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The Harpenden in Question - being a series of editorial commentaries on important Harpenden issues that should challenge thought and encourage inquiry and action.

18. Art for Harpenden’s Sake

Harpenden is perhaps not a cultural desert but maybe it is a little like the scrublands with just a few uneasy shoots of vegetation that border on such arid wastes. One thinks here of the creative arts in the widest sense along with other cultural elements and the all-important aspect of heritage. As readers will recall, there has been a recent proposal, We Are....Harpenden, which had aimed at developing a 'virtual hub' to deepen and extend the town's cultural dimensions by seeking new audiences and extending the range both of activities and locations. After much consultation and hard toil, the proposal won through the first stage of obtaining an 'Our Place' government grant for a three year scheme but, in a competition where there were only some twenty fortunate winners out of a field of 120 applications, Harpenden was unlucky.

However, the desire to normalise the cultural and heritage components of the town's being so that it would become the ordinary, the natural experience of everyone, endures. The hope is that the town's several artistic and allied groups will co-operate in heightening the cultural levels in this way.

In order to prioritise what might be required it would be useful to muse over the reasons why Harpenden is lacking in this regard. Although it has several societies devoted to these matters, they tend to exist in their own vacuum and some are scantily supported. There seems to be good provision for children but sometimes one feels this is a kind of life-style extra, not something intrinsic to everyday life. The only venue of note are the public halls, the rebuilding or refurbishment of which has been on The Society's hit-list for years, such is the outdatedness and general unfitness for purpose of the place. The local history society, a lively agency, wryly admits it has been campaigning for a museum in the town for the best part of a century. There is no art gallery, no cinema, no theatre – there is not even one independent book-shop. Most of the reasons given for this inadequacy – the proximity to London and other attractions – fails as soon as one looks at similar commuter towns not a thousand miles away which do boast theatres, art galleries and museums.

In analysis, it would seem that very often the difference is that the urban history of such other settlements has been of slower, lengthier growth. Harpenden grew astronomically by something like ten times in a hundred years, very fast in historical time. It is as if it never had chance to draw cultural breath in the pell-mell rush to build houses and jump on trains or into cars and rush off to work. Other places had longer phases to build in cultural facilities. Indeed, the absence of any large-scale employment in the town may have been another factor; many towns have benefited from corporate sponsorship in the past; think Black Dyke Mills or Grimethorpe Colliery...

According to the lists of the three general practices in the town, the Harpenden hinterland is inhabited by close on 50,000 people, certainly enough to support a thriving cultural environment were there will and resources.

This Renaissance might be in the modern idiom, more virtual than real, as in the original We Are ...Harpenden proposition. Some towns now have 'living' street museums or heritage trails, with explanatory plaques in guided sequence. Poetry readings, musical ventures and art exhibitions might seek user-friendly venues, places where people naturally foregather, like pubs, supermarkets, the farmers' market, station platforms, all all those bars and cafes. There are examples of this but it really needs concentrated and overall attention. During the We Are...Harpenden consultation there was quite a buzz of interest in 'Sunset Cinema' on the Common and in the concept of the 'Guerilla Playground'

There is no reason why Harpenden, with a little inventive lateral thinking and doughty effort, couldn't become a go-to cultural focus; Hay-on-Wye; Glastonbury – watch out!


Eric Midwinter

Autumn 2015 Newsletter