Not so very long ago, on a clear blue day, standing shoulder to shoulder, among total strangers in a concrete field of flowers - not only was a collective grief physically palpable, but a collective resilience too.
On that bright and sunny morning in St Anne’s Square, there was a tangible solidarity.
Within 24 hours of the attack on the Manchester Arena on 22nd May 2017, not only had this carpet of flowers and tributes been laid out as a visible manifestation of collective grief, but This is the Place, a poem by Tony Walsh, quickly become a galvanising force.
This poem to the citizens and workers of Greater Manchester evolved into a mantra, rallying people in the midst of grief - away from hatred and towards compassion and shared identity.
In the days following the attack, media outlets began reporting spontaneous acts of kindness across the city - where taxi drivers helped people find their way out of the aftermath.
One of those drivers - A.J. Singh - told Channel 4 News:
“I’ve had people who needed to find loved ones. I’ve dropped them off to the hospital. They’ve not had any money, they’ve been stranded... We should come out and show whoever’s done this that it doesn’t matter because in [Greater] Manchester, we’re glue and we stick together when it counts.”
That idea of A Social Glue is something that Mr Singh piqued in me, as did the artist David Shrigley later that same year, in a drawing for the report of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing – Creative Health. Suggesting that the arts are like a glue that can help stick us back together when things are difficult.
So, A Social Glue is a snapshot in time of culture, health and wellbeing, and their place in Greater Manchester’s ongoing cultural evolution. And it’s proudly Greater Manchester (GM) - because we have a rich vein of practice, of research and of growing political advocacy.
But it is our people and passion that we have to build on - and now is the moment in time to do this.
A Social Glue is an exploration of ways forward for the city-region in how we might think and do things differently, and where creativity in all its forms, can contribute to dynamic and healthy communities - from the cradle to the grave.
The last decade has seen a flowering of work in this sphere and a burgeoning number of artists, researchers, activists and citizens navigating this rich field of activity which is garnering political interest internationally.
And critically, for those of us working or living in this city-region - we can say with some authenticity - that this conjoining of human creativity, our health and our wellbeing - has a rich history here, in what is frequently described as the crucible of arts and health.
But this report embraces culture in all its forms - blurring the messy boundaries between the amateur and the professional; the artist who cares and the health worker who escapes the trauma of their workload through some safety-valve of self-expression and pleasure.
It also thinks about health and culture everywhere - not just in clinics or galleries - but in schools, on the streets and in our homes - fluid and difficult to pin down. Perhaps too, it suggests that the arts not only have the power to wrap us up, in potent emotions - but the potency to inspire us to be outraged and perhaps - make change.
A Social Glue hints at new possibilities of us thinking beyond our own selves and the wider world. This may simply be through meeting other people, or it might be through like-minded people working to a collective whole - just think about the ways people come together to create performative works or communal music - but think also, of those creative strands of social movements that have emerged over this last few years.
For all the horrors of the pandemic - and none of what I say is glib, because the impact on my family has been terrible - we must build on some of what the pandemic has opened up to us. On one hand, the terrible inequalities which demand action - on the other - a blossoming of creativity and a deeper understanding that the arts are for everybody, not just the elite.
Health Equity in England: The Marmot Review 10 Years On (2020) provided us with a case study of GM, reiterating, the unfair, unjust and unacceptable inequalities, that still exist in this City Region, but it also advocated for a place-based strategy aligned to a life-course approach – indicating this as the best way to tackle health inequalities and the social determinants that underpin them.
Rather than shying away, GM has become the UK’s first Marmot city-region, with a strategic commitment to working across all public services to ensure that policies, approaches and resources are geared towards creating a fairer, more equal society.
Just last month, The Greater Manchester Independent Inequalities Commission, produced a report: The Next Level: Good Lives for All in Greater Manchester, challenging us to tackle the factors that underpin inequalities.
They hold that both Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter are ‘guiding stars’ which have illuminated the depth of inequalities, while suggesting, our knowledge of past crises shows us that collective trauma often reveals great strengths. They say:
“The city-region has a collective spirit of looking after one another, and a proud tradition of radicalism, co-operation and standing up against injustice. Greater Manchester can build on this spirit of co-operation to recover and rebuild for a fairer future.”
The Commission calls for “bold thinking and brave actions … that puts tackling inequality at its heart.”
Like Marmot, their report falls short of equating culture and creativity as a means to achieving health and wellbeing, but does call to move “towards universal basic services in which education, health, childcare, adult social care, housing, transport and digital connectivity are provided to all.”
This should offer a rallying cry to all of us in the cultural sector.
We must lobby for culture/creativity/the arts to be included in the Greater Manchester Strategy - not only as a universal basic service - but a fundamental human right.
The report that David Shrigley illustrated for the APPG on arts, health and wellbeing - Creative Health - put a clear marker in the sand - that things need to be different and its synthesis of evidence around the impact of creativity and culture on health - makes it clear that:
"the arts can help keep us well, aid our recovery and support longer lives better lived and the arts can help meet major challenges facing health and social care: ageing, long-term conditions, loneliness and mental health.”
This has been backed up through a recent World Health Organisation (WHO) synthesis of evidence around the impact of arts interventions on health. The WHO Regional Director for Europe, DR Piroska Östlin suggests that:
“The arts can tackle “wicked” or complex health challenges [in that they] consider health and wellbeing in a broader societal and community context and offer solutions that common medical practice has so far been unable to address.”
At its heart, A Social Glue urges us to learn from the past and work towards a future that puts its people at the centre of social change. It offers up case studies of practice spanning our Age-Friendly city-region, alongside i-Thrive and 42nd St and children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing. It unpicks the possibilities of going beyond Social Prescribing, imagining a scenario where the tools to produce health-enabling opportunities, are in the hands of the communities themselves, subverting the government narrative, and moving towards a proud sense of place, evolved through true co-production.
Added to the mix, the huge number of skilled participatory artists in the city-region, provide a human resource that - if supported and paid to reflect their experience - presents a compelling scenario, that is within reach.
The report celebrates the potency of collective power evidenced by Live Well Make Art, bringing people together, affecting a sense of connection and identity across the City-Region. It applauds the extraordinary development and distribution of Creative Care Kits during lock-down, only made possible by 300 people who volunteered their time to create and distribute kits to 22,000 young people and 16,000 of Greater Manchester’s most vulnerable older people.
A Social Glue begins to disentangle the evidence, it looks to the gaps in what we know, and what might be useful research, particularly where “population-level arts engagement is associated with levels of inequality” - and - where “individual-level arts engagement is associated with better health or social outcomes that are normally adversely affected by inequalities.” (DCMS)
Above all, it urges us to think imaginatively about what constitutes evidence.
What is increasingly being referred to as a Creative Health agenda, has taken root nationally, where galleries and museums are communal healing places of human interaction, and hospitals have deeply considered design, providing a more humane space which offer multiple opportunities to encounter the arts.
Let’s move away from an arts and health agenda focused on ill health and deficit, to one where human creativity is seen as a liberating social asset and a means to effecting individual and communal change.
Now is the time to reimagine the city, towns and streets of Greater Manchester, from retail destinations to places of exciting and diverse culture, where people seek interactions with each other and the things that keep them healthy, happy and well.
Through collective endeavour, there is a real possibility to implement a far-reaching vision for public sector reform, where culture and creativity might enable communities and citizens to consider themselves participants in a common venture.
What might we do - here and now - to transform the city-region into what we can legitimately describe as a Creative Health City-Region? A Social Glue suggests that the conditions are right to pull these strands of possibility together, where one size, doesn’t fit all and where work that is hyper-local is nurtured with communities, as well as being part of a city-wide vision.
To achieve this vision, A Social Glue makes 8 recommendations:
- Identifying appropriate leadership to take this agenda forward. While acknowledging that this is a collective endeavour, we need to unlock possibilities, resources and opportunities not currently accessible from within local government or the cultural or voluntary sectors.
- We should build the identity of Greater Manchester as the first Creative Health city-region in the UK - working to embed creative approaches spanning all areas of devolved health policy and strategic health plans.
- We need to focus on the intersections between people, place, culture, heritage and their creativity, thinking and acting hyper-locally building on local assets, co-production and imaginatively evidenced work that is owned by communities.
- We need to redefine the potency of the arts and creativity and health from a medical to a social model, focusing on assets and potential, not deficit and ill health. Our plans should recognise the unique potential of culture and creativity to help us live well, positioning the arts at the heart of all future developments in the inequality’s agenda.
- Greater Manchester should be marketed as a legitimate UK centre of culture, health and social change - including rethinking the role of the high street and communities as destinations for wellbeing-enhancing experiences.
- We need to nurture, support and value our artists and creative practitioners, recognising the work that this diverse community bring to a health and social care agenda.
- Greater Manchester should move beyond Social Prescribing, linking green and blue spaces, heritage and the arts to the potential to live well. We should not be afraid to move our focus to where communities fall outside the system for reasons of culture, ethnicity or religion.
- Greater Manchester should develop a collective culture, health and social change research hub - that is outward-looking, proactive and systemically connected to, and collaborating with, its citizens, practitioners, artists and activists - and the statutory services. This should be people led.
We live in strange and difficult times, yet all the while Greater Manchester retains a vision and tenacity to do things differently. Perhaps now, more than ever, this mantra is more relevant than it has ever been.
We need to heal, and we need to move forward - above all, we need to place inequalities at the heart of our thinking and action. A Social Glue urges you to respond and garner strategic leadership and support - so we can nurture our communities (in all their shapes and sizes) who will be central to these developments.
I’ll end with a some thoughts from the Co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health & Wellbeing, Lord Howarth of Newport.
“Greater Manchester is uniquely placed to combine its strengths in advancing the Creative Health and the Marmot agendas. From way back, the area that is now Greater Manchester has pioneered best practice in arts and health initiatives. More recently Greater Manchester has seized the opportunity to pioneer the integration of health and social care services and work proactively to mitigate the damage to health caused by social and economic disadvantage. Combining those two traditions, as A Social Glue proposes, will enable the people of Greater Manchester to enjoy longer lives better lived in a more healthy and health - creating environment.”
You can watch Clive and the whole of the launch event here: