There are times as a single mother when the definition of “culture” is when you slap on some lipstick before you go to see the latest Pixar release in a big, ugly multiplex. There are other times, many, many of them, when your idea of a fun Saturday night consists of an involved online conversation on Facebook with other bored mothers about a BBC2 programme about boy bands.
Once the kids are in bed and the front door is locked, the hours stretch out like toffee. My own brother frequently mocks my lack of a social life with caring, heartfelt comments like, “Those long, winter nights must fly by.”
This can lead inevitably to mind-numbing boredom, and when I’m bored, I frequently start to look at things to stop my brain from turning to mush. The last time this happened in a serious way I ended up at going to University at 39 to do a post-graduate degree. I passed top of the class with a distinction. The people in my class thought I was some kind of wünderkind. Truth was, I simply had loads of time to kill.
I’ve wanted to do a masters degree, but finances being finances, I haven’t been able to get funding. It was with a sense of boredom and recklessness, therefore, that I decided to jump at the opportunity to apply to be a Cultural Champion for the city of Liverpool when we got a staff bulletin in work sometime last year.
The application asked for an example of a cultural experience I’d had. I talked about visiting the Tate Liverpool with my son and my dad. My son, being 9 at the time, wasn’t concerned with what message the artist might have been trying to convey, or with the depth of brushstrokes, or the implicit spirituality/sensuality/muscularity of a piece; he just wanted to have fun with the stuff.
We came across a polished copper sculpture by Donald Judd, which was mounted on a wall. If I’d be alone or with another grown up, I probably would have walked past it without a second glance. My son, however, stopped in his tracks and gave an almighty “Woah!” at the sight of it. To him it was a mounted Hall of Mirrors. We stood in front of it for ages making shapes in the reflected metal. Haz was a flat rug and I was standing on him. We were two foot tall and seven feet wide, we disappeared and appeared again. It was magic. When I looked round we’d drawn a crowd. Everyone was smiling madly at my son’s joyous messing about in front of the artwork.
As we went further round we discovered more sculpture, including a piece called Ghost, a six foot seven sculpture of a teenage girl. Never have I been so unsettled by a piece of art. The gawky, awkward statue actually made me feel queasy to such a massive degree that I had to flee it.
Further round the floor my octogenarian dad got fed up and looked for somewhere to sit down. He found a chair near to an exit and, wearing his Sunday best Marks & Spencer flat cap, pulled the chair out, sat on it with his arms crossed and feigned sleep. As he did this, I was gobsmacked to see that a serious number of my fellow visitors thought he was part of the exhibition. One particularly memorable couple walked around him for several minutes discussing him. “Oh, Fiona, look at the level of detail the artist has captured,” said the man. “I think, Donald, that it’s a statement about the weariness of age,” Fiona replied gravely. My son ran over and said “Grandad, we’re going now,” to which my dad rose from his chair, touched the peak of his cap in a jaunty salute to the crowd and departed to a small sea of stunned faces.
The application form also asked what I would like to get out of being a Cultural Champion for a year. Not wanting to be completely tragic and put “to get out more, please” I said that I wanted to be more active and less passive in my experience of culture in my city. I thought that whoever was judging this thing would think I was some kind of sad sack, so it was with nothing less than astonishment and delight that I got a phone call from Christina at Open Culture telling me I’d been successful.
Now after the excitement of meeting the Open Culture my fellow Champions – an absolutely brilliant bunch – and the whirlwind of our induction, I’m faced with the daunting prospect of actually getting down to it. Eek! I’m actually trembling at the prospect of my first proper experience as a Champion, but here goes!
Well I did say I wanted to get out more. Wish me luck.
John, Ray, Andre, Judy and I will be sharing our experiences on Open Culture’s blog.