'Culture NI Was My Lifeline'
Critic John Higgins on how writing for Culture NI provided solace following a bereavement and indirectly led to the foundation of a now thriving fledgling theatre company
Culture Northern Ireland, the august organ that I have contributed to since moving to Belfast, is to cease publishing, the latest victim of swingeing cuts to the arts.
It is no exaggeration to suggest that the digital arts publication has been a lifeline to me. I moved to Northern Ireland when my wife became ill and wanted to be with her family. (It’s a familiar story – people tend to move here for love.) When she died I was broken, grieving, jobless and borderline alcoholic. (I blurred the boundaries there a few times, but then everything was pretty blurry anyway, so I rarely noticed.)
Culture NI gave me something to do. It got me out of the house. It allowed me to meet people, to form friendships, to get to know the city. I got to see some incredible art, and I also got to see a lot of stuff that made me think, 'Bloody hell, I could do better than that!'
So, in a sense, Culture NI got me writing and seriously thinking about the sort of writing I should be doing. It is, therefore, indirectly responsible for Shot Glass, a theatre company I founded with my colleague, Joe Nawaz. (It’s nice to be able to apportion at least some of the blame!)
When I was at the lowest point in my life, when I had nothing but a raging thirst, Culture NI gave me a sliver of dignity: they paid me for opinions, they got me into stuff for free. People were nice to me when they discovered I might be rude about them in print. The website made me believe that I could live in this city, maybe even serve some sort of purpose. So I shall always be grateful to Culture NI.
These are, I appreciate, entirely personal reasons to mourn its passing. It is only my story – the story of what Culture NI has meant to me.
There are other, better, reasons to be concerned about what this means for the arts here: there is nothing to take Culture Northern Ireland’s place. Thoughtful criticism will, I believe, consequently be replaced by PR approved content or pull out poster quotes. Click-bait will thrive. Art will continue to tread water, the same faces pushing the same old fodder as they cling to their monopoly, never needing to compete or improve. The ladder will remain tantalisingly out of reach.
That or the arts will just shrivel up and die in Northern Ireland as we pack up and leave again, the way generations have done before, looking for another place to share our colours and shapes and difficult ideas. Because it is clear: they really don’t want us here.