The Stories we tell ourselves

Warren Draper is a co-founder of Doncopolitan, who came up with the original concept for the magazine in 2010. He is a visual artist, photographer, activists, ecologist and acclaimed writer currently working closely with Freedom and often published by Idler.

I first floated the idea for Doncopolitan back in 2010 because I felt that we needed to change the story we were telling ourselves as a town. It was at a time when Doncaster was bidding to become a city, which is why the story of Doncopolitan began with the phrase: “If you want  to be a city, act like a city.” 

Artwork by Warren Draper.

Few people at the time were celebrating the art and culture of Doncaster, indeed many denied that Doncaster even had any; choosing instead to call our town a ‘cultural desert’. That was, and is, to be frank, a crock of shit. Wherever there are people, there is art and there is culture. It is what makes us human. As I have written elsewhere:

“We, who so vainly label ourselves Home sapiens sapiens (so wise we named ourselves twice), might more honestly – and more precisely – be called Homo fabulans. For we are the story animal. Beings who, to some degree, broke the bondage of genetic imperative to allow ourselves to develop ideas and principles which, at times, run contrary to the needs of our own DNA […] From tool use to the reshaping of a planet, we are the creatures who evolved to become creators.”

We can no more do without creativity than we can do without air. Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, there is a constant dance in motion as we are both influenced by the culture we are born into and able to influence culture through our own creativity. But too many of us are currently denied the opportunity to reach our creative potential (and influence the wider culture) because we live under an ideology which limits freedom of creativity thanks to institutionalised prejudicial hierarchies based on divisions such as race, gender, class and age. 

These systems of oppression are not natural. They have been designed to benefit a small sector of society at the expense of the vast majority. Small wonder that the culture which emerged from colonialism and capitalism has very little to say about the atrocities which were (and sadly still are…) committed in its name. The French novelist and playwright Honoré de Balzac wrote: “Behind every great wealth is a crime.” I hold this to be irrefutable. Modern British history began with the theft of land from the common people of Britain and Ireland in a process known as ‘enclosure’. This forced once autonomous people into the towns and factories and placed them under the time-stealing yolk of wage labour. Worse still, people in Scotland and Ireland (and other ‘undesirables’) were forcibly repatriated to lands newly colonised (colonialism itself a process reliant on mass genocide). Many died as indentured servants before the more widespread, and even more horrific, practice of slavery was developed in the 17th Century, giving birth to modern racism as it emerged. 

There was resistance from everyday people, but their stores are rarely told. The fact that the phrase “History is written by the victors” is attributed to Winston Churchill and not the generations of losers who came before him tells you everything you need to know about how history is written. For a better understanding of British history, told from the perspective of everyday people, I recommend that you check out E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class and Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Redikker’s The Many-Headed Hydra.

What has this got to do with Doncaster art and culture? I hear you ask. Well, the same mechanisms which conceal the truth about the British (Brutish) Empire and the development of the modern world are the same mechanisms which stop the people of Doncaster from reaching their full creative potential. To the detriment, I would argue, of culture itself. The myths created by the ruling classes which led to racism as we now know it also created the classism which prevents towns like Doncaster from flourishing.

According to Arts Council England (ACE), places like Doncaster are ‘disengaged’ when it comes to arts and culture (even though poorer communities pay a considerably higher percentage of their earnings to the National Lottery, which then goes on to fund ACE). I have already said that I don’t believe it is possible for human beings to ever be truly disengaged from art and culture. It is what we are. But we do live in a society which actively tries to crush our creative spirit (almost as if they’re worried that good creators would be bad consumers). As Picasso himself observed: “All children are artists, the problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” Many mental health problems are eased when we once again engage with creative processes (and when we engage with nature, more on that in a moment). But when ACE talks of engagement they are not looking to help the people of Doncaster become more creative, they just want us to engage with their version of what art and culture ‘is’.

Millions of pounds of funding have been spent in Doncaster to encourage greater engagement, but we still lack the resources which would allow the emergence of more artists locally; such as well-equipped affordable/free creative studios and fully accessible, affordable/free art schools. This isn’t just a problem associated solely with the arts. For decades we have seen ‘professionals’ parachuted into our communities with big budgets. They leave when the money runs out, but nothing ever seems to change at a grassroots, street level.There are, of course, a lot of well-meaning arts professionals (and some who just want to mine our communities for ideas), but the problems are never resolved. This is largely because they think our communities would benefit from us hearing their stories, when actually real change would come for us if we were allowed to tell our own.

For too long our voices have been drowned out by the voices of the ‘victors’. If theirs are the only stories told, then we will continue to believe the ones that they tell about us. That we are poor, lazy, stupid, untalented, unartistic and uncultured. All lies of course, but there are people who benefit greatly from the perpetuation of these myths. What if, instead of handing us pretty spectacles and patronising platitudes, the arts council handed us the resources and skills to tell our own stories?

This is not without precedence. In 1968 a British experimental theatre group founded what would become Welfare State International, a radical arts collective which, as the name suggests, believed that art should be offered on the same for-all basis as health and education. They created beautiful outdoor spectaculars, much like some of the joyous ones we have seen in Doncaster’s Sir Nigel Gresley Square over the last few years, but WSI worked within communities to help them tell their own stories. As they themselves said in 1999:

“We are seeking a culture which may well be less materially based but where more people will actively participate and gain power to celebrate moments that are wonderful and significant in their lives.

We advocate a role for art that weaves it more fully into the fabric of our lives; that allows us to be collaborators rather than spectators.”

In 1974, with the help of Sheffield City Council, another theatre duo (who once specialised in erotic theatre productions), Chris and Veronica Wilkinson, founded a theatre and arts workshop called Meatwhistle (even the name wouldn’t be allowed nowadays). The atmosphere was very relaxed. Access to resources and knowledge was deemed more important than rigid educational structures. Some kids, like Phil Oakey, Martin Ware and Adi Newton to name but a few, played around with the synthesisers and tape machines which were available at Meatwhistle. They would go on to form bands like The Human League and Clock DVA, bands which sealed Sheffield’s fate as the city for electronic music.

This is what ACE could and should provide for working class communities. The means and the skills to create our own art and tell our own stories (along with bursaries to allow working class people the time to develop their artistic skills). This is what true engagement looks like. 

In my own (very small) way I am hoping to develop space for artistic development down at Bentley Urban Farm (which is likely to get re-christened in the very near future). As with art, nature and growing have a profound healing effect on the human mind. Gardening itself should be recognised as both a therapy and a fine art, and the stories the plants and seasons themselves tell are incredibly important in this time of ecological collapse. But I am also working on developing spaces for grassroots storytelling. As with The Telling (a festival which Rachel Horne and I developed a few years ago), I use the term storytelling to cover a host of artistic disciplines, from actual storytelling, to music, to the visual arts, because that is what creativity is all about: telling stories. 

This new project will focus on equipping people with the skills and resources to tell the stories they carry within them. A world in crisis needs new stories. They need to be diverse and they need to be boundless. As I said back in 2012:

“Diversity has kept life alive on this planet for 3.6 billion years. With diversity (whether it be a diversity of species, genes or culture) comes potentiality; the ability to adapt to changes in the environment. A diversity of voices – and with them a diversity of stories – is essential if we are to fight the dominant monoculture – perhaps we should call it a Monocracy? – which threatens so much of what we hold dear. Arguably the most important voices are those which are currently ignored; those deemed to have little academic, cultural or economic value (according to the Monocratic yardstick) and/or those who have been tossed aside by progress. The ultimate goal of The Telling then must be to broaden the story-pool to help counter the worst effects of the Monocracy’s cultural inbreeding. We must endeavour to create a democracy of voice and a seed-bank of tales. So what’s your story?”

I hope you can join me. Because the future is shaped by the stories we tell ourselves.

You can follow Warren on Instagram here or twitter here.

Hello it’s Doncopolitan! 

Doncopolitan is currently being funded by Arts Council England Emergency Covid-19 fund, which is enabling us to develop our print magazine and festival into an online format and pay local artists and writers to feature on our site. We want to continue to develop this once the funding has ended. We want to create paid opportunities for artists to write and create on their own terms. We are reaching out to you as a regular reader to ask if you could become a patron of our work. Becoming a Patron is really simple; you can pay as little as £3 per month which will allow us to continue to be an independent voice for our town.

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