As Molesworth might have said in Down With Skool, ‘any fule kno’ that the impact the Romans have had on us is an unending list of civilising and culture enhancing benefits. Just take our roads as an example: they are long and straight, invariably lead to Rome, connect our major cultural centres, revolutionise industry and business growth and are directly responsible for the Highway Code and Motorway Service Stations.
The Arts, like any industry, have been blessed by the Roman approach to road building: so much so that we now regularly talk about arts and cultural infrastructure as if it were some kind of super cultural highway system. That infrastructure creates the biggest cultural players, determines how they connect with each other, and sets the rules on who else gets to set out on the nations cultural highways. It has its own version of the Highway Code with qualifications, progression opportunities and rules of engagement to boot. The concept of cultural infrastructure prioritises the importance of building based arts organisations, encourages the notion of entitlement and allows for small companies to tootle around housing estates like milk floats delivering their culture in bottles to grateful members of the public.
But what happens when the Romans leave town?
We’re seeing the effect of that now in our highways and byways. Roads fall into disrepair. Potholes are rife. Signage points in the wrong direction. We realise we’ve become reliant on a system which cannot do everything it promised to. The centre, as usual, can’t hold and things start to fall apart.
What we forget in the ever increasing gloom of broken highways and damaged cultural motorway infrastructure, are the byways which existed before the Romans ever trampled over our green and pleasent land. We used to have green roads, white roads, turnpikes, ridgeways, death roads and all manner of connections which allowed us to connect with differing communities and make sense of the wider world. This wasn’t about a counter cultural way of getting about – this was a far more complex way of getting about which generated many more views on the cultural landscape than the straight Roman Road would ever have allowed you to do.
With our larger cultural infrastructures such as the Arts Council and the local authorities facing whole sale restructuring, and hugely inflating competition for ever dwindling public resources, the Romans are now leaving town too. The promises of infrastructure – careers, qualifications, shorter journey times are now well and truly found wanting. Cultural traffic is grid locking in our cities and in our countrysides, there’s too many lorries for not enough country mile and the potholes are earning garages a pretty penny what with the damage to our suspension systems.
Many cultural organisations now can’t rely on the infrastructures of old to do what they need doing. We now need to reinvest ourselves in those highways and byways of old and make new connections on the equivalent of our white roads which don’t rely on the grace, favour and declining ability of the big funders of old to help us plot our way through the current contemporary cultural geography.
This is much, much more than working in partnership – the tired old dictum of the old infrastructures. This is about making new cultural spaces and places, new coherent multi-nodal cultural connections which demonstrate how cultural villages can connect, supply each other, develop their own longevity and take some ownership back of their own destiny.
What did the Romans ever do for us? Too much. It’s time we started doing it for ourselves.