Last year, something seismic happened in the publishing world: self help books overtook the celebrity autobiography to become the world’s best selling genre. The irony, of course, is that we’re all as fucked up as ever. Self help, though, is helping a few publishers – and authors – to furrow a very lucrative new field.
Same goes with cookery programmes. The fatter the celebrity chefs get, the more nutritionally impoverished we become – we’re far too busy watching the Bake Off to have the time to prepare a meal ourselves.
In Liverpool, it’s workshops. For the chosen few workshops are the sure fire way to boost a flagging business, access a healthy funding pot, or prop up a flailing career.
And we know. Because we’ve witnessed plenty. And here’s what we’ve learned –
The most important thing you can ever do on a workshop? Sign your name on the form. From then on, your resident guru gets his gold, and the off-the-peg advice can be doled out while they mull over how to spend their fee.
Because if you go to any of these workshops, lesson one is clear: this cosy ecosystem couldn’t exist without us. We are the throughput. We are the raw materials that give these agencies, these preferred service providers (it’s always the same ones, who have the same friends at the same economic development qangos) and these arts organisations a reason to exist.
We don’t invite these people to come to our estates, to decamp in our community, or to ‘intervene’ amongst us. We don’t ask these new puritans to show us the best way to shop, to tweet or to write. Yet here they are. Keen to share. Here to help. Ready to engage for the betterment of our personal and social development. And their bottom line.
And we’re cajoled into thinking that the next creative business startup course, the next online writing, health and nutrition, self-improvement or spreadsheeting masterclass is all that stands between us and certain nirvana.
If workshops worked – really worked – Liverpool would be the most successful, most dynamic, most well-adjusted and productive city in Britain. So why are most of us all still fighting for our lives, while a precious few soak up all the cash?
Last month, we got invites to ‘Expert Workshops in Social Media Marketing’ – by a strategic marketing company with fewer twitter followers than our local pub. The same company that tweets “hey, we’re nearly at 4,000 followers. Please RT and help us get to 5k!”. Here’s a lesson from us for free – that’s not expert social media. That’s begging.
We were informed of ‘Creative Writing masterclasses’ hosted by people who’ve run a blog for ten minutes, a ‘How to raise your profile and develop networks’ event by a Liverpool company we’ve never heard of, and a ‘Creative Finance Workshop’ run by someone whose ‘creative business’ depends entirely on, er, running financial workshops. It’s all way too meta for us.
There’s something in all this that sits uneasily with us. This belief that we’re all in need of improvement. Like hapless Victorian social climbers – we’d be ever so grateful, thank you kindly sir, if you’d kindly shave off a morsel of your genius to nourish our worthless souls.
It’s the same reason we feel the need to fly in a Los Angeles eco-expert for the Biennial – to enlighten the poor folk of Everton in the art of weed growing. To parachute in nutrition experts to stage ‘interventions’ in Liverpool’s ‘economically challenged’ neighbourhoods. To be barked at when we dare shop in John Lewis.
We had an idea for a festival (we’re still mulling it over) – and we were thinking of holding it in Central Library. We had a chat with a nice lady at the Arts Council. We were told, with no shred of shame, that if we were to add ‘an educational element to improve the skills of the library staff’, we’d stand a much better chance of getting a grant.
Who decreed that the library staff needed enlightenment? And who the fuck considered SevenStreets to be their self-appointed saviours? Not us. We walked. But for some, that would have been all the the encouragement needed to retro-fit their event to scoop up the cash.
So the money stays with those who know how to fill in the forms, and those who have skills enough to collect them, once we’ve signed them of course.
The skills these people have are not in social media. Not in communication. Not even in well womanhood. They’re in sweet talking Liverpool Vision. Knowing the right person to air kiss at the Everyman opening party. Understanding the arcane symbolism of the Arts Council Heritage Lottery Regional Enterprise European grant.
And they’re sucking us dry. Go take a look.
And when the long knives do their thing at the Council, and the public sector-funded business courses dry up, we’ll be left with a workshop feeding frenzy, where the same old agencies and social enterprises will hoover up the cash. They’ll get the gig not because they’ve any form – and not because anyone’s read their stuff/ attended their intervention/ benefitted from a phoned-in Powerpoint session.
And the accountability? The measurable outcomes? The proof that any of this is any more beneficial than a chat with your mates, a cut and paste evening with Google, or – maybe, just maybe – diving in, doing it yourself, and realising that Tweeting/growing carrots/writing about a play is something you can probably figure out yourself, repeat, and get better at. Get that builder’s high of doing something yourself.
The thief sector. We can learn a lot from them.
But at what cost?
This city needs to do a lot more listening. Joe, The Echo, the Communications and Strategic Agencies, the Cultural mavens who sit on panels and are only too eager to expound on why culture’s going through a tough patch…
Listening is the vehicle for true connection. Listening is also a letting go of control. We can’t, truly, let each other reach our full potential when we’re always trying to control what the rest of us should think, do, tweet or eat. When we’re constantly trying to impress others with what we know, what we have to say.
If we lose our obsession with the experts’ panel, the workshops and the masterclasses and really start to listen to each other, hey, we really might learn something.
But, we guess, there’s no grant available for that.