In a quiet, leafy area a mile or so from the centre of Brussels, there’s an imposing period building that houses a number of businesses and enterprises. One entire floor is taken up by an arts organisation, which, judging by the elegant panelled rooms and up-to-date equipment, and the fact that it’s situated in Brussels, you might think is the hub of some vast pan-European, or even international organisation. In fact, it houses Vlaams Audiovisueel Fonds, aka the Flanders Audiovisual Fund. This is an organisation devoted to supporting and funding the audio-visual arts in Flanders.
Here’s an extract from the VAF’s manifesto: “The aims of the Flanders Audiovisual Fund are threefold: to develop a sustainable audiovisual industry, to encourage and support upcoming audiovisual talent and to promote a vibrant audiovisual culture in Flanders. VAF accomplishes four main tasks. It provides financial support for audiovisual productions (1) and promotes these in Flanders as well as abroad (2). The Fund also grants scholarships, finances professional training and supports/organises workshops (3) as well as carries out surveys on the audiovisual field (4).”
Impressive, eh? I think so – and I have to emphasize that this organisation is for the benefit of Flanders, not the whole of Belgium. Flanders is about the size of the West Country, and although it’s densely populated, it’s home to no more than about 6 million people – half the population of London. I know all this because a couple of times now, the VAF has invited me to conduct short scriptwriting workshops for students of animation. Good fun on both occasions, and judging by the feedback, the students seemed to get something out of the sessions.
However, bear with me; I’m not just blowing my own trumpet. The point I’m leading to is that here, young people working in the visual arts are being supported. Not just by being able to pick the brains of a ‘veteran scriptwriter’ (as one of them described me) imported from the UK, but by a whole range of support services, particularly financial. Not long after my last session I heard that one of my students had received the funds to have their (excellent) project fully produced.
This nurturing culture is not confined to Flanders, or to Belgium. Over the last few years I’ve led many European scriptwriting workshops, and again and again my students – whether they’re from Germany, The Netherlands, Sweden or Poland – have mentioned that they’re developing their projects with a view to gaining funding. Even if they’re developing projects for their own pleasure or satisfaction, there’s a chance that they may be able to apply for, and receive, financial support. What’s more, funding bodies are often local, even more local than the Flanders fund.
Nice work if you can get it – and in the UK, by and large, you can’t. There are few funds available to support creative projects, and what there are aimed more at the ‘fine arts’ end – particularly writers of novels. Although Britain is still a world leader in the creative arts, particularly television, it is in spite of rather than because of encouragement and support by the state.
Why does this matter? Let me play devil’s advocate for a moment. The French film industry is often derided for its pretentious, self-consciously ‘arty’ output, the result, critics say, of its sucking at the government teat, of not having to stand on its own two feet. Of course, there’s something in that argument, but counter to it is the fact that France retains a thriving industry that is distinctively French, and that regularly manages to turn out artistic and commercial successes alike.
By comparison, the British film industry, always oscillating between boom and bust, seems doomed – with a few honourable exceptions – to churn out either ‘diamond geezer’ gang movies or period toffery. Meanwhile, publishers’ lists are filling up with ghost-ridden celebrity drivel, while actual writers find their incomes in freefall. (Just today I read about an elaborate launch party for the debut novel of ‘Lady’ Victoria Hervey – a woman hitherto known mainly for falling out of her clothes on various red carpets.)
The official British attitude – more so than ever with the current government – is that everything must have a monetary value. Ideally, an immediate monetary value. Long-term cultural strategy? Nah. Wellbeing of the artistic and creative community? You’ll be lucky. All right then – how about ‘it’s the duty of the state to foster an educated, aware and questioning population, who in the long run are likely to be happier and more productive?’ I should coco. With a Culture Secretary with no apparent interest in culture, who seems more interested in whipping the BBC into submission and having a professional dominatrix do the same to him, this situation doesn’t look likely to change any time soon.
Back to my headline question – in or out? I’m not going to pretend to offer a balanced view – I’m a lifelong internationalist, and don’t think there’s a single good reason for cutting ties to Europe. But as a writer, I’d naturally like to see opportunities for people in the creative fields expand rather than contract, and as things stand in the UK – and as they are going – I think this is unlikely to happen. I doubt that the environment for writers and creative will radically improve if we do stay in the EU, but I think that they’ll get worse if we don’t.
It’s a question of tone as much as anything else. It’s already feared that the government will make a bonfire of workers’ rights if we pull out, and I suspect that Brexit will also make things worse for creatives. The market will become even more of a free-for-all, and it will become ever harder for writers and their like to make a living. (Just as an aside, look at the leading lights of the Brexiteers: Johnson, Duncan Smith, Gove, Galloway, Farage – every one a potential book-burner if you ask me.)
Having worked for several French production houses over the years, every month or so I get a handy payment, sometimes for shows that I worked on more than a decade ago. These payments are courtesy of the SACD – the Societe des Auteurs et Compositeurs Dramatiques – a French organisation that takes the radical view that scriptwriters and authors should be properly paid for what they do. As I understand it, there’s a pot of money that producers and other ne’er-do-wells (just kidding, producers) can’t touch. It’s purely for writers, and gets distributed when shows get repeated, sold abroad and so on. Of course the ALCS performs a similar role in the UK, but I can’t help noticing that, script for script, the SACD is the organisation that coughs up the more serious funds. In my view, France has got the right idea.
Overall, I doubt whether the UK exits or remains will make much material difference to writers, at least not in the short term. Times will probably be hard, and continue to get harder, whether Britain stays in or decides to go it alone. But in terms of setting a broad cultural agenda, I think Brexit would send a signal to the free marketeers and the cultural deadheads, and that message would be something along the lines of ‘thank God we’re rid of those continentals and their poncey, artsy-fartsy subsidizing ways.’ Which is why, come June 23rd, I shall be marking the box marked ‘remain.’