chronicle, you might as well sit at home and read the toilet paper and you’ll find more depth in it. It is insulting, it is not only anti-intellectual but anti-academic in many ways. I mean, there is a debate going on but it is never really broadcast. I think people will get sick of it, of – as we say in Geordie-land – ‘wankers’ coming across and getting 1,500 so-called Geordies to strip off for 50,000 pounds and the people who strip off didn’t even get a cup of tea. Although some said it was quite an experience - but to me that sounds desperate.
I think Newcastle Gateshead anyway is an artificial construct, is it not? There has always been a rivalry historically between Newcastle and the town of Gateshead. Me being from Newcastle, we always looked down on Gateahead - and quite rightly too! But they have sort of resurrected themselves slightly by the Baltic and The Sage and the councillors can bloat their chests and say, ‘Yeah, we’ve got Culture!’And now actually we see the Baltic in all its magnificence and there are these flats which local people can’t afford to live in and I think it looks gross, it looks ugly. When it was first opened just with the old flour mill, it looked okay, but now these dominating yuppified flats came alongside and it looks ugly. The Music Centre is looking better, but it is not appealing to a lot of people. And there is a contradiction as well: there are very few live music venues, pubs and other places, where local bands can play, you hear so much about this Music Centre but actually the place is quite stifled in finding venues for live music, especially in Gateshead, there is hardly a back room in a pub for a local band to play, let alone some music centres. I would have preferred it if the money could have been spent for some grass roots activities. There are community studios, they exist, but I don’t think they have worked out a strategy, to be honest. I think they write loads and loads of reports but ideologically, morally, politically, I don’t think they quite know what they are doing. They went to Barcelona to see the developments which have been going on there – they even compared Newcastle to Barcelona, which is I think hilarious. I wrote a piece in the New Statesman which I got into trouble for one or two years ago. I said ‘Newcastle is not Barcelona, it is beautiful, shitty, little Newcastle’. I was attacked by certain local artists who went along with the cultural scene. These so called local artists who suck up to the Arts Council are in a way are doing it for their own careers. What I wrote was polemic. I think that’s what artists should do, poke mischief and ask questions – otherwise what’s the point? And that’s the thing about most conceptual artists, I don’t find them subversive at all. I think they could be sponsored quite easily by Coca-Cola most of them and probably most of them are!
Culture should take on life, humanity, spirituality. Wherever you go in the world, there are bureaucracies, there are states, there are establishments that need exposing. There are multinational businessmen who need to have the piss taken out of them. I can’t see the point in writing if poets kowtow to the establishment. But then it has always been the same, there have always been jesters and court jesters. The monarchy in this country has always had its court musicians.