Can the arts stimulate new ways of living in old mining communities like Doncaster?
“You know, there’s no such thing as society,” said Margaret Thatcher in an interview with British magazine Woman’s Own in 1987. Yet in Doncaster, South Yorkshire, a town where her influence is still deeply felt, a creative and radical community is forming.
This was a heartland of resistance in the 1984-1985 UK miners’ strike, home to three of the 55 collieries in Yorkshire at the time. Now there are none; the last pit closed in 2015, and the majority long before that.
The town lies 17 miles north-east of Sheffield, once also a hub of British industry in the north of England. Known as ‘Steel City,’ its manufacturing base has largely disappeared, but it is home to two renowned universities which attract students from the UK and across the world.
In Doncaster there has been no such large-scale regeneration. The town’s main employers are now in the service industries such as hospitality, call centres and retail. Studies carried out by Sheffield Hallam University’s Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research found that 43 per cent of neighbourhoods in the coalfields of England are in the most deprived 30 per cent in the country, and 11.7 per cent of the population report long-term health problems compared to 8.6 per cent nationally.
A third of children in Doncaster live in poverty, and the current government’s austerity programme is having severe affects: the town’s Women’s Aid centre, the last in South Yorkshire, is fighting closure due to cuts in their funding
‘Donny’—as the locals call the town—gets a lot of bad press. On the face of it, you might be led to believe that ex-mining communities are places mired in hopelessness. Rachel Horne, co-editor of Doncopolitan magazine, knows the affects of the closure of the mines intimately.
Her father was a miner, the fifth generation of miners in the family. Rachel, 34, was born in the first year of the strike. Her father moved between various jobs after the pit closures, none providing the security or community belonging that the mines had done. She remembers times growing up when her family went without electricity. Like many young people in Doncaster she yearned to escape, and moved to London to study at Middlesex University. She stayed for seven years, but the grind of the capital drove her back north.
“I didn’t want to leave London,” she told me in an interview, “but I felt stagnant and depressed there, looking back. I could only really live my creativity at 20 per cent as I had no money and little financial backing. London is full of people who get the financial backing to live there and succeed because of it.”
Moving back to Doncaster, I was worried that there wasn’t enough here for me. That people wouldn’t understand that my work sits between fine art and connective aesthetics. I want to change the world not just mirror it.”
Along with Warren Draper, 48, an activist and artist, she founded Doncopolitan—a free magazine of arts and culture that has grown into a community hub of art and action.
“Warren and myself met on a humble artist mailing list in Doncaster in 2010. There was no support for visual artists at that time other than that mailing list.
Warren emailed the group asking if anyone would be interested in getting involved in an arts and culture magazine off the back of Doncaster going for city status in 2010. I’d just come back from London. I was keen to meet other artists. We met in a tea room and flower shop called Lord Hurst. It reminded me of being in North London, like Primrose Hill. A lot of creative meetings happened in that space for the following year.”
The pair had an instant synergy.
“I was born in the miners’ strike. It had influenced my journey as an artist to discover what had happened to Doncaster and how the strike affected my community and family. Warren had moved to Doncaster shortly before the strike and spent time on the picket lines as a teenager. He saw first-hand the brutality of the police and the State against working class people, as well at the lies told by the media.”
Aided by a small team of part-time staff and many volunteers, a regular print magazine, festivals, events, campaigns, meet-ups and exhibitions have all been spawned from Doncopolitan’s co-working space office on Copley Road. Events happening in February 2017 include craft club, a 1980s and 1990s club night for charity in an old warehouse, and an arts and music “wonkfest.”
Dan Ryder, 28, is Doncopolitan’s social media editor. He’s also a poet and one of the organisers of the town’s Ted Hughes Poetry Festival. Getting involved with Doncopolitan “shattered the negativity” he had about his home, he told me. Like Rachel, Dan left Doncaster for university. He attended Manchester Metropolitan and spent spells in Australia and Iceland after graduating.
“Moving back and making Doncaster a permanent base was something I would have felt was not a viable option while I was at, and even after, university. Despite always feeling incredibly proud of my roots, I felt Doncaster didn’t and couldn’t hold opportunities of any real kind for me as a young person, especially creative opportunities.
Finding a group of people who actively championed Doncaster—both the place and its people—went against the tide of negativity that both local and mainstream media put on the town.
Doncopolitan tuned me into a network of local creatives and taught me that I could make Doncaster my future. On the surface Doncaster doesn’t have as many opportunities as a large city, but on the flipside it is a creative blank canvas where I can create projects and lead on them, such as creating and curating the world’s first public poetry exhibition in a commercial shopping space.”
When I spoke with him Warren pointed out that Doncaster was once one of the wealthiest regions in the UK. Surrounded by arable farmland and with a strong heritage of engineering and industry, he believes, “we should want for nothing, yet, Doncaster is currently one of the most underprivileged regions in the UK.”
He and his colleagues see the magazine as an integral part of a wider strategy to promote DIY culture, promoting greater self-reliance and sustainability on an individual and community level. Doncopolitan looks to the Slow Movement for inspiration, with the aim of making Doncaster “the slow capital” of the UK.
The movement began in 1986, when Italian food writer Carlo Petrini staged a protest against the opening of a McDonald’s restaurant in Rome’s grand Piazza di Spagna. In opposition to fast food, he advocates for “slow food,” but the movement has widened to include many aspects of living.
“We want to show how slowing down can improve life quality, reduce stress and make our lives healthier, greener and more enjoyable,” says Warren.
One of the most exciting developments for Doncopolitan has been their expansion into community farming. Bentley Urban Farm was founded in 2016, with Warren leading the project. Receiving a grant from the Doncaster Mayor’s department enabled him to leave his job in the town’s furniture shop and employ another worker alongside himself to focus on developing the farm.
“We use reclaimed materials to build, repair and maintain a greenhouse, poly-tunnel and outdoor beds where we grow fresh, healthy, local food in a town where it was previously easier to buy kebabs than kale.”
The farm is leased on an abandoned and disused horticultural centre site. Community groups and individuals use the site and through a ‘veg bag’ scheme, organic produce is delivered to local residents, with subsidies provided for families and individuals on low incomes.
“We always wanted a space to create and land to grow and test new models for sustainable living. A space to share and innovate new ideas. We’re a movement not just a magazine or a community growing project. We’ve got to create new ways of living as current systems aren’t sustainable at all.”
Teaser photo credit: By Roger Cornfoot, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3902474