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July 27, 2011 in PROJECT BLOG, R&D Process


I first encountered this story at school when I was about 8 years old. Someone must have thought that it was a good idea to encourage us kids to read at home, or in our own time (which, of course, it is) and so they brought a tall cupboard into the classroom filled with brand new books. Someone was nominated as book-lending monitor, you could choose any book you liked, could read it, then return it, then write down what you thought about it on a card for others to read (a new, reasonably exciting twist at the time) and then choose another. ‘A Kestrel For A Knave’ was the first book that I chose, mainly I think because of the picture of the young cheeky looking lad in the parka coat on its cover (not the one below, sadly). Everyone I knew wore parkas to school.

Although it was set in Barnsley (wherever that was) and I lived in Bishop Auckland (near Durham), it was the first book that depicted a landscape and lives being lived in a way that I completely recognised and related to. It was also the first book that didn’t talk down to me. It was really funny and quite complicated and really sad and quite shocking at the end and there were lads exactly like Billy Casper sitting near me in class. Billy Casper was also a bit like me. I must have written something a little like that on my card, but I made sure that no one else got to read it – I borrowed it again straight afterwards. I must have read it four times in the end.

My grandfather, my father’s dad, worked at the pit (as did my mam’s dad and my dad’s brother). I remember how he would seize any opportunity he could to be outdoors and with nature – fishing, feeding horses. He would constantly bring stray dogs into the house. I now think I understand why.

I saw Ken Loach’s film much later on. In many ways it’s better than the book.  The performances are exceptionally natural, from a cast of largely non-trained actors using Barnsley dialect (although now-familar faces include an unusually sensitive Colin Welland, a brilliantly bullying Brian Glover and dysfunctional mother Lynne Perrie – new ground for the time, when most ‘Northern’ mothers were depicted as endlessly warm and long-suffering). It’s the only film that I can think of that employs metaphor effectively, in the form of the kestrel that Billy forges a relationship with. And this relationship is depicted without any sentimentality whatsoever – a relationship, from Billy’s point of view, based on respect and awe. It also breaks the stereotype of Northern ‘gritty realism’ in that we are given equal access to the countryside, and what this landscape means to Billy. (The score is gorgeous).

Writer Barry Hynes was a teacher within a Barnsley comprehensive school, and must have seen hundreds of Billy Caspers, with untapped imaginations, heading towards, and ultimately swallowed up, by the black hole of the coal pit. (What are the black holes, and obstacles, for contemporary Billys?) It’s an angry, yet beautifully lyrical story. It deals in hard truths, yet its politics are understated. Billy Casper is a magical character, yet very flawed. He’s the way that most kids are.

The scene below is wonderful for many reasons, but I love it most of all for how – in a matter of minutes – Billy’s teacher and class mates are able to see him in a new and surprising way. He changes them, without trying.

For a beautiful (and much better) description of why ‘Kes’ is so good, read this book. I also strongly recommend Barry Hines’ recent anthology ‘This Artistic Life’, published by the exceptional Pomona Books.

‘Someone Should Tell Her Mother…’

July 22, 2011 in PROJECT BLOG, R&D Process

She Answered The Door Topless

The poem by Gaia Holmes ‘Someone Should Tell Her Mother She’s Taking Drugs’ to me epitomises the cultural landscape of growing up in a West Yorkshire town. There has always been a duality and underriding tension between the hippie settlements of parts of the Pennines and the traditional working class culture of these mill towns. Gaia presents this with great perception and wit in this poem about a woman on her street and the impression she leaves on her nosy neighbours. The poem uses great breadth of imagination to describe what the woman’s onlookers may be thinking of her, externalising the interior world of the onlooker to illustrate their perceptions of her – projecting their own notions and concepts of what happens behind her closed door:

‘Up in her attic she conducts a choir of split-tongued harpies.They sing the Psalms backwards, set car alarms screaming and town dogs barking’.

It deals with notions of outsiders and prejudice in an insightful and refreshingly humourous way. The poem could describe any street in middle England but the tone of the poem and the humour to me presents a northern sensibility. I think it is certainly quite culturally specific in dealing with the hippie/working class tensions around West Yorkshire.

‘One Day Like This’

July 22, 2011 in PROJECT BLOG, R&D Process

The outdoor audience for Elbow and the Halle Orchestra at Castlefield, Manchester

There are so many aspects of this particular performance of Elbow’s triumphant anthem of 2009 that for me depict an intriguing insight into being from and/or being creative in the North of England now. I feel the track is essentially about cherishing those bright sunny days in a climate whose sky is rather often grey. And so there is a strong reference to a particular place. Yet the metaphor of the “throw those curtains wide, one day like this a year will see me right” touched a more universal audience. The most recognisable musical phrase became the voice of British Gas. There is a regional pride but they still feel and remain inclusive.

These contradictions and many others in this example appeal to me as I feel it is hard to define a “Northern Spirit” in contemporary culture while also avoiding the contrived. It seems to me that Elbow are grounded in their local ‘roots’ and home while also outward looking and able to communicate, as this album firmly placed them as a mainstream headlining international band. Upon discussion in Newcastle I learned how the band’s singer Guy Garvey was brought up to feel the civic buildings such as Bridgewater Hall  were also for him too. Nice touch then that working for Tube sound company, I recorded the bells of the Manchester Town Hall playing the main theme that was then replayed back to the audience at the show.

Here’s Guy Garvey talking about his Grandad introducing him to the Halle Orchestra and the Bridgewater Hall.

I like how for this performance the quite expensive and perhaps even exclusive venue of Bridgewater Hall was used as the show but it was also streamed live for free on a big screen outdoors at Castlefield Arena. I was there for that and it was a sunny summer evening and a lovely atmosphere. Guy Garvey facilitated communication between the venues using the big screens that connected the two audiences. It was a well executed collective experience and I for one did not feel I was missing out by not having purchased a ticket for the Bridgewater Hall show. In fact I felt I preferred it thanks to the lovely weather and for magic moments like when a train driver stopped for a moment on the bridge passing by the arena, beeped and waved and everyone cheered to and for him.

Here’s a glimpse of what it was like inside Bridgewater Hall…

And a glimpse of the experience at the Castlefield Arena…

Here Guy Garvey talks to Stuart Maconie about a Northern sensibility in his lyrics and Elbow’s interest in finding the extraordinary in the ordinary: