Wantage (not just) Betjeman Festival

Wantage is one of those places that can so easily be overlooked- not Oxford with its intellectualism, not Swindon with its nouveau riche young upstart brother feel to it, but perched between, it is semi-forgotten with its 17th and 18th century market place and stacks of new build flats and houses, in that awful pseudo not really Victorian style so beloved of conservation officers up and down the country.

But there were some more interesting examples of contemporary style mixed with the older buildings- the beautiful brick of the house abutting the road led through to a more imaginative glass and cedar clad development behind, and for Halloween, one of the local pubs had very impressively erected a facade which was providing entertainment to both adults and children (and me, the adult with childish tendencies…) And I loved the abstract quality of part of the interior of the museum, a mix of wattle and daub, brick, wood and plaster mixed with more modern touches.

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But today it was buzzing, not just with the farmer’s market (artisan breads and cakes, eggs and honey…) jostling with the normal (fruit, veg, clothes you get on markets and nowhere else) but because for the last week it has been the site of the (not just) Betjeman Festival. OK, Betjeman is not going to rock the world or make waves- I have to be honest, I am not a big fan of his. A little, or a lot, too stuck in the past and although he mocks, it is always with too much love and affection for me.

Market Place, Wantage
Market Place, Wantage

The morning session, (creative Writing Masterclass: Magical Realism) which the local MP tried to interrupt- how convenient bringing his young son to the library, so he could attempt to gatecrash our writing (which didn’t go down well, we all avoided eye contact and made it clear how we felt) was led by Megan Kerr. She is a prize winning writer who encouraged us to investigate examples from Marquez to Winterson, Angela Carter to Kundera, and then worked through exercises to create the bare bones of our own short stories. My problem is that I’m really not quite a short story writer- in fact I’ve never been into them- too short to really get me going, too long to be poetic enough… but I’ve got the outline and some imagery that will become a poem.

Plus, Megan told us about an exhibition at the museum, of her “Rope of Words“, which was awarded first prize in the British Fantasy Society short story competition in 2012, with illustrations by her mother, Lin Kerr, an artist and calligrapher. The original images are stunning and I was forced to purchase my own limited edition copy so I can enjoy both the writing and artwork at leisure. Another example of how artwork and text is the way forward….

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Lin Kerr’s illustrations to Megan Kerr’s “Rope of Words”

The afternoon session (a poetry writing masterclass: conversations) was led by Jo Bell (the “Canal Laureate”,) who is the most charming, witty, entertaining and all round amazing person I’ve met in a long time. She is genuinely interested in what everyone in the group thinks, she doesn’t make you read things out loud unless you really want to, she believes that workshops are not there to produce the finished article, that such articles are shiny and glossy and often just to show “cheap tricks” and impress your neighbour. Instead we worked through some challenging and enjoyable exercises, read and discussed examples of poetry that moved (or otherwise) us, and learned so much. I came out of the session with a stack of ideas to follow through. To feel like one really doesn’t want to go home, for the session to never end, that you’ve just been granted permission to walk on the path that could take you anywhere and everywhere, is a wonderful experience and I hope it will remain with me for a long time.

So this evening I’ve gone and entered a poetry competition… with some pieces I wrote for my final show. Nothing risked nothing gained….

The Crucible- Bristol Old Vic

A seemingly simple interpretation of this play, first performed in Britain at the Bristol Old Vic in 1954, from the beginning brought the audience in to be witness to the unfolding events. Part of the audience sit on staging set up at the back of the stage, which reminds us of the courtroom scene that will follow, and behind them, an innocent looking forest of branches and leaves, beautifully lit, which transform before our eyes, through the language of the play, to become a site of potential evil. At the end we even see the trees as gibbets for those that have been punished.

The concept of turning the proscenium arch stage into one in the round, assists in bringing the audience into the action, as the actors use the space as if it were open all round; the pacing round the wooden circle by Abigail as well as others, indicates how trapped, by her fictions, like an animal going crazy in a zoo, and how narrow are the experiences, in particular, for the women. In the second half, benches are laid out in a square to create the prison cell, and the audience’s staging towards the end is moved back to create a feeling of greater space and less claustrophobia, at the final moments when all is lost.

The production reminds us through its simplicity of set (mainly wood- benches, a window frame, wooden bowls) and costumes, (greys, browns and black, neat caps for the women, hair only let loose when the looseness of character or believed guilt is to be understood) of the Puritanical background to the Salem witch trials. We often forget that many of the first immigrants to the States were extreme Christians, who found the so called tolerance in Europe unacceptable to their faith. It is only a small step from religious bigotry to blame and guilt.

But this play, and this production do not just take the audience back to the 17th century. Constantly we are reminded of not just the McCarthy era in which Miller wrote the play, but its continuing relevance today.

There are so many parallels to contemporary society:

the spread of gossip, allegations and insinuations through social media and the press,

the surveillance society, informing on people you suspect, (for instance parents being encouraged to inform on their children they might suspect of radicalisation)

allegations of and difficulties in proving cases where there is only the alleged perpetrator and the victim and no other witness (for example in the modern day, sexual violence eg rape, paedophilia) as “who may possibly be witness to it?” – only “the witch and the victim”, and “we must rely on the victims… the children do testify” (does that make it a crime impossible to disprove?)

the writer immediately was reminded of the recent issues of Paul Gambaccini being on bail for a year, and Leon Brittan, who died not knowing the result of police investigations.

the workings of the court and legal system- the judge states there is no need for a lawyer, and at one point it is questioned: “is every defence an attack on the court?”,

that “there are those that will testify to anything if not to hang”- the whole concept of confession evidence and the weight it should hold in court….

they are all questions we should still be asking ourselves, perhaps more than ever before with the erosion of Legal Aid for cases, the cost of employing lawyers,the complexity of our court system, and the need for justice to be seen to be done. As a former lawyer who worked in court, for the writer,all these issues resonated – “how to discover what precisely no one has never seen”

The production is gripping, the acting is in the main really strong- especially Abigail and Elizabeth- who have such oppositional parts, and who are both manipulated by their feelings for Proctor. Definitely worth seeing- it’s quite a long night but so rewarding.

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Berkeley Castle Antiphonal Project

It’s happening. I’m going to see the medieval manuscript on 2nd November and we’ll take it from there. The copyright of the music, and copy of my transcription will belong to Berkeley Castle, and first performance will be there, but will permission, we should be able to perform elsewhere.

This is a really special project that I am so looking forward to. I hope, with Berkeley Castle’s permission, to keep a record of what happens, probably on a separate blog.

The Grove

lone tree

A yew tree grew there, tall, sprawling
for how long? only when it was beheaded, drawn and
quartered did it reveal its agelessness
as it stood guarding entry to crossroads

mule and donkey, horse and cart,
shuffled the old tracks
meeting at a crossing point on the
edge of the world

between space and the severn
north towards luxurious villas,
south to the heady mix of a cosmopolitan city,
amphitheatre and forum for all

deep in the creases of the valley
soft green fields speak nothing of
apollo, his coined gifts forgotten, his
springs now clogged, mudded and clayed

washing itself away as rain scrubs
down the hill, exfoliating
there, glistening in the wet sun
a shell so perfect, so atrophied

remnant of a tropical sea
turquiose green brimmed with life
luxuriating in marshy swamps
no more

wild garlic and elder strangle
now rabbits nibble fresh shoots
deer silently skit saplings
buzzards screach their ever rising circles

the tree on the bury watches, waits,
hand raised, a spear? guarding what?
the wind wheals round corners
whistling through nothingness

water tripping skipping down to the severn
brown and beige or deep paynes oceanic
down down down to the plain
distanced and yet moonlike

pushing and pulling the water, the weather,
my spirit, as cloud and mist drape,
as southerlies charge up stream, as
sun topples exhausted in cushioned forest

worshipped still by those hurtling through
the wooded edge, bumping over roots and
rocks sitting out their time
but the bones of those who loved

this place, relied on protection, water, venison
who laid their embalmed bodies at Hetty’s
Tump, at Bellas Nap, at Uley Long Barrow,
up and down this spine, are long gone

fortunate bones in grubby glass
boxes, museum grey, aged, unrevered
less happy, thrown long into the excavated
rubble, no pretence to care about the dead

the yew tree rebirths
new shoots reach up

dry valley

That whole magic thing I was talking about a couple of days ago….

Not sure how this came up in my rambles on line… but it did. You know it’s not a new thing, browsing. When I was a kid I used to sit on a stool next to my dad’s set of Encyclopaedia Britannica (which he had purchased with the money left over from his scholarship to Cambridge) and pull out a volume, start reading, then pull another out as I was referred to something else. Hours could (and did) pass by. So if you wonder why I know stuff (and am interested in stuff)… And it was a lot more work putting them all away again afterwards, than just shutting down the computer!

“1. Magic is everywhere

Most people think of magic as the kind of hoodoo voodoo spell-casting stuff that consigns your ex-boss to a lifetime of boils which, to me, is rather missing the point. Magic is everywhere: you just need to look for it. That dandelion that managed to take root in a crack in the pavement is magic. As is the sunset soliloquy of your local blackbird (watching a previously deaf woman’s reaction to hearing birdsong for the first time on Springwatch this year is proof of that). In truth, the fact that you woke up today is magic. Even more so if you had six pints last night.

My point? If you attune yourself to these little everyday ‘magic moments’ your life is instantly enriched because they give you true perspective. We’re often told to look at the bigger picture when searching for answers. In reality, it’s often the little picture that’s most illuminating. ”

Telegraph Thinking Man
By Lee Kynaston

20 June 2014

Exhibition- Jenny Holzer “Softer Targets”; Symposium “the Message and the Medium”

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Hauser & Worth Somerset is a contemporary gallery set in stunningly beautiful Piet Oudolf designed gardens- (http://www.hauserwirthsomerset.com/garden) the glimpses of swaying grasses and prairie flowers in the autumn sunshine, through plate glass expanse, as one wanders round the large spaces of exquisitely tastefully converted barns, is enough to make one fall in love with the place.

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But I wasn’t there for the views, or to enjoy the delicious lunch of chicken with herbed rouille, sauté potatoes and perfectly dressed salad, followed by the most extraordinary combination of chocolate fondant, mousse and brownie all interwoven into some new magical concoction. The wine flowed, but I had to drive home… how very dull!

The exhibition is very well curated, the space in the galleries being utilised so that the pieces can breathe. Many of the works are large and full of impact, so having such large open, well lit spaces really enhanced the viewing.

The exhibition includes LED installations, benches and plinths carved with text, carbon lettering preparation for carved works,as well as other installations.

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Some of the LED installations work well as the contemporary, upbeat technique contrasts so well with the Truisms, to texts of US government documents. The rib shaped “Purple” LED display is echoed by the the piles of human bones – some carefully laid out in order, others just piled up as if left, uncared for. This piece, “Lustmord”, the work inspired by reaction to war in the former Yugoslavia, and the use of rape in war, for the writer was by far the most powerful piece in the exhibition. The bones are branded with silver rings (like those used to ring birds) which are engraved with texts of 55 sentences of imagined voices of the perpetrator, victim and observer.

The large scale paintings of redacted documents veer between the moving and for the writer, somewhat trite. Some of the series are painted with additional blocks of soft colours, pinks and teal greens, reds and purples, I was not sure that it added anything, if anything it seemed to trivialise the documents. (please note the colour of the redacted painting above is not pink, it’s white- photograph went a little crazy!)

Some of the paintings of handwritten documents are beautifully rendered (by other artists, under Holzer’s instruction) but how does this make the viewer feel? The surface is beautiful- blues and greys, with delicate calligraphy inscribed across it. The texts are horrific. Someone has spent hours, days, carefully copying the original. Where does it take us? What is the benefit to Holzer employing someone to paint this? I just don’t know. I feel very uncomfortable but not because the texts are so painful to read,(which they are) but because it all seems like a nasty materialist way of making money out of the most inhuman suffering… The anonymous artists who are paid to do the work, or the presumably large mark up that her work then sells for… Am I being really cynical? Am I being too sensitive? I just don’t know. But it left a nasty taste in my mouth.

The message and the medium was a symposium arranged to investigate the concepts and challenges raised by Jenny Holzer’s exhibition Softer Targets which runs until 1 November. An odd mixture of local people who clearly take advantage of having such a fantastic resource nearby, students and lecturers from University of Bath, University of Gloucestershire, artists and writers attended- which ensured that the discussion was somewhat offbeat, sometimes difficult and sometimes very frustrating.

The symposium opened with Jon Bird’s paper, linking Jenny Holzer’s work with that of Nancy Spero and her expanded scrolls series. Spiro used copies of Amnesty International reports made about abuses on women in her work- she hand copied, hand printed them into what is accepted as an explicitly feminist piece of work (as is all of her oeuvre) He compared this with Holzer’s Redaction painting series, in which FBI reports are painted large scale, the vast majority being blacked out.

The tone of the paper was somewhat self satisfied- that the presenter had spent a good deal of time with Nancy Spero and her partner was made obvious, and the whole presentation was somewhat disappointing. However, it is always interesting to hear the views of those who have direct contact with the artists in question, especially as the writer is particularly interested in Spero’s work.

Ruth Blacksell’s talk, from visual to textural:typgraphy in/as art was a heavyweight paper took the audience through the history of text and typography in art from the 1096s to1970s, including investigating Fluxus, concrete poetry, images and advertising, and attempted to position the changes philosophically. Of note was the journey in which she took the audience to investigate the concept of what an original piece of textual art is,through the work of Dan Graham’s Homes in America (1966) in its various published forms.

David Beech’s talk, which investigated the four waves of text art, linking with philosophy of language, was passionate and fascinating even at times it became impossible to agree with him! His overtly political stance was refreshing as he took the audience through conceptualism, 1080s postmodernism, the deconstructive 1990s and the performative wave that is ongoing. Examples from the collective in which he works. Freee, were exciting and fresh.

The final paper was given by Pavel Buchler, who is a Czech-born artist and teacher now based in Manchester. His talk on Work for Words introduced the audience to the work he has undertaken using the links between cryptography, Morse cord and letter frequency, and the presentation of the work using letterpress and Google Translate. The way he described the work, and the examples he showed demonstrated his witty, lively approach to his work.

The whole day was a wonderful experience, even though there were some misgivings both about the exhibition itself and the symposium, the overall effect was remarkable. Obviously having such a challenging exhibition in a beautiful place in itself sets up many contradictions, and the quality of the symposium and the reactions of the audience were equally contradictory. But that makes for much thought, much self questioning and that has to be a good thing.