Saturday, 24 July 2010

Hatherleigh Festival

Another week, yet another festival... this was rather special though, as I was going to support Deor of Widsith and Deor Theatre in his other aspect as Matthew Hammond The Stand Up Philosopher. We had performed at the Tally Ho! pub before, a couple of years ago - a storytelling show called 'North and East and Down the Road' in the gardens, after a willow workshop by other members of the Collective. From that, I knew it was going to be very crowded! As it proved. Arriving early in the beautiful July evening, with an amazing golden light over the moor and shafting into the churchyard, there was a marquee in the square opposite the pub, and the two armchairs by the fireplace were free, so that was where we had the book stall. Liv Torc (slam winning Wondermentalist and host of Taking the Mic) turned up later, and the show began - she braving the packed and rowdy pub crowd to do the first set and introduce the next. Not the easiest of venues and audiences! And she did well despite the obstacles.
Then it was the Stand Up Philosopher's turn, and he started with Kant's 'What is Enlightenment?' - reactionary or revolutionary? It was amazing, and he did actually capture the attention of at least half the pub! with the rest dipping in and out (although as an essay is a narrative, it seemed a pity in the sense that with philosophy, it's good to catch beginning, middle and end! as one rather leads to another!). However, after that, he performed Marx (and one of his trademarks is to perform to some degree AS the philosopher/writer in question). As Kant was stuffy and a trifle cross, but thunderous about how emphatically he meant it, Karl Marx on the other hand was done (as Matthew likes to surprise people) as a young man, full of passion and yelling into the microphone in a way that actually caused moments of silence (in a pub as as packed and full of drinkers and diners as that!). It was hugely impressive, and ended as a call to arms.
After that, came a singer, Nicola Clarke, who did well, (though I reflected, it was an easier environment for music than spoken word). Then after the interval, the three acts in the same order. Again, Liv started the second half, managing against the wall of noise to be heard and to entertain. The second Stand Up Philosopher set comprised Cicero and Aquinas. Cicero was lordly and earnest as he told us of how he had lost his life in Ancient Rome, and of the ideals of the Republic, how it had paved the way for our latter day constitutions, and exhorting us not to turn our backs on our own systems lest anarchy prevail! And Aquinas was done as a duologue - as Tony Blair requested of Aquinas exactly what was involved in the mythical 'just war'? and so showed how it was that Britain ended up invading and occupying Iraq - just what the philosophical and historical 'justification' of that action was - again, parts of this - as well as making folks laugh at the banter between the two characters - made the pub go silent. The show ended with another excellent set of music from Nicola, and all in all, how could a show set in such an environment (the opening of the Festival, hordes of noisy people up for fun and piling in after the Silver Band) have gone better?
The crowd even requested encores! as at the end of the Stand Up Philosophy (and as they do make you think), Matthew (having begun with a couple at the start) asked if anyone wanted more Anglo-Saxon riddles (from the C10th Exeter Book in which are also found the poets Widsith and Deor) and 'YES!' came the roar of reply. So he told two more, and finally - all impromptu - said 'My colleague here does them properly!' (meaning only that I stick to the word order of a single translator generally, rather than improvise on the original) and so I got up sheepishly and performed the celestial Riddle whose answer is thought to be (and almost certainly is) the Sun and Moon. I could see the link - as people had to give thought to what they were listening to with philosophy, and had to listen to the riddles in order to think up what the answer might be, but was surprised and pleased the mixture worked. Hats off to the Stand Up Philosopher!

And all power to Liv Torc who also did a tremendous job in a tough brief having come straight from work in Somerset and like ourselves, hot on the heels of festival work, and in her case one of them hundreds of miles north! It's harder work than it looks, being performers.

Big thanks to Jamie for booking the Stand Up Philosopher, to Daniella and all the Hatherleigh Festival team for their hard work making it happen!

Check out the videos at;

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Buddhafield Festival

The picture is of Deor as Troll, in the Majical Youth Theatre opening ceremony parade to open the Buddhafield Festival (before the rain started!).
Another week, another festival...this time a much smaller one. And talk about work! When Widsith and Deor started off doing festivals with the visual arts and crafts skills based members of the Collective, years ago, mostly right at the beginning because they said 'do you want to come to...?' at first we told tales to workshoppers to keep them amused while they were making things, or told tales to folks waiting to be shown what to do, or to parents waiting for their offspring to finish making whatever it was, then soon sold ourselves as a sequential package, with folks doing a workshop and then wearing and brandishing their theatrical items during a following performance....we considered ourselves a great team sharing and preparing the Pavilion in good turnaround time over and over again, as we learned to pitch and unpitch in less and less time, and of course all about all the clearing up that goes into getting the site back to normal once it's all over. Over gigs, we also picked up how to help in the workshops themselves. Whether cutting up fabric in the right way, or being shown how to tie the wings onto how to weave willow and actually help make the stock. Then about how to decorate it, then making something to start off with in order to show folks that something was going on, as much as how to make it...then one started showing people how to from scratch...then doing so much that one had to cut one's own willow, learn about the growing season, about how to soak it and the different types...then setting about storing the fabrics, and how much was needed...and at last having ideas for our own workshops (leather) linked to our storytelling gear and costumes. Then having our own structure (the tipi currently), and now, (due to the visual artists pulling out of this assignment), we now have done everything ourselves, from start to finish.

Our gallant helpers did their best at stepping into the breach, but one was a juggler not a craftsperson, and who had two children under five to boot! and no transport so was reliant on trains and a tent (including in torrential rain and the charming force 8 gale which blew away one of the music venue marquees on Thursday night!) and the other was double booked in any case, doing her wonderful tree people on stilts act elsewhere on Saturday, dependent on a lift to get there, and meanwhile having had her van broken into so having to leave early... Lastly, Circus Ben (it was so good to see a friendly face not long after we arrived!) helped cart stuff up to the craft area, and looked in from time to time, and did sterling work pushing the corners of our marquee upward to let down some of the heavy rain in the downpour which threatened to set the marquee awash at one point! but after all, was there working for Swamp Circus, and so again, was only there when he could spare a moment.
So we pretty much did the bulk of it all by ourselves. And I can definitely say that six hours craft workshops daily in willow and leather, storytelling out of doors (against the usual festival racket), carting loads of stuff up hill and down dale, cleaning up afterwards for over two hours (around 24 hours in total over the five days not including preparation, set up and take down), coping with a near flood, bailing out water, and taking up the floor for the organizers whose tent it was afterwards, is utterly exhausting. We offered leather plaited wristbands, gauntlets, eyemasks, pirate eyepatches, willow wings, crowns, headddresses, mobiles, flags, swords and then den and tipi building as well as our usual storytelling...including a flood tale as the rain lashed down and the wind rocked the marquee, and folks cheered as the story ended along with the worst onslaught...AND (as the organizers were crew short themselves) even hosted a painting session as well (not something I'd choose to offer - paint all over the floor - visions of purgatory...).
I can also say it's the world's worst way to sell books as the weather made even getting them out of the van out of the question, until day 3 when I was far too tired to even think of trying to do anything else at the same time, and the idea of a pitch in the middle of the lower field when the sun came out after clocking off past five just appealed about as much as a mud shower... There must be easier and better ways of doing this...I thought.

But if nothing else, we've proved what a long way we've come...from working with artists of other disciplines to absorbing their skills to replicating (in common work areas anyway) their competencies... And that must mean 'one can do anything', surely? I remember when I thought that folks who could make all this stuff and/or teach it were just amazing...and here I was doing it all my/ourselves... But spare a thought for the folks who work at the festivals if you are going to any but not working at them this summer! It's very far indeed from Bilbo Baggin's 'pony rides in May sunshine'...I just wish that such work, (as he wished about adventures), was!

Big thanks to Circus Ben, Trees on Stilts Sadie, Lizzie the juggler, Crafty Clare in the marquee next door, Cecelia the facepainter with whom we shared the marquee, and Helen and the Majical Youth folks for wanting us there. And lastly to the participants who made such amazing things - especially all those who made such fantastic gauntlets, wristbands and masks! Wow.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Oxford Professor of Poetry

Having waited on tenterhooks to know who would be appointed Oxford Professor of Poetry (after Geoffrey Hill's name was mentioned as a candidate), it was wonderful to hear that Geoffrey Hill had indeed been appointed. What can I say? at seventeen I did some things my fellows did, like hang round the city centre at three o'clock in the morning spray painting walls and throwing bottles at plate glass windows, sleeping on doorsteps and generally living the teenage urban life. But while other A Level students were off to the pub, sometimes I would just go to the library and pick out any interesting looking books I 'hadn't read yet'. A crazy aim, as I had read so little - but more than most people I knew, who weren't adults so it wasn't quite as stupid as it sounded. The poetry section particularly attracted me (having been raised on Keats, de la Mare and others, and having written since 11, non-stop since thirteen). One day I came across a slim black volume with silver script in an unusual style. 'Mercian Hymns' it said. Well I certainly enjoyed hymns, was probably the half-baked thought, and so I opened it. I was at once struck with how beautiful and strange the language was - 'wergild', 'marl', 'gleemen' - I was at first intrigued, and then enchanted. Not long after I bought a copy - not that you could buy a copy of the book by itself, but I bought a 'Collected Poems' - which had plenty more wonders in store. I knew from the first that I was only skimming the surface of everything the collected books had to offer, and another poet was my 'favourite poet'. But I also realised, even then, that more would be made plain later. That with more reading, a better grasp of history, and simply growing up, that I would comprehend better the jewels within, as well as merely marvel at their sparkle. Within two years of graduating, it was proved true, and he became and is still, my favourite poet.

I never felt wronged, even then, as some writers or critics seem to, in not understanding everything at once - when I first discovered 'Mercian Hymns', (shameful or incredible depending on mood, as it seems now) I had very little but the vaguest notion of who Offa was. But it didn't matter - I still caught the general atmosphere, the juxtaposition of past and present, the time synch nature of the book (reflecting classic fantasy like The Dark is Rising sequence), the brilliance of the language, from the quirkiness of 'moldywarp' to the beauty of 'vertebrae of the chimera' to the startling and wonderful dropping in and out of modern colloquialisms or expletives to ancient words long unused, the archaeology and fauna and flora and geology all weaving past and present as much as the near-visions of the past or ghosts or whatever manifestations they are, with the identifications of the modern landscape 'overlord of the M5' and the present family of the 'staggeringly gifted child' the one 'always sick on outings'...(also redolent of fantasy serials). All bound together in a delicious and sophisticated yet obtainable tapestry.

After that 'Tenebrae' especially delighted with its 'Splendour of life so splendidly contained'. It rewarded and wove with a growing love of modern art as it filled in and expanded the 'colours of the mind'. 'Canaan' seemed to speak to me alone (of course it didn't, but as much great poetry, felt as though it did) as a 'constrained spirit'. Waiting for the 'strange legends to begin' (and reading of 'Praise and lament' at my Father's ashes scattering) at last came 'The Triumph of Love' (took me years to appreciate that one properly), 'Speech! Speech!' of which the most apt review was 'this will blow your head off', 'The Orchards of Syon' (I think one needs to be at a later stage of life perhaps not to find it depressing though?), 'Scenes from Comus' - pure masqued perfection! 'Without Title' which I've yet to get to the bottom of and 'A Treatise of Civil Power' which I love. It helps that he seems to choose some of the historical backdrops I love best as canvas to the poem's paints - Milton's light fantastic of the masque and Inigo Jones' set design being one of my hobby horses, also Stern Oliver (Cromwell) and the English Civil War, (Offa and Dark Age Britain now of course it goes without saying).

So it is that he is the poet whose books I look forward to and get as soon as they appear. I am now looking forward to 'Oraclau/Oracles' to be published by Clutag Press later this year. I can't think of anyone who writes so consistently work of such beauty, interest and endless fascination that rewards reading, re-reading, reading around the subject, chasing up allusions (I would never have read any of Disraeli's novels had it not been for a quote at the beginning of a poem!), reading aloud and generally growing up and maturing, than Geoffrey Hill. I am so pleased and delighted that he has been made Oxford Professor of Poetry because it seems to me such works cannot be given too much recognition, even in our 'diminished age', in a country however beloved with 'so many monuments but no memory'.

To order, got to;

Friday, 9 July 2010

Spoken/Written Comes to the End of its Funding

I - Spoken/Written

Just one thing after another (and of course all one really wants to do in weather like this is go and sit in the Sea! to cool off). Now that Spoken/Written has come to the end of its funding, it was time to contact the Arts Council, as the funding was in part to cover the period of changing landscape and uncertainty in the regional lit scene. Many things have happened over the six months since the last smaller award was granted; Arts Matrix was bought by Plymouth College of Art, Cyprus Well got a new director (Tracey Guiry of the former organization) and started up its blog and calendar, the Literature South West website was closed/archived in favour of the aforementioned; and all in all, the scene changed a great deal. It was now time to see what the funders thought, and whether or not Spoken/Written still (as I believe it has) a place worth preserving on the lit scene. But the Literature and Visual Arts Officer was away on maternity leave - the one who had seen and been aware of Spoken/Written from its heart sank. Especially when central office said that there was no one who had yet been appointed with her caseload... However, mercifully, they were wrong, and my calls through to an answerphone message with a name I hadn't recognized (before asking at central office) were replied to! So I rang back in turn, and there WAS someone who had taken over the role! Thankfully, I explained where things stood...and heard that meetings were to be held over the coming month, and that things might be clearer after that.

So - as things stand, it doesn't look completely hopeless, but having said that, there is definitely no guarantee that the Arts Council will fund Spoken/Written a fourth time. Its vision was always of independence for the Bulletin, and I have tried to persuade folks to contribute a small sum to the service if they value it. But while a number of really public spirited and wonderful folks have given money, and tried to cover the shortfall left by those who have given nothing, not enough people have paid for their subscriptions. Forwarding? as it's an e-mail newsletter. Too many newsletters in the inbox, to remember which ones were the ones that were useful? Hobbyist approaches by those who like to keep 'in the loop' but aren't quite committed enough to bother with paying for it? There are many reasons or possible reasons.

II - Three Roles...

Whether an alternative source of support can be found is also still an open question. And all the while the admin and uncertainty sap energy away from other vital tasks such as research for the newsletter itself (I usually like to pack folks off with a bumper edition for the summer break), and my other jobs - selling our books, doing workshops and performing at festivals and events. (All much harder work than they sound! There's a very good reason why 'everyone' who can write a book or perform a story doesn't publish and sell their books or become professional storytellers!) Just as 'everyone' who has a craft a skill doesn't end up running workshops... No one ever tells you of all the getting there, getting back, packing up, storing stuff, carting stuff, finding homes for piles of materials, some really messy (pva/plaster figures, anything with ivy or holly - ouch!), some that need soaking beforehand (willow), collecting materials (from tanner, cobbler, theatres), writing up evaluations for lots of events and workshops for funders/organizers, loads of admin (for every festival think two forms per person you're taking), phonecalls (nerve wracking if you're a bit shy), dozens of e-mails, thanking, explaining, confirming, requesting, reminding, drawing attention to....setting up stalls, taking down stalls, putting up marquees of various types (with varying levels of stress depending on how many are on hand to help, which one it is, and what the weather's like). I could go on.

Selling books and storytelling theatre, doing festivals and workshops might sound great, but believe me, as most storytellers etc. will tell you - it isn't all pony rides in May sunshine! And stress over Spoken/Written's future sometimes just seems like too much...especially when everything is on such a shoestring. To cap it all, some of the Collective team have pulled out of the coming Buddhafield Festival, and we're having to find other artists to replace them. All the rest of our usual team are busy - two at the Pilton Festival, one at the Golowan Festival, one coming anyway but with Swamp Circus, not the Collective...but happily, we have a great bunch in the Collective, and the folks going to Pilton have found us one replacement artist (another Bicton College graduate!), and our circus member has found a it's just getting all their details to Majical Youth (the ones we'll be working for) in time!

Here's to some time off somewhere near the Sea...