Hope is Strong. Millennium gallery Sheffield.


I enjoyed Hope is Strong, an exhibition of politically motivated art at the Millennium gallery in Sheffield but perhaps not as much as I had hoped. There were some interesting things to see, especially Jeremy Deller’s small room memorialising his recreation of the battle of Orgreave, but I was left feeling a little dissatisfied. This was not the fault of the exhibition or the art itself, it was a slightly melancholy feeling that I had missed the boat. I should have been there when it happened. This is art whose purpose is to be an activist, to stir things up, and it has its moment. This was especially true of Jeremy Deller’s poster “Strong and stable my arse”, bold black print on a plain white background, which appeared on the streets, unannounced, at the same time as people realised that this particular political slogan was being well and truly over egged. It was witty and timely, very much of its moment and that was the point. Looking at a single example preserved in a gallery is interesting, but it remains a poor substitute for coming across it in the way that Jeremy Deller intended.

The most moving item in the room documenting the recreation of the battle of Orgreave was a denim jacket with badges from the miner’s strike. These badges were effectively battle honours, worn by those who had been there. They were difficult to get hold of and highly prized by the police as they made infiltrators look convincing. It was a reminder of the solidarity of a community under threat, the pride of a industry facing closures and just how sordid and nasty the whole business was.

I enjoyed sending Jake Thackeray’s gentle activism singing out from the jukebox which had a fine collection of political songs of all kinds to choose from. Most of all I enjoyed Ai Wei Wei’s Han dynasty pot with the Coca Cola logo added to it. That really made me think about how very much China has changed since I travelled there in the 1980s, but there is also something about the way that the logo is weathered into the pot in quite a subtle way, almost as though it had always been there, which reminded me that there is something about the heart of a society which remains the same and endures.


The Man with Big Balls.

It’s tough being a street performer. You have to mark out your area, claim a space that was never meant to be yours, and set about persuading people who had no intention of watching you, or anyone else, perform for them in the middle of their busy day to watch. Everybody, even those who are simply sightseeing, has something else that they were about to do. You have to stop them in their tracks and take control of their day with nothing to help you- no comfortable seats, no admission charge, no stage, no lighting, no microphones.

It was fascinating watching Man With Big Balls weave his way into the lunchtime crowd in York. He needed to assert himself over the passing crowd and persuade them to do what he needed them to do while remaining positive and friendly. He kept those people who had stopped to listen interested and made them active participants, while commenting on others who were only walking past and attempting to draw them in. He had to establish his credentials, make us believe that something was about to happen that was worth sticking around for. There were regular teasers about what we were about to see while at the same time he was asserting ownership of his space, getting people to follow his instructions in order to form an audience who became a unit, even enlisting their help in dealing with a pair of drinkers who were nowhere near as funny as they thought they were. I loved the fact that a middle aged woman who had simply been walking past a few minutes before was prepared to wade in on his behalf- after he overheard her comment and asked for her help- in order to tell the two men politely exactly why she thought that they should move on. They did. Finally we were treated to a feat of juggling, balancing and catching. Balls were thrown by members of the crowd. The success of the final feat relied on the ability of a few strangers to listen to instructions and carry them out. Never has any performer worked harder to earn the performance money which had to be persuaded out of the audience at the end. I reckon if you can pull off a successful street performance you can probably perform just about anything, anywhere. Well done that man!

News of a death.

Sorry to tell you by text but dad passed away in the early hours.

The little boy is safe in his comfy seat,
snuggled into his granddad.
His round, shining face
is catlike and content.
Nothing can hurt him.
He is safe.
Full of life and ideas.
He wants to know.
“Shall I show you my one inch punch?”
Granddad is wounded, loudly.
He watches the river outside the train window..
“Is there more water than land?”
There is.
“Can I open the hotel room door with the special card when we get there?
He can.
“I like doing that.”
His grandma points upwards.
“Can you see that up there?”
He can.
“Can you read it.”
He can and he does!
“Challenge me again.”
Train tickets are a thing of wonder.
“Five minutes to go.”
“5 4 3 2 1.”
“Minutes, not seconds.”
They have a staring contest with added wobbling eyebrows.
He wins.
She laughs.

None of us are safe.

Lionel Shriver at Scarborough Book Festival. 14-04-18

I have never once been disappointed by a writer who I admire when I have seen them in person at a book event and Lionel Shriver was no exception. She is very direct, fearlessly clever and funny. I think that may be because the best writers are very much themselves in their work. If you admire what they write you are almost sure to admire them. I think that We Need to Talk About Kevin is one of the great modern novels and it was a real pleasure to be able to tell her so and hear her thank me before answering my question at the end of the talk.

The event, at Books by the Beach, Scarborough Book Festival, was to promote her new collection of short stories, Property. They have been written over a period of time with that same loose overarching theme, each time a commission came in where the theme could fit, and they are now drawn together into a collection. We began with a reading from one of the stories which was sharp, witty and perceptive. Of all the writers who I have heard read their own work I think only Jeanette Winterson did it as perfectly. The narrator is describing what it is like to be “hated” and face the constant feeling of being criticised- to not fit in. “What do you do about an annoying laugh? Stop finding anything funny?”

The discussion which followed was interesting and wide ranging. One of the stories is long enough to be a novella and this is a form that she admires. I can see why as it is much like herself. No tedium. more direct- one good story with no diversions. There were some poignant thoughts related to the books theme. as the magic of having things for long time was remembered via a clockwork donkey and she pointed out that what we care about is not always what we are told is valuable. Losing money hurts more than never having it. We do not own our own lives, other people experience our life in their own ways and it isn’t possible to draw a perimeter around it.

There were some interesting thoughts about fiction in general following from a past controversy where Lionel Shriver spoke out against the idea that “cultural appropriation” was wrong. We need a well rounded, healthy, enjoyable intersect between cultures, a taboo on writing outside your own culture is wrong headed. All fiction is fakery, a matter of what you can get away with. Anyway, as she pointed out, “I don’t want to be told that I may not do it”. Any writing is either convincing or it isn’t. That is what matters. The only form of censorship for a writer which is acceptable is self censorship. Hate speech laws shut down opinions which should be out in the open to be expressed and challenged.

She said that she markets herself as a “purveyor of pessimism with humour” and it was a delight to have the opportunity to sit and listen. Going eyeball to eyeball with her from the front row to ask my question was challenging but in a way that made me feel more alive and engaged rather than threatened. If I were ever to have a full conversation with her I have no doubt at all that I would have to up my game. I liked her a lot.

Not now.

I shall sit in state
wearing my smart anorak,
flaunting a glittery stick.
I shall nod at my friends
and say hello to strangers.
I shall know the names
of people who I dislike,
have my say,
take my time.
But not yet.

I shall compare ailments
with someone who will not be bored.
I shall locate the exact position
of my aches and pains
while I watch the nice man on tv.
I shall take all morning to do a small shop.
I shall have opinions,
take umbrage……….
But not now.
Not yet.

I shall put a sticker on my door
saying, no cold callers,
peep out from behind net curtains,
and turn the heating down.
I shall deadhead my roses,
watch and be watched……….
but not yet.
Sometimes I am tempted
but please God,
not now.
Not yet.

For the time being
I shall find my own patch of sunlight
and stand in it bravely,
waiting to be noticed.
I shall take the final chocolate
from the opened box
and eat it all at once,
I shall look back
without wondering ,
did I waste my time?
I shall survive.

Winter Solstice. Actors Touring Company and Orange Tree Theatre at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. 5-4-18

Roland Schimmelpfennig, one of Germany’s most performed playwrights, wrote Winter Solstice during 2013 and 2014 as a response to the rise of the new right in Europe. It is the story of what happens when Corinna, a naive, lonely older woman invites Rudolph, a plausible stranger who she has met on a train, into the family home of her daughter Bettina and her husband Albert. They are educated liberals, a film maker and a writer, whose marriage is under strain. It is Christmas and Rudolph doesn’t leave. To start with he is delightful in the eyes of everybody but Albert, until slowly his true nature is revealed, although we are never sure how much of what follows is real and how much is happening inside Albert’s over-medicated head.

You have to think hard to keep up with what is happening as this is a thoroughly Brechtian play, full of artifice. How the story is told is every bit as important as the story itself. It starts in a production meeting for one of Bettina’s films and we are never allowed to forget that we are in a theatre as the cast both play their characters and narrate the action. There is no set and the jumble of props and metal trestle tables from that original meeting are moved around with great speed and accuracy throughout the play to tell the story and used to signify whatever might be needed. The whole production is very cleverly directed and devised and makes some powerful and timely points about the insidious nature of populism and political manipulation- this is a play which is designed to make you think rather than touch the heart. It must have packed quite a punch when it was first seen at home in its original language. It fitted in the round at the SJT beautifully with the cast opening it out and sometimes speaking directly to the audience. I was more in awe of their technical skills than their characterisation as I watched them at work, delivering lines in and out of character at speed, making sure that everything was there in the right place at the right time and finding drama and humour in quick succession.

This was clearly a really well made piece of theatre, recast and redirected from a production that won four off West End Awards but, while I am very glad to have seen it, it wasn’t really for me any more than Brecht is. Having said that, it is the first time that a stranger has seen me in the audience, recognised me the following day and stopped me in Filey wanting to talk about a production, so they must have been doing something right. I think Roland Schimmelpfennig would probably be quite happy about that.