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The strange death of British culture. By Tom Hodgkinson

Blog | By Tom Hodgkinson | Jun 24, 2024

By Robert Thompson

Every week brings another story of the decline of merrymaking and culture in Britain.

According to the beautifully named Night-Time Industries Association, over 2,679 clubs and bars closed between March 2020 and December 2023.

More than a thousand of those were in London, where this mouse has his nest.

One potential casualty is my own local gig venue, Bush Hall, attheendofmy road in west London.

Following a precipitous decline in business, the owners were recently forced to raise £42,000 via crowdfunding for bank loans and repairs.

It’s not just night-time culture that’s suffering. A depressingly large number of crowdfunding emails for all sorts of brilliant institutions arrive in my inbox.

There’s the excellent Marx Memorial Library on Clerkenwell Green. Housed in a Grade II-listed 1738 building, it was originally a Welsh school. It later become a pub, and then housed the Twentieth Century Press, a socialist publishing venture funded by William Morris. There’s a banner in the library reading ‘Hammersmith Socialist League’, made by Morris himself.

In 1902, an exiled Lenin somehow ended up there, using the building as the office for his magazine, Iskra (The Spark). In 1933 it was renamed the Marx Memorial Library, and it has struggled on ever since. It has a fantastic collection of books on the Spanish Civil War and great revolutionary posters. Forthcoming events include ‘Reds on the Green: A Walk through Radical Clerkenwell’ and ‘Stories of Solidarity: the Tolpuddle Martyrs’.

The library’s newspaper is called Theory and Struggle, and I suspect it does not fly off the shelves of W H Smith.

The MML supports itself through donations, subscriptions and investments.

Because it’s a left-wing organisation, the memberships are very cheap –£25 a year or £15 for concessions – and event tickets are priced affordably. This is very laudable, but it means the MML has little money. The staff are currently running a fundraiser to get together £3,000 for urgent repairs to Lenin’s leather coat, which is housed in the building.

Another intellectual institution starved of funds is Freedom Press, an anarchist bookshop and publisher down an alley in Whitechapel. The building was acquired by the press in 1968 thanks to the efforts of an Italian-born London anarchist called Vernon Richards. It has survived attacks from right-wing thugs, who smashed up the printing presses in the 1970s, and an influx of hippies who tried to turn it into a commune. It’s now asking for £15,000 for urgent repairs.

Then there is the sad tale of the Bishopsgate Institute. This once-great school for grown-ups opened in 1895. It’s housed in a lovely Arts and Crafts building opposite Liverpool Street Station. It has a library of literature, relating to the co-operative movement, a grand hall and various meeting spaces.

A few months ago, it published a very depressing blog on its website from its long-standing CEO, Francesca Canty. It says, ‘Our financial situation remains very difficult and we have made the decision to pause most of our events programme from September 2023.’

Compared with the Marx Library and with Freedom Press, though, they’re rolling in it. According to the Charities Commission website, last year Bishopsgate’s annual income – which derives mainly from property investments – was £1,600,000 and they had 52 staff. But they spent £3,700,000 (with one staff member earning over £100,000) and so lost over £2,000,000. The CEO writes, ‘In an ideal world, a grant or lump sum would solve our current problems.’ Er, yes, a lump sum would solve my problems, too.

Some events and shows on the Bishopsgate Institute calendar remain. ‘Queer Tango’ and ‘Fetish Archive’ have escaped the axe – but I doubt they create much revenue. Where are the debates, panel events, discussions and lectures? Where are the classes on Socrates, Sappho, Shakespeare, Milton and Virginia Woolf? After all, it was intended ‘for the benefit of the public to promote lectures, exhibitions and otherwise the advancement of literature, science and the fine arts’.

When I asked to come and have a look round and maybe talk to the CEO, with a view to publicising their plight and garnering some support, I was politely told to bugger off by the marketing and communications manager, who wrote, ‘Due to our recent restructure ... our bandwidth for taking on these kinds of proposals is severely limited. This means that we are, unfortunately, unable to facilitate this request.’

I sent two follow-up emails asking for a quote or comment, but received no reply. A weird bunker mentality seems to have taken over.

Should cultural institutions grab the grants and handouts? Embrace the market and survive on ticket sales? Or wait for a saviour in the form of a benefactor who has made a lot of money in something boring such as oil, property or hedge funds – a modern version of Henry Tate – and now wants to go in for a bit of culture?

Do your bit, oldies. Join the clubs and libraries, and buy concert tickets before it’s too late. page1image60868016