Oh, Belfast

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Yesterday morning I woke to the news that Northern Irish film organisations were facing up to 50% cuts to their annual budgets. It was not the nicest news to wake up to. Cinemagic could well be affected, also Belfast Film Festival and the QFT; all organisations I’ve been extremely impressed by in the last couple of years. It’s probably wrong to have favourites but I have to admit that I was most upset by the impact on the QFT. I did a quick count and I reckon we’re now into our 16th year of relationship. The QFT has never once judged me when I turn up alone on a Sunday night, with my pyjamas on under my parka and wish to watch art house movies and drink hot chocolate without talking to anyone. The QFT has never once corrected me for my mispronunciation of foreign film titles nor asked why I consistently book my tickets for the wrong date, (the font is very tiny on my iPhone). The QFT has, over the years, returned to me lap tops, (twice), mobile phone, (once), pull on suitcase, (honestly), and my favourite hand knit Kurt Cobain-inspired scarf, (after some six weeks languishing in lost property), and never once insinuated that I should be more responsible. The QFT has introduced me to pretty much every director and most of the actors I now hold in my holy canon of untouchable gods and offered me all this for £4 a pop after membership. Outside my own living room and the Ulster Hall the QFT is the place I feel most at home in the whole of Belfast and it’s fair to say  I’m both devastated and a little bit baffled by why anyone would suggest taking much-needed funding from an organisation which is so very obviously do something right.

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I know these current budget cuts are affecting healthcare and education, the environment and other areas of Northern Irish life which are all absolutely vital to the infrastructure of our country and already stretched to breaking point. However, the arts is my community, my sector, my colleagues and friends and I feel compelled to say something in defence of it. There are all manner of arguments which can be made in defence of strengthening the arts sector, (it has a direct impact on the tourism industry, it generates business and stimulates the economy, it is a vital part of education and a growing component of the drive to deliver holistic healthcare and well-being to our older people, it combats isolation, helps Northern Ireland to forge a new positive identity and gives people dignity and an opportunity to voice their own stories in their own peculiar way). All of these arguments have been made more eloquently and succinctly by other people over the last few weeks. I have nothing new to add except the fact that last night I spent three hours flicking through photos of the various arts projects and opportunities I’ve been party to over the last five years since my return to Belfast and I am undoubtedly a much richer person for having tea danced with hundreds of older people, been locked in the Lyric overnight and forced to write a play, hosted the most amazing group of young dancers with disabilities and been a fly on the wall to hear Sinead Morrissey help people who’ve lost their partners to stroke find their voices and shape them into poems. This doesn’t even begin to scrape the blessed surface of every gig, every screening, every art launch, every reading, every one of those hundred or so annual festivals and every good, bad and terribly ugly play I’ve sat through in the last few years. Belfast simply wouldn’t feel like home if there wasn’t any art here.

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I know our arts community is feeling incredibly demoralised right now. I’ve done my fair share of crying in the Ulster Hall toilets of late and wondering if I should jump ship to a sector with sociable working hours, such as dentistry or librarianing. There’s only so much wrestling you can do before exhaustion begins to kick in. It’s entirely understandable that we’re all feeling this way. There are people in this city who serve above and beyond the limits of expectation, hauling amps from one gig to the next, staying into the wee small hours to hang art in our galleries, driving to Dublin and back and then on to Derry and Enniskillen all in the space of a week to perform for five people on stackable chairs, spending hours and hours cutting shapes out of cardboard to prep for kids craft, wiring sound gear, stacking chairs, dancing on knackered feet, writing in bed with a hot water bottle because they can’t afford to turn the heating on, ripping tickets, pouring drinks, dealing wit difficult audience members, wondering if anyone notices just how hard they’re working and all the easier things they’re sacrificing to be here.

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It won’t make much difference with Stormont and it certainly won’t make the agenda for Nolan tomorrow morning, but I think it’s a good thing to stop for a moment and say that you are noticed and you are appreciated and tempting as it is to give up and move to London or become something that actually makes money, you should know that you have made, and in the future will continue to make, a massive difference to many many people’s quality of life. In this very difficult season as we all petition hard and wrestle with squeezing the last thirteen pence out of already exhausted budgets and try to feel festive while the arse has been ripped right out of Christmas, let’s at least remember to be kind to each other. If you’ve appreciated or benefitted from arts provision in Belfast in the last few years now would be a perfect time to let your praise be heard. For weary artists and arts practitioners a thank you email, an appreciative tweet, a wee glass of wine might well be the difference between despair and making it through to the New Year right now.

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I’m not leaving Belfast. I can’t. I’ve just bought a house here I can’t afford to sell. More importantly however, I don’t want to leave Belfast. I’ve been all over Britain and America in the last few years and I can honestly say I’ve yet to come across an arts sector which works as hard and as humbly as the artists and practitioners in Belfast. I’ve also never had artistic community like I’ve encountered in Belfast. I am a better writer, a better programmer and an all round better person because I’m working alongside some of you, and I truly believe that you are the most talented and generous artists I’m ever going to work with. I know that nice words aren’t going to change politicians attitudes, so sign the petitions, write letters to Stormont, get down to our venues and buy tickets and memberships for Christmas presents, Tweet, tell your apathetic friends to get involved, do whatever it takes to keep this at the top of the politicians’ agenda. The next few years may not be the easiest but I honestly believe enough wisdom and wit and truth and imagination and sheer bloody-genius in this wee community to see us all through the wilderness.

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