NORTHERN SPIRIT

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‘Kes’

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

'Kes'

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.

‘My Mother On A Seat Outside…’

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

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My cultural touchstone is My Mother on a Seat Outside a Hospital by Peter Sansom. It’s a poem that tells the story of the death after an accident of Peter’s mother’s first husband, the man she was  married to before Peter’s father. After the accident it takes the man “days to die” in hospital, but on the last day, prompted by a “sixth sense”, Peter’s mother and her sister, who are “young women, girls they call themselves”, get up too early for the bus and walk for twelve miles to the hospital to visit him outside the normal visiting hours, setting off in the dark and arriving in the daylight. When they get to the hospital though it is still very early and Peter’s mother and her sister are too shy (“young women, girls they call themselves”), despite being grown women with children, to cause a fuss, or ask for special treatment by “bothering anyone so early.” So instead they sit and wait on a bench outside, while inside:

her husband

dies on a ward already awake

that she might have visited after all.

It’s a great poem, and my favourite poem. Every time I read it I find something new both in how it is written and what it means and connects to. But what I think connects it to the north is literal. It was written by Peter Sansom, who lives and works in the north. Peter has been writing, editing and publishing poetry in Huddersfield and Sheffield for more than 25 years, and he is the editor of a poetry magazine called ‘The North’ , which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. ‘The North’ isn’t about The North though, it is about whatever is printed on its pages, poems written in and about anywhere in Britain, and the world. But Peter’s skill, energy, learning and generosity created a centre of poetry reading, writing and publishing in England that was located first in Huddersfield then Sheffield. His skill and generosity as an editor and creative writing teacher has probably helped thousands of new writers to find their voice over the last 25 years, not least Simon Armitage, who learned how to write, and wrote much of his fantastic first book ‘Zoom!’ in creative writing workshops run by Peter. I don’t know if those thousands of writers share a northern voice – I can see that  they might do, drawing on common experience – but I do know that having a centre like that in the north was a lot more convenient to get to on the train. Peter would have created ‘The North’ if he’d lived in Southampton. I just thank my lucky stars he went to Huddersfield Poly and stayed in the town for the next 20 years.

Whether we have one or many centres is something that maps directly onto the political, economic, social and cultural geography of Britain, and that question connects My Mother on a Seat Outside a Hospital with what I almost chose as my cultural touchstone, which is Access Space’s graphic novel Grow Your Own Media Lab . Access Space is a media lab in the centre of Sheffield that re-uses second hand computers, along with open source software, to make a welcoming space for sharing knowledge and skills, and for using technology creatively: “networked technologies only truly empower when they enable people to create. To do this without boundaries people may need to repair, re-engineer and re-imagine technology”.

Grow Your Own Media Lab is the story of a place, and a way of working, and it has influenced people in the UK and worldwide, not least Brazil, to set up their own media labs following the same principles. It only takes half an hour to read, cover to cover, and even if you aren’t planning to open a media lab, it’s a great introduction to technology as a space for what Lisa Roberts from We Love Technology  calls “creative misuse”, a space that anyone can play around in. Once you’ve read it, even the copyright notice at the start will be a revelation, and how many books can you say that about? Grow Your Own Media Lab, like My Mother on a Seat Outside a Hospital, says that we can have as many centres as we want, we just need to make them.