Benefits culture: rethinking Mozart on Maggie’s dole

Nicholas Till acknowledges his debt to Margaret Thatcher and explains why he regrets his Cambridge degree

September 4, 2014

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I was only one of thousands working precariously in the arts at that time who claimed benefits to support their work - many now important artists

I probably owe more to Margaret Thatcher for my intellectual development than I do to the University of Cambridge, where I studied for my BA. I should explain.

I left Cambridge in 1978 with a 2:1 in art history. I loved studying art, but the Cambridge art history department at that time was conservative, with an emphasis on old-fashioned connoisseurship: at 19 I could distinguish a drawing by Michelangelo from one by Raphael at 20 paces (I probably still can – try me).

My modest 2:1 did not give me the incentive to pursue an academic career: indeed, it left me with a slightly jaundiced view of academia. The great discovery of my undergraduate study had been T. J. Clark’s first two books, The Absolute Bourgeois and Image of the People. They laid out a method for political art history that I emulated in my undergraduate dissertation on paintings of rural labour in 19th-century France, charting such representations in relation to changing political and cultural identifications of the peasantry between Balzac’s Les Paysans (c.1845) and Zola’s La Terre (1887). My enthusiasm for historical materialism didn’t go down too well – I clearly remember being advised to pay more attention to the quality of Millet’s brushstrokes than to his politics. But perhaps the real reason for my degree result was that I had spent most of my time as a student in the theatre, becoming president of both the Cambridge University Amateur Dramatic Club and the University Opera Society; this was my real passion.

When I graduated, I realised that my degree had best equipped me to become a smooth young man in Sotheby’s (if I added the requisite MA from the Courtauld), or perhaps to don tweeds and work for the National Trust, neither of which appealed. So I embarked on a career as a theatre director instead.

Many of my Cambridge theatrical peers – Steven Pimlott, Nicholas Hytner, Roger Michell, Jeremy Sams – seemed to slide easily into the institutional fold of mainstream theatre at that time, going on to successful careers as directors within those institutions – often alongside work in commercial theatre and film that suggests a lack of artistic or political discrimination that I could never have successfully emulated, even had I wanted to. But theatre at Cambridge during my time there was as small-c conservative as its art history. Edward Bond, Trevor Griffiths and David Hare represented the most radical forms of theatre we knew; I learned to sneer easily at exploratory theatre makers like Jerzy Grotowski (who was for losers), and we were entirely ignorant of more radical forms of experimentation taking place in the US and Europe at that time. Cambridge theatre was, as it always has been, essentially literary, visually illiterate and hostile to theatrical innovation. Theoretical study was almost completely absent, and theory continues to be dismissed as a continental aberration by most established British theatre directors to this day.

With hindsight I can see that I and my peers really knew very little about theatre, and that this was no bar to a successful career in mainstream British theatre, where a kind of jaunty provincial philistinism prevails. As my contemporaries moved effortlessly into the established institutions, I unquestioningly followed the same route, choosing to work in opera (the theatrical form that excited me most). For three years I served the conventional apprenticeship of a staff director in a number of opera houses. This is a training that primarily prepares one to negotiate the sclerotic institutional machineries and hierarchies of large theatrical organisations, and I found it increasingly deadly. Working on productions of operas by Mozart, in particular, I grew frustrated with the lack of any apparent intellectual engagement with these works.

In 1981 I had discovered the work of the German director Peter Stein at second hand through Michael Patterson’s study in the Cambridge University Press “Directors in Perspective” series, which also led me to understand better the work of other German directors such as Götz Friedrich and Ruth Berghaus that on first encounter had baffled me. Stein showed how a politically committed theatre practice needed to be informed by historical understanding (something I could also have learned from Brecht, of course, had he ever been on any syllabus).

Looking around for literature that would enable me to engage in like fashion with Mozart for a production of Le nozze di Figaro, I found myself in the classic position of realising that since the book I was looking for didn’t exist, I would have to write it myself. Five years after leaving university, clutching no more than a BA in art history, I embarked on a project to write a substantial study of Mozart’s operas. I attempted to establish their relationship to the Enlightenment with little real idea of what this might entail, flimsy intellectual tools, ropey German and no means of financial support. So I signed on.

This is where Margaret Thatcher enters the picture. The Conservative government of 1979 initiated what we now recognise to have been a neoliberal counter-revolution against the social progress of the post-war years with its assault upon public ownership, the welfare state, traditional working-class industries and the unions. The creation of mass unemployment (justified as an unavoidable outcome of industrial decline and the need to reduce inflation, the scourge of middle-class savers) was a deliberate political strategy to undermine the bargaining power of the working class. Despite some ritual bashing of the work-shy (“Get on your bike”), the government knew full well that there were no jobs since it had made sure that there weren’t. In contrast to the punitive surveillance of the unemployed today, which is designed to force people into the low-paid flexi-jobs that constitute the modern job market, the dole system back in the 1980s made little effort to pretend that its function was to help people back into work. If I remember correctly, I used to make the journey to the Hackney Downs dole office to sign on once every two weeks, no questions asked.

Unemployment benefit was not designed to support privileged young people to indulge their personal whims. At the time I felt a permanent undertow of uneasy guilt regularly overridden by flurries of self-righteousness: if no one will pay me to undertake this important work, then why shouldn’t I claim what I’m entitled to? I’m not proud of that attitude, even if it is not quite as shameful as that of those former members of the Oxford Bullingdon Club, oozing their own class entitlement, who pass judgement on the “culture of entitlement” of those condemned to life on benefits.

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I would probably have found out what I really needed to do in life much sooner had I not bought into the safe options offered by Cambridge

My mother, who never believed that I was really writing a book, was appalled that a son of hers should have joined the queue of welfare scroungers, insisting that someone like me could always get a job in a library. Indeed, for a while I took a part-time job in an Islington library to assuage her, as well as continuing to make theatre work independently (variably paid), working in community arts (invariably underpaid; in 1986 I mounted the first community opera), and teaching in adult education (paid, but seasonal). The rest of the time I relied on social security. I was only one of thousands of people working precariously in the arts at that time who claimed unemployment and housing benefit to support their work – many of them now recognised as important artists. Indeed, a whole generation of artists flourished under the liberal benefits system of the 1980s, paid for by the sell-off of a succession of state-owned utilities. This is something that is much harder today, as evidenced by the recent case of the graduate on Jobseeker’s Allowance who was forced to give up voluntary work in a museum to take a job in Poundland.

Working in complete isolation on my Mozart project wasn’t easy. Had it not been for the steadfast encouragement of Patrick Carnegy, music books editor at Faber and Faber, I probably wouldn’t have persevered, for otherwise I received much active discouragement, some hostility, and buckets of condescension (“Just what the world needs – another book on Mozart,” sneered one public figure when told what I was doing). There was (and still is) much at stake in maintaining the ideology of Mozart as a naive genius floating above the social and intellectual issues of his day, so my project was perceived as a threat: the one established Mozart scholar with whom I had any contact tried to dissuade me from undertaking the obvious task of reading the books in Mozart’s library on the grounds that Mozart wouldn’t have read them himself. Since I had been working outside any academic context, when Mozart and the Enlightenment was finally published in 1992, it landed unannounced in a field that many people thought they had already mapped quite satisfactorily. I was indeed fortunate not only that the book was reviewed astonishingly favourably in all the quality broadsheets, but also that none of the reviewers were academic musicologists or Mozart scholars – although many, such as Angus Calder and Roy Porter, were eminent scholars in other fields. I later learned that there had been some muttering at academic conferences about my presumption.

The two years after the publication of the book were the most difficult of my career. After the glowing reviews I naively imagined that I would suddenly be in demand. That the opera companies would turn to me in contrition: “we recognise now how shallow and superficial our work is, please come back and direct operas for us”; that I would be sought out as a lecturer, critic, reviewer. The silence was deafening. I now recognised that my future probably lay in academia, but everywhere I turned I was told “you need a PhD”. How could I now embark on a PhD, having spent nine years working on a book with the substance of several PhDs already? And frankly, I’d shot my bolt. In the end my muddled portfolio of experiences came to my rescue when, in 1994, Wimbledon School of Art was looking for someone who could straddle disciplines for its new MA in Visual Arts and Theatre. I had done some projects with theatre design students at Wimbledon, which had been well received, and the head of the contextual studies department, art historian Melissa McQuillan, was willing to take a punt on me. She happened also to be an opera lover and had read my book, which, I think, clinched it; I doubt one could sidle into an art school position without a higher degree so easily these days.

Sixteen years after finishing my BA, I found myself back in higher education, in an environment in which I could make up for the missing parts of my previous education. For four years I immersed myself in the critical debates concerning contemporary art and theatre, learning as I taught. During this period I was content not to produce any work myself. But the time came when I knew I had to return to the field of artistic practice that I understood best, music theatre, and fundamentally rethink the form in light of my new understanding. Having struggled previously to make work independently, I now found that Wimbledon provided exactly the right environment for me to explore the ideas that I needed to explore, and to build a critical and theoretical framework around that work. With the support of Tom Morris at the Battersea Arts Centre, I was able to make a series of new music theatre works over a five-year period of which I finally felt that I could be intellectually and artistically proud. But I was also finding it increasingly difficult to straddle the different academic disciplines of visual art, theatre and music convincingly, so when in 2004 the University of Sussex music department sounded me out about a new research centre in opera and music theatre there (the first of its kind), despite having no academic or practical qualifications in music I realised that this would be the best way to consolidate and focus my expertise.

One accrues debts and regrets throughout a lifetime. Some of my debts are acknowledged here. But looking back, I can now say that I regret having been to Cambridge. For many, it offers a reliable route to social and financial status (crassly exemplified, at a time when the NHS is in mortal peril, by the insert in the latest Cambridge alumni magazine advertising private health insurance), or an advantageous leg-up in the scramble for an academic position. Cambridge certainly taught me intellectual rigour, but in my case I would probably have found out what I really needed to do in life much sooner had I not bought so readily into the safe, Establishment options offered by the university. My Cambridge peers were all much cleverer, and more focused in their ambitions, than I ever was. But that cleverness serves and flatters an essentially middlebrow culture that is at the very least complacent and at worst reactionary. I can’t help but hold the continued stranglehold of Oxbridge upon British cultural life responsible for the fact that we have a much applauded director of the National Theatre (the fourth Cambridge graduate in succession to hold that position) who was once heard to say that Samuel Beckett was a fraud, who has rarely directed new plays beyond the type represented by that doyen of the middlebrow Alan Bennett, and who has suggested that the future of opera is in musicals (he directed that most egregious of globally franchised McMusicals, Miss Saigon, of course). Dynamic and challenging arts rarely come out of Oxbridge, and it took some much-too-belated, life-changing (and humbling) encounters with the likes of Pina Bausch and The Wooster Group or, here in Britain, People Show and the Impact Theatre Company for me to realise that.

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