Great Exhibition of (What’s Left of) The North – or – Fuck you, I won’t like what you tell me #GXN #GEN #GreatExhibitionOfTheNorth

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No credit given, but I found it here: http://www.wepsite.de/the_end5600pix.jpg

In April last year, I attended an evening event entitled “Everything’s Better in the North” where we endured a series of presentations by residents of Sheffield telling other residents of Sheffield about how good Sheffield is. All good people, and if you were one of those presenters (and you know who you are) please do not be offended. But I don’t need to spend two hours of my life being told that everything is going to be alright when it’s abundantly clear that it’s not.

I grew up here. Not in Sheffield itself, but in this area, and I have been coming into the city regularly for my whole life. I didn’t move to live here until 2003 but I have spent almost all of my adult life living and working in the Sheffield city region.

The speaker from Sheffield City Council did the usual thing of claiming Sheffield is well placed, amongst other things, by being next door to the Peak District, and I grew up believing that the Peak District was a special place, but I was wrong.

The Peak District is an artificially-maintained, ruined landscape. Before the Middle Ages, the whole area was forest. In fact, pretty much all of Britain was forest until it was cleared for the purposes of farming, burning, or to build ships for war and colonisation. That might seem like a long time ago but in geological terms, a few hundred years is not even the blink of an eye. In ecological terms, however, it is plenty of time to fuck up our environment.

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Name those dystopias.

Moorland is a stunted wilderness, maintained barren by what George Monbiot refers to as the great white plague. That is, sheep. There is nothing natural nor beautiful about grouse moors. They are a barren wasteland, maintained as such as a playground for the undeserving rich and we should not be celebrating that fact.
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/aug/16/grouse-shooters-kill-first-casualty-is-truth-astroturfing-botham-rspb-packham

I, too, love living in Sheffield, but where I fall out of line with many of the people who are active in the creative, business and marketing sectors is that I do not subscribe to what I would characterise as an destructively uncritical positivity-cult.

Somehow, it has become understood that to be critical is to be negative, and anything other than unfettered enthusiasm is disloyal to our home city. But someone needs to talk about the uncomfortable truths and, in the absence of any other willing soul, that someone is me.

These days, Sheffield is a shit-hole. It’s sacrilege to say so, I know, and it’s getting worse. Not all of it, of course, and there is plenty to be proud of, but also there is plenty here that we should objecting to, rather than celebrating.

Our roads are in the worst state of repair as at any point in my lifetime, homelessness is now as commonplace in Sheffield as it used to be as a cliché in London, public services are being eroded at the same time as banks and corporations are making record profits, wages are falling and employment opportunities are reducing. Publicly owned land is being sold off to corporations, and town planning control has been eviscerated to the point where we are witnessing the most poorly planned and brutal urban redevelopment since the 1960s.

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The Moor Market.
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PRIMARK!
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The Moor Market.
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Fitzalan Square, the heart of Sheffield’s vibrant financial sector.

Interesting times, and unless we do something about it, there is worse to come.

But now the Conservative government has offered the carrot of funding for The Great Exhibition of the North. The stick, of course, is not critcising the most corrupt and incompetent government in British history.

Having watched the promotional video, representing Sheffield’s bid and featuring University of Sheffield’s Professor Vanessa Toulmin, Chair of Museums Sheffield, Kim Streets and director of Sheffield Theatres Daniel Evans, I understand their dilemma and I sympathise. Although that is no compensation for their vacuous complicity.

Kim Streets enthuses about the “great spaces” available for the exhibition whilst standing in the Millennium Gallery, but fails to mention how many staff have been laid off by Museums Sheffield in the past few years due to austerity-led funding cuts, or the shortened opening hours of these great spaces. Professor Vanessa even has the disingenuous hubris to use the term “Northern Powerhouse”, having fully absorbed and regurgitated the Tory propaganda. She’s a highly-qualified academic and social historian and should know better.

Five million pounds sounds like a lot of money and like it would do the region some good, but it’s not. Not only is it a tiny amount, given the size of “The North”, but if the aim of the exhibition is to celebrate what we have, or what we achieved in the past, it belies the elephant in the region.
https://www.gov.uk/government/news/competition-opens-to-host-great-exhibition-of-the-north

That is, what we have lost.

Arts and cultural activities are, mostly, the indulgences of the middle classes, and a large proportion of the population (the same people who regularly receive nothing from arts and cultural funding) will receive nothing of value from money spent on exhibitions, craft classes, seminars and walking tours.

The disenfranchised of Sheffield and “The North” will not be re-enfranchised by the enthusiasms of academics, administrators and curators. Nor will they benefit from the fees paid to accountants, solicitors and technicians, employed to enable such a celebration.

And the so-called “legacy fund” of £15 million for the whole of “The North” is little more than the retirement package of now-retired Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) chief Fred Goodwin (real name, honest).
https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/feb/12/uk-banks-expected-to-pay-out-5bn-pounds-in-bonuses

Maybe some of that money could be used to repair the roads in “The North”, or maybe the PFI corporations charged with the task are restoring them back to their pre-tarmac days by uncovering all the cobbles and setts of yesteryear.

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A61, the main southbound A road in Sheffield.
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Gleedless Road. Last week, I saw a toddler fall in this pothole, it is so deep.

The problem I see with this kind of festival (and I have worked on, and been to, many of them) is that it will be primarily comprised of activities of consumption and distraction, created by middle-class people, for middle-class people and selected & funded by middle-class people. Artisan bread and carbon-neutral circuses.

But we could say no.

Conditions here in “The North” are now worse than at any other point in my lifetime and pretending that everything is going to be alright is a deluded fantasy. Rather than singing “God save the Queen”, we should be singing “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!”.

That might seem angry but this is what I grew up on:

For many years, a regular sight in Sheffield city centre was a man carrying a banner, claiming “The End Is Nigh”. He always seemed a little out of place, wielding his melodramatic warning amid the thronging shoppers of Fargate.

But just the other day, walking along The Moor, Pinstone Street and Fargate was like one of the continuous follow-shots from Alfonso Cuaron’s “Children of Men” (2007), the streets lined with religious zealots, worn-out beggars and passive-aggressive chuggers, every one of them hussling for money and salvation.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Children_of_Men

The end was nigh, after all, although I didn’t know how nigh, and now I do know, the end is even nigher.

I never expected to be the angriest voice in the village during my own middle ages. But where is the protest? I was a young adult at the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s but I do not see any of the anti-establishment, anti-authoritarian rebelliousness in young people today, just when we need it most. They seem to be too busy watching “Game of Thrones”, or playing Minecraft, or else whacked on energy drinks, too distracted to recognise what a sterile, debt-ridden dystopia they are growing up in.

There’s plenty of money about. Not in Sheffield, of course, but ask Google, ask Apple, ask Barclays or maybe even ask the Bank of England who conjured £375 billion of funny money in 2009 to support a group of businesses, supposedly too big to fail, whose operational practices are indistinguishable from organised crime.

And they did it again, only a few weeks ago. And it’s not working. Again.
http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/brexit-bank-of-england-qe-bonds-gilts-pensions-mark-carney-interest-rates-vat-a7182256.html

Lloyds Bank who have doubled their profits in the last year but are now laying off 3,000 staff and closing branches. No doubt a few in Sheffield and lots in “The North”.
https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/jul/28/lloyds-bank-to-axe-3000-jobs-and-close-200-branches

“Every day, we’re busy helping our millions of customers get to where they want to go in life. Lloyds TSB, for the journey.” Yeah, the journey to the local Job Centre Plus. God bless their crooked hearts.

We now live in a world of post-factual journalism, post-responsibility politics and post-competence institutions.

And this brings me back to the Great Exhibition of the North. The very name betrays a divisive cynicism only conceivable within the distorted mind of a Westminster-based “special adviser” to the most corrupt and destructive government in British history.

I genuinely apologise to anyone in Sheffield that I might have offended by suggesting that their endeavors are futile but, if it’s any consolation, I include my own. Especially in the creative & arts sectors, we have lied to ourselves for years that everything will be alright, and if we do this project or that job, or another exhibition for nothing or very little, it will lead to some sort of deferred future “success”.

But it didn’t, and there is no precedent to think it ever will.

The promised funding is nothing more than a bribe to keep “The North” quiet and those people who have contributed to the application should be ashamed of their complicity in such shallow and cynical manipulation.

And maybe the proposed date of the Great Exhibition of the North, summer 2018, is coincident with the proposed start of fracking operations in “The North”. Theresa May has just announced personal bribes for local residents affected by fracking.
https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/aug/06/fracking-local-people-payments-theresa-may

I hardly think that such politically-savvy professionals will have missed the significance of the timing. I wonder if the Great Exhibition of the North will include an exhibit about unconventional gas extraction? Or the increase in homelessness? Or banking fraud? Or the 45% loss of invertebrate species in the past 35 years.
http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/vital-invertebrates-decline-by-45-per-cent-study-finds-9626745.html

I doubt it.

But an exhibition celebrating all the good things about “Not London” will seem pretty sick when your water has been poisoned and your house condemned due to earthquake-induced subsidence.

If Sheffield wins the bid, I’m sure The Great Exhibition of the North will be about much more than stainless steel, Park Hill and Henderson’s Relish (like most exhibitions in Sheffield are), but I hope the people involved will look beyond the end of their own suburban gardens and consider how to include those in our city and region that are unrepresented by middle-class professionals: those without homes, those without status and those without disposable income.

And in the meantime, I say fuck you, I won’t like what you tell me.

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Rebooting Eden (build it and they will come) #Sheffield #Rooftop #Garden

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I used to think that technology would set us free. But it didn’t. It simply served to enslave us to a treadmill of empty promises and planned obsolescence.

I used to think that if I worked hard, then I would be rewarded in proportion to that effort. But I was not. I worked harder and harder, and each time being offered less.

I used to think that art would save the world, but it hasn’t done so far and I’ve made a lot of art.

That’s why I took up gardening.

Have you noticed that they are no birds? Not literally zero, but when I was growing up, our suburban gardens were alive with sparrows, robins, blackbrids, great tits, blue tits, bullfinches, chaffinches and crows. But no more. When was the last time you saw a wild chaffinch? The only birds I see regularly in Heeley, Sheffield are magpies, and in the city centre; pigeons and occasionally starlings. And what do magpies, starlings and pigeons have in common?

They are all scavengers. They can live on human waste.

And why are there no birds? Because there are no insects. And why are there no insects? Because we humans have made our environment so sterile, so hostile to living things that not even common houseflies can survive.

And they live on shit.

Only a few weeks ago, I was at an outdoor festival in rural farmland, just outside Sheffield. I watched people spraying themselves with insect repellent. I didn’t bother, no need. There weren’t any any insects to repel.

I learned about the inter-dependency of species at junior school, before I was eleven. My parents took me to the Centre for Alternative Energy in Machynlleth, Wales when I was a pre-teen and I grew up under the misapprehension that everyone new about global warming and peak-oil (although I don’t remember that term from the 1970s), and I am ashamed to say that I just always thought that “we” would take care of it because “we” already knew about climate change, approaching resource scarcity and potential ecosystem collapse.
http://www.cat.org.uk/index.html

I was wrong, and now we are witnessing the greatest die-off of species since the dinosaurs looked up and said “What was that loud bang?”.

And it’s my fault as much as anyone else’s.

My parents still live nearby, in a dormitory village where I grew up, mostly populated by middle-class control-freaks. My mother told me about the recent chafer beetle saga scandalising their neighbours and how many of them have had their lawns pumped full of insecticide to combat the creeping terror that anything less than the green, green grass of home should exist outside their picture-windows.
https://www.rhs.org.uk/advice/profile?pid=487

Sure enough, chafer beetles are a bit of a pest if you desire a perfectly manicured lawn, but they used to feed the swifts that nested in the eaves of my parents’ bungalow. But no longer.
A reported 80% die-off of bees is what either a professional ecologist or even a junior school student might characterise as A VERY BAD THING.

I’m sorry to confuse you with technical terms but this shit just got real.

Build it and they will come, so they say. Well, that is a paraphrase from the film “Field of Dreams” (1989 Philip Alden Robinson) in which a farm owner razes his crops to build a baseball diamond. Unfortunately, aspirational optimism, unlimited urban development and competitive sport are yet to save our ecosystem from its imminent collapse.

But I’m sure your get the point. Sure, build it and they will come, just make sure you build the right thing.

And here is the hope. Two years ago, we dug up our own lawn and planted vegetables. We didn’t have much of an agenda except a policy of growing food with no chemical fertilisers and no pesticides. That same year, we had wolf spiders mating in the insect garden I built, and bees in the neighbour’s tree.

I haven’t done a survey, but this year we have at least five different species of spider, four species of bee, along with weevils, mites, ants, butterflies and moths that were not present only two years ago. And that is in a cultivated garden.

Build it and they will come. And sure enough they did. All we had to do was not kill every living thing that moves on the earth.

And this is where I get to the point. I have volunteered to be the lead in a rooftop garden project at DINA Venue in Sheffield city centre. The idea is not my own, but I have put myself forward to be the hands and feet to make it happen.
http://dinavenue.com/

DINA is the old Cutler pub & Stardust bar on Cambridge Street (behind John Lewis). Friends of mine, Deborah and Malcolm, have negotiated use of the building on an indefinite basis until it is demolished, as part of the much-delayed retail redevelopment of Sheffield city centre. They (with the help of many volunteers) have reclaimed the building from the squatted squalor it was left in and made it into a usable venue again. On the second floor, there is a large, flat roof. It’s a sterile space, but is sheltered on all sides and has abundant light and pitched roofs on three sides for rain collection.

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The garden might be a one-year project or it might go on for several years. Whatever the timescale, we will be building an insect-friendly, zero-pesticide rooftop garden to foster wildlife and grow vegetables and flowers, and when it ends, the plants and resources will either be moved to a new location, or distributed to other gardens.

And this is where you come in. We have no money, and because there is no practical access for the general public, we are not likely to be eligible for any funding. So we need to beg, steal or borrow, well, everything. We need planters, water butts, garden tools, compost, seeds and soil to turn this nadir into a zenith.

Please get in touch if you have anything to contribute, no matter how modest. We will be gathering equipment and resources from now on, with a view to starting planting in February next year and a full growing season spring to autumn 2017. I’m a novice gardener and only in year two of my experience, but I’m taking advice from landscape professionals and experienced gardeners, and I am the go-to grunt on the job.

We hope that this project (and there are no doubt others) will be an awareness-raising focus for bio-diversity, sustainability and food quality, and will make a tangible contribution to fostering inner-city wildlife.

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There are those who believe in the “magic bullet” of some unspecified innovation that will happen at some unspecified point in the future that will solve all our problems. It hasn’t happened so far and there is no precedent to believe that it ever will. Innovation has brought us glyphosate, GMOs and factory farming. And now we have tasteless food, infertile crops and the decimation of our ecosystem.

I used to think that all the answers were in the future, but now I realise that they were already in the past.

Advanced technologies, ideological politics, complex financial instruments and even participatory art have, so far, proved worthless in avoiding our imminent demise, so let’s go old-school. We already have all the technologies and techniques needed to establish and maintain a sustainable environment that can feed and shelter everything and everyone. We just need to stop destroying and start rebuilding.

Build it and they will come. But make sure what you build is not a Primark the size of a castle, or a 20-storey ghetto for Chinese students, or a car park over a casino.

Build [a garden] and they will come [back].