Graduation days can be wonderful, life-enhancing events. At their best, they depict an open, inclusive society entirely at ease with itself.
A university I’m connected to – Leeds Beckett – awarded Phoenix Dance Theatre’s Sharon Watson an Honorary Doctorate of Arts. “As the artistic director of a company that has grown from small beginnings to an internationally recognised contemporary dance company,” she said, “it really shows what a talented and culturally diverse city we have.”
Very true. And yet I couldn’t help wonder whether the same could be said for the national arts scene.
Peter Weir’s classic film Dead Poets Society celebrates its 30th birthday this month. As The Guardian’s Luke Buckmaster argued, its core theme is “contemplating life from a different perspective”. Which, to my mind, is one of the great benefits of a multi-cultural society. And yet, according to a new report, exclusivity in poetry is increasing rather than decreasing.
Collecting data from 29 magazines and websites, the study found that nine per cent of almost 20,000 published poems were by poets of colour. When one influential journal was removed, the figure dropped to seven per cent. The British poetry world, it concluded, is “failing to meet even the most basic measurements of inclusivity”.
So much for carpe diem.
Last year’s Arts Council England report showed “significant” under-representation of people from black and ethnic minority backgrounds, disabled people and – in some roles – women, in its funded organisations. “Our young, diverse population is a national asset,” declared its director Sir Nicholas Serota, “a multitude of perspectives, ideas, talent and creativity. But we have a problem. We are as a society depriving this young population of opportunity.”
Contrast this with the world of sport.
In the past few weeks, whether it be the women’s World Cup team, Serena and Andy at Wimbledon or Lewis Hamilton making British history at Silverstone, there have been no shortage of inspirational role models.
The most exciting sporting achievement of all, of course, was last Sunday’s cricketing World Cup triumph. Inevitably, Jacob Rees-Mogg Brexitised the victory, tweeting “we clearly don’t need Europe to win”.
The England men’s team, in fact, were a truly international outfit, boasting an Irish captain, a man of the match raised in New Zealand, a bowler born in Barbados and a fielder from South Africa. When the Dublin-born skipper Eoin Morgan was asked if the team had enjoyed the luck of the Irish, he humorously referred to the fact that Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid, the grandchildren of Pakistani immigrants, were members of the Mirpuri community. “Allah was definitely with us…our team has quite diverse backgrounds and cultures.”
Similarly, Three Lions coach Gareth Southgate hailed his team’s 2018 World Cup top-four finish as a triumph of multiculturalism, citing their many different backgrounds and cultures. His squad, which boasted 11 players who were black or mixed-race, had “the chance to affect something bigger than ourselves…with our diversity and with our youth that represents modern England”.
The arts world likes to think of itself as superior to the sporting community in matters of diversity. It revels in the so-called cosmopolitanism of its writers, musicians and filmmakers.
But only this week, in response to the rumour that black actress Lashana Lynch might take over from Daniel Craig as the new 007, this has been exposed as something of a delusion.
Hands off Bond, cried the traditionalists. “Re-doing old stories with a PC angle is easier than writing new ones,” moaned one commentator. Another claimed that a woman could not play the role because it wouldn’t “satisfy male wish fulfilment”.
It must be hoped that, as graduands up and down the country – particularly those of colour – celebrated their metamorphosis into graduates, they were not put off from pursuing careers in the arts. But ridiculous over-reactions like this will give them pause for thought – and make them wonder whether they would be better off in another area of entertainment altogether.
Like sport. Which is clearly more in tune with the outward-looking image their universities like to present to the world.