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September 3, 2009 10:05 pm

Even Banksy fears he is too popular

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How other cities must envy Bristol and wish they had a Banksy of their own in these recessionary times. The elusive graffiti artist’s “Banksy v Bristol Museum” exhibition, which has just closed, is estimated by the city council to have boosted Bristol’s economy by £10m. Its effect on morale has been even greater.

More than 300,000 people visited the exhibition during its 12 weeks, as many as usually visit the museum in a year. Some queued for up to six hours. Hotels, cafés and other local attractions have all done extra trade, with some businesses reporting that their turnover doubled.

That may be some way short of the £800m boost that Liverpool’s 2008 European Capital of Culture year is said to have brought to the Merseyside economy, but underlines the fact that the regeneration-through-culture boom of the past decade shows little sign of fading. The government recently launched a competition to choose the UK’s first City of Culture for 2013. The winner could host events such as the Turner Prize, BBC Sports Personality of the Year, the Brits and the Riba Stirling Prize.

Those left out of the culture city rush are looking for ways to muscle in. In Cornwall, campaigners have joined with counterparts in Poland and Finland to try to persuade European Union chiefs to recognise Regions of Culture in the same way as urban areas under the Capital of Culture programme.

Others are simply doing it themselves. Scotland’s Convention of Highlands and Islands, representing various bodies, has agreed to make 2011 Islands Year of Culture, after the Year of Highland Culture in 2007.

Amid Bristol’s self-congratulation, art critic Brian Sewell sounded a characteristically sour note by suggesting Banksy should have been “put down at birth” because his work has no virtue. He criticised Bristol city council for planning to let the public vote on whether graffitists’ murals on building, walls and fences should be removed.

I will leave it to others to judge whether Banksy produces great art or just great publicity. In a statement, the artist said: “It’s nice to see it’s been so popular but it makes me a bit suspicious. Throughout history all the great artists have been overlooked in their own lifetime and only appreciated when they’ve gone. I’m starting to worry I’m not one of the good guys.”

But perhaps that is just another tease.

SNP compassion

The Scottish government’s release of the Lockerbie bomber on compassionate grounds is more understandable when viewed in the light of the Scottish National party’s liberal views on law and order. Kenny MacAskill, justice secretary, is trying to cut massively the number of short prison sentences, preferring community punishments, and the minority SNP government has taken a liberal line too on dealing with drug addiction by spending more on treatment.

Banx cartoon

This is emerging as a dividing line between the parties ahead of the next Scottish parliament elections in 2011. Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour leader, is appealing to the social conservatism of working-class voters by taking a tough stance on law and order. Mr Gray was quick to condemn the release of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, leaving him curiously at odds with Gordon Brown, who has finally declared his “respect” for an SNP decision that the UK government manifestly wished for in private. Devolution produces such peculiarities. Labour has contorted itself over Mr Megrahi but imagine how much more difficult this would have been if it had been in power at Holyrood.

A recent poll suggests support for the SNP and independence has dipped, although opposition parties were reluctant to force a censure vote for fear of provoking an election in which the SNP might gain. Alex Salmond, the first minister, looks able to ride out this furore. He will be taking a risk, though, if the SNP becomes labelled as soft on crime.

Tory ringtones

On the Conservative party website you can download free mobile ringtones of Margaret Thatcher saying “The lady’s not for turning” and Winston Churchill intoning “We shall fight them on the beaches”, released in celebration of Conservative History week. Strangely, none is available of Neville Chamberlain declaring “Peace for our time”.

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