Arts deserve a minister who will fight for them


Culture minister Carál Ní Chuilín

I’ve never met Carál Ní Chuilín, so I shouldn’t make too many assumptions about her. She has a Masters degree in management, and a track record as a ‘political activist’. A euphemism, I know. But at least she wasn’t a banker, and times have moved on. “The hand of history…” and all that.

This clever lady with a colourful past is currently Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure. And she sure knows how to put the wind up people. Last week she warned arts organisations might go to the wall because of cuts.

She would “endeavour to ensure that frontline services are protected as far as possible” – a pledge fast becoming a cliché through overuse by cost-cutting Ministers.

In tortured corporate-speak, her department said it was “highly likely” some arts organisations “will cease to receive funding and this may put their viability into question”.

No-one in the arts is safe. Across Northern Ireland, organisations large and small are quivering in their boots.

Other than her status as a card-carrying member of Sinn Fein, it’s difficult to comprehend quite why Carál has ended up as head honcho (or should that be honcha) of Culture.

Sinn Fein is not bereft of individuals who are interested in the arts and who understand the positive impact they can have on people. But Carál isn’t one of them it seems.

A carefully crafted mini-biography on her departmental website: “In addition to being a life-long political activist, Carál has a particular interest in human rights, housing, community development and the Irish language.”

OK, I’ll grant you the Irish language is a cornerstone of our national culture. (Indeed, where would English literature be without the influence if Irish on Swift, Joyce, Wilde, O’Casey, Friel, Heaney and any other group of Irish writers in English you would care to mention).

But one would have expected to see mention of music, theatre, poetry – any of the arts in fact. But no – not even a hint of delight in the portraiture of Robert Ballagh. I bet predecessor Nelson McCausland would have had the gumption to put down Country and Western music and line dancing as among his interests in life.

Ministers are not appointed to fuel their passions. There’s many a competent finance minister who hasn’t been able to add up. You wouldn’t expect (or want) the health minister to give a helping hand in A&E on a fractious Saturday night.

But you do expect government departments to ‘pass the Ronseal test’ – doing what they say on the tin.

Let’s take another trip to the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure’s website.

Emblazoned across the top is the illiterate legend: “DCAL – a Department for the Economy and of Equality.” Below, DCAL declares: “Our top priority is to promote social and economic equality and tackle poverty and social exclusion.”

It’s a noble aim – but why then are there departments of Social Development; Finance and Personnel; and Enterprise and Investment? Do Mervyn Storey, Simon Hamilton and Arlene Foster know that Carál Ní Chuilín is masquerading as them?

No wonder she has no time to go to concerts or the theatre. The poor woman appears to be running four ministries.

If it’s not about sport, culture and the arts – what exactly is the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure for?

The Executive spends a pitiful 13p a week, per head of population, on the arts. In Wales the figure is 32p. Much is made of the importance of the creative industries for generating wealth.

Commercially successful enterprises such as Game of Thrones do not happen in isolation. They need a strong ‘culture’ in which to flourish, a culture that produces people with skills in writing, directing, acting, composing, designing, lighting, make-up, filming – the list could go on and on.

Many of our cultural icons cut their teeth in subsidised organisations – Liam Neeson at the Lyric, Barry Douglas at the Ulster Orchestra, James Nesbitt at Ulster Youth Theatre, Heaney in the pages of the Honest Ulsterman, to name just a few. Virtually every arts organisation is involved in community outreach, initiatives in schools, nursing homes, hospitals – even prisons.

Ní Chuilín is not the only offender. With a few exceptions, Northern Ireland’s political class has never valued the arts. A society that does not cherish culture will never thrive. Look around you. I rest my case.

The least the arts deserve is a minister prepared to stand up and fight for them. On current form, they have been saddled with one who is inadequate to the task. As an exasperated Niall Sedaka might have sung: “O Carál.”

* A version of this article first appeared in The Irish News



Patriotic National flies flag for Scotland

The National's first front page

Hold the front page. The press normally reports the news. Yesterday it made it.

The launch of The National defies all accepted wisdom. The newspaper industry is supposed to be on its knees. Who launches a newspaper in this day and age?

The chances of success are about as remote as landing a spacecraft on a comet.

Yet here it is, in all its glory. Decked out in patriotic blue and white, The National – with its witty masthead – looks as if it has been around for ages.

Newspaper launches are often the result of years of careful planning, and even then they can falter. What is remarkable about The National is how assured it is. It is clear about its news values, and confident about its voice.

Much of that must be down to its pedigree. With a campaigning style and poster front page, The National is very much a sibling of the Sunday Herald (unsurprisingly the two papers share their editor).

Those who suspected it would be peopled by articles promoting an inward-looking ‘Little Scotland’ will have been confounded. It takes a global view, and makes it clear that it is not party political in allegiance.

That’s a wise course to take. Not all yes voters were SNP; and, if it gets the chance to grow and develop as a paper, it will have a role in calling Nicola Sturgeon’s new government to account. At times, The Nat will have to become the gnat.

The independence campaign constantly challenged accepted wisdom. And it revealed a gap in the media landscape.

The campaign proved people are not bored by politics: they care. It proved that voter apathy is not an incurable disease – the turnout was astounding. It proved that you can lose the vote and win an election. The momentum now is with the losers, who exceeded all expectations, rather than the victors.

The National is the result of that momentum. “The newspaper that supports an independent Scotland” helps heal one of the most striking deficits in Scottish public life.

In a nation where almost half the population supports independence, the press is overwhelmingly unionist. That’s not a healthy situation. Journalists are the first to recognise that, and they will welcome the arrival of a new kid on the block (even if the added competition worries them).

For all the gripes about the BBC, the media had a good referendum. The debate was fairly handled in the press, and on screen. But those who support independence have a right to see their views validated by the editorial policy of some of the papers they read.

The challenge for The National will be sustain its sureness of touch on days when it is reporting the news, not making it.

The daily grind can be debilitating – particularly on those lacklustre days when nothing exciting seems to happen. It will also need to find a voice that speaks to those beyond the Glasgow-Edinburgh axis. Readers outside cities abhor metropolitan elites.

When news of The National’s pilot launch first broke, some may have suspected its readership would be confined to the ‘yes’ voters alone. The paper – fleet of foot – has a much wider appeal than that.

For the rest of the press – including its sister paper The Herald – The National represents increased competition. But that’s good for readers and it is good for newspapers.

In its first editorial, The National stated its commitment to “passionate and committed” journalism. It deserves a chance to prove it can live up to that ambition.









Sorry tales of a Directioner dad


Sometimes there are experiences that are just not easy to talk about. It’s a man thing. You can’t confide in friends because you know they will use the information against you. Oh the humiliation if your “secret” were known.

I am referring to a condition that afflicts fathers of teenage girls – particularly aged 13 to 16. Yes, I admit it. I am a Directioner’s dad.

I can name each member of the band – Harry, Niall, Liam, Louis and Zayn (who I insist on calling Zach to annoy my 13-year-old daughter). I have been quizzed to death on the story of their lives.

Niall is from Mullingar, Zayn is marrying a girl from Little Mix (‘No daddy, not Pick ‘n Mix). Louis from Doncaster plays football (badly). Liam had kidney problems as a child. Harry sang “Isn’t She Lovely” at his X-Factor audition.

I am not alone. Countless dads out there have been forced this past week to listen to tracks from One Direction’s new album – released day by day in a slick marketing ploy to build anticipation. We have, of course, been prevailed upon to pre-order the “Deluxe Version”

When “Four” was released on Monday, we had already been forced to detail the relative merits of “Ready to Run” and “Girl Almighty”.

During a car journey on Saturday, I was forced to listen repeatedly to “Where Do Broken Hearts Go?”. I noted that 1D appeared to be grappling with some of the underpinning obsessions of existentialism.

But it didn’t open a discussion on Sartre or Kierkegaard as I’d hoped. She just turned the volume to full blast. As a result the mawkish words have been imprinted on my mind.

“Now I’m searching every lonely place

Every corner calling out your name

Trying to find you but I just don’t know

Where do broken hearts go?”

Where indeed?

There are various orders of One Directioner Dads – those with the highest rank have accompanied their girls to a 1D concert. This is courage over and above the call of duty. Taking teenage girls to One Direction concerts is what mothers are for.

Google “One Direction Dads” and you will come across a photo essay by Angelina Castillo – Sad Dads at One Direction Concerts. Share our pain.

My initiation came in March last year – Mothers’ Day at the Odyssey – womankind in all its variety, from babes in arms to grannies; a five-piece boy band of negligible musical abilities (though I am assured Harry plays the triangle), and a handful of embarrassed looking fathers, kindred spirits. (Thankfully there are no photos.)

I noticed just one guy in his teens – there to impress his girlfriend. But his eyes were downcast, and he was constantly arranging his fringe as a way of covering his face.

My daughter was happy when I told her I planned to sit quietly and read my Kindle. She got visibly distressed when I threatened to don a 1D T-shirt (do they make them in XXL?) and sing “Up All Night” at the top of my voice. In truth, the only reason she wanted me there was to pay for the merchandise.

One Direction has changed our lives in other ways too. We now share our house with life-sized cardboard cut-outs of the boys.

When my daughter’s room was being redecorated recently, they took up residence around the house. It’s quite a shock to be greeted by a grinning Harry Styles as you stagger out of the bathroom, or have Zayn Malik peering at you as you struggle with the crossword.

When we go on holiday, I plan to post them at the windows to scare off the burglars – though there is a good chance the house will be done over instead by a crazed Directioner who believes the lads have moved into the neighbourhood.

I have spent a fortune on rubbish – even allowing myself to be talked into a round trip to Leeds when a 1D pop-up shop opened. That’s when Niall entered our lives. Getting his life-sized cut-out home was both embarrassing and complicated.

I drew the line when my little angel demanded a T-shirt with “The Next Mrs Niall Horan” emblazoned across the front in glitter. She is not quite ready to be walking down the aisle to the tune of “What Makes You Beautiful”.

What next? I have already been tipped off a UK tour is planned for next year. Last time I told friends I was going to a contemporary music event. I must think up another euphemism.

  • This column first appeared in The Irish News, November 18 2014





Confessions of a brand junkie


When I was at school, Wrangler was the jeans brand we aspired to. To sport a pair of Wrangler jeans, with its distinctive leather patch on the backside, was the height of cool.

Such was the status a pair of Wranglers conferred, that the school bullies regulated who was allowed to wear them.

While the ‘day boys’ were free to wear what they wished when they got home, if you were a boarder, you lived by the rules of the jungle – and those rules were set for you. If you did not pass the ‘coolness’ test, there was no way you would be allowed to wear your Wranglers in public.

I had to wait until I got to university before I had my first pair of Wranglers. I didn’t have to run the bullies’ gauntlet, my clothing choices were dictated by a mother impervious to designer chic.

If she could get a cheaper pair – that’s what I had to put up with. Maxwells of Union Street in Lurgan was her outlet of choice. “The stuff is all Marks and Spencer,” she used to say – forgetting to mention they specialised in seconds.

Why she expected that to cut any ice with a self-conscious 16-year-old is anyone’s guess.

The school bullies were far-sighted – they understood how easily brands can be undermined. A generation later, sales of jeans slumped because they came to be associated with Tony Blair in dress-down mode, and motor-mouth Jeremy Clarkson.

Now with teenagers of my own, I long for those days when a mid-price pair of jeans was the ‘must-have’ item of clothing. They covet richer fare.

Children today are born with an innate lust for brands. I am convinced consumerism is the modern-day original sin.

Brands do all they can to hook them young. My son could recognise a Macdonald’s sign from a mile off when he was two – and at that stage, he’d never even been in one.

Now, having consumed enough chicken nuggets to reach from here to the moon, he focuses his desires on hi-tech kit. As a gadget freak myself, I sympathise. But I resent shelling out hard cash for better stuff than I would buy for myself. Nothing but the best is acceptable to him.

My 13-year-old daughter has an unerring ability to pick the most expensive item – whatever she is shopping for. Harvey Nicks is her favourite store.

According to my wife, our daughter has spent more on eyeliner than she has spent on make-up during the entire 30 years of our marriage.

I have yet to discover my wife’s vices, but I know designer labels are not among them. (And I say that as a would-be metrosexual who is the owner of a Paul Smith designer man-bag.)

Is the desire for branded items just the manifestation of affluence? I suspect it is something deeper. It is evidence of our insecurity as a species. We are defined, and define ourselves, by what or who we wear, where we shop, what we eat and drink.

My Nike trainers evoke Federer, Ronaldo and McIlroy; my Omega Sea Master watch is the model worn by James Bond in Casino Royale; my underwear has graced the tattooed manliness of David Beckham. Yes, you’ve got it in one – I am overweight, balding and middle-aged.

Like individuals, organisations have their insecurities too. Rebranding exercises are one of the manifestations. The University of Ulster has just gone for a designer make-over.

UU old


OldUU new


Ulster University, as it is now to be called, didn’t shell out millions for its latest revamp. But why should a university be spending money on branding at all? You might well ask.

Having been involved in a few branding exercises myself, I know the arguments. Universities are large businesses, competing internationally for students. They need to stand out. Distinctiveness is their holy grail.

Though quite how UU’s new logo makes it distinctive is a moot point. Is it really going to be the deciding factor for a prospective student in India, China, or Cullybackey, for that matter? Does a half-hearted U speak of academic excellence?

And you have to wonder what subliminal message this deconstructed capital U sends out? To me it resembles a grounded bird whose wings have flown off without it?

Brands that succeed, are those which are true to themselves, and are trusted by their customers. They are rooted in authenticity.

As my therapist might tell me – if I were cool enough to have one – ‘be yourself, don’t waste your money on designer gear.’

* This column first appeared in The Irish News on November 11 2014






Teenage dreams so hard to beat: my life with vinyl


It’s said that inside every 50-year-old there’s an 18-year-old wondering what happened. That’s me to a tee. But now I can get in touch with my inner teenager again.

The long-playing vinyl record – the LP – is making a comeback. This year, sales of vinyl LPs are expected to top one million for the first time in almost two decades.

Surprisingly 18 to 24-year-olds are the biggest customers. It’s all new to the generation that never experienced the Troubles, watched Starsky and Hutch on primetime TV, or put eye-liner on to look like Marc Bolan (okay, I didn’t do that either).

Not only are they rediscovering classic albums from the sixties, seventies and eighties when the LP was the gold standard in music, but they are snapping up contemporary artists too. To be credible your new releases must be available on 180gm vinyl.

The cynic in me says it’s just another way of the music industry squeezing even more money out of me. Hands up everyone who dumped their LPs for cassettes, and then CDs? I have bought many favourite albums in multiple formats. I must confess, I’ve even downloaded digital versions of some CDs I was too lazy to copy into iTunes.

But to people who love it, music is more than just a commodity. We don’t pay for the format, but the experience. Music, and the type of music we like, is part of our identity.

Last week, as I was handing over 20 quid for Dark Side of the Moon to a teenager on the till in HMV, my personal cynic was whispering: “Rip-off, you can get that on CD for less than £6, and by the way you don’t even like Pink Floyd.”

But I’d rather be a romantic than a cynic.

The teenager in me (remember I am an 18-year-old trapped inside a 55-year-old’s body) was transported back to Carlin Records in seventies Newry, sifting through the LPs. I was always hunting one that would make me look cool in our sixth-form common room where we had a clapped-out turntable.

With the first LP I’d brought back to college, I had made a mistake – almost fatal. Even in the mid-seventies, “Neil Sedaka’s Greatest Hits” was not cool. I still can’t listen to “O Carol” without wincing. The class bully had a field day.

Last month, a wave of nostalgia led to me parting with a fistful of dollars for the vinyl re-release of Rocket to Russia by punk rockers The Ramones. This was a reminder of my pogo dancing days. I wasn’t really a big Ramones fan, but my mates were cooler than me, and they were into the Ramones – big-time.

So what is it about vinyl? If someone said you could make sweet music by putting one of the hardest materials known to man onto one of the softest, you would tell them where to go. But remarkably, a diamond stylus connecting with the groove in a record can be a stairway to heaven for anyone willing to go there.

It’s all about the music. I don’t have a lot of time for hi-fi fanatics – they tend to be more interested in the kit.

A friend of mine loved his hi-fi. He had a state-of-the-art Linn Sondek LP12 (a new one today starts at £2,700). It was his pride and joy. But one Saturday morning, when I put one of his LPs on the turntable, I noticed – just in time – a splodge of dried-in marmalade on track two. I’d caught him out. He rarely listened to music. It was all about the machine.

But there is something special about an LP. OK, maybe my mind is playing tricks when I think the sound is better (and it is, even with the odd click).

I love the ritual, easing it from its sleeve, holding it like a new-born baby in case it comes to grief, lining up the needle and letting it drop. I love the thump-thump-thump like a beating heart when the stylus reaches the end of a side. I love the fact that I have to get up and turn the record over.

In a world where everything is done for us, there is something satisfying in being part of the process of making the music happen – I could just be picking up the guitar and recapturing my teenage kicks.

* A version of this article appeared in The Irish News on November 4 2014