In July 2017, partly inspired by that summer’s General Election, I hosted the pilot episode of a radio programme on Resonance 104.4fm, called Suite (212). I had wanted to host a show on Resonance for years, and sketched out a proposal for a series called Writers on Writing in 2013, where authors talked in detail about their work, but never got it off the ground. The idea stuck with me, though, after I began my PhD in Creative & Critical Writing in September 2015 and took up a residency with Somerset House Studios, during which time my social circles expanded from London’s literary and journalistic scenes to take in more artists, filmmakers and musicians – as well as writers and activists energised, like I was, by Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party.
I had long been listening to Novara FM on Resonance, usually hosted by the great James Butler, finding it offered far more intelligent and in-depth political analysis than almost anything to be found in liberal newspapers or British radio or TV. Either side of June 2017, a range of podcasts started, but most of them only dealt with culture occasionally, often making it secondary to politics: excited by the way the arts had featured in the election campaign, I wanted to start a show that centred the arts, looking at them from an unashamedly left-wing perspective, in contrast to programming that claimed to be neutral but felt deeply conservative, not just in its explicit or implicit ideology, but also in its choice of subjects. (I discussed my reasons in an interview with the New Socialist’s culture editor Jack Frayne-Reid, and an Extra episode with co-host Tom Overton.)
We opened with a self-reflexive conversation about the uses and limits of criticism, and established ourselves with a discussion of the idea of cultural democracy, and how it had historically fed into Labour Party arts and education policies, and into mainstream broadcasting. In addition, during our first series, broadcast monthly, we gave hour-long slots to visiting writers Sheila Heti and Chris Kraus to discuss their past and present work, assessed the career of Mark E. Smith just after his death, and reconsidered the cultural legacy of the October revolution and the uprisings of May 1968.
My favourite shows, however, were the ones that looked at a political issue affecting the arts, usually with a panel comprised of artists: the discussion about racism in the arts with artist/filmmaker Larry Achiampong and Alexandrina Hemsley of Project O was especially memorable, not least for the number of times Larry said he’d never been asked what seemed to me a basic question about how racism affected his practice. When Suite (212) went weekly for its second series in September 2018, these programmes – harder to organise and research than conversations with a single guest about a single work – featured less often.
That said, I’m so proud of the shows that I, and my co-hosts Tom Overton and Lara Alonso Corona, made for that second series – personal favourites include my three-part series on the cultural impact of the First World War, an episode about the occult and 21st century feminism including poetry readings, a reassessment of George Orwell, a conversation with Adam Żuławski about Polish science fiction, and our most popular episode ever, an hour-long interview with Brian Eno. However, it was the panel about art, censorship and resistance in Erdoğan’s Turkey that really captured what I wanted Suite (212) to be about: featuring a practising artist and a politically-engaged critic, it offered insight into both the desperate political situation and the many ways in which artists and institutions were fighting it.
The big problem was that even the simplest shows required plenty of reading and research, and after I completed my PhD in December 2018, it became hard to fit so much unpaid labour into my schedule of freelance journalism and casualised university teaching. (I will explain just how much in my next post.) Tom and I couldn’t work out how to fund a regular programme – Resonance already got Arts Council money, and we did not want to feel compromised by taking money from a government body – and in May 2019, we took the sad decision to stand it down. I focused on Labour, frustrated that under the Shadow Secretary of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Tom Watson, no radical policy on the arts seemed forthcoming, with the party’s mass membership having little involvement. In the run-up to the 2019 election, I wrote about Labour’s arts manifesto for Tribune, where Owen Hatherley has created one of the most vibrant spaces for socialist cultural coverage (discussed in a recent Novara FM episode), and with Kit Caless from Influx Press, co-wrote the Culture for Labour letter, signed by over 500 artists, writers, filmmakers, musicians and cultural workers and also published in Tribune.
But the space left by Suite (212) was not filled, and after the catastrophic 2019 election result, it has become clearer than ever that the task of creating an environment amenable to socialism in the UK requires plenty of work to be done, and not just through parliamentary politics. Good, intelligent art and culture, and cultural coverage, will help to disseminate our ideas, but if the election campaign taught us anything, it’s that we cannot rely on legacy media to let us advance those ideas, and should concentrate on building up platforms that we can control.
That’s why I’m relaunching Suite (212) – purely as a podcast for the time being, so we’re not tied to a regular radio slot with all that implies for scheduling my workload. Most, if not all of the programmes will be hosted by me, and funded by donations here on Patreon. I would like to issue two podcasts a month – one free, and one exclusively for subscribers to our lowest tier, paying $3 (roughly £2) per month. These subscribers will also get detailed episode descriptions that list everything referenced (one of the most labour-intensive aspects of the show); those on our $5 tier can also access recordings of events where I interview cultural figures. Anyone on our $10 tier will receive my archival, print-only writings on the arts, as well as links to films, music, writing and other works, past and present, that might be of interest.
So why not subscribe today, and help us bring back Suite (212)? Good cultural coverage need not be expensive, but it does take time and money to produce, and it has never felt more urgent – with your help, I plan to get the show back into your feeds as soon as possible, as regularly as possible. Now as in 2017, I think it will be a valuable addition to the podcasting scene, the wider broadcasting landscape and whatever emerges on the British left in the wake of “the Corbyn project” – I hope you agree, and will show your support.