In response to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine we’ve invited Alan Lane, Artistic Director of Slung Low, to reflect on the role of culture in a time of crisis.
Third Front Problems
The Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries has declared culture to be the “third front” in the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
I was thinking on what this might mean, as I read an email from the Chief of Defence People saying that members of the British Armed Forces were not authorised to travel to Ukraine to support the ongoing conflict. That message was resent in one form or another numerous times in the next few days. Categorical.
So, the “first front” in the Russian invasion of Ukraine would not appear to be an option. At least not an official one.
Some are going anyway of course. The consequences for these travellers if they return to the UK will be severe but will be nothing compared to the deadly consequences if they are captured by the Russians. This “first front”is only for the most certain.
And in this sharp relief if you’re not willing to do that, if you’re not that certain, then what use are you? What can be achieved here?
This “third front” seems so pitiful in contrast to the images and sounds that the television present daily. Incapable of matching the moment. Soft skills in a hard world. Helplessness creeps in.
A Leader Artist
Stories are powerful things. We saw during the Covid crisis how a story well told could motivate people to do that which they never dreamed possible.
The story of a headteacher who, refusing to allow his children to go hungry, delivered, on foot, hundreds of lunches every day, drove others on to do their bit.
The story of nurses sleeping in their cars for weeks on end so they could meet their responsibilities both to their patients and their families, inspired many of us to dig in when our own load got heavier.
The story of the old man who did laps of his garden and raised millions in support of the NHS humbled many of us, and encouraged us to stick to the rules when they started to bite into our everyday lives.
Moral leadership is storytelling: creating an honest narrative that lets other feel powerful and heroic, forging a path for others to follow. And that’s cultural. That’s empathetic. That’s imaginative.
And it’s been a long time since anyone has done this moral leadership, this inclusive storytelling, as well as Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian President.
The clarity of his communication, the patience of his arguments, the courage of his certainty: valorous and admirable. He has galvanised not only the Ukrainian people, but so many of us elsewhere. His ability to create a narrative which allows everyone to feel the urgency of the moment and galvanised into action by that urgency, is a masterclass.
He’s a storyteller of extraordinary skill and it’s no exaggeration to say that storytelling has kept his nation alive; galvanised his people into a resistance of actual death-defying courage, and international opinion – and governments limping along behind the public – into an almost unanimous European/American position that we’ve not seen since maybe 9/11.
Zelenskyy is an artist. Of course he is. A warrior actor. A leader artist. His ‘soft’ skills of empathy, communication, imagination having some hard outcomes here. In the middle of all this horror there is still room for a tiny slither of pride in that: an artist rising to the moment, telling a story to the world to save his people. Go on lad.
A storyteller meeting the moment.
Always a Point to Resistance
Covid taught us that there’s a privilege to thinking that your actions have no impact, that you are helpless: a selfish privilege. There’s no way that Ukraine can beat Russia, so what difference can we really make? It is so easy to fall into that wallow. But there is always a point to resistance. When all that is left is the fall, the fall matters a great deal.
Just because there’s no guarantee that anyone will ever hear it, there’s still a story to be told. Anyone who has ever done the Edinburgh fringe can tell you that.
The story we must tell is that all of us here, in Leeds, in West Yorkshire, in Britain, know: we know what is happening and we will remember. The story is that we see them. We see the Ukrainians and their jar-throwing drone-killing heroes, their resistance and strength, tank stealing farmers and “Russian Warship Go Fuck Yourselves” legends.
And we see Putin’s aggression, we see his bullying of Ukraine and of Eastern Europe, and of so many of his own people. We see you. We will remember this.
And whilst any one tiny action can feel irrelevant in the face of all this, we know from history that together, each piece of the mosaic, small on its own, can deliver huge change if we all hold the line, and do our bit. A soldier can do little on his own, whoever they are: but together in a company, well a company can do much. A company of soldiers. A company of actors. Together we can do things. We know this.
Will Opera North’s orchestra playing the Ukrainian national anthem before every concert help push back the Russian offensive? Don’t be daft. But it can, along with all the other actions that we take together, demonstrate to anyone paying attention that whilst we live in an increasingly nuanced world, there are some things that are right, and others that are wrong, and this is evil.
Let’s not fuck about, the invasion of Ukraine by Russia is evil. And when evil happens, all good people must stand together in whatever ways they can.
That’s the story we are telling. On our third front. That story. As Simon Armitage recently had it when talking about poetry in war: “whatever is articulated strengthens itself”. Our Poet Laureate knows about storytelling. And Resistance.
And in Leeds, a tiny tiny part of that story is that we’ll come together to raise some money for the Disaster Emergency Committee Ukraine Appeal. By doing the thing we know best how to do: put on a show, tell some stories, sing some songs, pass the hat around at the end. Many of the artists of Leeds are pitching in, bringing their talent, so that others might come with their wallets. And the money we raise will help someone, in a moment, in a desperate moment, when help wouldn’t otherwise come. Thanks to you. You heroes.
Date: 3rd April
Location: The Holbeck, LS119QX.
If you’re an artist in the city and you want to pitch in with a piece for the fundraiser please feel welcome and email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ways To Support
1. We are compiling a list of upcoming events showing solidarity with the people of Ukraine. Let us know if you are hosting an event, raising funds or showing support in any other way and we can add you to our listings.
2. We invite artists and cultural organisations in Leeds to sign their names to the list below to demonstrate solidarity with the people of Ukraine. Let us know if you would like to be added to the list below.
3. We would like to speak with cultural organisations in Leeds, West Yorkshire and further afield who are interested in offering emergency support for Ukrainian artists. If you would like to be part of that or have plans to support in place already get in touch.
4. Leeds City Council have launched the Leeds Together For Ukraine appeal to help those facing upheaval and heartbreak following the invasion of Ukraine. Click here for more information on the appeal and ways to donate.
We stand with Ukraine
Red Ladder Theatre Company
Chapel FM Arts Centre / East Leeds FM Radio
Hyde Park Book Club
Sunny Bank Mills
Leeds Lit Fest
Leeds Big Bookend and Northern Short Story Festival
The Hepworth Wakefield