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Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 28th November 2013
Like buses, surveys often come along at least in twos. Earlier this month there appeared details of a European Union survey of 27,000 people from across the European Union into just how cultural we all are. Britons are better read, more engaged in history and more likely to attend cultural events, such as the theatre or the ballet, than the average EU citizen.

On the face of it, it’s good news for the UK – we are more cultured than any of our fellow EU residents. It tells us that 52 per cent of British people visited a museum or an art gallery over the past year; the French (despite the Louvre and all the other galleries around the nation) managed only 37 per cent, and Italy, the land of Michelangelo and Raphael and of innumerable remains of a great civilization, a paltry 30 per cent.

As the home nation of the world’s greatest playwright, Shakespeare, we may be proud of another statistic – that we can muster 39 per cent of our fellows who have been to a play in the last 12 months; the average is 28 per cent, and the French, with Moliere and Racine, can claim only half of Britain’s total.

What about reading? Eighty per cent of British people have read at least one book in the last year – the statistics don’t give figures for the average numbers of book read. The EU average is 68 per cent, and we beat the Germans (79 per cent), the French (73 per cent) and the Italians (56 per cent). Citizens of Greece and Portugal each managed just 50 per cent – perhaps their economic difficulties have made it less easy to concentrate on a book . . .

There is, though, an economic down side to this British literary victory – the rate at which public libraries are closing has remained worryingly high, and we in Ripon should be grateful that our library remains such a valuable resource for the city.

Opera-going has always been seen as elitist – though quite why this should be, when the price of opera tickets can compare very favourably with tickets to premier league football matches, is a mystery; it’s probably another aspect of the British class system that we have yet to surmount. The EU survey tells us that 22 per cent of people attended an opera, dance or ballet performance over the last year – the breakdown goes no further, though many opera fans wouldn’t go near the ballet, and vice versa! Our 22 per cent is Europe’s best, with Germany (Wagner, Richard Strauss) achieving 19 per cent and Italy (Verdi, Puccini) just 17 per cent.

All this may sound encouraging, especially for us in the UK, until we consider that the number of people in the EU taking part in any cultural activity at all has fallen by a massive 24 per cent in the last five years – the years of recession; we are more likely to stay at home and spend our money on ‘essentials’ than go out. But at least here in Ripon we have a new reason to go out – our new Curzon cinema can provide us with immediate culture close at hand, with live relays from the Royal Shakespeare Company, Opera from the Met in New York and both opera and ballet from Covent Garden. And, given the disparity in arts funding between London and the rest of the country, we have a least some cause to be grateful for these links.

The other survey that has just come out is from English Heritage. It’s called ‘Heritage Counts’ and details ‘Historic Environment Indicators’ for the country and for the regions. The ‘Yorkshire and Humber’ section offers some interesting insights into the state of our built and archeological heritage. It gives a taste of the ‘assets’ of the area, so we find that of the local authorities in Yorkshire and Humber, only Harrogate and Bradford have a World Heritage Site (Fountains Abbey/Studley Royal and Saltaire respectively), that the Harrogate area has 169 Scheduled Ancient Monuments to York’s 21, and that our area has 12 Registered Parks and Gardens – ahead of Sheffield’s 11 and only just behind Bradford (14) and Leeds (13).

We can cheer, too, because in Yorkshire and Humber we have beaten the national decline in the number of people visiting historic properties (houses, castles, abbeys etc). In England (which is the subject of the report), visits were down by 1.6 per cent; in Yorkshire and Humber they were up by 3.6 per cent. To put this into some perspective, the EU report tells us that in Greece, the home of the Parthenon and Acropolis, visits to historical monuments have halved in the last year.

Anyone who is passionate about the arts or about our heritage might take some comfort from these figures – at least we are, generally, maintaining some level of culture and appreciation of our past. But we should always be striving to increase these, still too low, percentages. In Ripon we have plenty of live music, like Ripon’s own St Cecilia Orchestra, and drama, like the Rowel Players – as well as, now, the Curzon cinema relays, other film (including that from the Film Society), and plenty of other opportunities to top up our culture – including the many historic buildings around us. Let’s encourage more people to take them up.

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