Spring 2015, I got the go-ahead to organise a caving trip for a class of year 5 and 6 children, followed by a day workshop – and this workshop was to be something creative, which the children would benefit from. Blagdon school chose to have a day of poetry writing for the class.
The trip was set for June 8th. A coach relayed children to the caves: there were four expeditions that day at Burrington Combe.
We had to climb into overalls, wear hard hats and belts, and have our safety talk.
Walking to Goatchurch Cavern, we heard stories along the way from Rachel and Andy Sparrow and Andy Chamberlain, of skulls found in Aveline’s Hole, geology, geography, pre-history and the Victorian visitors who paid at the entrance and went caving with heavy wet through old hemp rope, in long skirts and cloth caps.
A couple of feet at a time, we went down the giant staircase, down keyhole shaped passages and shallow descending sandy slopes, in the ambient temperature which remains the same in summer and winter. We saw cave spiders and lesser horse-shoe bats. 2015 became irrelevant – time was many layered and it was hard to keep sense of minutes going by.
Andy Chamberlain cracked jokes all the way around the cave and told us extraordinary geological facts, so nobody thought of even getting scared.
I collected words along the way that the instructors and the children came up with, and wrote them all down in the dark on a dirty scrap of paper:
Down the badger pit. Bead of calcite. Brightening the cave with all their shininess. Limestone, slightly acidic water. A fractal waterfall. Boney vegetable smell. It smells like the cupboard in my bedroom. Volcanic ash, like peanut butter. The Drunkard’s alley. Scrunched. Fraught.
When I got home I put the words down on a giant piece of card.
In the workshop we cut up the words, wrote some more and cut those up too.
We hung words on giant stalactite shaped pieces of paper…
… and played with words, phrases and points of view.
The children wrote over thirty poems, many with illustrations. They worked hard, shared ideas and concentrated. I tried to help each child individually, though could have done with another day, but the children finished off their poems in class over the following week. Some of the children came up to me, all buzzing, in the playground to tell me that they had been working on their poems.
The main thing I liked in the workshop and in the poems themselves is the detail that the children observed, felt and heard on their caving trip – it comes out in their choice of words. I also liked how clear it was that the experience had ignited their imaginations and how they were able to convey their own personal experiences, including a fair bit of fear in some cases. It’s great that the poems were written from different points of view – for example from the point of view of a bat, a girl, a storyteller and a cave…
There was an acrostic poem…
and some great pictures:
The poems will go in the Time Capsule which I’ll be doing next term. The capsule will be filled up with letters and other goodies, ready to be placed in the school attic and to be opened in 25 years time.
Thank you to Stuart Bardsley at Discovering Blackdown Project for funding and supporting this project, to the excellent caving instructors and to the teachers and staff at Blagdon who made all this possible.
🙂 “Thanks ever so much for arranging everything for this trip Elspeth. I know the children have had a great time working on this during this term.” Anne Harrison at Blagdon school.
Now, we are lucky to find messages from our ancestors 10,000 years ago in the shape of scratches on cave walls, or carvings on bones. I asked Scouts, Cubs, Guides, Rainbows, Beavers and Brownies what they would like to leave for someone in the future. In our workshops we explored this by making a letter to someone in the future. We used different coloured home-made Mendip soil inks, plus a range of others such as beetroot, blackberry and elderberry ink. The children used feathers or sticks as well as pens, staples, even fuzzy felt. They made letters in pictures or in words about where and how they live, and what they can see, smell or eat. Sometimes they used images and ideas of animals or plants in prehistory. This is no rules letter writing: these letters are about having fun, being creative as well as engaging with Blackdown and its history. The project has been funded by Discovering Blackdown Project. For more about Elspeth’s letter writing project see: https://2buproductions.org/letterwriting
The letters hang on washing lines: pegged up works of art. A small girl charges in, attracted by the colours. She brushes her hands through silver ribbon hanging from a kite letter. She rushes out, then back in again several times. Her footsteps fall on rectangles of sunlight coming through the windows.
Jane who runs Fanny’s café in Blagdon helps me put up the exhibition, draping string and the large branch she places against the bar with fairy lights.
Once we’re done, I sit in the corner and wait to see how people react.
Four boys search for the letter they wrote in the workshop. A mother points out to her daughter that she’s spotted her letter, and giggles at the words in it. A boy tells his brother that the letter he did is rubbish. It’s painted with local mud and has something about it, I tell the boy, it gives a lot of information to the people of the future, that’s why I laminated it and put it on display.
One of the Cub leaders tells me that the children talked for weeks after the workshop I did with them. Though there’s no time for any thorough research evaluation here, this kind of verbal, even anecdotal feedback is welcome. It’s important to know that there are benefits.
A pair of ladies giggle as they read things such as ‘Broccoli was never meant to have been eaten’ on a letter from one of the Cubs.
A member of the village history society takes a long time over reading the words and looking at the images. She writes in the visitor’s book ‘Selfies and broccoli – brilliant. Really enjoyed looking at your exhibition’.
‘It’s really quite moving,’ says a retired man who I’ve called in from the pavement, walking by. He loves children’s art having worked in a children’s hospital most of his life as a nurse, but hadn’t felt able to come. He likes the inks chosen from Mendip soil. He also likes a glittery splodge one child has made, and the mammoth.
He visits again a little later with a bag full of jars of different coloured oche pigments, from golden to browny reds and one of the pictures he’s painting with them. ‘You can grind the ochre in a pestle and mortar, then sieve it, and grind it once more. That makes a very fine pigment.’
A couple of Police Community Support Officers titter.
One Cub, spontaneously tells me, ‘I loved doing all this.’ It reminds me how much the children enjoyed the process on those cold winter evenings.
A bunch of girls find it a good place to chat, amidst the letters:
‘The rooms smell lovely – did the children use lavender?’ asks a parent. I say on one of the workshop tables there were a few bottles of essential oils, a few scents, lavender and eucalypus to dab on. That’s what you can do with a real letter.
Next door, the film that year 5 and 6 made for Decoy Day is on a loop, and a lots of people are coming in to watch it. Some of them stay for three sittings. In between or at the end, they eat war time cakes – a fruit cake, or honey cake with a cup of tea, served by the school Class 4 teacher. Then they wonder into the room of letters.
‘They have clearly been able to be free whilst creating these – they’re really special aren’t they?’ one mother says to me. Another writes in the visitors book, ‘Loved the letters and the film – what wonderful creative enterprises! Fantastic that the kids get to express their creativity and individuality. The inks are wonderful.’
I tell one spectator that I was really interested in what the children picked up from the information and ideas I shared with them. I showed a bundle of local maps to the Guides, amidst a lot of images of Mendips animals and plants twelve thousand years ago as well as now. One girl picked out a little bit of one of the maps and drew a field map. Others drew deer, hare and owls.
Some images had real plants on them, or mushrooms:
Others had stuck on fuzzy felt, playing cards or glitter.
There were even letters on a stone I’d brought to pin down paper.
They have really thought about the words, taken care to think what the people of the future might like to hear, and then chosen inks, writing slowly with feathers and wooden sticks, and got on with communicating in the best way they can to the future.
‘What’s going to happen to these letters?’ a few people ask. ‘Something should be done with them, they should actually be given to the future.’ A dad says he can find a box for them, he’ll have a look and perhaps they could be buried in the village? By the end of the day, I’ve found a little money to make this happen, if the children will let me bury them…. and they can have them back in 25 years time.
More comments from the visitors book:
‘What a Joy’.
‘In discussion with one of the parents the project has really made the children of Blagdon think ‘outside the box’ and it has inspired them to talk about all their involvement and matters discussed.’
‘Lovely imagination – brought to life. I love the idea that ‘anything goes’.
So – thank you to all the children – Scouts, Guides, Brownies, Cubs, Beavers, Rainbows for all your work, to all the group leaders, Jane Adams for helping me put the exhibition together, Ruth Coleman for sharing the exhibition, and Stuart Bardsley at Discovering Blackdown Project for funding the workshops and exhibition http://www.discoveringblackdown.org.uk and all the people who came to see it.
I am saddened by the fire at this wonderful arts centre last Friday. Yet warmed by the news that donations are already pouring in to help rebuild the damage – such is the will to keep hold of the bricks, space and spirit of this place.
Driving through Battersea today, I remember the play that I staged there when I was 30. I had just finished the (rather long titled) National Theatre Young Directors’ Programme at the National Theatre Studio which Ian Rickson, the talented, mellow (and gorgeous) Director of The Royal Court at the time, had put my name up for, for which I am truly grateful. “After the course, you want to be putting on a show quite quickly,” Ian encouraged me, so I looked for my opportunity.
Tom Morris was Artistic Director at Battersea, and after attending a workshop with him at the National Studio, I was brave, introduced myself properly and we chatted about my idea – a play about a dystopian world run by ecologists and based on bee society. Soon after he invited me to stage my show as part of a music and theatre programme ‘A Sharp Intake of Music’. This was a fantastic and terrifying opportunity to write and direct my first show in London – it was called ‘Beauty and The Breast’. The script came out of a week of improvisation, a lot of filtering of ideas and then writing up a structure and a script of a kind, though there was as much physical theatre as words and that’s quite difficult to fix in a script. Matthew Barley improvised live on stage and two talented actors, Helen Laing and Nuria Bennet moved, danced and spoke. It was a true collaboration of theatre and live music, and was properly experimental. I’m not sure which other venue at the time would have been so open to such an idea.
It was very enjoyable a process and lots of the audience were impressed and moved, though I was embarrassed to have made the mistake of employing a young Australian lighting operator who got all the cues wrong. Gah!
In the press cuttings, the show is described as work in progress. My life took a different direction immediately afterwards. I started to teach at BA then MA level, write animation and TV. Then babies arrived…. However, I have had a little interest recently in exploring this topic again with a writer friend who works at the RSC, so perhaps it will have a chance to progress.
Thanks Battersea Arts Centre for giving us this opportunity, and I really hope you recover quickly.
The Battersea Arts Centre programme…
Photos of Matthew Barley, Helen Laing and Nuria Bennet with Throb, the god of this dystopian world…
Stunning hand written design sketches from Sally Daniels…
This morning I opened a new CD which arrived in the post, which I’d – in a small way – helped crowd fund. ‘Banish Cherish’ by Paul Bradley. Sitting on the sofa, I let myself be transported into vocal beauty, fearless passion and poetry, and a wild state of artistic vulnerability. It’s filmic and theatrical, local and cosmic and has moments of humour. There is no single genre. A few years ago, I was lucky to write for and direct Paul in ‘The Owl’, a theatrical performance for children, and get to know his lovely family. Paul had asked me to write a story to wind it’s way around the nursery rhymes and songs which feature in his children’s album ‘Calico Pie’. He performed – as always – with talent, freshness and humanity. It was a Bristol Old Vic collaboration: Paul had been given a slot with Bristol Old Vic’s Ferment festival, and afterwards it had a staging at St George’s Brandon Hill and around some festivals.
Paul and I met 25 (ish) years ago when I interviewed him in his band ‘Me’: I was a journalist at BBC Radio Bristol. It was one of the most memorable interviews I did for the radio station. I have it somewhere on a cassette tape. Frankie, Paul and George were cool, mischievous and anarchic, they sounded great, my friends and I went to their gigs. Just found these great old videos: http://www.bristolarchiverecords.com/bands82/Me.html
Somehow I managed to organise a trip with ‘Me’, for a recording session, to a haunted, deeply rural, North Welsh house by the sea for a whole week. The house belonged to my Dad’s family at the time, and we’d spent lots of summers there as a family. Walking over the fields to the beach laughing and joking with an indie band was a different kind of Welsh adventure.
This weekend, I will close my eyes and listen to ‘Banish Cherish’ again, and then probably again. And perhaps think about how I will get to work some more with this man.
All those put your hands up if you bought books online in the last week.
Now all those put your hands up who bought books in a bookshop.
Let’s go back in time. 1978 – the North East, and I was ten. The picture you may have in your head now if you’re a Southerner may be of grim, cold, windy tragic scenes: a second cousin of mine once said he felt sorry for me because I didn’t come from London. Well, it really wasn’t too painful to be brought up there, that is when they let me out of the broom cupboard. The elders of my tribe taught me how to create warmth, and what made it even less painful was that I was brought up in a bookshop.
Back to 2014. I am witnessing this show of hands in an audience listening to a panel – ‘What Future for Words’ – introduced by Vikki Heywood, Chair of the Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value. I put my hand up for both.
‘Slightly more people in the room’, Vikki says, put their hands up for the bookshop one. ‘Perhaps’, she adds.
To put this in context, this is Cheltenham Literature Festival, where people have chosen to attend in order to explore words and books, so it doesn’t represent a random cross-section of the British public.
I am reminded that one of my own children proudly told his head teacher last week that he wouldn’t be buying the book at the school book sale even though he desperately wanted it, because he could get it cheaper online. Ouch.
The question that these hands in the air are making me ask is, what exactly is it that we risk losing if bookshops or hard copies of books disappear?
Newcastle in the 80’s. It was a survival strategy of mine to spend as much time as possible in the bookshop. I’d never have seen my real live mum in the flesh, or got fed, if I hadn’t gone there.
Home did not have any in-date food in the fridge and was sometimes not very tidy and was quite often filled with pale skinned spotty goths and dope smoking teenagers.
I liked them, they taught me how to smoke, and they seemed to think I wasn’t too irritating but I knew even then that they were into a little bit too grown up kind of stuff for me to be hanging out with them all the time.
At the shop, reference books became my grandparents, poetry books became my well-stroked pets, novels my big sisters, art books gave me my special treats and cookery books read me bedtime stories. It was warm (the heating was on, unlike at home) and it smelt of Italian coffee.
Sometimes the bookshop spilt into home life. My siblings and I had a joke that when Mum wanted to say something, like ‘Time you knew about sex’… she’d just casually leave ‘the latest’ book hanging out on the kitchen table at home for us to find.
The Bookhouse was an independent bookshop with a coffee bar. We thought we were terribly original and that it was before anyone else in the UK had thought of that combination, which might be true. The Bookhouse was my very own mother’s shop. It was around that time I copied my brothers and sister and started to call her Iris: ‘I don’t want to be called Mum when I’m 77 years old,’ she said.
Whilst I was attending my father’s wedding and getting to know a new bunch of step siblings, and – more importantly – discovering my sister’s Lou Reed and Bowie records (which she had stolen from our eldest brother), Iris was busy. Somewhere or other she was persuading a bank to give her a loan, choosing the location (13 Ridley Place… spooky since my dad had married Mrs Ridley), shelving out two floors of the shell of the shop, then ordering the books.
Her dad – a Geordie grocer – sat on the sidelines, as he died slowly of a smoking related lung disease, warning her gloomily that she probably wouldn’t succeed. She was a single mum – not that we used that phrase – and a feminist, and we knew that his words just fuelled her resolve.
When the first book orders were delivered, a team of us slid knives into the tape holding the boxes together and opened them up one by one. Oh for that unmistakable inviting fragrance of a box of brand new books. The silky smoothness of a quality hard-back cover. The sensation and thrill of sliding each volume out, carefully so as not to damage it, holding each one as though it were a new-born baby, checking it for eyes, ears, nose, mouth and then working out which section to put it in.
They might well have been called worlds: worlds of ideas, for that’s what each one was, and the whole lot together on the shelves was a universe, and I greedily wanted to read them all.
My daily routine, once shop life started, was to walk there after school, or get on the Newcastle Metro, once that was installed, and get out at Haymarket. When I arrived in my creased school uniform, with half my school dinner down my front and my homework in my bag, Iris would suggest I got myself a hot chocolate in the coffee bar and do my homework there.
Then she’d open the till and give me a fiver to get garlic chicken from M&S, maybe also enough for my brothers if they were around, because she’d always stay late and I’d be being helpful if I could put it in the oven, and it would be extra brilliant if I’d walk the dog.
She had to switch off the coffee machines in the coffee bar, and count the takings at the end of the day and tot them all up each week (takings ranged widely and often determined our family mood for the week), and sort the stock cards, when we had that system.
If I resisted buying joss sticks or retro hats from the Handyside Arcade with some of the money, I might manage to get chocolate éclairs or a lemon tart for pudding.
Working at The Bookhouse on Saturdays and holidays from the age of ten was cool, and getting paid in Collins English dictionaries or play scripts or postcards, even cooler. Sometimes I made chocolate brownies or dodgy Florentines to sell in the coffee bar. Occasionally they were good enough to sell.
Iris even let me select books from the reps: ‘Just get any that you think look interesting’, she’d say. How exciting was that? I got to order any book I felt like, as well as choosing what we’d have for supper, aged 12!
Spotting shop-lifters was an essential part of working on the till, and I developed a nasty glare for anyone I thought might EVEN BE THINKING ABOUT IT. This studying also gave me quite good lessons – I am ashamed to say – for my own subsequent (brief, I hasten to add) phase of shop-lifting nasty eighties earrings (from chain stores, never independents… that was my questionable moral code) which I didn’t need or even want that much, along with a very naughty friend.
Sorry shops, I would now pay you back if I thought you still existed. Guilt. Shame.
There was a host of staff in the shop – far too many to be economical – including Gran and our rocking horse in the children’s section (the horse got the highest wages of any of us) and Aunty Ruth and sometimes my friend Didi. Beth Kessler, Mum’s choral singing friend, and Elizabeth Hammill, who went on to set up Seven Stories, the children’s book centre in Newcastle, were also there from the beginning.
Neil Astley had free rein in the poetry section, which was tucked up on the shelved section on the left side under the stairs. Neil could often be spotted at our house drinking wine, planning and discussing with my mother how to bring to the attention of the reader the slim volumes (obscure volumes as I saw them at the time), but which in fact comprised a huge collection of modern international poetry which deserved an audience. This was in the years that he was setting up Bloodaxe Books, cutting and pasting cover design in the kitchen of his flat.
Sometimes there were two people working in the coffee bar, down the spiral staircase, and also Mick, the guitarist on Saturdays. We had visitors too – illustrators like Michael Foreman and Colin McNaughton drawing wicked monster and witch pictures for kids (I still have some).
Royal Shakespeare actors dropped in to recite works such as Beowulf – in between sips of mulled wine – on winter evenings. There was a bunch of us, (including – most exciting for me – the boy I had the hots for) who often visited after we’d been to the People’s Youth Theatre, on a Saturday morning.
Reams of Newcastle Literary Festival writers and opera singers came back to our house for parties. At least that’s how I remember it. God knows how my mother did it all. She was even on Woman’s Hour once for winning Young Firm of the Year, awarded by the Newcastle Advertiser. Agony to listen to your mum talk on the radio when you’re 16, but in retrospect, that’s not a bad accolade is it? Especially for running a shop, which never really made quite enough money.
As A.L. Kennedy says at Cheltenham: “If money becomes the sole purpose for words, it becomes bit depressing”. Iris was not, you can fairly say, into selling words for the sole purpose of making money.
Our Bookhouse got sold ten years later for not very much, as an ongoing concern, which really is an unfortunate phrase. It didn’t survive that chain – Waterstones – arriving in town and setting itself up in Northumberland Street, where there must have been an astronomical rent, but, as we’d put it, ‘Everybody is always walking past, so they just drop in’, unlike the Bookhouse which suffered from just-off-the-high-street syndrome.
I truly hoped that some of the books that were still hanging out on the shelves unsold were not ones that I had ordered, randomly, in those early days, but I suspect quite a lot of them were.
For a long time, I would not go into a Waterstones anywhere, out of loyalty to our shop. Iris didn’t ever ask me to have this loyalty. I even sent unfair sour glares (learned from the shoplifting spying) to the staff in there, especially if they’d opportunely side-stepped from our shop. It’s odd to me that we are all now hoping that the chain won’t go bust. Waterstones is now one of the rare surviving bookshops.
The longest I’ve spent in a bookshop for years is at Cheltenham Literary Festival, and that isn’t even a bookshop, it’s a marquee. It’s filled with the books by the writers giving talks, the public who are listening to those talks, and the writers signing the books, which they’re giving their talks about. What a party again! I have indescribable urges to join in, but I don’t quite know how to not be part of the team organizing the event and whipping the writers off for a meal or a drink afterwards.
What happened to my own regular bookshop browsing habit? Whilst having those delights called very young kids, who have tendencies to rip out pages from books then vomit all over what is remaining, I tried to make sure I was a good book Mum. I gathered enough books to feed their hungry souls, read to them as soon as they could sit up (in my womb) and then just left them to rip out pages and vomit as much as they liked.
We were living in deep rural Devon in a seventeenth century kind of way, where it was hard to get a proper radio signal, and the ghosts spoke more loudly than my husband, and books made a contribution to keep me in modernish times. I hardly noticed bookshops then, because I hardly noticed the outside world at all in that time, but when I did sit up and notice, all the bookshops had started to close. The one in our nearest town – Tiverton – closed suddenly, before I’d even been in it. The person who pointed it out to me, was Iris.
Now I’m a bit more normal, living a bit less of a sheltered existence. I actually have neighbours, and there are cities quite nearby and in those cities there are bookshops though some of them only have remainders, the cheap books that publishers want to sell off. If I have time, I will give myself fifteen minutes to check over the titles and buy something. I still have some getting back in the groove to do. After all there is so much to know and follow nowadays if you’re interested in words, ideas and communication. How can you be expert of digital media, of film, music and art and dance and children and school and housework and earning money and looking presentable and try to eat the food in the fridge in time, then read regular papers and novels too?
There have been a few conferences which work has taken me to… such as Sheffield Documentary Festival, Cinekid in Amsterdam, Kidscreen in New York, Vision in Bristol. Fast paced adrenalin vehicles for pitching, selling and flirting. The focus is often multi platform: words and ideas across media. Telling stories over the internet, TV and on mobile devices.
This is my first visit to Cheltenham Literary Festival and to a literary festival at all since 1986. I am gate-crashing Iris and Aunty Ruth’s annual expedition, and they’ve been really kind taking me out for lunches. The festival is gentle, thoughtful, relaxed. It’s reminded me of the importance to put away your mobile phone and forget about text messages, slow your pace and read words in print, and then let the thoughts wonder.
At the ‘What Future for Words’? debate which I attend, the debate has the feeling of scratching the surface of something enormous. I come home wanting to know more about all the panelists: Amereh Saleh, a spoken word artist who has a strong online presence; the shrewd, confident writer A. L. Kennedy, Rebecca Levene who is a cross-platform writer and the publisher Gail Rebuck. I find them all on Twitter, and I also look up The Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value.
The question of what exactly is it that we risk losing if bookshops or even books disappear has taken quite a bit of answering, and I haven’t covered all the points by any means. The bookshop I was brought up in might have parented me, but it didn’t change my nappies and it didn’t give me hugs. However, the people in and around the bookshop, including the customers, did give me hugs, or at least warmth. Luckily by the time I was 10 I was out of nappies, so they didn’t have to do that too.
For me then, it’s the people in a bookshop that makes a bookshop. It the talking about a book, enthusing, knowing about the book you’re looking for, sharing, giving advice, suggesting, looking together for an author or a title. Online does do that, but it’s not quite the same when there isn’t another human being in front of you, is it? It’s a need I don’t think I am alone in having…. I need that sharing, and that energy. The same energy and need attracts us to live comedy and live music and brilliant theatre, doesn’t it? Otherwise we’d all just sit at home in front of our screens right?
The Bookhouse was a place where a bunch of Northern people could explore a little bit about who they were, for a decade. It was a place where artists, even Southern artists visited and shared their ware. It was a place for creative folk or just any folk to get a book and have a coffee, have a giggle or feel sad, just something human…. and then get on with the rest of their lives. For me, as a teenage bookseller, there was the tantalizing mystery and excitement behind the question of which book would a customer buy? Was it for them or was it a present? It’s the customer, and the future reader that eventually gives a book its breath.
Iris doesn’t sell books anymore, but my sister and I reckon she singlehandedly props up bookshops all over England with the amount she buys, and it’s great visiting her house for a weekend: each time there’s a month or two of fascinating material to get through.
My own children feast on library books, spend their earnings or savings on books and read anything else they can get their hands on in their spare time… I have to limit it in order to get a conversation out of them, and it has to be juggled with playing Terraria and Minecraft.
It feels important to Tweet about this after the festival. I want to say I was brought up in a bookshop, but Twitter doesn’t let me have enough words to say why this has any relevance at all. Then it crosses my mind (ok, I admit, I am a bit behind everyone else) that I can tweet a link to a blog post. Brilliant. This is what I will do. I spot one of the battered dictionaries that I now prop my laptop on so that I don’t get neck ache when typing – ‘The Collins Dictionary of the English Language’. I pull it out, and find on the first page an inscription in it in spangly young writing.
In payment for working in the Bookhouse.”
You could say – couldn’t you – that my words literally came from the Bookhouse and are still literally propped up by the Bookhouse.
The morning that we leave, we finish off an enormous breakfast at the hotel. It’s Mum’s – oops, I mean Iris’s 77th birthday.
At the Pen in Pubs session last week, Bob Walton and I led some exercises that explored writing inspired by live sound and music. Nigel, one of the group, wrote this after listening to the beautiful experimental sounds of another participant’s music, and other exercises: – “Incongruous, unconnected, the wrong beat on the right bang. Coming together though now slowly. Harmony arriving on a wave of confidence.”
Bob and I thought this described how the creative process sometimes is: it often comes together if the incongruous and uncomfortable (the ‘wrong beat on the right bang’) is explored. Perhaps it describes some writing workshops too, which push us further on in our creative journeys? Or does it even describe progress as a whole? It’s uncomfortable to push our heads out of our cosy comfort zones, but can lead to extraordinary new inventions, ideas and creations.
I am not promoting the idea of deconstructing people’s souls in order to reach finer art, which some drama schools believe in, but just finding ways to take risks in a safe environment. In the end if we can bring confidence to a writer, I am happy. After writing about these ideas to a neuroscientist friend of mine, he wrote back to say,
“It makes complete sense to me. I personally tend to look at these kind of things from the way the brain seems to work, then work onward/back from there. What you describe here is what I would consider a change of ‘state’, or moving from one brain network to another. When I mean ‘state’ I do not refer to consciousness or unconsciousness, but modulations and alterations in our own; awareness, mood, emotion, engagement, memory recall, perception etc.”
“We do this all the time, without often being aware of moving or changes from one to the other. It makes sense that the more you explore using the different networks in your brain, the more creative capacity you might have to interpret exactly the same sensory inputs (sounds, words, music etc.). It is a 2-way process; creative sound/music can alter brain states; creative brain states can help create conditions for creative writing.”
“Over time, the brain can of course create and develop new and novel networks using exactly the same neural networks, but in different orders or degrees. There is no element in the brain that says complete order should necessarily be better than some degree of disorder – its is largely habitual and cultural than we associate 4/4 time as being ‘right’. Other more random musical orders can in fact have more depth and meaning than something which sounds always even.”
“As with all music, its interpretation is subjective of course. Complicated by the fact that musical scales are often culturally biased & based with Eastern music using very few notes at all to reach the same degree of listening pleasure as an extensive Western classical musical scale. I am sure you are right that if writers can learn to move to creative and productive states using mediums like music, without the need for self-criticism/drugs/drink/self-harm, their writing confidence should naturally improve…. win;win :)”
Hoping, only just coping, only just cruising, heart bruising, mother of babe Slain….
So she buried her golden son,
And swore to guard that gold until the day that a wizard found a way,
To bring him back to dragon boy.
Only one person knew of the treasure at first –
A little boy who’d seen it buried and sworn he’d never tell,
Though tell he did one foolish day, and eat him up the dragon did.
Gertrude the dragon couldn’t find out who was the one he told,
Until she discovered it was a farmer’s wife, who told a girl, Agnes Fursdon,
…. and Gertrude heard.
What happened to the farmer’s wife?
She got chewed and swallowed.
Agnes Fursdon, well she knew it dangerous to tell,
Kept her mouth shut ‘til she was one hundred and four,
Then she fell dead to the floor and the secret died too.
No-one else knew and the dragon roared no more,
But guarded the Fursdon house and the family there,
For seven whole centuries.
The treasure lies safe still today –
Somewhere between here and Dolbery Hill.
(I wrote this story for Thorverton school. Sara Burnand and Laurie Steen were running a creative day workshop on dragons at Fursdon House with Catriona Fursdon and Thorverton Head mistress Tania Beard. I wanted to join in because at the back of our house we looked up a little valley and we could see Cadbury castle, an iron age fort in mid-Devon, at the end of it. Catriona and I met up and she told me that there was a mythical dragon at Fursdon, which flew over the area. Dragon’s Love is an embellishment of this tale.
On the day of the workshop, Catriona read out the story to the children on top of Cadbury castle. The children walked back to Fursdon where they made pictures out of red Devon mud.
One sunny morning near Taunton, I read the story to Pete Davies and Stu Derrick of Dream Machine Media (now Navmotion). They said it was just what they wanted, and chose the story. They commissioned an illustrator to work up some images for their e-book template, funded by the Technology Strategy board. The e-book didn’t get made in the end, but I was pleased that Eric Huang at Penguin liked the story.)
A few weeks ago, I attended a few writing workshops as part of the Pens in Pubs in North Somerset. The project was run by Theatre Orchard and the sessions were led by Writer and Dramaturg David Lane. I had the opportunity to submit a short piece of work for a rehearsed reading. The following section of my play The Line Up was performed on the last session.
The first draft of this play was commissioned for a rehearsed reading at Menagerie Theatre, Cambridge and I’ve been tinkering with it on and off ever since, so it was a good experience to hear how it sounded with a new beginning.
Dirty walls, dusty floor. ‘Clinic’ is
written on a door leading off from
Strip lights. A wind whistles.
A poster advertises: ‘Freeze now, use
later. Ask your consultant.’
Three women in green hospital gowns
are lying on grotty hospital trolleys
fast asleep, blankets over knees.
A trolley rattles by, loaded with
test tubes, pushed by Fergus,(an
impatient hairy man in white
The three women start to move: a
finger, a foot. There’s FLEUR (33,
platinum blonde curls, Anne Summers,
high heels), Ginger (27, Red head,
posh accent, new-age), DAWN (46,
kind, Christian, frustrated).
Ginger sits up and acting out her
dream, blows up a condom and puts a
pin through it so it bursts.
Fleur, dreaming, has a dolls house on
her belly, a profile like she’s
pregnant. She pats it tenderly.
Dawn, dreaming, prays.
The trolley rattles by again, this
time a baby on top.
Ginger finds a large egg within her
gown. She lights a joss stick and
floats the smoke around the egg.
Fleur takes off her dolls house and
swings up to reveal she is wearing a
silky nightgown and some very sexy
underwear. She’s seducing someone.
Dawn rocks a pretend baby in her
arms, mouths ‘Thank you’ to God.
SFX: A screech of brakes, a yell, a
massive, glass breaking bang.
All is silent and dark.
TED(14, in a school uniform, nerdy,
swotty, enthusiastic) and his Mum
MAUD(40, an insecure, unsuccessful
playwright, hopeful for recognition),
are suspended on a ledge.
Ted pulls out a GCSE Physics revision
They both become aware that their
clothes are burned.
They both realize they are on the
edge of a precipice. They wobble,
Bardo – an in between place.
Half light. Dusty, grubby. Turbulent
A sign post saying “Bardo”.
Ted and Maud are catapulted into
Bardo from above or below.
The wind spins them round.
Out of Maud’s skirt falls a bashed up
car radio, nuts and bolts and…
something is stuck… she pulls it
out… a car steering wheel. Maud
keeps hold of the steering wheel.
FERGUS, marches in carrying a table
tennis bat. He’s humming an old
Northumbrian song, ‘Fareweel
Ted, I feel… that song, my head… where are we?
Fergus clears his throat.
(Sings, serenading them)
“So we’ll cry fareweel Regality
And cry fareweel the Liberty
To honest friends civility
To winters frost and fire:
And there’s nowt that I can bid ye
But that peace and love gan with ye.”
(speaks) Alreet, that’ll do. Welcome t’ Bardo.
He farts loudly.
Ted sniggers. Maud raises her eyes.
(to Fergus) Excuse me, would you be kind enough to… to
direct us to…?
Yes, Home. I’d really like to get back soon, I’ve got a
play to send out. I just finished it. There’s this woman in
a company… she says I have a lot of potential. It’s her I
want to send it to.
And I need to revise.
T’ be strait with ye pet, it’s sort ‘uv like… ye can’t go
home. Yer can never go home.
Are we in some sort of war or something?
Fergus shakes his head.
Where can we go?
Fergus adds ‘Zilch’ to the signpost
Zilch. What’s Zilch?
Obviously nothing much man, that’s the point alreet? Zilch
is nothing. Yuz have to make a decision, otherwise I’ll
just send yuz, to Zilch.
A decision about what?
Whether yuz want a choice or not.
What kind of choice?
Fergus breathes out an impatient
Look lad, the thing is… altho’ it’s ne bother at aall,
yuz cannut purret off. I want ye shifted.
SFX: A clap of thunder and
lightening. A man yell’s.
(to a distant soul) Arrival change. At this moment in time
due t’congestion, yuz have to gan to the waitin’ room.
Mind, unattended luggidge will… sort ‘uv… be removed
and destructed – if ye knaa wharra mean.
What in the… how did we…? I’m so hungry.
Maud reaches for a bolt and eats it.
You were driving at near terminal velocity, overtaking. You
tried to nab my book.
Ted puts his hand out, seeing Maud
eating. Maud picks up a bolt for him,
puts it in his upturned hand and he
I wanted to see what you were reading. I must have swerved.
Yeah right. Actually, the kinetic energy converted to heat
energy at the brakes and tyres, but the massive tree…
Maud screams, realising.
Ted cowers. Maud examines Ted.
My little boy. My baby.
Maud licks her finger, tries to clean
his face. He pushes her off. Reads.
Maud feels her head. Sticky liquid.
Shh. Electromagnetic waves.
We’ve passed on.
Maud screams again.
Ted returns to his book.
Maud grabs the book and walks away
Ted fights to get it back.
You are totally not facing up to what is happening to us.
Where can I can study Mr? My mother’s a total distraction.
(to Maud) Did you forget your HRT again?
It’s not surprising. I wish I didn’t have to face up to it.
Dead. In his prime.
In The Same Breath I made this film some years ago, about a lovely friend – Quentin. It was sobering to witness the intense grief he had over the death of his wife, and the courageous way he expressed and dealt with it. Quentin knew I was a writer and wanted me to make something out of his story – so that other people would gain something from his loss somehow. I wanted to express the theme of moving on from hard times and the complex emotions around those hard times. At the time I considered writing a short story or a dramatic script, but the expressivity of Quentin’s face and his energy WAS the thing which drew me to his story. So film had to be the choice of media.
This then is In The Same Breath: a short documentary film, funded by the East of England Media Production fund. Paul Wells, a young filmmaker did a great job as Assistant Director and Editor, and we previewed it at Cinema City, Norwich for a week, in front of a feature film. It was distributed by Alpha Films for a while and now sits publicly on YouTube. Do leave your comments, I’d love to know what you think. http://youtu.be/9FcELY1esEA