Burning Down the House
20 years ago I rescued from a skip the video archives of a community arts organisation here in Northampton that I used to volunteer for. It had closed its doors after 19 years of service to the town and there was no one left but me to salvage its long history. About that same time we at Threshold put out a call for people to donate any home movies that they might be throwing out and we built up a substantial collection of locally shot super 8 film. Now Threshold has been going for 21 years we have substantial archives of our own, comprising artists moving image works, short films and documentaries written and shot by Northants young people and films that speak with the collective voice of communities that rarely get heard on the airwaves. Add to that my own personal archives of working in the arts for 40 years and the recent addition of the personal archives of local author Stephen Loveless and you have a substantial amount of material that tells the story of arts development in Northamptonshire and presents a colloquial underground history of the town from a largely working class perspective.
Imagine then my feelings on a Saturday morning two weeks ago when at 8 am I got the message that the fire crews were attending a massive fire next door to our office. I went down there immediately to find the shop next door and the flat above completely gutted by fire. It was clear the fire service had forced entry into our office and the shop below to douse the flames coming through the wall. A fire service officer informed me that the fire had started ten hours before and at one point during the night they felt sure our building would also be lost to the conflagration.
It was another six hours before I was allowed in under supervision for literally 5 minutes to check the state of our offices and to make the place secure. We were so lucky. All the archives remain intact. But for six hours there I was reconciling myself to the idea that we’d lost everything. The equipment could be replaced, sure, we are insured, but the archives… Every image, every poster and flyer, audio recording, photograph, newspaper clipping, award and movie potentially gone forever. Would it have mattered? It’s my life’s work, but there’s always a new project on the horizon, so I was resigned to losing it. But, something tells me in the future these materials might contain some gem that a researcher may stumble across that helps to make sense of these historic times, presents the case for arts investment and the social value that comes out of opening access to the arts for those voices currently under-represented in the arts and media.
I’m from a working class background and entered the arts with no formal training, just trying to make stuff happen in my home town that represented the revolution in the arts that Punk and its DIY ethos represented for me. I didn’t know about arts centres, arts council, galleries and the ins and outs of making a career in the arts, I just knew if you booked a local hall and hired a PA you could get a pretty amazing new wave band to play like UK Decay, Section 25 or the Psychedelic Furs and people with the same interests as you would turn up to see what was going on. I found that some stapled photocopied sheets could have as incendiary an effect as any formally published novel or essay. Or you could put out a single by a local band you liked, get it distributed across the country and end up sitting in the studio with John Peel while he was broadcasting it. I financed it all on a Printer’s wage. Somewhere along the line I started making money from the arts. With some like-minded friends with a similar attitude we set up Threshold to share what we’d learned along the way and to keep the door open for those that followed on behind.
I’m thankful that our archives still remain. What we need to do now is work out how to contextualise it all and donate it to a formal archive in a form that makes it searchable. If we don’t, that’s forty years of local voices lost, and history gets rewritten without their story. We owe it to ourselves and the communities we’re from to make sure that our perspectives influence the way our histories are told and, with arts funding currently under so much pressure, we need to sing of the personal and social change the arts can offer to those like me from a background of limited opportunity.
Just not yet sure how to do that bit…
Standing among the smouldering ruins