“For me – and for everybody else, probably – this is my first experience growing old, and the emotions I’m having, too, are all first-time feelings. If it were something I’d experienced before, then I’d be able to understand it more clearly, but this is the first time, so I can’t. For now all I can do is put off making any detailed judgments and accept things as they are. Just like I accept the sky, the clouds, and the river. And there’s also something kind of comical about it all, something you don’t want to discard completely.”
Haruki Murakami – What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
Here’s some thinking out loud I did last year when I was working with Invisible Dust on their three-year Surroundings project, writing about vegetables. A strange but fulfilling commission. Rather than let this little essay gather digital dust on the hard drive, I’m sharing it with you, here.
A world of plenty
We live in a world of plenty. Yet still there are people that have nothing. We live in world where there is an abundance of food, yet still people starve. There are a shameful amount of people now reliant on food banks. There are growing rates of ‘food poverty’.
We live in a world that is divided into the haves and have nots. And we accept this as the norm because we choose to and a lot of us are greedy individuals, or rather we’re programmed to ensure our survival at all costs and, thus, we cling on to what we have. And tabloid newspapers and governments are rather keen to persuade us that poverty is the fault of those that are in it, rather than something that we could collectively change.
I have been poor, and not just during my time as an artist, and there have been times when I’ve been down to my last few quid but have had young children to feed. For those stuck in a poverty trap – and believe me, when you are poor, everything suddenly becomes more expensive, as anyone that has had to pay for electricity or gas with tokens or keys can testify – making ethical and educated choices regarding food purchases suddenly drops down the priority list, no matter how ethical and educated you might be. So piling a couple of baskets high with turkey twizzlers and smiling potato faces and lots of fatty, processed items from Iceland or Farmfoods or the like that will fill up plates and youngsters for a week, for hardly any money, is seductive. And it’s also about survival. Storing up fat in and on our bodies for the leaner times when we might have no money at all. Imagine that. Maybe you can’t.
I don’t recall the last time I couldn’t afford food. And that I couldn’t afford good food, and all the things that are rich in the right nutrients. Foods that will help me reduce the risk of heart disease, foods low in saturated fat and trans fat, and those that contain monounsaturated and polyunsaturated oils. I know what real food is; things that grow in the ground, on a tree, come out of the sea, run on the land, or fly through the air.
Humble brag but I am educated and, also, middle-class. I know what’s good for me. Yet such is the complexity of my relationship with food that I am often tempted by naughty things that will do me harm. Late night kebabs and curries, those packets of 20 (approx.) German meatballs you can get for a quid, a Peperami stick from the corner shop. Bombay Bad Boy Pot Noodles. A Ginsters pasty. Not only should I know better, I do.
About five years ago, when I was heartbroken after a failed relationship, I hit food and drink hard in the way that Keith Richards hit heroin in the late sixties and seventies. Wild, enjoyable, hedonistic times but then one morning I woke up alongside someone I didn’t recognise, feeling fat and bloated. And, having looked in the mirror unable to recognise myself, had a revelation that if I was to go on living, and was ever to have another long-term relationship that would end in heartbreak, rather than a string of casual flings that involved eating unhealthy food off other people’s bodies, I had to do something about it.
And so, literally overnight, I did. I bought some cook books and applied the knowledge that I had stored at the back of my mind – my personal food knowledge larder, if you will. And started to purchase vegetables with regularity from a local greengrocers, and revelled in food preparation and cooking with fresh ingredients. I ate my five-a-day. Cut down on the booze. Consumed sensibly. Stopped eating after 6pm. Actually concerned myself with ethical farming, local farmers’ markets, and reconnected with the food on my plate, and where it was sourced.
I became a cliché, yes, but one that may live a couple of years longer. Interestingly, as I returned to something resembling an average weight for a man of my height, and my body fat reduced, people asked me if I was ok. Which they hadn’t when I’d needed them too. And lots of people thought I was ill. Very ill. And possibly dying. Which I wasn’t. And they were relieved when I explained my regime, and sometimes congratulated me, but I often thought that their reaction to me revealed that they had body image issues, and food-related issues, of their own. Which, of course, we all do.
All too rarely do writers open their emails in a morning to find that someone has commissioned them. An email to me from Invisible Dust offered me the chance to “write a new piece of writing on the theme of food and food sustainability” for their three-year Surroundings project. An offer so wonderfully vague that my positive response was pretty instantaneous. I could, within a certain remit, do whatever I wanted. Which isn’t always possible.
I write this having written this new piece of writing. And as I sit here having contemplated food and food sustainability in order to get that new piece of writing written, I realise that I’m still gathering my thoughts on what is an incredibly ‘big’ subject. Which might sound odd. Writers, especially those given open briefs, flounder and flounce about not really knowing what they’re doing, attempting to grasp at something mercurial and, well, non-existent, because of course until you get something down nothing does exist.
Initially, for no reason other than I thought there might be comic potential in concentrating on vegetables and because I only had a vague sense of what I was trying to achieve, I decided to keep a log of my vegetable intake. I mistakenly presumed that this long list would then simply result in an automatic poem that I could submit to Invisible Dust and we’d all be happy. It didn’t; it just resulted in a long list that revealed that I eat a lot of peppers, chillies, shallots and, erm, chips. With no poetic merit. Although, as a non-poet, it was better than a lot of my previous attempts at poetry.
There was a point when I considered the personification of vegetables as the way forward. You know, Keith the Carrot, Paula the Potato, ‘Arry the Artichoke. We’d all dress in funny veg suits, sprout from the ground, waving at the sun, and it would all be like a bad children’s TV show. This is, I think, based on my main childhood relationship to vegetables formed by the BBC television show That’s Life, on which Esther Rantzen used to flash her marvellous teeth and hold up various root crops and make us laugh at how they resembled genitalia (the root crops, not her teeth). Which is why I would never go near turnips and carrots when my mum served them up on the dinner plate.
Thankfully, I didn’t head down that innuendo-laden, waving cucumbers around as phallus weaponry in a fight scene cul-de-sac. I have, rather predictably, written a love story. Partly because the word ‘seduced’ kept coming up when I was reading and talking and thinking around the subject – we’re seduced by supermarkets to buy their ‘finest’ and ‘taste the difference’ products, we’re seduced by community food networks, container gardens, urban food projects, we’re seduced by the Fair Trade mark, we’re seduced by middle-class values that might lead to us buying boxes full of organic fruit and veg, we’re seduced by marketing, we’re seduced by the earth and all that nature offers, we’re seduced by local food producers and market stall traders. Some of these seduction techniques will transform our lives for the better. At other times, we’re being seduced by manipulative devils. How I wish I was a movement director and could cover all those bases via the medium of interpretive dance.
This isn’t the first time I’ve written about our relationship to food. Thinspiration, a 2007 play, was about a young woman with an eating disorder who had come to view food as her “enemy”. She was in the midst of a battle but we didn’t present all that as binary conflict, because it isn’t. But it is interesting looking at the oppositional nature with which we regard foodstuffs and food production. Good food versus bad. Winter leaves wear a white hat in the cowboy movie, hot dogs clearly rock up head-to-toe in black. Factory farming is Darth Vader, organic veg Luke Skywalker. The whole world of food production and global resources is a battle of good versus evil.
A meeting with Dr Lewis Holloway from the Geography department at the University of Hull, who conducts research into food, farming and technology and most definitely wears a white hat, confirmed that my thinking was along the right tracks and also, ahem, gave me more food for thought.
When I worked in higher education I taught a module on semiotics but I’d never considered semiotics in relation to vegetables, until Lewis told me he taught a module on that. And, of course, I felt a fool that the cultural and religious significance of food, as well as the social, buying and sharing relationships we enjoy as a result of food, had barely registered on my radar. Even when I’ve broken bread with people I’ve barely known across a dinner table. Even when I’ve picked up unusual oddities from the world food store round the corner and they’ve explained various meanings that went with, say, the ingredients of Rendang for the people of Minangkabau, for whom the chilli symbolises ulama (the learned ones) and sharia (prescribed religious and secular duties). So, of course! Food is cultural as well as nutritional.
I left Lewis feeling wiser, as one should after having a cup of coffee and a natter with a leading academic. A lot of our conversation revolved around trust and how people currently have a need to rethink their relationship with food. For instance, supermarket food is intentionally disconnected from the soil, and their packaging and the clean, hygienic goods within were developed to gain consumer trust. But for others, that can’t be trusted at all because the dirt on something you’d pull from the ground yourself is a guarantee of authenticity and connects our food back to the earth.
We’re taking back control via ethical consumption, but also this is happening due to the rise in the number of middle class people, or people who perceive themselves as middle class, and the perception that to be middle class means certain things. Such as the pressure to buy, say, organic, and rejoice in that and tell everyone you bloody know that is what you’ve done, wearing it like a badge of honour.
Still, there’s a growing number of us asking those big questions of our food. Where’s it from? Is it safe? What damaging chemicals have been used in the growing process? Has it been ethically produced? And what about labour relations and bad working conditions for farm workers in some parts of the globe where our produce hails from? What negative environmental issues have been brought to bear getting this stuff to our plate? What’s the environmental cost of importing all those unseasonal foodstuffs we now demand all year round?
Then there’s the Commodity Veil that shrouds our consumption where, for our own psychological reasons, we actually like not knowing where the food we consume comes from. Especially when we think about cattle getting slaughtered or radishes screaming when they’re pulled from the soil.
We are clearly living in a world of re-attachment, after years of being detached from food production. The rise of alternative food networks and people taking pride in their purchases from farmers’ markets, buying veg boxes, the number of people on allotment waiting lists or developing veg plots in their own gardens. That’s all back to want to trust in produce and these alternative food networks are bridging the gap between people, place and production. And along the way farmers are changing their knowledge and thinking relating to farming and animals in order to keep pace with consumers, while developments in robotics, IT, and genetic science are all impacting on the food sector globally in positive ways.
Which is all very nice, isn’t it? And it offers us all hope.
Vegetables are mind blowing. It’s very easy to take them for granted and to stop marvelling at their magnificence. I genuinely recall the first time I saw a Romanesco Broccoli. Mainly, I think, because it was relatively recently and it arrived in the food box we have delivered weekly. And I held it in my hand and got lost in it for quite some time. It was quite a work of art. Psychedelic. Visually stunning and a maths lesson all in one. Fennel’s always thrilled me. And I rather appreciate a beetroot colouring my fingers.
All of which is a long-winded way of writing that, if I were to now start writing the piece of writing that Invisible Dust commissioned, then it would probably be a different piece of writing altogether. Because I’m still thinking, and I’m thinking more, and I’ve barely scratched the surface of my own thoughts on the theme of food and food sustainability, never mind being able to take those thoughts and turn them into something that might be useful to someone who would read or hear them. So I wrote a love story. Girl meets market trader. Falls in love. He gives her a bite of the apple. It goes a big wrong. But she learns something along the way and is much the better for it. That old trope.
And that is a long-winded way to get back round to the beginning of this essay, because I do like circular writing. I only ask questions, I’m not claiming to have any answers.
We do live in a world of plenty. There’s more than enough to go round.
You’re probably so intelligent that you’re ahead of me but we can’t expect supermarkets and freezer centres to lead us to a better world of food sustainability and ethically sourced produce, or to worry about the exploitation of farm workers, or to present alternatives to current models of food provision; they’re too busy locking food producers into terrible deals, capturing and attempting to monopolise the food market and constructing the demand they tell us we are asking them to supply in order to perpetuate their own myths and boost their own profits.
And we most definitely cannot expect governments to do anything other than pit us against each other, and encourage us to blame the poor for their stupidity because being poor is the fault of the poor, right? And being uneducated is their fault too. And you, from your middle-class, boastful organic food buying position are happy to go along with that, right? Because that way you get to hang on to what you’ve got and not feel guilty that you might, just might, be part of the problem.
Maybe that’s what needs to change, then?
Don’t worry. You’re off the hook. I’m actually addressing myself. Unless, of course, you recognise something of yourself in all this, in which case it’s most definitely all about you.
Surviving on this planet has always involved working together. Give a woman a three-pack of courgettes, and you feed her for a day. Give her the keys to your allotment and not only do you feed her and her family for a lifetime, you change their relationship to every other living thing we share the planet with, and we all get to live happily ever after.
Last night (Wednesday March 8) I was involved in an event called What Is … Light? I wrote the following for inclusion in a zine we produced for the night, but we didn’t have room for it. So here you go. A polemic, a diatribe, an opinion piece, some thinking out loud.
The act of writing is a lonely pursuit. You sit, alone, and think thoughts, alone, dream stories, alone, and write them down, alone. You can, of course, do this lonely work in very crowded places. But the presence of others is no real concern of yours. You are still alone with your thoughts, ideas and stories and whatever and wherever that mysterious place is that you go to in order to combine the necessary ingredients in order to create a finished product.
I’m sure chefs are the same when they’re revamping a menu. They have a great idea for a dish but daren’t tell anyone for fear of being labelled stupid, at best, or mad, at worst. Yet something drives them to combine flavours and foodstuffs that aren’t served up in any other restaurant or in any other cookbook. And they wake in the middle of the night, head back to the kitchen, and try and get things beyond the stage of exotic ingredients, strange brews and broths. Ultimately, those dishes are destined for someone to salivate over, feast on and devour. Which, if you’re lucky, is the same with writing. No writer wants to write anything that remains in a notebook, or in a folder on the computer, or buried deep within a slush pile. All writers want to send their babies into the world for a hug. No writer wants to be alone ad infinitum. All writers want to connect with people at some point down the line.
I have spent around five years attempting to work out what irks me about working in and writing for theatre. And being involved with projects outside of theatre has enabled me to galvanise my thoughts.
In theatre, a scarily collaborative medium, writers are forced to let people in to their lonely place when they are ill-prepared for it. Theatre is not currently a place where writers sit at the heart. Collaboration is certainly no bad thing but the current vogue for R&D, workshopping and developing work in public thrusts writers into a position of taking on board the ideas of others at the very point when they want to curl up and die because they have no idea that what they have scribbled down in drafts 1, 2 and 3 or beyond is any good, and they are in fear of being labelled stupid, at best, or mad, at worst.
Writers are still working out what it is they are trying to say when others are asking them why they are saying what they are saying because it isn’t clear in the text. Actors, like tourists in St Mark’s Square carelessly tossing bird food at pigeons, hurl ideas around about character when writers are still getting to know characters.
Directors are intent on deleting lines that may or may not be pivotal to the very meaning of a play, and at the very least want to delete lines that have callbacks 20 pages later, thus rendering said callbacks as incomprehensible non-sequiturs that will also be deleted in due course. And marketing want to know what it is they should be selling to an audience. And suits want to know how any of us will make money out of this. Many people talk about return on investment. All of which just is what it is. Leave them to it. Let them make their own work. They know best. It’s a broken medium, for writers, and maybe theatre is all the better for that, but I don’t know.
In many other mediums, too, writers often find themselves involved in a distillation process, or maybe I mean a dilution process. A decreasing amount of writers are allowed to claim authorship of any finished product and even those that are have seen their work and words bent out of shape. Their initial ideas are contorted in the name of collaboration as those involved vie for the mantle of auteurship. Too many voices shouting loudly, albeit creatively and the anxious writer, told that, “well, you have to make compromises along the way, that’s how we do it,” retreating, like a tortoise into its shell. Again, this isn’t a bad thing and there are many examples of massive mainstream successes that suggest that this approach is exactly the right thing to do.
But it does nothing for the writer, chiselling away at the granite that an empty page presents to anyone bold enough to think that they can fill it. I know I’m not alone. The other day, a highly reputable, yet ‘notorious’ artist that has worked to international acclaim said to me on the phone that he thought it was a good idea to write plays but had no idea of the amount of people that would get involved that seemed intent on doing everything in their power to derail what was, at the start, a very simple idea. We’ve created a factory production system, a machine, and an unwieldy one at that. Yet writers are not machines, they’re individuals trying to make sense of the world.
Poets and novelists – and I am neither – still, income aside, retain a certain position of power and respect that is enviable and a level of purity of vision that one would never get in, say, a writers’ room or rehearsal room. Those writers – as we all should -–are clinging on to their vital societal role. Writers, making stuff up but operating as purveyors of truth, creating work in order to share important lessons; moral, intellectual and idealistic. Writers are not entertainers, although their work is entertaining and, for some poets and novelists, so is a reading or performance.
Yet it is the writing that is everything; writing so that their voices, and unheard voices and untold stories, can be heard both by an audience who desire that message but also for those that didn’t know they wanted to hear or read that message until it smacked them in the face. So, currently clinging on, even in this era where ‘celebrity’ and an aesthetically pleasing face threaten to usurp words in importance. Clinging on. Yet someone, somewhere, will no doubt be plotting how to change all that. Writers threaten power, the status quo, are imprisoned for their uncomfortable truths. They’re worth clinging on to. And we should fight for their power to fight power.
Writers should be proud of their nomenclature. It’s a powerful job title. Or it should be. Yet the above thoughts underline that the role of writer is one that is being undermined. Perhaps there needs to be a semantic leap. There are many writers that I know that are uncomfortable to claim that they are artists, when they are very clearly creating works of art. Come out, writers, make that declaration.
This would all confuse the little boy that lurks within me that spent much of his childhood bashing away on an old Imperial typewriter (made in Hull) attempting to emulate his heroes of the day (mostly Edward Lear, René Goscinny, Spike Milligan, Eric Sykes, Eric Thompson, Peter Cook and Michael Palin and Terry Jones). That little boy thought there was nothing better than filling up a blank page with nonsense and then pairing it down – for all writing is editing, really – to something that his heroes might produce (it very rarely got anywhere near that) and that made him very, very happy. He didn’t know, at the time, that he was cursed, as all writers are.
When we unfussily, and with very little attention and zero expectation of what we’d make, got together to create the first What Is? event – All Will Flow – it was a reminder that, sometimes, one can write without giving a shit about what people think and that, as a result, you hit a sweet spot that is very much about writing about those very things that people give a shit about. Emancipated from the negative nature of meddlers and energy depleting theatricals and those that want to tell you what story is without having any idea themselves of what story is takes you to a creative place that we are all trying to get to; one of universal truths and connectivity with fellow human beings. What Is? is a collaborative effort but one that allows its artists to just get on with it. It is one of those projects outside of theatre that has enabled me to not only galvanise my thoughts but get back to the business of writing. It makes me very, very happy to be involved in such a venture.
Writing is a lonely pursuit. Yet writers are content with that and it’s part of the appeal. That’s the lesson that was reinforced at the first event, when writing pieces of work in response to a theme and to the work of a visual artist. Forging collaborations with like-minded spirits, a reminder that what we do as writers is art and that the time spent alone thinking, dreaming and eventually flooding the page with words is crucial, not only to us but to the rest of the world. A curse worth living with. That’s what writing is.
What a year, eh? Never before has Hull played host to such a party, nor its people partied so hard.
2,000 events in more than 250 venues, galleries, museums and performances spaces, as well as countless other events on the fringes. I’ve not been to all of them, obviously. But we did see loads of things. Loads of different things. Loads of extraordinary things. It’s been a mind-blowingly different, positive and exceptional year of spectacles, shared moments, intimate events, world class artists and local purveyors of cultural shenanigans.
Hats off to the team that pulled it all off and, in the process, played a big part in restoring the sense of pride and optimism in the city that I recall this place had when I was growing up. What a city in which to be a youngster right now, surrounded by cultural activity and a can-do attitude and with arts high on the agenda in classrooms. May that bubble never burst.
In the weeks and months and years to come we need to keep riding the wave of momentum set in motion by Hull’s year in the spotlight. Can’t wait to see and experience what happens next and what the long-term positives for Hull’s citizens are. To contort a Ghandi quote, a city’s culture resides in the hearts and in the soul of its people, so this ride doesn’t stop just because 2017 now resides in the memory; the year is a gift to the future of Hull.
Happy New Year and all the best for 2018 and beyond.
And while you deal with your 365-day induced hangover, here’s a nice boilerplate…
- At least 9 in 10 residents have experienced the hundreds of new commissions and artworks created to celebrate the UK City of Culture year.
- 2,500 volunteers have given 33 years of activity, or more than 300,000 hours.
- More than £32m raised to deliver the year, made possible by 80 funding partners. Building on Hull City Council’s £3.6 million investment as Host City, this represents a 9:1 return.
- 79 per cent of Hull 2017 funding is dedicated to public facing activities, including the widest range of cultural events in every corner of the city and legacy.
- 60 projects across the city involving local people and artists funded through the Hull 2017 Creative Communities Programme.
- 85 events in the Back to Ours Festival, which took place during three half terms as part of Hull 2017, bringing circus, comedy, theatre, music and film to schools, shopping centres, community centres and other ‘on the doorstep’ venues, and seen by more than 8,000 people.
I dislike nostalgia. I’m never sure where looking back gets any of us. Very little gets me dewy-eyed about the past.
But there I was, in Vue, Hull, as the opening titles of Star Wars: The Last Jedi crawled in that familiar way, and I couldn’t help thinking of that time, in 1977, when I turned to look at my dad as the X-Wing Starfighters leading the Rebel Assault on the Death Star went on their dizzying trench run only to see he’d fallen fast asleep. He was 46. I was 11. 11 years of being my dad had taken its toll so who could blame him for taking the opportunity for a nap; the Empire could be defeated without him and he looked very comfortable leaving me in the capable hands of Luke Skywalker. Besides, we were in the safe and secure surroundings of Hull’s Dorchester Cinema, an 1800+ seat barn of a place, a cinematic Millennium Falcon, all faded-glory, dusty, smokey and specially re-opened for the occasion (it had closed earlier the same year) and not the kind of place where Darth Vader was going to rock up.
Back in Vue and the nostalgic wave continued throughout the next 2 hours and 33 minutes. I was struggling to calculate whether I was the same age my dad was back in 1977 (I’m not, I’m older), then I got caught up thinking that Luke, or rather Mark Hamill, might be that age (he’s not, he’s older than me), which would have been romantically convenient.
But there was some synchronicity; we’d taken an 11-year-old with us who happens to share a name with my dad. Roles reversed, I wondered if there’d be enough going on on screen to keep me awake so that his overbearing memory in 40 years wouldn’t be me dropping off mid-Haribo. I pretty much gave up on Star Wars after Return of the Jedi, have only glimpsed Episodes I-III on DVD out of the corner of my eye and was underwhelmed by The Force Awakens. Still, I needn’t have worried. I loved every second of The Last Jedi. The complexity of it all, the inventiveness, the fine plot, the new aliens, the endless convenient ways out of tricky situations, the SFX, the wit and humour, Carrie Fisher’s fine swansong, the return of Luke, Snoke’s rather pathetic and simplistic end (#spoiler – cut him in half!). This is Star Wars as it was meant to be; as it was 40 years ago; as George Lucas intended. It’s so watchable, enjoyable and in parts thrilling that my dad would have slept through the bloody lot.
It gives us oxygen
And gets felled all too easily
Leaving us without
Somewhere to shelter
When the storm comes
You’re not stupid.
You can make informed decisions.
You’re not swayed by the right wing press, the left wing press, press barons and media owners, or a media so overly obsessed with ‘balance’ that it’s lost sight of what balance is.
You don’t like the reductive nature of the debate.
You question why some politicians won’t debate in public.
You’ve read all the manifestos you can get your hands on and can work out what makes sense, who’s lying (because they have a track record of lying), and who’s paying lip service to what they think is important to you just to get your vote.
You won’t let opinion polls sway your vote. You’re not going to fall into the trap of backing a winner. Because this isn’t a day at a race meet. You know it’s more important than that.
You know that this isn’t X Factor. Don’t you?
You’re not going to put an ‘x’ in a box because your parents voted that way all their lives.
You’re not voting for anyone just because you have voted that way all your life.
You know how important your vote is, even if it’s the first time you’ve done this.
You’re not voting for anyone based on purely selfish reasons. You’re better than that.
You’re not voting for anyone because of how they look, how they dress, what someone else with their own agenda has said about them.
You care about other people that might become the victims of the policies of parties vying for your vote.
You give a shit about the future.
You don’t like the politics of hate. You don’t want anyone here to feel marginalised.
You know that the rhetoric about recent events is only that.
You spit out the propaganda they’re trying to spoon feed you.
You know we’re at a turning point. That this General Election is important, a crucial moment in history. That things could get worse should the wrong people end up in power, or cling on to power.
You know which parties that have formed Governments previously have a track record of being liberal with the truth, of being divisive, of ripping the heart out of communities, of plunging people into poverty, of underfunding essential services that used to be the envy of the rest of the world, and treating the people they’re supposed to serve with utter contempt.
You know we’re in the last chance saloon.
You’re fully conversant with tactical voting websites.
You’ve read widely. You can see through bullshit.
You know that you’ve built a social media bubble around you that means that your sources of information are limited, but you’re going to burst out of that bubble for a while to assess what’s what.
You know that politics and democracy in the UK is broken and that some politicians can make a move towards undoing the damage that’s been done over decades and start to repair that and get us in a better place.
You know that a shift is required and you’ve been thinking about that, and how to make that happen, and you want to encourage other people to realise that the status quo doesn’t have to be maintained.
You’re not stupid.
You might have party political allegiances, or feel apathetic, or angry, or let down, have been ground down over the years, or think that all politicians are self-serving liars, or may even have had a fleeting thought that you might vote for someone because they’ve got a nice set of teeth. You might even have harboured thoughts of tearing Westminster down because it’s utterly fucked up. But you’re savvy enough to put all that aside to go out and vote and vote for a greater good.
I wouldn’t dream of telling you who to vote for. I wouldn’t expect you to listen to me.
You can make your own mind up. I’ve got faith that you know what to do and that you’ll make a decision that you won’t regret come Friday.
You really do know what to do.
So, I’ll leave you to it. And see you on the other side.
Yes, it’s over 10 weeks since I blogged anything about the City of Culture.
That’s not because there’s been nothing going on.
That’s not because it’s been shit.
That’s not because there’s some underhand, devious plot to silence me.
It’s not because I’m frightened of falling off the guest lists that have made attending so many events this year plausible.
It’s simply because I haven’t blogged anything.
And looking at the list of the things I have seen and experienced over those 10 weeks, the temptation is not to bother to document it on here (it’ll be on twitter if you’re familiar with that rather more succinct way to witter on about stuff).
What kind of stupid mindset was I in when I reckoned I’d blog every day of the year (like I did for, um, 8+ years)? Why didn’t I take notes? Why would I take notes – it’s not like I get paid for this drivel.
So, I reckon a list is easier. I’ve been out a lot and another weekend awaits (Where Are We Now? – “a gathering of time-served trouble-makers, spoken word rebels, artistic mavericks and left-field music pioneers”. Y’know, those people that you swerve in the pub).
Yes, a list. It’ll save you the bother of having to read a stupidly lengthy post, me the bother of having to write it, and avoid the fallout from makers and shakers should I mention that any of it’s been underwhelming, or from the ‘countercultural’ bullshitters should I overstate that I like something.
So, a list it is. Which is a shame, because I do have extensive thoughts on what the list contains, and bubbling away somewhere is some kind of overarching sense of how the year’s shaping up, now we’re five months in, and the team delivering it. But fuck it, this is a free service. Commission me if you want the full story.
This list is not necessarily definitive. I’m sure I’ve forgotten some stuff. And there’s been some work that falls outside the official programme that I’ve been to that’s not included here.
Height of the Reeds: a sound journey for the Humber Bridge. Music by Arve Henriksen, Eivind Aarset and Jan Bang, the Orchestra and Chorus of Opera North; field recordings by Jez Riley French; voices of Maureen Lipman, Barrie Rutter, and Katie Smith. Musical arrangement by Aleksander Waaktar.
Fountain 17. Armitage Shanks, Hull School of Art & Design and a load of artists celebrate the dual anniversaries of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (100 years) and Armitage Shanks (200 years). Toilets, etc.
John Grant’s North Atlantic Flux: Songs from Smoky Bay. Four days of Scandinavian and Icelandic musicians, including GusGus, Susanne Sundfør, Lindstrøm, Sóley, Sykur, Prins Póló, Nordic Affect, Ragga Gisla, Fufanu, Ghostigital, descending on Hull at various venues. With the added bonus of Cobby & Litten.
Slung Low’s Flood: Abundance (Part 2). The second quarter of “an extraordinary year-long epic”. Outdoor theatre in the Victoria Dock basin. With headsets.
ReRooted – Hull Time Based Arts. A two-day takeover of Hull’s new Humber Street Gallery. All free.
SKIN: Freud, Mueck and Tunick. What the half of Hull that got their kit off has been waiting for. With added delights including Ron Mueck’s mind-bending sculptures of the human form.
Depart. An atmospheric Circa Production in General Cemetery (one of Larkin’s favourite haunts).
Richard III. Northern Broadsides and Hull Truck co-pro. Marking 25 years of Broadsides, with added drumming from Hull Samba.
Jason Singh workshop. We learned how to beatbox and make the sounds of waves lapping, saws buzzing and foghorns blasting.
Lego Daffodils. Daffodils. Made of Lego.
BBC Radio 1 Academy – Piano Sessions hosted by Huw Stephens and Greg James that saw Two Door Cinema Club’s Alex Trimble, Oh Wonder, Ghetts & Shakka and Blanaevon stripping back their work and making it a bit more plinky plonky.
BBC Radio 1 Academy – You Me At Six
BBC Radio 1 Big Weekend. We went on the Saturday.
Poppies: Weeping Window. Several thousand handmade ceramic poppies, from the somewhat more impressive installation Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red at the Tower of London, oozed out of the Maritime Museum.
Grow. Hull Truck’s artist development programme for artists of all ages and at all stages of their careers. Now in its fourth year. Launch event and First Time Out, which included brand new work by Junior Adults, End of the Line and The Roaring Girls.
Raft of the Medusa/Somewhere Becoming Sea. Lucy and Jorge Orta’s multi-sensory installation on the ground floor of Humber Street Gallery, while upstairs international artists, including Simon Faithfull, Lavinia Greenlaw, Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen and Isabella Martin, reflect on how expanses of water that divide countries are also channels that connect them.
Jeremy Corbyn Rally: Zebedee’s Yard. This was a 2017 event, right? With the added bonus of Cobby & Litten and that poem by Shane Rhodes.
What I didn’t get round to blogging about previously:
Coum Transmissions exhibition. The first exhibition of materials drawn from the personal archives of Cosey Fanni Tutti and Genesis P-Orridge.
Coum Transmissions: Cosey Club. Richard Clouston and Perc in the Tunnel Bar.
What I wish I’d been at:
I wasn’t fussed at the time but Periplum’s Seven Alleys in East Park sounds like it was fun.
I struggle to read books these days. Too many days/nights staring at a blinking cursor on the laptop screen. Eye muscles that give up after four pages. Too much life, not enough down time. The ageing process making me doze off. It’s a rare novel that enables me to get through from start to finish in less than a year. Adelle Stripe’s debut novel Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile is that rare thing. A single sitting was all that was required to get through a superb piece of literature that blurs the real and the imagined and is inspired by the life and work of the dead-too-young Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar.
As ever, when scrawling my thoughts on the output of Hull-based publisher Wrecking Ball Press, I’ll declare an interest – editor Shane Rhodes and the WBP team are mates of mine. Shane threw me a proof copy of Black Teeth… and, for the first time ever having filled my shelves with Wrecking Ball books, told me to write something about it. I also met Adelle recently and a dodgy transaction outside a city centre hotel involved her handing me the necessary documentation to gain entry to John Grant’s North Atlantic Flux festival, which had brought her to Hull on this occasion. So, I did put off reading this book for a few weeks because, although everyone that had read the manuscript had told me how bloody marvelous Black Teeth… is, I didn’t want the freebies and the friendships and my general love of everything WBP to balls up my effort at critique.
I probably shouldn’t worry about these things. No other fucker does. Although do feel free to doubt my impartiality, or lack thereof.
Black Teeth is a rollicking journey, which is just what my eyes and mind require these days, through the really tough life of a genuine working class hero. Quite where fact meets fiction I don’t know, because I’ve not done the level of research that Adelle clearly has (made clear in a PhD kinda way by the inclusion of a bibliography at the rear of the book), nor does it matter. The words on the page simply bolt along at a tremendous, breathless pace. And then, and then, and then… You just have to keep going, keep turning the pages, and be with Andrea Dunbar all the way from Buttershaw to the Royal Court, the big screen and back in the boozers on the estate.
There’s no airbrushing of Dunbar – this portrayal is pretty warts and all – but you will close the cover feeling a tremendous amount of sympathy for the woman. While she may well have fucked it up by pissing it all away, Dunbar was also let down by an industry that, even now, feels no duty of care for the authentic voices it hoovers up in order to serve itself. Dunbar was a victim and that much is clear. She was fucked, fucked over and fucked up by men and, while that generated some material, it also left her without the tools to cope when she did garner attention with first play The Arbor. That, and the fact that she was in a permanent state of skint when writing, when not writing, and while simply trying to navigate life, three kids an’ all.
Adelle serves up this overwhelmingly tragic life story against a Bradford, like much of the north in the same time period, that was falling apart. Except Bradford was darker back then, because the Yorkshire Ripper was driving about with his hammer on the passenger seat, and racial tension was heading towards boiling point, and, well, it’s Bradford, isn’t it. A fucking depressing place covered in industrial grime at the best of times.
Dunbar was different. She had a talent that should have allowed her to escape her predestined life in slum accommodation. It was a talent that was spotted by others and sent the way of Max Stafford-Clark at the Royal Court. Dunbar’s journey from Upstairs to Downstairs didn’t take long and, indeed, it looked like the trajectory only had one direction. She was taking flight. The only way was up. Drink though, innit? Why pull your fucking hair out and give yourself a massive headache crafting plays when you can get a round in down the local. After all, they gave you all the dialogue so you should get them a pint. And yourself a drink and another one and another one ad infinitum.
While whistling through the pages of Black Teeth…, even though the end is nigh right from the off, the hope is that a hero will step in and throw his or her arms around Dunbar. It wasn’t Stafford-Clark, who gave up on Dunbar in light of her drinking and draft-dodging to move on to his next favourite hot new thing, and it certainly wasn’t Alan Clarke, director of the film version of Rita, Sue and Bob Too. And sadly Kay Mellor arrived on the scene just too late.
Never able to stash enough cash back to get away from Buttershaw, writing becoming too big a pain in the arse and head to deal with, and with too complex a life to actually give a shit about what a bunch of middle class tossers in theatre, tv and film thought of her or turn up for meetings with them, an end to the writing and an early death, in retrospect, was inevitable.
But what Adelle’s book underlines is how difficult it is to write your way out of the hand that you’re dealt. For all of her skill and talent with words, and ability to honestly depict the life of the working class communities that were hurled on the scrapheap in Thatcher’s Britain, Andrea Dunbar didn’t know how the hell to deal with the daily grind. She didn’t help herself, that much is clear. But nobody else helped her either. And there were many in a position to do so along the way. It may not have stopped the brain haemorrhage that resulted in Dunbar’s death at 29 but it may well have made life more bearable while she was still living it.
Original voices from places like Buttershaw – and there are many places like the Buttershaw of the 1980s still, even in 21st century Britain – who draw from terrible life experience and get those stories on stage shouldn’t be allowed to fall by the wayside; they’re vital.
Adelle Stripe’s book is a wonderful 158 page story. It’s an incredible insight into the life of Andrea Dunbar, whatever the blurry lines between fact and fiction. Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile, like Dunbar herself, makes no apologies and there’s no bullshit within. Adelle’s depiction of Dunbar’s life feels every inch as authentic as its subject matter undoubtedly was. The author’s research interests include “northern working-class culture, the non-fiction novel and the literary north.” Black Teeth… sees Adelle roll all three of those interests in one and the result is nothing less than magnificent.
Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile is published in July 2017. It can be pre-ordered directly from Wrecking Ball Press.
So it’s around 36 hours since Heads Up Festival’s eighth season drew to a close. And, as is the usual case around about this time, I’m still attempting to process what happened over the course of the last two weekends and the days between.
Also being processed is The Rave Space, a stunning festival finale provided by Will Dickie, who first joined us at our second festival with his exceptional outdoor piece Team of the Decades.
But more of The Rave Space later.
Heads Up. Every season I’ve had a momentary lapse about the point of it all and considered walking away. We’re a small team and sometimes this all seems to be an unfathomable burden that we brought on ourselves four years ago. The very real concern that I have, that runs through my mind continually but completely overwhelms and overtakes me with each and every season, when dealing with venues and ticketing and promotion and co-promoters and a host of truly amazing artists, is that this is a complete and total distraction that threatens our ability to make and create our own work. We’re artists who became accidental producers because nobody else was doing this. Silly us.
We’ll have a minor spat just before things get going as we attempt to get it together and what should be enormous fun feels anything but. This season, things were exacerbated by having to deal with the external juggernaut of a force that is 2017. It’s not true, but this is how I often feel, that, in the words of The Band (which I heard sat in post-festival comedown mode surrounded by people that I love in a boozer yesterday), in the extraoardinary effort required to shift a mere handful of tickets that will ensure that each production gets the audience it deserves, “you put the load right on me.” I write this in the knowledge that other producers and promoters in this fine city of ours, and beyond here, also feel the same way and might take succour from what is, most very definitely, an overshare.
Then the shows roll into town. And what we always knew to be the case when we put the programme together is writ large. Every piece of work is unbelievably brilliant. The tension subsides, the ill feeling slips away, we realise we like each other and that we’re good at this, and we start to relax and enjoy ourselves. Every piece of work is a highlight for entirely different reasons, every bit of audience feedback invaluable, every shared moment with, say, 1-3 year olds and their accompanying adults in Neverland, jaw droppingly beautiful, time spent with Battersea Arts Centre’s producing team a joy, every after-show jape possibly a late night too far, but sharing a corner of a dance floor with Theatre Ad Infitum at the Wow Hull after party sticks in the mind as a moment when I proudly, albeit briefly, thought, hey, we brought these people and their fine, important work to Hull.
And in the post-festival aftermath, in that short window when we’re thinking that this is great and absolutely what we should be doing, I’ve got a sense that Heads Up should get bigger and better and grow beyond our wildest dreams and be around forever, and that I’ll always be involved. I write this in the knowledge that the small team I’m a part of might feel this too and that we can chat about this later today, and so I don’t forget how I feel right now, when I start to get in a spin about us having to do it all over again for festival nine, which is coming in October 2017.
Some aspects of programming a festival are astonishingly and outstandingly self-indulgent. I love the Adelphi club, as every right-thinking, live music-loving scoundrel in the city does. I have never been in a band that made it beyond the bedroom, so one of the few regrets I have is that I’ve never stood on that stage with a low-slung guitar round my neck and a foot on the monitor. My DJing days also ended at the very point that superstar DJs rose to prominence, so, as much as I could see myself proffering the finest ever set at Residents, or boring people to tears with too much A Tribe Called Quest and Public Enemy at Represent, my inability to mix tunes seamlessly ensures that won’t happen anytime soon. We took Chris Brett Bailey’s This Is How We Die into the Adelphi in 2015 and Chris’s jaw-droppingly astounding rant and wall of sound left people reeling so we’ve always wanted to return there. I love dance music in all its forms. I love dancing like nobody’s watching. I meditate and know the power of taking deep four second breaths. Indeed, meditation changed my life. Will Dickie’s The Rave Space, a piece of work that fuses live art and club culture, and is a meditation on life and what it all means, gave me the chance to persuade Jacko to let us in to his venue once again, indulge my desire to dance and breathe, and for me to vicariously be involved in a piece of work there.
Naturally and understandably, Jacko was resistant to letting a load of theatre sorts in to his nocturnal nest at 10am on a Saturday morning. But, boy, am I glad he did. We got to hang out with Will, Hayley Hill, Chris Collins, Jesal and Fabiola for the day. We got to see the run. We couldn’t wait for 8.30pm to come round and for an audience to be in front of it.
There have been many memorable, life-changing shows at Heads Up. While I’m still processing and gathering thoughts on what it means and what it meant, The Rave Space feels a real highlight of four years of this. Poignant for Will, due to the recent real-life death of one of the characters and his friends within (Angie, represented by a vape), this is the finest close to our festival to date. Drum and bass and choreographed dance moves merged with MCing and cut-up actuality interviews, exploring rave and religion and a sense of community that is under threat. My life, as I imagine most people’s, feels like a series of disconnected fragments that very rarely make sense as a whole. While I may still be high on festival fever, The Rave Space felt, on Saturday night, like it was joining the dots for me. As Hayley went around the room, looked people in the eyes and declared “You are loved… and you are loved… and you are loved,” everything and everybody I’ve encountered was connected. And Heads Up Festival felt like home.
Heads Up Festival returns in October 2017. Visit www.headsuphull.co.uk for updates and news.