The Outbuilding | Brian LewisPosted: July 31, 2016
After the storm the concrete pathways
through Hillsborough Park gleam like channels
easing their way through wide estuaries
of silt and sand ferrying moonlight.
‘Moving with Thought’, Matthew Clegg
Friday 24 June 2016, mid-afternoon. It’s Midsummer Day, I’m told, though parts of the internet dispute this. The air is, by turns, vacant, oppressive, turbid and flat. I’ve been awake since 3am, taking in and not taking in the result of the EU referendum, and its fallout: the Prime Minister’s resignation, the sinking pound, the waves of judgment and misjudgment. Dust rises and resettles. The news feeds are choked and refreshed. I slump to the screen, the browser idling, Twitter, Facebook, icons and tabs, thumbnails and microstates. The apparent collapse of certainties at a national level, the sense of a blank prospectus, seems to have emboldened some voices, entrenched others, and silenced many more. I trawl the timelines, picking out bits of mood with which I might agree or disagree, like or unlike. There are short, intemperate verdicts; denunciations and lamentations; feverish petitions; and questions, some rhetorical, some not. None of us, in our chambers and clouds, has any answers. We don’t expect them. What we hope for is contact, connection, the suspension of our unbelonging. What we find is a numbness, the blunt aggregates of reaction, sub-reaction and counter-reaction. Nigel Farage is not nice. Boris Johnson is a buffoon. I skim the bubbles, the pattern repeating, then mutating, a curdling froth at the edges. I have nothing to add, no contribution to make. The network slows and reloads. An interruption from another network finally breaks the cycle; a text message from a friend, reminding me of the Ted Hughes Poetry Festival launch in Mexborough this evening, inviting me to join them, to share the journey from Sheffield. I find that I have limited enthusiasm for company and travel, but even less for solitude and stasis, and so I accept.
The Ted Hughes Poetry Festival is now in its second year, thanks to the continuing efforts of Steve Ely, Dominic Somers, Ian Parks and a team of energetic volunteers. As in 2015, the festival hub is the Mexborough Business Centre, formerly the town’s grammar school, which Hughes attended in the 1940s. The atmosphere in the centre is relaxed, informal, welcoming. People gather in small, open groups, or drift from wall to wall, chatting amiably, greeting newcomers, setting up the bar and bookstall. In one corner stands Ian McMillan, who’ll be joined by two fellow Ians (Parks and Clayton) for this evening’s performance; he’s talking with photographer Karl Hurst, the two men exchanging thoughts on the legacies of the South Yorkshire coalfields, with a dozen of Hurst’s prints of these ‘recovered landscapes’ arranged on the wall behind them. I wander from fringe to fringe, picking up loose threads of conversation, eventually settling at a table with good sightlines, stage left. In all the overheard talk, there is scant mention of Brexit, though it can’t be far from the surface. One theme that does recur throughout the evening – onstage and offstage – is community: not in an abstract sense, or in worthy, dutiful proclamations, but as a lived and living thing, shared and particular, the point from which many of tonight’s poems, tales and songs begin. No-one exemplifies this more than Ray Hearne, a poet, musician and songwriter raised in Parkgate, a few miles south-west of Mexborough, who closes the Friday evening with a set largely drawn from his new album Umpteen. I’ve seen Ray perform in some varied settings over the last few years (including a walk along the South Yorkshire Navigation with Longbarrow poet Matthew Clegg, which Hearne and Clegg have reprised as part of this festival). His work always travels well, always connects, its geographical specificity a portal, and not an impediment, to feeling and understanding, its heritage a common heritage, if only we care to look for it. Ray invites us to add our voices to the choruses of several songs, and the songs add to us; although it’s late, the hall feels fuller at the end, more human. We make ready to leave, and I’m asked if I’d like to come back tomorrow, to help out with a few things; I say yes.
Saturday 25 June 2016, 10am. A small group has assembled near the foyer of the Mexborough Business Centre. Some of us have been issued with yellow aprons, bearing the festival logo, and canvas bags with shoulder straps, bags that I last used when I had a paper round in the 1980s. These bags are not filled with copies of the Daily Mail, but with poetry pamphlets. We are instructed to advance on Mexborough town centre and distribute as much poetry as we can carry to as many people as we can find. Duly laden, we march down a twisting bank in light drizzle, halting at our rendezvous, a bollard in the middle of the pedestrianised High Street. The bollard has been adopted by Bud, a laconic Milwaukeean now resident in Mexborough, who, it transpires, has been waiting for us for nearly an hour. Bud has volunteered to declaim Hughes poems via a portable PA system while the rest of us scatter the pamphlets. Unfortunately, his pitch is adjacent to several market stalls, and the traders have no need of amplification. He must battle it out with the fruit criers. Those of us in aprons disperse along the length of the street. We don’t know how the Saturday shoppers will read us, or the fistfuls of verse, but most of the people we speak to are receptive and friendly, and are happy to take a pamphlet; the few that decline are civil and cheerful. The stock runs down, sooner than expected. I notice that Clegg has disappeared, and decide to make a search of the side streets, to no avail. Minutes later, he reappears in the sky above Poundland, at the edge of the car park roof. Clegg, who is wielding a loudhailer, is joined by Karl Hurst, cradling a camera. The two men calibrate their equipment and train it on the street below. Something that might be an excerpt from Crow bounces off the stalls and shopfronts. A few people look up, trying to get a fix on the sound. More poems spill from the roof, in a loose, distant dialogue with Bud’s ground-level recitation. It’s hard to know what passers-by are taking from this, but it does seem to be changing the space, opening it out, making it a temporary theatre. As midday approaches, the performance winds down, and we regather ourselves for the walk back, pausing to chat with the youth teams at the cricket club opposite the business centre. The centre itself is now beginning to fill with the audience for the festival’s afternoon programme, encompassing readings, discussions and talks on Hughes; it’s at capacity for the evening performance, which features Cathy Galvin, Mick Jenkinson, Helen Mort and Frieda Hughes, the latter, it seems, making her first visit to her father’s old school, calmly conducting a passage through her work while absorbing the spirit of the place. There are some among us who can read this building from back to front: Ted Hughes’s former schoolfriends, involved in this project from the beginning, and who are now in their late 80s. I’m struck by the warmth in the hall, how the organisers, volunteers, poets and audience have used their wits to create a resonant space for speaking and listening. It’s a thought that I try to bear, intact, to Hillsborough, North Sheffield, where I’ll be coordinating a two-day programme of poetry, music and performance in less than two weeks.
Saturday 9 July 2016, 12 noon. I am frowning wordlessly at a frozen laptop and a faulty projector. Earlier in the year, I was asked by Karen Sherwood, founder and director of Sheffield’s Cupola Gallery, to curate the spoken word zone at HillsFest, a wide-ranging, ambitious weekend of art and music planned for Hillsborough Park. Karen visualised the festival as an opportunity to give something back to the communities – the residents, the local businesses – that have supported the gallery throughout its 25 years of existence. Most of the activities, installations and performances will take place in the sprawling, sloping park itself, some in tents and domes, others – like the chainsaw carving – on open ground. For the spoken word programme, we’ve been given the loan of the Bowling Green Pavilion, a modern, rectangular building that nestles in the park’s north-western quarter. Our performance area is the wood-panelled community room, with floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the green banks and pitches. I want to make the best possible use of this space, this opportunity (deadlines and budgets permitting). To this end, I spend several weeks assembling a programme of poetry readings, live music, ensemble performances and illustrated talks. Both days are loosely organised around themes of cultural memory and heritage, with the accent on Hillsborough and the neighbouring districts. I don’t want to overdetermine the narrative, though; I want to leave enough space for the audiences to make their own connections between the constituent parts. In some respects, this task is made easier by the fact that a handful of speakers and performers were booked before I took on the role of lead programmer, none of whom I know. Apart from what I can glean from their technical requirements, I’ve only the least inklings of how their sets will look and sound. I like this. It adds an element of uncontrol; it also forestalls the possibility of the weekend becoming an extended Longbarrow showcase. By early June, the line-up is in place, leaving me to focus on the practical issues; working out how many microphones we’ll need, measuring the stage area, compiling details of the musicians’ PA inputs, anticipating the intervals between sets. The weeks pass in a blur of publicity, planning, panic. The weekend of the festival arrives, as does some decidedly mixed weather. This doesn’t affect the work in the pavilion, but it’s an obstacle for the artists, technicians, traders and volunteers setting up in the park. Artboat, a Hillsborough-based creative duo, have been working with several local schools on a series of ‘fantastical birds’, built to mythic scale and ‘flown’ into the park (with the help of the children) the day before. As I’m returning from an errand at the east entrance, I encounter Soo and Charlie from Artboat, working hard to secure the last of the birds against the approaching rain and wind. Wings fixed, we leave; I realise I’m walking in the wrong direction, so I double back, to see a mother and her young daughter paused before the giant bird, both lost in wonder and delight. It’s an image I’ll revisit over the weekend, a reminder of why we’re doing this. Reminders are useful when the rain soaks the park and everything in it, when the pavilion’s club members dispute our room booking, and when the laptop and projector I’m using for the talks develop irreconcilable differences less than an hour before showtime. I reboot and reconnect and get nothing but bleached, flipped and strobing frames, a perished lantern. I’m preparing to flee the scene when my partner Emma arrives with her laptop. Within a few minutes, we have perfect projection, rescuing the event, and me. The rain has stopped. We have the makings of an audience. I take the stage and introduce the first reader.
The first reader is Chris Jones, followed by another Sheffield poet, Shelley Roche-Jacques. Both are on fine form, but I’m tense and distracted, hunched over scraps of paper and bits of kit. I’m worried about overruns and glitches, and I’m anxious about the next performer, Stan Skinny. I know little of his act, other than that it is ‘wrestling-themed’, and that his costume and persona will be suitably brash. Stan has requested a small, square table for his performance, which I’ve promised to supply from the pavilion store cupboard; upturned, the table will convey the effect of a pretend wrestling ring. On the day of Stan’s appearance, however, the pavilion’s stock of square tables has mysteriously shrunk from 4 to 0. The cupboard is bare. Shelley leaves the stage, and I explain the situation to Stan. Together, we rummage through dusty shelves and dark corners; our search yields a metal panel, a handful of sticks, and a length of coloured rope. I pass a roll of gaffa tape to Stan, who does his best with the materials, improvising a wobbly, gnome-sized paddock before disappearing into the changing room. I place the flimsy compound on the stage and wait for him to reappear. After several long minutes, I’m given my cue to start the recorded fanfare, and a cartoon grappler with false features bounds into view: pacing the room, vaulting the chair-backs, baiting the audience and, as the music fades, executing a perfect leap onstage, into the dead centre of the tiny ring. Over the next half-hour, Stan’s character wears down the physical boundaries of the hall, and of the audience, a shouty moustache hell-bent on submission. The act has no connection to anything preceding or following it. What it does do is change the dynamics, for the speakers and the listeners, opening out the space and adding to the sense of possibilities. As ‘disruptive’ as the performance is, it’s effected a process of depolarisation, a rebalancing; there’s less resistance in the room. The audience seems more attuned, or retuned, perhaps.
Stepping into the aftermath is Amanda Crawley Jackson, presenting the first of today’s illustrated talks, which focuses on her work as director of Furnace Park, a derelict industrial site in Shalesmoor that Amanda and a cohort of volunteers have transformed into an outdoor community space; a wasteland seeding new projects, a workshop without a building. The talk introduces ideas of cultural salvage and renewal that will be developed in two further presentations this afternoon: Karl Hurst’s exploration of ‘abandoned space’ and collective amnesia in his photographic practice, which takes the industrial landscapes of his own childhood as a starting point (including Orgreave, a site that, in Hurst’s view, has been depleted, contested, abolished and forgotten); and a lecture by Dr Alexy Karenowska of the Institute of Physics, unpacking the pioneering work of digital archaeology, which enables not only the virtual reconstruction of long-vanished sites of cultural importance, but also the ‘resurrection’ of antiquities recently destroyed by ISIL, such as the Monumental Arch of Palmyra in Syria. The arch, dynamited in 2015, was recreated in Egyptian marble earlier this year, each age-old flaw captured by 3D modelling; the life-size replica was unveiled in Trafalgar Square in April, then sent on a tour of world capitals, before coming to rest in Palmyra itself. It’s a portable echo, a defiance of erasure, a testament of and to collective memory (the 3D model was compiled from hundreds of pre-2015 photographs of the arch, sourced from the Institute of Digital Archaeology’s Million Image Database). In all this, it’s the ideas that persist; the idea of a building that crosses borders, the idea of a small, local community supported by a larger, international community. The resilience of communities and cultures, their capacity to absorb change and welcome newcomers, is a theme taken up in readings by Suzannah Evans and River Wolton (the latter reflecting on Sheffield’s recently-designated status as the UK’s first City of Sanctuary for asylum seekers and refugees), and in a gutsy, moving performance by Ray Hearne. Saturday evening closes with a remarkable set by Sieben (aka Sheffield-based musician Matt Howden): a hour of looped, layered violin, both trancelike and visceral, Howden striking his instrument to create beats, scraping his stubble against the strings, ritual and mass straining through the PA, the energy spilling out of the pavilion. The house lights come up. I scan the room, recognising no-one, this is not the audience we started with. In and out.
Sunday 10 July 2016, 1pm. A clear, still day, and I’ve somehow caught up with my sleep, a full five hours. Easing into my role, I mention the activities in Hillsborough Park, including some that aren’t real, like fossil weaving and sponge racing. No-one seems to notice. Our first speaker, James Caruth, reads a poem for the pigeon lofts of the Penistone Road embankment, a mile south of the park: ‘abandoned crofts / of an island community’. Many of today’s performances and talks will orbit this territory, literally and figuratively. The same dilapidated, contingent structures appear in Fay Musselwhite’s poem ‘Flight from Cuthbert Bank’, the last poem of her afternoon set, in which an encounter with their ‘flaking roof terraces’ conjures a vision of ‘a flock / of men released by work clocks’, called, like the pigeons, ‘to claim their reach of sky’. As Fay notes, the walk that inspired the poem was led by Mark Doyle and Emilie Taylor in 2013, as part of their Unregistered project, a series of walks and workshops focusing on the ‘forgotten spaces’ between Wardsend and Parkwood Springs. Fay’s reading is preceded by a presentation from Mark, who recounts the aims and development of the project, shading in the ‘memory maps’ of North Sheffield with excerpts from interviews with former residents of Parkwood, the oral histories and short films effecting the partial recovery of a world many of them had left decades earlier. Haunting the same landscapes, though reaching further back in time, are Stewart Quayle and Ghosts of the North, with a suite of poems, ballads and tales that illuminates the lives (and deaths) of the people of Wardsend, encompassing the Great Flood of 1864 (which swept through the district) and the Great War, a flight from which many did not return. Visions of the Flood recur in Rob Hindle’s reading (and in Fay Musselwhite’s set, the two poets reimagining the devastation on the rivers Don and Loxley respectively); as the waters recede, we find ourselves in the Hillsborough of the 1930s, Hindle tracing the journey to the Middlewood Asylum made by his great-uncle, another one-way flight, the narrative slowing to walking pace.
It’s now early evening, and we’ve also taken in a reading by Elizabeth Barrett, the words and electronica of Michael Harding and Linda Lee Welch, and a set by Pete Green that links poems and songs on a northward trajectory. As we rearrange the stage for the next performance, I look out at the park, dimly aware of the exchanges and encounters in the grounds below, a faint chainsaw buzz at the north end, a slow, thudding blues to the south. A few people have gathered at the threshold of the pavilion, taking the air, refreshed by a brief, unexpected shower. One by one, I call them in. The next performance brings together two sequences by Matthew Clegg, in which the park and its environs feature heavily: Edgelands and Chinese Lanterns. Edgelands, which has evolved through numerous iterations in performance and on the page, is presented as forty tanka (read by Clegg and Karl Hurst) prefaced by a dictaphone recording of children and scooters at the edge of Hillsborough Park, made in September 2007, shortly after the sequence was written. The taped sounds seem to swell from, then die back into, the chainsaw drone. Chinese Lanterns moves further into the park itself, lifting our eyes to the ‘liquorice clouds’ rising from the nearby Bassett’s factory, lowering the gaze to the rain-glossed ‘concrete pathways’ that now ‘gleam like channels’, before coming to rest in a climbing hammock, ‘the sky a reservoir of darkest blue’. I recall how, in 2013, we’d discussed the possibility of hiring the pavilion for the launch of Clegg’s first collection, West North East, in which these sequences appear. This feels more appropriate, somehow; it’s both a homecoming for the poems, and the occasion of a transformation in the work, the porosity of the sequences echoed by our surroundings, the pavilion doors and windows open to the breeze and its music.
For the last two sets, the room sheds more layers, and gains in intimacy. The PA is scaled back; the blackout material (shielding the projections) is removed from the windows; the performers forgo the stage and set up a few feet from the audience. Sally Goldsmith appears first, threads of song and story running through and beyond her poems, shuffling hats, accompanying herself on squeezebox, a one-woman theatre. There’s a natural warmth and rugged humour at play, and an invigorating conviction, too, the spirited defence of common causes, common land. The final performance of the festival is given by Rommi Smith and Jenni Molloy, a collaboration-in-progress drawing on material from Smith’s Poems from Mornings & Midnights, reworking it as a dialogue for voice and double bass. It’s spellbinding, from the first note to the last, Rommi’s meditations on the hidden histories of jazz and blues women enmeshed with Jenni’s sublime improvisations. As we near the end of the set, Rommi falls silent, and the burden is carried by bass alone; in the spaces between the notes, we hear birds, their evening songs drifting through the open windows, Hillsborough Park at dusk. Although it’s almost nightfall, there seems to be more light in the room than when we started. There is applause, conversation, a moment of farewell. I walk with Rommi and Jenni to their car, and see Karen’s hi-vis tabard in the gloom, emerging from HillsFest’s makeshift control centre. That the festival happened at all is due to the skill, persistence, craft and unglamorous hard work of dozens of people, but Karen is the one who started it all, who kept it going, and who saw it through, however the odds were stacked. Her courage encouraged others. Whether the festival will happen again is a question for another day. For now, it’s enough to take in this last view of the site: the people dawdling towards the exits, the fantastical birds suspended beneath the trees, the smaller birds still singing from them, the sharing of labour and laughter, the pavilion at the park’s edge.
Thanks to the following people for their support for the HillsFest spoken word programme: Adrian Friedli and Steve Manthorpe (for their successful funding bid and initial steering); Mesters Events (for their excellent technical support); Emma Bolland (for staffing the bookstall, rescuing the projector, and countless interventions); Matthew Clegg, Chris Jones and Fay Musselwhite (for staffing the bookstall); all the performers and speakers; all the volunteers; and, in particular, Karen Sherwood, for making it happen.
Brian Lewis is the editor and publisher of Longbarrow Press. He tweets (as The Halt) here. The second edition of East Wind, a pamphlet comprising three prose sequences and one haiku sequence, is available now from Gordian Projects; click here for further details.