Thoughts on Reading as a River City and parenting

Yesterday I went to a talk about a new festival that has started in Reading that celebrates our waterways, history, cultural heritage and the arts. I went to this as an arts blogger, as a Reading resident, as a creative and as a parent. Why take a 6 year old to an evening event? He's been with me to other events (not as late as this one) as otherwise I often would not be able to attend. What difference does it make if I don't participate?

On International Women's Day I attended a day long event for female leaders at Proteus Theatre in Basingstoke and we discussed some of the barriers to us participating as parents or carers and what we could do about them. We discussed social expectations around bringing children to events - including daytime meetings. Is it better for us to leave them at home so that we can focus? Is it ok if we bring them even if the event doesn't mention 'child friendly'? Do we instantly assume that if the words 'family friendly' are missing that we are unable to attend with a child? If we organise events or meetings can we remember to state accessibility. Can we contact an event organiser beforehand to ask?

The upshot of the discussion was that I felt more empowered to confront internal barriers I place upon myself. I have a reasonable idea of what society's expectations are and I have choices and I can challenge and negotiate. When there is an event, I can choose to not go - which is what I often do and many parents do. Or I can pay for childcare although I have not done that yet. I can ask a friend or relative which feels like asking for 'a favour' or even 'permission' - depending on what I'm doing, childcare may or may not be granted. I can decide to bring my son and see if anyone minds when we get there, and if they don't we can sit near the back and if he is disruptive then we can leave early, but play it by ear. It can be more stressful this way but it can also be the difference between participating and not participating.

At the #RiverCity event which brought together researchers, artists, academics, scientists and planners I saw a lot of suits, most of these were filled by men. I thought about hidden voices. All the women (wives and partners) who didn't attend. People with invisible barriers (it was a free event but childcare costs. Transport costs. Carers need to hire or arrange for other carers. Personal disabilities, illnesses, language barriers).

It was an event talking about Reading in a way that could engage everyone who lives in Reading. A shared ambition for Reading that is a town but is nearly a city. Having been an arts reviewer for 10 years I welcome an increase in local arts and festivals. Because of childcare and cost and time and transport I don't want to commute to London to see great art or performance, I want to experience it here regularly. I welcome the Reading-On-Thames festival and I'm glad it has funding for another 3 years. There is even a job opening for a Festival Director. And I welcome the relationship between the town's economy and the arts.

But I want to challenge 'how we do things' including taking 6 year olds to talks. Business often operates differently to the arts. Many corporates have executives who stay for up to 5 years, who have a short term vision or strategy and often leave, whereas artists (and some visionary business founders) work at something over a lifetime. Reading has been a settlement for 1000 years. We need guardians for Reading. If we compare Reading to a child, would you give your child up to someone else after 5 years and not look back? Reading is that adolescent city, ready to take its place amongst other UK cities and hold its head high. But it needs nurturing, it needs love and it requires those who understand Reading's needs.

Nigel Horton-Baker, executive director of Reading UK CIC talked about Reading's underutilised assets including The Thames and the term 'asset' made me feel uncomfortable. As an ex-accountant we call an item an asset that has been paid for / invested in and which can be valued. We could argue that Reading's greatest 'assets' our prison with its links to Oscar Wilde, the Abbey which was the burial place of King Henry I and the river Thames, were all here long before we were and none of us have paid for them but we all benefit. As well as us being guardians of Reading, we are children of Reading, its trees, valleys, land, air, water sustain us. We live, work and grow here. Reading cares for us. It is a symbiotic relationship.

So be bold Reading, do things differently. Have a waterways tzar. Create arts residencies, opportunities for new and established artists, funding, mentoring and training schemes. Invest and think long term. Continue relationship building. Think about invisible barriers to participation.

And if you are looking for a part-time professional arts job you can apply for the position of Reading On Thames festival director , which is a 1 year fixed term contract - deadline for entries is Friday 29th September 2017. (A good opportunity for an artist parent who wants a part time role?).

(c) Wendy Thomson 2017

image, artist Amy Sharrocks at #RiverCity presentation- see our Feature What's the Point of Rivers Anyway?

amy sharrocks, rivercity, reading on thames festival