Tag Archives: Phoenix

Hidden Stories: hiding in plain sight

Carol Leeming performing at the Hidden Stories launch, the Phoenix 31 March 2015

Carol Leeming performing at the Hidden Stories launch, the Phoenix 31 March 2015

Reading Marginalia, by Pamela Raith Photography

Reading Marginalia, by Pamela Raith Photography

Schmoozing the launch, Pamela Raith Photography

Schmoozing the launch,
Pamela Raith Photography

The culmination of a significant multi-media project (Affective Digital Histories: exploring de-industrialised landscapes from the 1970s to the present), Tuesday, 31 March saw the launch of an anthology of the commissioned pieces, Hidden Stories, at the fabulous Phoenix arts centre, in Leicester’s Cultural Quarter – the focus of much of the new writing. I visited it about a year ago to begin my research – and now I was returning as one as the published writers. I felt honoured to have been included in such an excellent collection (which first manifested as the very cool App), to be rubbing shoulders with eight distinctive and accomplished writers. Gathering at the Phoenix on the final day of the project was Divya Ghelani, Carol Leeming, David Devanny, myself, Pete Kalu and Fereshteh Mozaffari, and Mark Goodwin and it was in that order that we performed to a full auditorium of over a 100 people. The evening was introduced by Dr Corinne Fowler, who has led this project alongside Dr Ming Lim – both from the University of Leicester. It has been a team effort from beginning to end, and many talented people have been involved – from my supervisor, Harry Whitehead (who suggested the commissions should be in different forms), special collections librarian Simon Dixon, designers Gino and Matteus, who between them crafted the app and the anthology, Sarah Vallance at the Phoenix, who co-ordinated the launch, and of course all the writers. To hear extracts of six of the commissions reinforced their diversity and excellence. These are really high quality pieces – each flourishing within its own format, whether its flash fiction (Divya’s glittering ‘An Imperial Typewriter’), choreopoem (Carol Leeming’s compassionate soul-song for St George’s (‘Love the Life you Live, Live the Life you Love’), play (Pete Kalu and Fereshteh Mozaffari’s ‘5 Glossop Cats’), or poetry (David Devanny’s ‘Crow Steps in the Quarter’; and Mark Goodwin’s ‘Mist’s Rave’) – the latter crafting it into an immersive soundscape and impressive short film which ended the performances in spectacular fashion. Afterwards there was a chance to schmooze, chat to Radio Leicester, pose for photos, slap backs, sign books, but most of all to celebrate our collective achievement. In a quote for the Leicester Mercury I summed up my feelings: ‘I feel delighted to have been part of such a fantastic project – it has been a real cross-fertilization of art forms and disciplines, with talent from near and far. Such a polyphonic expression of voices sends out a strong message of creative excellence through diversity – more important than ever in these troubled times! Thank you to Corinne, Ming, the staff of the Phoenix, and all involved.’

Carol & Kevan at the launch

Carol & Kevan at the launch

It is healthful for a community to hear its stories being told, being celebrated. The narratives of the Cultural Quarter and Glossop show the fascinating, life-affirming weaving of multi-cultural and transparadigmic threads which offers a strong message in these challenging times. Britain is what it is because of its rich rainbow heritage, a blending of many voices, many cultures, many colours, faiths and traditions. Our project, offers in its modestly localized (but non-provincial) way, a microcosm of how bold vision, decent funding, inspiration, ingenuity and skill, can create fruitful collaboration. Bravo!

Kevan & Harry at the launch

Kevan & Harry at the launch

Dr Ming Lim and me, at the launch, Pamela Raith Photography

Dr Ming Lim and me, at the launch, Pamela Raith Photography

 

Now Available from http://www.phoenix.org.uk/hidden-stories-book/

Now Available from http://www.phoenix.org.uk/hidden-stories-book/

FFI: http://affectivedigitalhistories.org.uk/

 

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Stories to Save the World

26-29 November

A flurry of fabulous events over the last few days – a feast that I’m still digesting…

Thursday I was invited back to be a guest panelist in the Cafe of Ideas, this time held in Bath at Chapel Arts Centre – once again discussing narrative and its impact on things. The audience was ‘intimate’ – it was hard to compete with a Hollywood movie star turning on the lights – but it was a quality event nonetheless, with a thought-provoking discussion evolving from questions from the host, Pete, and the audience. I talked about one of my favourite themes, the Hero’s Journey, and cited as an example the event up the road: the celebrity switch-on of Bath’s Xmas lights, relating it, with a nod and wink, in mythic terms (the discussion had been largely dominated by economics – perhaps not surprisingly as a banker was on the panel)… A benighted land devastated by the great dragon, Recession, needs a hero – fortunately one lives close by (until recently a house in the Circus, and Midford Castle). A man called Cage comes to aid of the townsfolk, who have gathered together in anxiety – hoping their prayers will be answered. Cage is the Lightbringer – with his electric power he banishes the night and, all hope, the dragon Recession, bringing prosperity and happiness to the town once more. The tills rang out and the shopkeepers lived happily ever after. The end.

Narrative is all around us – the myths we live by, the consoling fictions, the grand narrative that dominate the Way Things Are. By being aware of them, we can work with them, even change them. Certainly change our own. The world needs different ‘stories’ to live by, because the ones we have are clearly not working.

And without narrative, life is meaningless – we are storytelling creatures, pattern-makers. Story is how we make sense of the world, our messy lives.

And even the storyteller needs to be to told a story now and again – to simply listen and be held by another’s narrative.

On Friday I went to see a play of my friend and fellow gardener, Svanur – a two-hander called The Big Deal, followed by a play called The Small Print – a brilliant ‘double-act’ (the two talented actors played different roles in each – a suicidal woman and an ‘angel’; a Council worker and an inquisitive old woman). As great concept often are, it’s very simple – a play in a pub – but I haven’t seen it done so well before. The staging, production and direction was all professional. The show is going to Clifton, Bristol, later this week – the Lansdown Inn, Thurs-Sat. Worth catching!

Saturday was the event of possibly the year – Heaven’s Gate, Stroud’s first festival of storytelling, poetry and music, co-organised by my friend Jay Ramsay and Rick Vick to celebrate William Blake’s birthday. It was a night of a thousand bards (but only one bar – which unfortunately closed before I could get a well-deserved beer … waiting til after my set, which wasn’t until gone eleven! It had been a long-haul – a Bard Day’s Night) I was performing along with a fantastic line-up including Robin and Bina Williamson (they bumped into me while looking for the venue); Phoenix (the supergroup of Stroud – Jay and friends); Kirsten Morrison; Aidan and his lovely pianist companion from Prague; Anthony Nanson, storyteller; William Ayot; Paul Matthews and a host of other poets – plus, most magnificently of all, Irina Kuzminsky, who had come all the way from Melbourne to launch her book, Dancing with Dark Goddesses, published by my press, Awen, with an incredible dance-recital tour-de-force. After the gig, I popped the champagne to wet the baby’s head with Irina and Angela, the designer – a fab team effort, as was the evening in a larger sense, a collective act of art. Everybody shone and the audience were very supportive and appreciative – the Sub Rooms, a large venue, were packed out. A fantastic success!

I performed a story I wrote especially for the event, The Gate, inspired by Blake’s phrase – Heaven’s Gate (reclaiming it from its associations with Michael Cimino’s ‘disasterous’ overbudget flop). I responded to Rob Hopkins challenge in a recent Resurgence:

there are a paucity of stories that articulate what a lower-energy world might sound like, smell like, feel like and look like. What is hard, but important is to be able to articulate a vision of a post-carbon world so enticing that people leap out of bed every morning and put their shoulders to the wheel of making it happen.

This, coupled with Blake’s gate, was my inspiration, and that is what I set out to do with my simple parable, which I kept deliberately ‘light’ (following the notion that we can enter the kingdom of heaven as children – by letting ourselves be ‘held’ by a story, in a state of Keatsian negative capability, or Blakean innocence). The response was very positive. I believe art, at its best, is a gateway (rather than a mere mirror of the world) and get us closer to achieving this goal. We need stories of hope and deep beauty to defeat the gloom, the paralysis of despair, and the denialists.

The next morning we had a post-gig breakfast in Costa (the only cafe open in Stroud on a Sunday. We would have preferred lovely independent wholefood eatery, Star Anise… Instead, we turned this chain into the Left Bank of the Cotswolds for a couple of hours, as the surviving bards gathered). We were all wiped out from an epic night – but this broke down any remaining barriers. There was warmth, there was awen – and something wonderful happened. For a little while, the gate opened… Such a huge act of love will not go unnoticed by the universe! Well done to Jay, Rick and all those who performed and made it happen. Absolute stars, all of them – shining beyond the light pollution of the mainstream, the gaudy dazzle of the Media. Blake would have been touched by such a show of artistic solidarity … the City of Art descended and Albion’s children shone.

Bardic Busyness

dancing-for-the-earth 

 

25 Nov-30 Nov

 

A triptych of bardic engagements this week. The first one was at St Andrews Primary School, Congresbury, on Tuesday afternoon. I was to perform Greek Myths with two classes of Years Five and Six. One of their teachers, Dan Wilson, had booked me after finding my website via a search. (It’s nice to know the website pays off now and again!)

I had to go by train, still being bikeless – shame because it was a beautiful cold, clear sunny day. Dan picked me up from Yatton station at lunchtime. I grabbed a roll from a nearby shop, ate it on the way back, and prepared myself for the first class, warming up in a spare classroom.

 

I performed three tales: Phaethön and the Sun Chariot, The Judgement of Paris, and Jason & the Golden Fleece (approx 30 minutes in total) before fielding general questions about being a storyteller. Then I repeated this all over again for the second class (about 30 each time). The kids were respectful and pretty attentive, although it was the afternoon, and energy levels/attention spans were probably not at their best. Still, they asked some good questions. Some were clearly in awe of me – sitting wide-eyed at the front, right under my feet!

 

I had to get a taxi back to the station and the driver asked what I did. Sitting at Yatton station, gazing at the tracks, diminishing to their vanishing point into the west, I had time to reflect upon my life as a bard on the road. It was good to be getting gigs again, although the teaching is demanding virtually all of my time and energy, and so I’m not at my best when I perform at the moment – I’m low on battery and virtual memory!

 

The teacher sent me this email message later: Thanks for coming today – the kids really enjoyed it. I’ve had a look at the resources that you sent – they look really useful, thanks very much! 

 

Dancing for the Earth, an event co-organised between Jay Ramsay and Anthony Nanson, took place on Friday, 28th November – in honour of William Blake – at the ‘Bristol Old School’, Stroud. There were a plethora of performers contributing: Fire Springs – Anthony, Kirsty, David and myself. Phoenix members – Jay and Gabriel Millar. Plus Helen Moore, a fellow Bard of Bath; a poet called Jeff who recited his ‘Valentine’s to Albion’, and Kirsten Morrison, who performed a 20 minute set with her brother – a showcase for her extraordinary operatic voice. There wasn’t a huge turn out (the hall was half full or half empty depending on your point of view, although we did get a few more in the second half) but it still felt worth it – a coming together of bardic kindred spirits and ‘Children of Albion’. We ended with dancing, with music supplied by Jay’s partner, Christina McLaughlin. It was a great chance to ‘shake the feathers’ and to break down the artificial demarcation of audience and performers. It helped to ‘shift’ my mood a little – releasing some endorphins. Alas, it was over all too soon, and the music wasn’t all my cup of tea (lots of frantic trance stuff). It was bit like being at a school disco, being a wallflower, waiting for a good track to come on! Oh, for some good ole’ rock and roll!

 

I got a lift back with David and despite both being tired, we had one of our lovely chats – one of the joys of such ‘adventures’. When he dropped me off I gave him a wee present to show my appreciation – he has been a rock to Firesprings, and as a friend, throughout all of life’s ups and downs – The Drovers’ Roads of Wales (in our first show, Arthur’s Dream, he created a framing narrative about Dafydd the Drover who stumbles upon the once and future king and his knights, slumbering under a Welsh mountain until Albion needs them once again…).

 

Afterwards, Anthony described it thus: “Every act was magnificently professional, passionate, and committed. Despite the small and delayed turnout of the audience, I think we did something really significant together. I hope the relationships between us all will continue to deepen and lead to other things.”

I had to get up early the next morning (6.15am) to catch the train to my next engagement – a big stately home called Compton Verney – which involved catching three trains to Banbury, then a taxi, shared with Kirsty Hartsiotis, my co-performer, who had set these gigs up (3 weekends worth – I was standing in for her partner Anthony today who had a prior engagement in Yate, at the Heritage Centre, where I’ve performed before).

The themes of the stories were meant to allude to the various exhibitions in the house. We had plenty of scope…North, Winter, hunting, animals, forest, etc. I focussed on tales from the North, and animal tales. I did three sets – Mabon and the Oldest of Animals in set one; Raven’s tale and Fenris the Wolf in set two; then two solar myths, Bladud and Baldur in set three. The first two went well, but the third was disappointing – we were down to two by the end (a mum and her five year old son) although Bladud and his swine went down well. The problem with all of the slots was the really young members of the audience – five and under (!) playing on the ‘Once Upon a Time’ rug like it was a kindergarten. It is difficult to perform to under sevens, you have to do something especially tailored for them (e.g. balloon-puppetry, clowning, tricks, etc) and we are not trying to be children’s entertainers. Time and time again this has happened, despite us pointing out the fact we offer entertainment for adults and older children. We happily accommodate a mixed age audience, as long as the majority are adults, and children are seven plus. Otherwise, you’re just wasting energy trying to fruitlessly engage the youngest and end up losing the rest of the audience. I spent the majority of my performance time staring down at the carpet of toddler, trying to keep them interested – rather than maintaining eye contact with everyone. It’s hard to, as you can in a normal mixed audience.

 

Kirsty was better at engaging the really young ones – perhaps less scary than a tall, shaggy man! She is really shining these days. And to think how nervous she had been when she first performed at the Bath Storytelling Circle eight years ago, when we did Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin together (after I had persuaded her to give it a go – it was to be her first storytelling performance). And now we’re professional storytellers – Kirsty mainly performing with her partner, Anthony, the founder of the circle.

 

We were both tired afterwards. I was glad not to be doing it five more days, to be honest – although Compton Verney staff looked after us, and the place is very impressive. The gardens were designed by Capability Brown and it was a shame there wasn’t an opportunity to explore them.

Our erstwhile taxi driver turned up – we were relieved to see him, thinking he may have got lost again! – but it was merely the time of day and the conditions. I was happy not to be riding today, as it was a real pea-souper outside, like some Hammer horror story about a couple who take a wrong turning and end up in a village that doesn’t exist… The taxi driver made his slowly cautious way back along the narrow windy lanes, each turn giving us palpitations as he seemed to only notice it at the last minute! Finally arriving at the station he asked if he should make the receipt out for £30 not £27 (the actual fare), but Kirsty refused. He had charged us £30 before on the way there, after getting lost, so he had conned us out of a tip anyway (we had been quoted £25). Good job Compton Verney were paying travel expenses – but the taxi cost as much as the train, more in Kirsty’s case. Fortunately, Anthony will be driving the rest of the time.

By the time I got home I was too tired to go out again, or even do anything much at home – I had popped into On the Video Front on the way back from the station, and just stared at the rows of films like a zombie. Uninspired by any, I left. The storyteller had wanted a tale told to him for a change… Instead, I went to bed early with a good book – the most reliable entertainment!

A Feast of Friends

A Feast of Friends at Ruskin Mill

A Feast of Friends at Ruskin Mill

7 November

 

A Feast of Friends

Ruskin Mill, Nailsworth

 

This event was organised by poet and psychotherapist Jay Ramsay, whose seminal Psychic Poetry I read long before I actually met him. In the Eighties he held an event called Angels of Fire at the Albert Hall – which might be seen as influential as the Beat readings there in 64. He performed with his poetry group, Phoenix, at the first Bardic Festival of Bath in a freezing Walcot Chapel – it was amazing their harper, Fred Hargender was able to play, consider his fingers must have been numb! This event was far cosier, in the beautifully renovated old paper mill – we were in a downstairs which had a real fire roaring in the corner. This was to be another ‘fiery’ combination, between Phoenix, and our group Firesprings – a fecund meeting of bards. The line up was going to be Firesprings members Anthony (who started the evening with an ecobardic epic called ‘The Story of People on Planet Earth’), David (who offered a spine-tingling trio of ‘death ballads’), and myself, plus Bath-based poet and Awen author, Mary, who performed some of her ‘Iona’; the second half was predominantly Phoenix poets Jay, Gabrielle, Ella & her partner, Sam, playing didgeridoo, plus Geoff offering us amusing Andalucian tales to end with accompanied by flamenco guitar from his friend Dave.

 

I had had an exhausting week – with all of my teaching, with a new class starting Friday afternoon, with 5 new students to add to my other 114! When I got back home I was shattered, and just flopped. When I awoke it was practically time to go out again, with no time to eat. I was hoping to grab some chips on the way, but didn’t think I had enough time. I should have made time, as my energy levels sank dangerously low before the performance. Fortunately, Jay offered me some chocolate and I had a can of Red Bull, which was just enough to see me through the first half. Luckily, my fifteen minute slot was then. As always I got nervous before hand – worried that my fatigue would impair my performance, but as happened once in the Bath Literature Festival, during our ‘Voices of the Past’ show, when I was spaced out with a cold, I turned in one of my best performances. With nothing left to lose, I tapped into something real, something edgy.

 

I had rehearsed down by the water in the moonlight, which helped to centre me and to evoke the atmosphere I wished to evoke. I performed my ‘winter set’ – wolf in the city, the wicker man, wild hunt, one with the land, and finishing with the ‘Prophets of Los’, which I preambled by saying with imagination anything is possible (as the events earlier in the week had proven). I had been deeply inspired by Obama’s winning speech on Tuesday, which showed the power of the spoken word. I was feeling perhaps less noble though and less on an even keel than ‘No Drama Obama’ – my separation from Jennifer had left me feeling miserable, wounded, and like a wounded beast I snarled and bit back! My wolf poem performance is always a crowd-pleaser, but tonight it had real bite – at one point I made a girl in the audience gasp with shock (although afterwards she came up to thank me for my poems, and roared – she had got in touch with her own beast). I introduced my set by saying ‘There’s an animal inside all of us, and sometimes it comes out!’. Bang – straight in. A short, punchy, pithy, preamble like that is far more effective than the flabby openings I hear some people come out with – sometimes longer than the piece itself, deflating any tension it may have, making it a long-winded affair. I kept my links to a minimum. I made sure I really connected to the audience – looking at them hard in the eye, defiant, prowling, like a cornered wolf. Unashamed of what I am or what I was offering them. A performance is not the time to hide one’s light under a bushel (or as I like to say, it can ‘set your bushel alight’). You should blaze – but not at one pitch. Like a fire, vary your radiance. Flicker and glow, flare up, die down, blaze. This keeps the attention up – makes it unpredictable. Spontaneous composition.

 

I had set a book stall up upstairs – Awen’s titles nearly covered the whole table, with the addition of the newest titles, Simon’s poetry collection, The Book of the Bardic Chair launched the previous weekend. I sold some, which helped to make the event even more worthwhile. But what made it a buzz was the full house – the energy was reciprocated, unlike the gig at the Victoria Art Gallery the week before. A small audience, however willing, is harder work. Your get less energy back for your efforts.

 

We all ended the night feeling on a bit of a high – Jay was keen for us to keep the flame burning. This kind of creative collaboration we felt to be the way forward. A new working model, which we expound upon in our manifesto – due to be launched at the end of the month. It would have been nice to have had a drink with folk afterwards, especially since it was Kirsty’s birthday the next day and it was nearly midnight, but I had a face-to-face tutorial with my Advanced Creative Writing students the next day and David was the driver. Plus I was starving, and there was a chance I might catch a takeaway on the way home, which I gratefully did. It was nice to have time to chat with David, a very decent bloke, an excellent bard and a true professional.

 

This latest experience has renewed my enthusiasm for Firesprings, which I admit was flagging. Joining forces with Phoenix, in these irregular events, has given it a new lease of life. The next one is due the end of the month, on William Blake’s birthday – Blake being another rallying point, the ‘William Blake Congregation’ as Felicity Bowers and Helen Elwes like to call it. ‘Hear the Voice of the Bards!’