‘If not pure, then at least useful.’

Read this book. It is probably the most important book about art that will be published this year. Or about politics. Or even about people. 

That’s an absurd claim, I know, but only because no such book exists, or can exist. There is no single, universal standard against which to measure all books and all priorities. So let’s start again.

I have not read a more moving, challenging, committed or better-written book about art, politics and people for a very long time, and if there’s a better one to come, put me down for a signed copy now. 

With each visit, each workshop, each conversation we had earned some trust and proved our hearts, if not pure, then at least useful.

The Club at the Edge of Town, p. 72

The Club on the Edge of Town was written by Alan Lane, artistic director of Slung Low, a small theatre company. In 2019, Slung Low entered a partnership with the management of an ancient but struggling working men’s club and transformed it into a thriving venue based on the principle of cultural democracy. That’s the club.   Slung Low, and the club, are in Holbeck, a district of inner-city Leeds with exceptional, unacceptable degrees of poverty and all the problems and distress that brings. That’s the edge of town. The edge of education, social services, health care, politics, arts provision and all things that those of us who live in places with a functioning welfare state (or with the resources to provide for ourselves) often take for granted.  

The Club on the Edge of Town tells the story of Slung Low and Holbeck, and might have been written at any time and been a good read. But it was written out of and about the catastrophe of Covid 19 and the tsunami of illness, death and lockdowns that swept through Britain in 2020 and 2021 (and have passed away yet). It was written about a theatre company that couldn’t make theatre but did the best thing it could do: get organised to feed the most vulnerable and those most in need, and help them through a crisis of fear and hunger. It was written with a passion born of hard, hard experience, the frustration of being able to relieve distress but not its causes, and a love of people that is translated into actions, not words. It’s clear-sighted and honest, unsentimental, angry, real. 

And to do nothing about it because ‘it’s not our fault’ is the sort of excuse that people have always used to let themselves off the hook for not doing the difficult thing. It isn’t our fault. But it is our responsibility. It is not only our responsibility, nor our only responsibility. But it is our responsibility.

The Club at the Edge of Town, p. 194

The book is easy to read. It rattles along. Lane—in the spirit of his book, I should call him Alan, but we’ve never met and I’m more reserved than him—is a gifted storyteller and he uses his gifts well. In such good company, a book about poverty, sickness and community art becomes a page–turner.  Which is a delight, but also a pity, because it would be easy to miss the many nuggets of wisdom carried along in the stream. Lane wears his learning lightly, distracting us with a bowtie, bowling shoes and a big personality, but it’s there and it’s invaluable. It’s the learning artists get from living with people rather than just working with them, as Slung Low did when they moved into and took responsibility for the Holbeck Working Men’s Club. He has important things to say about when and why it’s better not to pay people for their work, about the extractive view that some artists have of communities, about the inescapably exclusive nature of community itself, and how good intentions become distorted by our needs and fears, and without our even realising it. 

The only way to break the cycle is to keep your promise. No matter the cost. No matter how daft it makes you feel, no matter how inconvenient: you keep your promise, no matter what. Even if it means standing in the rain. 

The Club at the Edge of Town, p. 28

The Club on the Edge of Town is not a guidebook to community arts work—nothing, I think, could be further from Lane’s intentions—but the stories it relates, and the reflections they prompt, are the best resource for anyone wanting to work in the field. This book should be read, studied and debated in the first year of every university arts course—and returned to in the second and third year too. It should be on the desk of every arts manager and policymaker: it’s a necessary antidote to missionary idealism.

This book is not easy to read. The sadness of broken lives, the desperation, the grim juggling of unreconcilable demands. More than once, I read with tears in my eyes. In two and half pages, ‘Strangers in the Attic’ describes one person’s acute mental distress and another’s inability to help, and shows too that this happens because we live in a society that chooses to spend its wealth on life enhancing things (including theatre) rather than life-saving ones. It’s true that isn’t a necessary alternative, but it’s one we create when we fail to provide reliable support for people’s lives, and their dignity too. 

You can’t eat dignity, but food tastes better if you’re allowed to keep it.

The Club at the Edge of Town, p. 150

Politics runs through the book like sap through a tree, but it’s a thought-through politics rooted in experience not ideology. At least that’s what I sense when Lane explains why Slung Low isn’t a charity, and writes about ‘the wrong-headed idea that real change can happen if you leave final authority in the hands of people who, by definition, have done very well out of the current system.’ This may be a surprising sentiment from a man who is the reservist in the Royal Engineers, but Lane is a man of surprises. This is a man who thinks in moral terms, acts accordingly, and is unafraid to say so without ambiguity.  A man who know he has achieved by putting certainty in the face of scepticism and worries too about the moment when that certainty will let him down. One of the book’s most attractive—and truest—qualities is that Lane never makes you feel you must agree with him, because he doesn’t always agree with himself. He lives and acts on the edge, where it is always possible to put a foot wrong. And if you do, it’s always possible to put it right with the next step.

This book will get a lot of love, especially in the arts world, which will celebrate its passion, its humanity and its storytelling (and, as Lane already knows, use it to justify the principle of arts funding). The Club on the Edge of Town deserves to be read, and read again, by everyone who cares about theatre, community and the country we are becoming. I think it will become a mountain in the landscape of community art, in the sense that it will be impossible to think or talk about certain things without reference to its ideas and positions. That will probably mean that it will also, in time, have its backlash, and eventually, with the passing years, be taken for granted. A lot more people will think they have read it than have, in the way of these things. It may even come to be a classic of a minor genre, the pandemic memoir, still read in years to come, and resurrected decades from now when we are faced once again with a comparable cataclysm. 

Alan Lane, Slung Low, and many of the people mentioned in the book will be applauded, and rightly so. Rightly so.

But it is not enough. This book is a painful denunciation of ‘the damage that our society unthinkingly causes’, which is as good a definition of social exclusion as I know: the way some are hurt simply by how the stronger majority organise to meet their interests. While the pandemic frightened us, there was much talk that we needed to ‘build back better’. It seemed to me that different people heard different things in that phrase. Those whose lives were good before 2020, heard a promise to build back, a return to the life and lifestyle they enjoyed before lockdown. The growing numbers of people whose lives have been hard, cruel, unjust, laborious and exhausting, heard something else: they heard ‘better’. Now that government seems to have persuaded the majority that the pandemic is over (although 327 people died of Covid 19 this week) it seems that ‘better’ has been forgotten. On the contrary, with a cost of living crisis unrelieved and sometimes caused by government policy, we are very clearly building back worse. I have no idea what to do about the hydra dragging us beneath the waters, except electing a government with the desire and competence to tackle it: a government whose members might be like the people at Slung Low, perhaps, with ‘hearts, if not pure, then at least useful.’ Whatever else, Alan Lane’s book is a reminder that ‘better’ is more important than ‘back’.

The downside is you keep telling your story and you see the world is not changing and it has a strange demoralising effect.

The Club at the Edge of Town, p. 190

In time, The Club on the Edge of Town will become a familiar part of the landscape of community art, which means we’ll stop seeing it for what it is. Nevertheless, it will continue to burn like a coal fire, ready to burst into bright flame with oxygen of a new reader’s interest. There aren’t many books like this in the field of community art. Artists and People, Community, art and the State: Storming the Citadels, Engineers of the Imagination, one or two others.

And now, The Club on the Edge of Town. Read it, please.