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Creative Britain
Chris Smith

Creative Britain
Chris Smith
Faber & Faber
London 1998

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This is a very nice book, with very good intentions, and nothing at all surprising anywhere. It’s a pat on the back for anyone who’s ever been ‘creative’, and nod to the aspirations of everyone who ever wanted to be. It’s a justification for the inspired renaming of the heritage department as ‘media, culture and sport’. It’s a little chat about the crazy world of government backing for the arts… and it has a Damien Hirst print for a jacket.

You will have heard a lot of this before in the ‘Cool Britannia’ spiel that has been spewing from the media recently. It’s the one about the fantastic film industry, which will be encouraged even more by tax breaks and educational grants. And the one about pop music- it might be for the kidz, but we’re all kidz at heart really, none more so than sexy Mr Smith and his happy band of Oasis-loving government ministers. Both of these can be sold anywhere in the world – everybody loves a good tune. This of course is a key point – these industries are Britain’s most important exports in a time when trying to sell anything else we produce is hard enough on home turf, let alone globally. So this is how we keep up with the Jones, give them the Full Monty, and stand back and watch them buy the soundtrack, the sequel and the cuddly toy.

Smith is in fact against the ‘Cool Britannia’ tag, it’s too shallow, and makes our cultural strengths seem fragile and momentary, when in fact they always have been here and they always will. Nothing you’ll read here is untrue, or unpleasant, it just has that ring of spin to it, a sort of blinkered optimism that fails to recognise that culture may involve exclusion as well. Indeed the endless mini-lectures on exactly what ‘culture’ is get very tiring, as though the newly titled department has just been force-fed Margaret Mead and Raymond Williams for a month. When the words ‘synergy’ and ’empowerment’ appear I feel despair. But perhaps Chris can paint, or write a tune, or better still, convert these speeches into a multi-media animation event.

From one modern cliché to another then, as ‘multicultural diversity’ and ‘accessibility’ jump into the excitingly covered discourse that is this book.

No elitism here, because a community arts project in Brixton is just as crucial as Pavarotti in the park. It starts to get a bit like the blurb for a new energy drink. "Creative Britain-the imaginative juice!" pepping up our lives, our social consciences and our economy. I’d certainly buy it, and it’s going to be flooding a market near you sometime soon.

It goes on, about the lottery, libraries, classical music, all of it worthy, all good ideas. I have no disagreement with the political agenda set out here, but I ask you in genuine wonder- who reads a book like this? And for what reason? Some names, some numbers and more spin than my tumble drier? For all his talk of the fantastic cultural production we’re so good at, Mr Smith has sweetly avoided competing with anything his department legislates for.

Reviewed by Rachel O’Riordan


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