The Shock of the Neuk

10 Aug 2012 in Robert Livingston Blog

Before moving to the Highlands we lived for twelve years in Anstruther in the East Neuk of Fife. In the mid 90s Anstruther and its smaller neighbour Pittenweem were sad places: empty shops along the harbour fronts, derelict domestic and commercial properties with little prospect of regeneration, and loads of houses for sale. It took us two years to find a buyer for our neat, practical Edwardian semi, even at a fixed price.

Scenically the East Neuk’s saviour, and commercially its nemesis, was Dr Beeching. Had the coastal branch line remained in place Anstruther would have been a reasonable daily commute from Edinburgh, and I’m sure that by now the very different villages that make up the famous ‘fringe of gold’ would have been linked by ribbon development and lost all their special character. But that same issue of accessibility has worked against economic diversification as the fishing industry has withered away.

In the last decade, however, both villages have revived hugely, and for two different but related reasons. Anstruther, like many east coast villages, gained a pontoon marina  in its old harbour, making it the furthest out safe anchorage on that side of the Firth of Forth. Now it’s a boom town. There are now three large fish and chip restaurants on the front, and on a busy day you can’t get into any of them. There are no empty properties, many derelict shells have been rebuilt, and there are lots of thriving local businesses.

Pittenweem’s revival has a different cause. Here a modest amount of inshore fishing continues, and the harbour is in any event less suitable for leisure-craft pontoons. Instead, Pittenweem has been turned round by art.

The Pittenweem Arts Festival  was launched 30 years ago by a small group of professional artists who had their homes (or at least their holiday homes) in the village–many taught in either the Edinburgh or Dundee art colleges. While I was working at the Crawford Centre in St Andrews, both Judith and I became involved in the festival, and in the memorable year of 1988 I collaborated on a deeply whimsical project with Crail-based composer Peter Davidson, and Hamburg-born, Pittenweem-resident artist Reinhard Behrens . I had jokingly once suggested to Peter that he should write the ‘Table Music for King Zog of Albania’ and he took me at my word, got a grant from the Scottish Arts Council, and wrote the piece for the Fife Wind Soloists. For the premier we concocted an elaborate back story for the piece, with installations by Reinhard of Albanian ‘memorabilia’, and my only attempt (to date) at stand up, portraying a demented German music professor. Our one rule had been that we should find out nothing at all about the real Albania, then the most obscure of all Iron Curtain countries. Ours was a dream Albania. We weren’t to know that the next year-1989-Albania, like the rest of the Communist bloc, would suddenly become a lot more visible to the rest of the world!

1988 was of course the anniversary of the Spanish Armada, and there is a strong tradition that the folk of the East Neuk, retaining Catholic sympathies, looked after the Spanish survivors of wrecked Armada ships as the fleet struggled round the north of Scotland. Certainly, locals often have a certain olive tinge to their skin…

To mark the event for the Festival Reinhard had turned a disused rowing boat into a replica galleon, and Fife Arts’ resident pyrotechnician had packed it full of fireworks. A torch-lit procession (the first, I think, in what became a regular feature of the festival) made its way from the centre of the village to the disused open air swimming pool where the ‘galleon’ was floating, and to the (somewhat inaudible) accompaniment of the Fife Wind Soloists playing (of course) the ‘Fireworks music for King Zog’ the replica went up in a true blaze of glory.

In the subsequent 25 years the Festival has grown to become a popular date in Scotland’s visual arts calendar. Its unique feature is that it hosts scores of different exhibitions in the widest possible range of venues: not just people’s houses, garages, and outbuildings, but all the very distinctive spaces that can be found in a historic, but still active, fishing port. So, aesthetic pleasure is combined with a childish delight in getting into places you wouldn’t otherwise see, or, alternatively, seeing familiar interiors utterly transformed.

Although we return to Fife regularly to visit old friends, I hadn’t been to the Festival itself since well before this explosion of temporary venues. So I was keen to get a sense of how the Festival worked, and whether it had any lessons to offer other communities that might be looking to achieve a measure of economic regeneration through the arts. Even outside festival time, the impact on Pittenweem is certainly obvious: new galleries, artists’ materials shops, and hardly an empty property to be seen.

We decided to avoid the traditional Friday night opening, which I suspected would be a bit of a rammy, and turned up at 11.00 on Monday morning. Already the field which acted as temporary car park was filling up. Friendly and efficient stewards showed us our parking place and sold us the essential Festival programme, with details of all 120 exhibiting artists. But, sensible though the edge-of-village parking arrangements were, they had one big disadvantage. If you made the mistake, as we did, of starting off visiting some of the displays close to the car park, you quickly got a false impression of the real quality of the festival. After four or five examples of depressingly poor work, we were beginning to wonder if the Festival was all hype and no substance.

After a reviving coffee we headed for the main invited exhibition, of work by John Byrne. This couldn’t fail to impress, so fertile is John’s imagination and so sure his technical skill. But even more impressive was a selection in the ‘Old Men’s Club’ of sculptures by Jake Harvey . This part-indoors, part-outside display was the perfect union of work and setting: right on the edge of the wonderful stonework of the Old Pier, Jake’s almost-but-not-quite abstract stone sculptures had a balance, a purity, a sense of wit, and a rightness, that was unforgettable. I wanted them to stay there as a permanent display, which would have been hard on the Old Men.

From then on it was one great display after another, often, like the Harvey, beautifully matching work to setting. Some artists were returning to their roots, like Lynn MacGregor, born in the village but now living in Northern Ireland. Others, like a group of seven photographers from London, had been invited to make work about Pitternweem and its inhabitants. Many more had chosen to move to the area to live and work in the village itself, or close by. Some of the most impressive work was in crafts, from locally-based makers to an invited cross-section of the best in contemporary Scottish crafts, curated by a regular colleague of HI~Arts, Tina Rose.

The mood was indeed festive, especially when torrential downpours appeared out of an almost clear sky, and everyone dashed for the nearest venue, no matter how small. Many displays featured a gratifying number of red ‘sold’ dots, even though the Festival still had the rest of the week to run. In four hours we got round less than a quarter of the venues and, in retrospect, missed some of the most potentially interesting. But we did see a marvelous display of art and craft work from Shetland, charmingly whimsical paintings by Angie Bee in a garden summerhouse so hot it needed four electric fans at once, and bought one of Hilke MacIntyre’s delightful sculpted ceramic tiles, entitled appropriately, ‘Just a Shower’. We ended our day calling in on Reinhard and his wife Margaret for tea, and enjoying the work on display by all four members of the Behrens family.

A number of thoughts coalesced in my mind afterwards. The first concerned quality. Had we been casual visitors we might well have been put off by those first few displays, got back in the car, and headed off to somewhere less crowded. Yet Pittenweem strives to be an inclusive festival, so the organisers must have difficulty in setting a quality threshold. Not inclusive enough, it would seem, as this year for the first time there is a ‘Fringe’ organised by artists who, to judge by their very good website , seem to feel that the official Festival isn’t doing enough for ‘Fife artists’ even though the vast majority of the official exhibitors are locally based. This has caused some controversy–Fringe exhibitors don’t pay for inclusion in the official marketing, as is tartly pointed out on the official website, yet benefit from the visitors it attracts.

The second concerns quality in a different sense–of display. Given that the Festival is run by volunteers, most of the displays were a terrific credit both to the organisers and to the individual artists. But there were some exceptions that let the side down, including the headline John Byrne exhibition, where the labels (stuck on the picture glass!) were often alarmingly dyslexic, and gave no indication of the dates of individual works, unforgivable when drawing from the fruits of an almost 50-year career.

My final point links back to Anstruther, and its new prosperity based on the harbour marina. Both ventures–the festival and the marina–are massively middle class in focus and involvement. Of course, regeneration needs money: to pay mooring fees, rent self-catering houses, buy meals and drinks, and, finally, buy art and craft. But you can’t avoid the feeling that Pittenweem in particular has gone the way that her sister village Crail went many years ago, and has become ‘gentrified’. Now it’s the few remaining fishermen, working on their boats in the harbour, who provide an exotic backdrop to the gallery-goers, and the incomers have become the dominant element in the population.

The Pittenweem Arts Festival is a great success and a huge achievement. But in economic regeneration terms, perhaps the greatest element of that success has lain in ensuring that Pittenweem remains visible. The designation of ‘book town’ and ‘craft town’ have had similar impacts in terms of visibility for the communities of Wigtown and West Kilbride. Other Fife communities, just a few miles from the East Neuk, have not benefitted from the same profile even when, like West Wemyss, their architecture has a similar picturesque potential. But they have not seen the same influx of culturally-inclined middle class incomers.

So there’s a balance to be struck. Those who have money are essential to the economy of the arts—either through direct expenditure or through the taxes they pay. But the arts are not for one class or group within society. It’s a relatively recent notion that the ‘high’ arts are socially elitist. My grandfather, a steel worker, had a passionate love of classical music which he passed on to my mother and hence to me. As recently as the 1950s the National Gallery in London would stay open late on Cup Final days because so many of those coming up to London for the match also wanted to see some ‘culture’. So while it may be inevitable that community regeneration through the arts needs the interest and investment of the chattering classes to oil the wheels, the challenge is to ensure that the end result is properly inclusive. In Pittenweem, as in other examples such as the St Magnus Festival, that’s perhaps best achieved through the huge numbers of local volunteers involved, and the various participatory programmes offered. I hope the population of Pittenweem as a whole is proud of their festival for what it does for the village—even those who have as little interest in the arts as I do in the Olympics!

PS:  my jokey title is a back-handed tribute to the memory of the great Australian art critic Robert Hughes, who died this month.  His TV series and book ‘The Shock of the New’ redefined how contemporary art could be tackled in the media, and almost everything he wrote, or presented, is worth reading or watching (except for his last book ‘Rome’ which is a sadly deficient potboiler).  His early collection of exhibition reviews was entitled ‘Nothing if not Critical’, a quote from Hazlitt, and an injunction I’ve always borne in mind.


© Robert Livingston