Wednesday, 27 April 2011

A Fresh Look at Creativity

This story begins with a young man, quite an ordinary, unremarkable man. And it’s all true.

Brought up in a large family, the eldest of five.

The most interesting thing about him is that his father has an interest in local politics.

He grew up in the same town as me – a small market town and again quite unremarkable.

Here it is – this is where he spent all of his early years.

Not much else to do growing up here.

He even went to the same school as me …… although not in the same year.

Unlike me, he crawled into school like a snail, reluctantly carrying his satchel which weighed him down – And he left with no qualifications.

Whilst still a teenager, he pursued a woman almost ten years older than him until she caught him. Quite literally.

But there was good reason. His wife was carrying his first child and this was very much the shotgun wedding.

The marriage had been rushed forward and there were rumours he’d actually proposed to another woman around the same time.

So six months after he exchanged rings with his wife, along comes Susanna.

No qualifications, married reluctantly to a woman much older than him and now a father. Life wasn’t easy.

He scraped by as a farm hand, often surviving on the charity of his in-laws farm a few miles away. How embarrassing.

Stone broke, so what do you do. You have two more children over the next three years.
And it wasn’t just hard for him. His Father is declared bankrupt and narrowly avoids a prison term.

It’s around now that he fell in with the wrong crowd.

And when I mean the wrong crowd, we’re not just talking about shoplifting and petty thefts. A few years later this lot were caught attempting to bomb the capital.

Our man was eventually caught stealing from one of the big houses in the area,

It was around this time he went missing. Nobody had seen him for about a decade, enough time for the heat to have died down.

What happened during this time is still a mystery. Some say he hid out in Lancashire, others say he went abroad.

But, Just like Dick Whittington, he turns up in London as a bit part actor – as far away from the West End as you could imagine.

He banded together with some friends and they created their own theatre company.

Performing in a theatre which backed onto a street full of brothels.

A good start so far isn’t it – but this is where he started to invent.

Being a young man and jobbing actor near the pubs and bordellos of London, he can seriously lay claim to having invented addiction in his evenings, followed by arousal and, finally, puking by the end of the night.

But he did invent some real things – the Blanket - imagine bedtime without one.

Most people have eyes, and half the population have balls – but this man put them together and invented Eyeballs,

And he even invented the alligator – imagine how you’d say see you later without them?

These creations have led him to developing one of Britain’s biggest industries, worth a cool £1bn a year.

That’s the same amount as the snow damage caused to the UK in December

The equivilant to the “grey” economy in Wales, or over 400 Valley Parade Stadia.

His inventions have inspired thousands of others including writers, dramatists, composers and choreographers.

Here are just some of the people he inspired –some you might not want to have him inspired but inspire them he did.

Yet he’s commonly described as a crow, a fraud, a plagiarist, an upstart
Often seen as irrelevant, inaccessible boring and stayed. There was even a pamphlet questioning his sexuality.

Some people claim his work was never created by him.

The person is William Shakespeare, possibly the most influential person in the Western World.

The terrorists were part of the gunpowder plot and he didn’t abandon his family, making regular trips back from the capital.

But why this subject –I wanted you to take a fresh look at him and his achievement.

We often get lost in the language and forget he was a real man.

He brought common language to the arts – or as he called them, household words.

It is not the plays, but the words, the rhythm, the vocabulary and emotion. It’s not always easy but it is almost 500 years old.

Take Anthony and Cleopatra – two of the great leaders – yet Shakespeare makes them talk like an old married couple.

And look at his start in life – he wasn’t the high achiever and while he wasn’t the poorest in society, it was still a meteoric rise.

Take a fresh look at the young people in your life and see how you can inspire them to achieve greatness.

A recent survey in Wakefield found it wasn’t attitude and laziness of teenagers that created youth unemployment, but the stifling of creativity by parents, friends and relatives.

And for those who ask why it’s relevant today, in Bradford, I can only thank the RSC.

His Birthday is celebrated on the nearest Saturday to the 23rd of April – only this year, due to commercial reasons, they’ve shifted it to the 30th.

And the Rosemary? The herb of remembrance mentioned in Hamlet by Ophelia.

To finish, some other inventions of Shakespeare’s we couldn’t do without.

What would Science Fiction be like without Wormholes – time travel from the 15th century.

What would Britain’s Got Talent be like without Buzzers? Breakfast without Skimm’d Milk Or Mary Poppins without the Chimney Pot.

Even my own Blog, Set the World at Nought, is inspired by Shakespeare, although he stole the line from a prayer by St Thomas More.

So remember to wear your sprig of rosemary, like the townsfolk of Stratford will be, on Saturday.

Review: Where's Your Mama Gone

One of the things that struck me when I was a publishing student was the understanding that the white space around text on a page is as important as the black squiggles that form the words. So what struck me when walking out of Where’s Your Mama Gone was what wasn't said in the play which is as important and powerful as the words of spoken by the cast of six at the Carriageworks in Leeds.

The play is only half the story and it is the questions and thoughts that leave with you out of the door that are almost as important to the work as the performance itself – but this is only possible by experiencing the play. The set also has this quality - A plain black stage, with black chairs and harsh white lighting, focusing attention on the players and their words without distraction.

There was an added dimension during the performance. Richard McCann.

Richard is the son of Wilma McCann, the first of the Yorkshire Ripper’s victims and it was his book Just A Boy that inspired Brian Daniels to write the play. It was what Richard didn't say as he quietly left the auditorium that was important. A tacit approval, a shared experience and slight smile at the end of what must have been a deeply moving experience for him. On Twitter he commented that it was a: “Bloody powerful play, for me and some of the acting was extremely close to reality.”

The play, set in Leeds, tells the story of non-identical twins Stephen and Carol and the effect the murder of their mother. It deals with how they deal with the stigma of being “Kath Connor's” and how there life was dominated by what was missing and unseen. The flip side of the play shows the story of a serial killer, his motivations and his background.

While there is a macabre interest in the serial killer, it is a tough subject and yet it is surprisingly unusual to have a work focusing on the aftermath and the individual.

Having only had a few previews, Charlie Harrison and Emma Gordon have developed a powerful on stage relationship in the lead roles. Despite the deliberate physical mismatch, there quickly becomes a genuine family bond and togetherness which allowed the pair to create a microcosm of their own on stage. A protective bubble that sees the other characters interacting with their world rather than with the twins as individuals. Like the proton and the neutron, they get agitated the closer they are, yet the more distant they are, gravity brings them back together.

The timeline is mixed but the story flowing, taking you on the journey through their lives but losing the sense of stability and home, what Brian Daniels' calls heritage. Loss is a big part of the work and the characters spend most of the play searching for faint memories and something that isn’t there. Most of the Dialogue is delivered in monologue, interrupting the action and giving the innermost thoughts of the characters. But even in the monologue there is a feeling you aren’t getting the whole story. The feeling that Stephen and Carol cannot be honest about what lurks in the dark part of their mind.

Brian Daniels acknowledges there are more themes running through the play than you can deal with, but that is a consequence of the situation rather than a desire to cram more in. Serial killers, institutionalisation, care homes, abuse, broken homes, community, loss, family ties, addiction, domestic violence, drugs and more are touched upon. The way Carol jokes about being beaten and sexually abused by her father in a throw away comment could almost be the subject for a play in itself. But it is just a phrase within a sentence - the white space on the page.

The play turns on a scene between the Serial Killer and twin Stephen during a prison visit. Will Fox gives a compelling performance as Peter Sutton. He walks a fine line between normality and madness. It would be easy to ham up the performance of such an obvious villain, but there is just a hint of something not right which makes his performance chilling. It is the similarities he has with the twins that are as disturbing as the differences.

The twin’s mother haunts the play. Carolyn Eden plays her character on stage and you get the feeling she is of her time background. Again, there is a fine line in her character between caring mother and street worker.

Seeing Christa Ackroyd in the play as herself also adds an interesting dimension. Having trained as a journalist in Leeds and worked the patch, I met a lot of journalists who worked at the time of the ripper and a few policemen. She is someone who experienced the fear of the ripper as a young female reporter, not only a potential victim, but someone talking to the victims’ families.

Like the play, there’s a lot to cover and there is a danger of over running. However, Brian Daniels' play feels slightly unfinished. Again, this is deliberate. You could add twenty more minutes and the feeling would be the same. The characters will carry on being haunted the whole of their life, but the ray of hope offered is how they chose to accept their legacy and deal with their emotions.

A new play with limited stage time means there will be more improvement and development. The scene changes need smoothing out as the flow often slipped between scenes. I’d also liked to have seen more use of the sound effects used very well but so sparingly. The comic relief is needed and needs polishing to bring it to the forefront. But these are small gripes and it will be interesting to see the show closer to the end of its run.

Where’s Your Mama Gone isn’t a performance you watch as pure entertainment but it is an experience worth going through. After the applause, you can tell it has made people think as the normal chatter is replaced with near silence as they contemplate what they’ve seen.The play runs until the 28th May at The Carriageworks Theatre, Leeds.

Some of the issues tackled can be summed up in Richard McCann's self written article here.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

The Alternative View on the Alternative Vote

The problem with the debate on AV is the ridiculous position about which is best. In reality there is little difference between the systems being offered with marginal benefits. But the nub of the issue is that this could have serious implications for individuals and parties as many seats swing on such small margins.

Both sides have explained the systems poorly and it seems to be missing the point. Rather than focus on the benefits of AV and First Past The Post (FPTP), we need to look at the failures of both systems and work out which is our least disliked system, rather than our preferred systems.

First past the post gives the result to the person with more votes than anyone else. AV gives the result to the person 50% or more prefer to be the candidate.

The flip side is that FPTP can mean that people with 30-40% of the vote can win despite the majority voting against. Hazel Blears is a case in point. Equally, with low turn outs, you don’t necessarily get a clear indication of preference. Look at the Welsh devolution vote when the yes campaign was determined by 24% of the population.

Equally AV is seen as a system that rewards the 2nd best option and although you might want candidate A, you’ll actually promote candidate B through your 2nd preference because you prefer them to Candidate C.

People already carry out a form of AV when they tactically vote. They discount their preferred choice and put a cross on their 2nd/3rd preference as their least worst option.

The statistical evidence on various forms of democracy from people like Richard Lipsey and Kenneth Arrow shows that it is the least bad system, and your choice is effectively what you consider the least bad.

Let’s debunk some myths:

In a huge number of parliamentary seats, there will be no difference between AV and First Past the Post. Look at a place like Barnsley. There will be over 50% of the electorate wanting a Labour candidate possibly until the end of time itself. It’s pointless even bothering to put a number next to a second or third place vote.

The overall result is still decided via first past the post. Get 50% of the seats and you have an overall majority – even if your share of the vote is lower than 50%.

The BNP votes count more than everyone else’s. There are two points here. First, no they don’t. Secondly it’s a massive assumption to believe that, however horrid they are, that the BNP will be the last placed. In my Pudsey Constituency it was UKIP, in my parents it was the English Democrats, Green party and an Independent and where I went to University it was The Animal Protection Party. The BNP stood at two of these hustings.

Secondly, the system says if you vote for a numpty party, then they get disqualified for being unrepresentative – now pick a proper party. It does not ‘reward’ facists with an extra vote, only make the minority parties less single issue.

What about the Cost issue? A few hours extra on to the hourly costs of running an election can’t be much. Most are volunteers using council owned property so where’s the cost? Oh, the fancy electronic booths that no one will buy, let alone use. This could also be claimed back by other reforms set to cut the cost of campaigns.

It is unimportant what Nick Clegg thinks, or Ed Milliband, Or David Cameron. What makes more sense, selecting what you want or “trying to upset Cameron/Clegg” and not selecting what you want; frankly a bizarre state of affairs. Yet I imagine many confused (by the campaigning) and ignorant voters will select their preference this way.

Apparently, it will make two party politics a thing of the past really? And is this such a bad thing? I notice the Scottish parliament in grave strife at the moment. Oh! wait, it seems to work fine. There seems to be confusion over tribal loyalty to a party and how politics works. Just because other voices are heard in parliament, doesn’t make it bad. Nor do parties who work together negatively affect the party.

The campaigns will be based on ‘appealing to everyone’. At the moment, British politics is so negative and mudslinging that anything is an improvement. But AV doesn’t really change much. If you have a passionate belief, it’s as likely to win you votes as blanding out a campaign to the lowest common denominator. Does no-one actually see how voting happens on reality TV shows? They spend more time being passionate about how there pet budgie died when they were 7 than demonstrating any talent. Those with no passion and plenty of talent get voted out.

As we’ve come to complex voting systems. Firstly neither is difficult and if the public can fathom out the random rule changes of I’m a celebrity, they can work out how to count to five. This doesn’t mean that this is the preferred choice, merely it isn’t an argument against.

The final myth is that we need change. It’s not desperate and FPTP has worked well enough for a few centuries and will for a few more as well.

The point about the vote is that it isn’t a choice. It’s a Cameron stunt to prove no one wants voting reform when it’s clear that it needs looking into. There are about three alternative voting systems not even being considered that most the No2AV campaigner Lord Owen would prefer.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Contemplating Jaume Plensa

Normally when I sit down to write up a blog of an event or happening, I like to sit down straight away and relate the experience while the memories are still fresh in my mind.

Due to a hectic four days, I've not been able to this time and, in a way, I'm glad because I've reflected on the Jaume Plensa exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. It is also fitting as, in his introduction, Jaume told us "We do not spend enough time in our own space just thinking."

This is demonstrated by a pair of glass brick boxes, just smaller than a telephone booth, that both cut you off from the outside world yet are open and airy. I thought that entering the box would be claustrophobic but far from it. The muffled sounds of the outside world and bright lit space was calming and a place to think, even if its thinking of nothing.

Jaume also said the themes of his work were the self and in the confusion caused by conflicting communication channels that dominate our lives. I personally felt the work was more of the self.

Despite promising to visit for more years than I can remember, this was my first visit to the sculpture park. Jaume Plensa's imposing crouched figures make an impact from the moment you enter the park, with a figure high on a plinth. The figures placed in the park look part of the outstanding scenery across the Valley despite being far from natural.

The silvery bodies view the vistas in calm reflection as if considering themselves and their lives, taking inspiration from their surroundings. Made of letters, these stunning and lifelike sculptures are meant to show how something as simple as a letter turns to a word, sentence, idea and on to being something more like a book.

And this is where my own reflections come in to play. The day after my visited, I was at Twycross Zoo with my family. The zoo specialises in caring for monkeys and I saw how they, like the statues, sat crouched with their arms wrapped around their legs contemplating their surroundings. Monkey's also see a smile as threatening behaviour and they show happiness when relaxed and with a downward turn to the mouth.

Thinking about the pieces in the Yorkshire Scultpure Park, it shows how Jaume Plensa has created something primal and slightly melancholic. But the melancholy isn't something sad, but just a reflective mood that shows a future hope and renewal of spirit.

One of the pieces is made from mesh and have a ghostly quality. You can never quite see them and the they don't impinge on the view but are always there and present. Another sees a series of figures hugging saplings in a quiet area of the gardens.

The exhibition is in two distinct areas. As well as the sculptures in the gardens, there are those in the underground galleries. You move from the brightness of the outside to the dark subterranean world. Had Jaume Plensa not said so, this reserved Englishman would have missed half of the exhibition. The experience is as much about touch and sound as it is about the visual art.

The galleries have a long curtain of verses strung from floor to ceiling separating the outside world from the interior. Running your hand across the letters make them chime, with the tintinnabulations evoking Jaume Plensa's memories of a beaded curtain from his childhood home.

The first gallery has the same crounched figures on the wall in the see no evil, hear no evil and say no evil. The evil here is the stress and anxiety of modern living rather than behaviour. The theme is replicated in the next room with three giant heads looking inwardly at each other.

The third gallery is an experience in itself and photographs do no do it justice. The six foot high elongated heads are lit brightly in a dark room and are so unexpected compared to the other rooms. Similar to the giant head Jaume created near St Helens, these androgynous and beautifully lifelike faces are calm and serene. Although digitally created, they feel ancient and almost living. Their feels to be a presence in the room as if something living inhabits the heads, may be only opening the closed eyes after midnight. A magical set of sculptures.

The final gallery is filled with gongs of varying tones which resound throughout the exhibition space. These red gold gongs are in a circle, filled with the words from the song of songs in the old testament.

The end room shows more detail and information about Jaume Plensa's life and work. It includes a mobile, lit deliberately to make the shadows as much part of the work of art as the figures clinging on to the mobile almost for dear life. This work is constantly changing as the strands of the mobile move round.

Before leaving, I climbed the hill to see the one, major sculpture as tall as a house, looking out across the valley. The work is totally different viewed from the inside than from the outside. With the light fading, it was also fascinating to see how the silver letter sculptures changed from bright silver to red tinged figures to dull grey before being lit up to being almost white beacons shining across the panorama.

My overall impression was this was as good an art exhibition as I remember seeing. This is partly down to the setting of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Having also been to the Compton Verney gallery in Warwickshire a few days after, the vistas of Capability Brown have nothing on the Yorkshire countryside when finding locations for sculptures. No white room in a London gallery could do the sculptures justice either.

The alabaster heads in the third gallery stayed with me, along with the inner contemplation of many of the works and will for a time to come.

The exhibition is on between the 9 April 2011 - 25 September 2011. For more information, visit the YSP website

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

How important are local newspapers to the community?

This was a question that I wrestled with when asked to fill in a survey recently. Even at the time I thought this a complex issue that could hardly be answered by ticking one box over another box.

This wasn’t even the question on the survey, but my own thought. The actual question was over communities and whether newspapers are an essential part of an effective local community. My answer is no – but that is doing newspapers a disservice.

Why did I say no? Community does not need newspapers partly because there are alternatives from the old fish wives gossiping to social media and beyond. Partly because local newspapers are so different and their role is so diverse that you couldn’t really identify what its core purpose is. Finally, what is a community and how big a geography does it cover? IS it even bound by geography?

What it is true to say is that local newspapers are a social glue. They bind people together by imparting information and requesting feedback. This isn’t just a noticed board for events and minutes of meetings. It also offers information over crime and punishment, emotional stories and pleas of help.

If I think of my own area, there are several layers of newspaper that make layers like an onion of community information. Starting at the Wharfe Valley Times, the news is focused mainly on charitable events, school projects and sports news. In fact, the main reason people read it isn’t the news but the car and house adverts. Go up a layer and you have the Yorkshire Evening Post, a good metropolitan evening paper focusing on crime and human interest stories. There’s also the Wharfdale and Airedale Observer, a rural focused weekly looking at life towards Ilkley and awy from Leeds City Centre. Then there is the Yorkshire Post, the newspaper read by the business community and those in the know from Scarborough to Sheffield.

Comparing local papers also gives you a flavour of key interests and how fast paced life is. I grew up with a weekly paper focussed on the rural community a world away from the Barnsley Chronicle.

But if I do what local information, is the newspaper the best or only way of accessing it? With an increasingly open information society, public information is increasingly available and, if you don’t understand the figures, there’s sure to be some person developing an app. to explain it. There are blogs, twitter feeds, community message boards and real events which allow me to engage in the community at a deeper level. My sense of community is not dictated to by the news agenda.

Equally, community has become disjointed. Is my community where I live? Where my children go to school? Where I work? Where I play sport? They are all of these things. When I was growing up all were available in reasonably small area, but now I can travel to different areas to engage with different areas of my life.

I think this is why newspapers have struggled. There is information relevant to me in the Bradford Telegraph and Argus, the Harrogate Advertiser, The Wakefield Express and the Bradford Telegraph. It would be unfeasible for me to buy all these newspapers. Add in the school publications, the parish magazines, the sports club quarterly newsletter and it’s a mass of information I don’t necessarily have the time to consume.

Newspapers also have never recovered from the age of the internet and still struggle online. Their role has been superseded whether its small ads, selling homes and cars, message boards and piped information services. They also struggle with the balance of free information over paid for content.

Each person has their own communities they want to keep in touch with and newspapers are so restrictive in how you can access and consume information. To be effective, they need to be that social glue – responding to the needs of their community and not trying to dictate the agenda. They need to look at what is required and bundle those services in a branded offering. It is different in different places. They also need to look at how I could get the business news from the Evening Post, say, the sports reports on Bradford City from the Telegraph and Argus, my Facebook feed of friends and the message board from my sports club. People are already creating piped services that cut out the newspapers and people can create their own feeds of information.

The difficulty is working out who pays for the service at what point. Technology and newspapers can engage communities whether geographic or virtual. The final question is whether we want to remain a disparate group of individuals flitting between communities, or whether we want to go back to living in a local community where all our needs are met within a small geography. There are benefits and disadvantages to both, but personally I feel we have become a little too well travelled and need to discover what’s on our doorstep and re-engage in our locality. May be we would value our local newspapers more if we did.

Image: healingdream /

Friday, 1 April 2011

Why cuts to the arts budget is an advantage

While many in the arts a bemoaning the cuts to the grants received from the arts council, at least one Yorkshireman sees the flipside of the situation. Far from being a problem, it is an opportunity. Now opportunities aren’t handed out on a plate, but his belief is that the cuts give the arts a chance to show its creativity and create new business models.

What can’t be allowed to happen is the loss of arts in the region or nationally.
This was message from John Godber at the First Friday event in Wakefield. His appearance at the Cedar Court Hotel was one of his first for his new theatre company now based at the Wakefield Theatre Royal.

Along with the theatre’s director Murray Edwards, there was optimism for the future, not just for the headline grabbing plays created by Godber, but also for the youth and community projects which use the facilities on an almost daily basis.

Restrictions tend to follow grants and it is these restrictions which are now removed from the business model. The challenge is to persuade private money that there is an advantage to getting involved in the arts. To paraphrase, how can you be creative if you don’t have inspiration.

The loss of Government funding is a loss to the arts community and this presents a challenge. But it is not the only challenge for John Godber. He’s left a theatre and company he’s built up for well over twenty years to start from scratch. The new company needs to establish a reputation but it does create a freedom to start afresh.
There is a commercial realty to the challenge.

It might be easier to obtain sponsorship for a new play written by one of the greatest living British playwright than for an educational group dealing with unemployed teenagers, but both are valuable. The argument might be that the workshops offering skills, confidence and life skills to NEATS, an endemic problem in the Wakefield district, is far more valuable to the business community than exposure to a theatre audience.

Equally, the acting community tends to have more than one vocation. Training, community projects and other endeavours tend to provide the basis for a jobbing actor to also do what they love – appearing on stage or screen. While the big names might get a living wage, that can’t always be said for the stock characters and ensemble roles. It’s a far more complicated interdependency between the headline performances and the community workshops which may not even result in a performance.

Convincing businesses that there is real opportunity in the arts isn’t easy. Bizarrely the focus on the funding cuts does help in showing what could be lost to a community. John Godber said losing arts provision is like losing a playing field and isn’t felt straight away. Like Arthritis, it erodes over time from a mild annoyance to a severe problem. Losing community projects weakens the community and loses skills. Highlighting the good work at risk means companies are better placed to find synergies and understand that supporting a project for the homeless,NEATS, the elderly or the disabled could bring greater benefits in terms of local reputation, audience and reciprocal benefit.

Having commercial packages and sponsorship in some ways is a cop out. It is an easy way of getting in front of known an audience. Funding a project that gives hope to young people who feel failed by the education system identifies potential new employees, recognition from the community and creating economic activity in the local economy.

The new venture in Wakefield comes at a strange time with the Arts Council announcement, but another plus must be the key artistic developments in the region. Three years ago you might not class Wakefield as an artistic hub, but with the creation of the Art House studios, the creation of the Hepworth Gallery and the success of the art walks there has been a real boon for the district. The Leeds Fringe and the other developments in Leeds means there is a real opportunity for Yorkshire to be a cultural centre envied by other regions.

There are also valuable lessons in life and business. Where one door closes, another door opens. Turning round bad news into good is difficult but can only be achieved through creativity. And as I’ve mentioned before, where would we be without the inspiration of the arts.

Image: scottchan /