Saturday, 11 July 2015

South Street Arts Centre, and the ongoing struggle

The hiatus is nearly seven months old and I've been terrible at keeping people filled in. I owe you an update, really, but this is a slow-moving target and so there's always tomorrow.

There are other things which are perhaps more time sensitive, and that's why I want to talk about that thing that arouses us all: that's right, we're going to talk about the recent UK budget and the threat to the needy. And the arts. Which isn't the same.

Phwoar. Right?

I know, I know: we all know it. The Tories hate the arts because there's not a lot of money in it and funding theatre, shows and activities for us plebs to do has never been high up on their list of priorities. "Get off your soapbox Ben Marwood, Reading's Sexiest Bachelor 2002", you all say. Quite why you felt the need to invent an award for me is beyond me, but I'm flattered all the same.

This Government is the pits, but I am actually going somewhere with this, albeit somewhere heavily Reading-centric (sorry).

In this latest wave of cuts assigned to austerity and balancing the books - fine, whatever, let's not get into that here - Reading Borough Council's funding that isn't ringfenced (eugh, that term) is being cut by a third, and so the council has started doing the legwork ahead of their big meet on July 20th, planning what cuts might happen and by how much. There's a big list of depressing numbers over here if you're interested, among them heavy cuts to learning disability services, mental health services, extra care housing and so on. So far, so Tory.


(Sorry. Recently Michael Gove, living Pob puppet and somehow Secretary of State for Justice, circulated a memo that asked MPs to stop starting sentences with 'However'. I couldn't let that go without mentioning.)

However, I know nothing about the state of those services to defend them, though I will happily jump on that bandwagon when someone smart fills me in. The thing that stood out to me the most was that the council are reviewing the use of their buildings in Reading and typically the one which is facing the axe (aside from underused libraries) seems to be South Street Arts Centre, a two-roomed venue (one 80-100 cap, one 200-250) specialising in theatre and live music and ideal for those moving through the grassroots of the entertainment industry.

Now, I can't claim to have always enjoyed going to South Street - I had a string of very average shows there, though in recent years it's been much better - but to close it would be a terrible shame for the lovely people who staff it and the fantastic acts who pass through there and aren't me (like the wonderful Alex Horne, who is there in September). The suggestion that South Street's extensive portfolio of acts and nights could be relocated is bonkers: the other council venues in Reading are the Hexagon (much, much bigger than South Street), the Town Hall (the same size, but with a schedule already just as busy if you include wedding receptions) and the 3Bs, which is so without definable use that I didn't even know it was still open despite walking past it every day.

So, if you've ever been to South Street and would like to go again, you could probably do worse than sign this petition:

Will it change much? Who knows, but staying silent would just be to give up and given that South Street is a council venue, I don't expect the staff there can make much noise to defend themselves (as council employees in a council venue).

Safeguarding entertainment in Reading is important to me, and hopefully to others too. I do not want to forever spend my evenings in front of prime time ITV. If towns are judged by their individuality, Reading would be one step closer to a chain store-only wasteland without places like South Street Arts Centre, or the Rising Sun Arts Centre just up the road.

These are the first cuts of many. If cuts like these aren't happening in your area already, they probably will be soon. The Conservative Austerity train is heading to your town and whether you like it or not as a country it's exactly what we ordered in May. The Conservative Party are businessmen if nothing else (and so often, nothing else) and will run the country as such. Perhaps all we can do at grassroots level for the next few years is to identify the causes we hold most important and the things we don't want to lose, and then fight for them. This is the way things might have to be, short of some global revolution, which - and let me put this bluntly - isn't ever going to arrive if your figurehead is Russell Brand.

In Reading, the fight for the arts starts here.

All this probably seems pretty trivial in the week where George Osborne mostly punished the poor just for being poor, raising the income tax threshold to benefit the employed whilst abolishing tax credits and benefits for hard-up families. I get it, really I do. There seems to be this idea among some of the financially-secure employed that the low-earning families are there because they don't work hard or they have five children and dine out on your taxes and exclusively your taxes, but that's bullshit isn't it? We could all work our bums off every day forever, but if you only get paid an hourly rate and it's low, you take home that low pay no matter how hard you work. If we really have to balance the books here and we're all in it together, perhaps we should all have taken a percentage income cut together, employed or not. But that won't get you votes, will it?