The arts are all about empathy and communicating memories, feelings and perspectives to the viewer, listener or reader. That's why I love the arts, particularly books, and why I took an English degree. I only realised after taking a degree in International Public Policy that my English degree taught me more about politics and society than my political degree. Yes, I learnt about economics, political structures and abstract theories about governing but the human element just was not there. Novels, plays and poems presented me with people in different societies all over the world, communicating the difficulties of the eras they were in; the restrictions to their worlds. Politics is all about making life better for citizens, especially those with little power and privileges but plenty of problems. Books gave me a glimpse into the poverty of Dickens and Blake's worlds, the social oppression written about by Woolf, Plath and Hardy. It also showed me the timeless humour and humanity in Chaucer and Shakespeare's times. Being submerged in someone else's psyche, for hours, days, weeks, intermittent with your own life allows you an empathy and perspective adjustment. English taught me more about society, history, economics, industry and progress than an MSc in Public Policy did. For that I am grateful and fascinated.
Following the life of someone through their decades, stuck in a rigid society, with no hope out of poverty or oppression and knowing the progress made since their era makes you feel for all the souls stuck in the past who did not benefit from the support, democracy and freedom we enjoy today. Still, we have much further to go. In an ever-connected, globalised and increasingly educated and prosperous world we increasingly have access to the arts and leisure in which people in the past often could only ever dream. We now have access to knowledge of other people's lives abroad and at home, hopefully increasing people's engagement with the challenges we face locally, nationally and internationally.
Of course there are novels set in present day and the future. You read about the kids on sink estates with no work and no hope, the asylum seekers, the lonely elderly and the small business owners struggling to keep it together. Futuristic and magic realism books sometimes communicate issues far more clearly than if discussed in a present setting. In futuristic novels, as you cannot identify with the setting or culture, you identify more clearly the social issue. Think Angela Carter.
In a time when people say that arts degrees are a waste of time I think that mine has given me so much more than just studying equations, economics and theories. It has been the Guernicas, Schlinder's lists, Sarah Kane plays and Hemingway poetry which makes people realise the weight of an event that never affected you, and how affecting it is.
I have often tried to pinpoint when I became interested in politics. Some name a particular event or inspirational figure, or a campaign or community project that engaged them. For me, I think I have always been interested in people and alternative experiences of life, dictated by the situation they find themselves in. Just as you want the company of Jay Gatsby, Scarlett O'Hara and Alaska Young you want to help the characters whose worlds are unjust, even on a minor scale. You feel their desperation and the injustice of situations and you have the power to help society today, whichever way you see fit. For politics is about helping people in all their complexity, and that is so much more than mere statistics and philosophical musings.