Workers re-assemble

Last week, the UK government’s skills assessment website hit the headlines after chancellor Rishi Sunak suggested that individuals working in the Covid-hit arts sectors should think about retraining. The idea did not go down well: those who completed the over-long and vague questionnaire found that suitable alternative careers lay in construction, teaching or, for the lucky few, boxing (a few agents have already applied).

A more worrying angle later emerged, with an advert suggesting a ballet dancer’s next job might be in cyber. It, too, did not land well: writer Caitlin Moran wondered if the government had “recently created a Hopes and Dreams Crushing Department”. The message from the top is clear: the government does not get the arts, it under-acknowledges their value, and has no empathy with those in the sector. The musician Liam Gallagher put it another way on Twitter, the precis that it lacked respect.

Both government initiatives pre-date Covid-19, so in fact the tone-deafness is not new—it has simply been made more important by the state we are in. The administration was slow to think through how the lockdown would damage audience-based events, and has been even slower in understanding the impacts of these partial paralyses that are now creeping across the country. If research has been done on the extended psychological impact of avoiding crowded spaces (including the UK’s burgeoning literary events scene, and city centre shops) then it is not evident; neither is it clear when/if/how those people return.

I do not exempt the opposition here either, with the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer this week calling for a two to three-week circuit-break (which most now expect) but with few details attached. More alarming is that under the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) plan—on which most of the current debate is centred—retail would remain open. As we found out in March, this places high street retailers in an impossible bind—those workers who can must remain at home, except for those in shops, who face a unique threat as the virus spreads. Perhaps we are just expected to live with the chaos/ambiguity, like passengers traversing a rough sea.

There are some bright spots. This week’s release of the first tranches of Arts Council England’s Culture Recovery Fund was welcome—it awarded £3.5m to 30 literature organisations (out of the £257m announced so far), including £260,000 to Chalke Valley, £246,000 to Arvon, £200,000 to Knights Of, and £204,000 to The National Centre for Children’s Books. There is also the ongoing health of book sales, and this week’s busy (and yes, buzzy) virtual Frankfurt (see pp06–07, and the FBF Daily, centre). 

Nevertheless, we need a government with an understanding of the arts (both as a creative enterprise and a business), one sympathetic to those of us who have already reskilled (and adapted), and one supportive of those who—through no fault of their own—cannot. As for me. I was recommended an alternative career in acting. Recognition at last.