Forthcoming Event

You are invited to

IS CULTURE GOOD FOR YOU?

A talk by Angus Kennedy, author of the controversial new book Being Cultured: in defence of discrimination

on Tuesday 22nd April, 6.30pm to 8pm

at the New Culture Forum, 55 Tufton Street, London SW1P 3QL

RSVP to prwhittle@btinternet.com

Today culture is everywhere as maybe never before. We read culture reviews, watch culture shows, live in Cities of Culture, and witness the Cultural Olympiad. Government, museums and arts councils worry that we are not getting enough culture and shape policy around notions of art and culture for all. Access and inclusion are in. Difficulty and exclusivity out.

But why does nobody dare call themselves cultured anymore?

In "Being Cultured: in defence of discrimination" Angus Kennedy asks if this explosion of culture, and the breaking down of distinctions between high and low culture, has emancipated us or left us adrift without cultural moorings. Is it true that all cultures are equal? Is cultural diversity a good thing? Is it unacceptably elitist to insist on the highest standards of judgment? To argue that some cultural works stand the test of time and some don't?

Might it even be the case that culture no longer actually means anything much to us? That our nervousness about exercising discrimination and good taste, and the erosion of cultural authority, might have left us with a culture that may be open to all, but lacking in depth?

Angus Kennedy was born in Canada in 1968. He has degrees in Classics from Oxford, Linguistics from Birkbeck and an M.Phil in Artificial Intelligence from Dundee. He is head of external relations at the Institute of Ideas and is founder of its educational initiative, The Academy.

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Submitted by peterwhittle on Mon, 2014-03-31 10:49.

We are what we eat

In his column Whittle's London in Standpoint, NCF director Peter Whittle complains of culinary overload in the capital

An email dropped into my inbox recently informing me that we were about to enter London Restaurant Fortnight, and promoting all sorts of inducements and cut-price offers to sample the very best that the capital's restaurants have to offer. On paper I suppose I am the market for such offers-middle-aged, professional, of a broadly metropolitan hue — but the truth is they have as much appeal to me as those Exciting Opportunities to win World Cup tickets or front row Wimbledon seats, i.e. none. For I am simply not interested enough in food, and these days that puts you right outside one of the cultural mainstreams of London life.

Part of this is a personal idiosyncrasy: a particularly nasty bout of childhood chicken pox left me with no sense of smell, certainly a handicap in cuisine appreciation. I would never make a wine connoisseur. But it's more than just this. I have an aversion to the way in which restaurants define what passes for the Good Life in the capital, with eating out now the chief cultural activity, and the extraordinary way in which food generally has become the big indicator — of class, good political character and one's overall worthwhileness as a human being.

These days you are what you eat — just not in any medical sense. You might go down to Borough Market at London Bridge and "source" your weekly shopping from the organic extravaganza, while feeling as smugly righteous and above the fray as any cyclist whizzing through stationary traffic. Your coffee-chain latte is tailored to your particular needs because, on life's menu, you are one of today's specials. Your oh-so-tired disdain for McDonald's is most likely a cover for your disdain for the people who eat there. Your stated interest in eating out is now a routine way of showing a potential love/sex interest that you are an adventurous spirit who values "learning about different cultures". And you might turn your nose up at puddings, pies and Scotch eggs as being hopelessly provincial — unless of course you work in the media and are enjoying them ironically.

Whatever you do, you're saying something about who and what you are. And of course, it is the culinary, rather than the personal, that is now political. I have had whole conversations where the pros and cons of multiculturalism and mass immigration are discussed purely, and seriously, in terms of the different foods now on offer in London. Less well-endowed towns are seen as seriously defective, in some way left behind.

One estimate has put the number of restaurants in London at around 6,000, but this seems very conservative to me. In truth nobody really knows, especially given the high turnover rate. That eating out in this city is immeasurably better than it used to be is not in question, nor is the fact that its variety is now unsurpassed anywhere: the best restaurants in Paris and Rome are still resolutely French and Italian. Unlike them we're certainly not marinated in our own way of doing things.

But food and the places where it's served have now become fetishised in London. I have been rereading American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis's attack on the vacuous obsession with all things superficial in yuppie Manhattan, in which (alongside the wholesale pornographic carnage and detailing of designer outfits) entire pages are given over to menus, ever more gimmicky culinary creations and the desperate need simply to be part of it all. That novel is more than 20 years old but in the intervening years the mania has skipped across the Atlantic.

Oddly enough it is not painting, dancing or actually creating something new which most people mean when they talk breathlessly of the dynamism and "vibrancy" of London, but the act of sitting down and eating at a table. One walk through Soho will show you that London's energy is really far more about the noise of packed, hugely overpriced restaurants than it is about forging new ways of thinking or creating. The hubbub of the restaurant scene gives rise to a sense that something is actually happening, and that one is in the middle of it. Perhaps, like fashion, food has rushed into the void where meaningful creativity used to be. It is also something we can all have an opinion on, our taste not subject to the need for expertise and knowledge. It is a shortcut to sophistication. What is lost in all of this, to give in to nostalgia for a moment, is a sense of occasion.

So much part of everyday life has eating out become that not to be able to do it at least once a week is seriously taken as a sign of shockingly straitened circumstances, probably even outright poverty in some people's eyes. What it also shows is that the more transitory a place becomes, the more atomised, the more filled with single people who need to pass the evenings socialising, the more restaurants you need. Being a single man, I know this only too well. Although in my case, I found a place I liked, in a little street in Covent Garden, and have stuck to it for 30 years. I have no idea where it rates on the gastrometer, and I couldn't care less.

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Submitted by peterwhittle on Thu, 2014-03-27 16:43.

Whittle's London

NCF director Peter Whittle has a new column in Standpoint magazine, Whittle's London.  

"London Pride has been handed down to us, London Pride is a flower that's free," sang Noël Coward. "London Pride means our own dear town to us, and our pride it forever will be." Coward was a bit before my time, and it certainly might sound corny to modern ears, but as the child of Peckham parents growing up in the 1960s and '70s, there was still for me a cultural resonance in his placing of this understated feeling as flourishing "from the Ritz to the Anchor and Crown".

Does London pride still exist? Yes, but it's a different kind now, and one Coward would probably have been perplexed by: a pride in not really being part of Britain. I've lost count of the number of times people have observed to me how London is no longer a British city, a comment sometimes made wistfully, but just as often with a sense of real achievement, as though something bad has been overcome.

This sort of pride, the New Pride we shall call it, exalts aggressively in London as some sort of breakaway city-state which one can join simply by existing here, a place which defines itself politically and culturally in opposition to nasty, boring old provincial Britain. To this extent London has followed in the footsteps of New York, which has always made the point that it is emphatically not America. To become a fully-fledged New Yorker, however, you do still have to spend a few years in the steel trenches if you want to earn your spurs; New Yorkers are very jealous of their collective identity. Not so now in our capital city — you're a Londoner virtually instantaneously.

Alongside the unprecedented demographic changes, this self-image makeover has happened with startling speed in far less than a single generation. But whether you are one of those who sees vibrancy and dynamism round every corner, or one of that unfashionable band who've been left reeling, most of us would at least agree that to keep the show on the road we should at least be able to understand each other.

If the new London really does see New York as its role model, it should take note of one distinctive difference. New York might be home to as many different ethnic groups as London, but, and this struck me forcibly on my last visit, they generally speak the same language. London, with a decades-old obsession with multiculturalism not shared by New York, is increasingly a fragmented place where it cannot be assumed that your neighbour, or the person next to you in the queue, will be able to communicate with you at the most basic level. And at its worst, this has led to increasingly entrenched communities in the capital in which English is not spoken simply because it doesn't have to be. If a common language is the essential glue which holds a cohesive society together, then London is in danger of becoming badly unstuck.

This throws into even sharper focus the efforts of one London mayor to buck the trend. The borough of Newham in the East End (pictured), which I can see across the river from my vantage point in Woolwich, is best known to the country as the place where the Olympics took place. Perhaps less known is that it is the most ethnically diverse area in the country, with white Britons accounting for less than 17 per cent, and no one group dominating. Newham's mayor, Sir Robin Wales, last year instituted a programme which focused on English as a way of promoting integration. Translation services were cut by 72 per cent, as was funding for events held by and for specific ethnicities which could not prove that they were "inclusive". Even foreign-language newspapers were removed from libraries (although free internet access to native language publications was retained).

There was some disingenuous Tory opposition to this, and the mayor was asked to account for his actions with the obligatory Newsnight appearance. But other than that, what is remarkable has been the very lack of controversy over measures which even in the very recent past would have been damned as intolerably draconian. The fact that the very diversity of groups in Newham has made these initiatives easier to implement than if the borough had been, say, 60 per cent white British, thus leading to the usual charges of racism, almost certainly helped, as probably did the fact that Sir Robin is Labour.

But this isn't the whole story. Right across the political board there is a growing acceptance that multiculturalism has led to far more problems than successes. We have come a long way indeed from the 1980s and the pillorying and subsequent professional destruction of Ray Honeyford, the Bradford headmaster who dared to suggest that it might be a good thing for his Asian pupils if they were taught English. If integration is indeed to replace separation as the new approach, it would be great news, so that it's not just in house prices that London is seen to be leading the way.

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Submitted by peterwhittle on Sun, 2014-03-02 17:52.

New NCF report : An Unpunished Crime

A major new report, An Unpunished Crime: The lack of prosecutions for female genital mutilation in the UK will reveal that the incidence of Female Genital Mutilation in the UK is far greater than previously thought.

 The report, written by the author and journalist Julie Bindel and published by the New Culture Forum will be officially launched on Tuesday 21st January at Portcullis House as part of a major new campaign, Justice for FGM victims UK.

To download the report, go to the campaign's brand new website, www.justiceforfgmvictims.co.uk    

 The report features as a major news story in today's Sunday Times .

The report estimates that the number of girls at risk of FGM in the UK has increased several times over the last decade from 20,000 girls in England and Wales under the age of 15 to over 65,000 girls in England and Wales under the age of 13.

It also shows that during the last decade the number of women and girls in England and Wales aged 15 and over who are living with the consequences of FGM has increased approximately 2.5 times from 66,000 to an estimated 170,000.

‘Although public awareness of FGM has undoubtedly increased in recent years,’ says Julie Bindel, ‘it is astonishing that the issue is still being discussed on the basis of figures compiled well over a decade ago. These new figures, we hope, will bring a much needed urgency to the discussion of what should be done about what is, after all, a terrible form of abuse.’

Despite the escalating prevalence in Britain of FGM, and specific legislation enacted to outlaw the practice – the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985 and the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 – not a single FGM perpetrator has been prosecuted.

All of this is in sharp contrast to the more rigorous approach in developing countries such as Kenya and Burkina Faso where three and over 95 people respectively have been prosecuted. France too has brought prosecutions.

Amongst the highly experienced professionals interviewed for the report are Keir Starmer KBC, former Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), Alison Saunders, the current DPP, and Linda Weil-Curiel, lawyer and specialist in the French legal position on FGM. Other interviewees include the activist and midwife Comfort Momoh MBE, Jason Ashwood of the Metropolitan Police and Jane Ellison MP.

Alongside identifying misplaced cultural sensitivities in relation to FGM, the report confirms alarming gaps in the responses of the UK’s health, education, social, policing and legal services to FGM. As part of the research, over 1,800 FOI requests were sent to police forces, local authorities, hospitals and schools across the UK and Wales.

The results unveil a worrying inadequacy in proper across-the-board training in FGM, as well as the recording and referring of cases, by and within institutions.

For example of the 166 local authorities that responded, a significant minority (51) stated that they did not provide FGM training at all; 58 out of 161 hospitals and 71 out of 296 schools also admitted to no training.

The FOI requests further reveal a worrying variation in the type and quality of training offered by these institutions. Owing in part to this lack of training, of the 3,032 FGM cases treated by hospitals during the 3-year period, a mere 248 (just 11%) were referred to local authorities and only 10 (5 %) to the police.

And of the 161 hospitals that responded to the FOI request, a remarkable 83 stated that they did not formally record FGM cases. In addition, of the 89 FGM case referrals to local authorities, only 11 girls were sent for medical examinations on the grounds of suspected FGM.

‘The lack of prosecutions in the UK has not been because of a lack of policy or legislation,’ concludes Bindel, ‘but rather an institutional unwillingness to, and ignorance about, enforcing the law”.

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Submitted by peterwhittle on Sun, 2014-01-19 09:34.