THE MUMBLE TEAM
Are taking their annual Festive Break
SEE YOU ALL IN THE SPRING !!
Leith Walk, Edinburgh
Not only does Max Scratchmann possess the most deliciously suave of names, but he also loves to present the poetry-lovers of Edinburgh something different, something theatrical, something cool. His Halloween special, therefore, drew in poets from across Scotland to interject & connect with the continuous tartan thread that is Jennifer Ewan & her band.
The prominent theme, of course, was the frighteners, but I found the evening less fearing & more full of fun, for the performers were all of the highest level. So, half of the time we were being regaled by the band – alongside Jennifer on guitar & vocals were Kim Tebble on accordion & Simon Fildes on bass; all were clad in black & their music swarmed into the ears of the healthy & ever-appreciative, sometimes-even-dancing audience, like bison reaching a prairie water-hole. We were given a steady stream of well-chosen numbers; of Jennifer’s own creations & also covers, when numbers such as Bessie Smith’s ‘Take me to the Electric Chair‘ sounded amazing with a Scottish burr.
As for the poets, there were five of them, who did cheeky wee floor spots in between the ballads on both sides of the interval. Our host Max’s first poem defined Edinburgh as a ‘city of murder ballads‘ & we were off. A lot of the material was freshly written for the night – Molly McLachlan admitted to composing hers in Leith Weatherspoons earlier that day; not that you could tell – it flowed with elegant mastery. She, & the other poets – the shamanic Stella Birrell, the regal & dramatic Nicoletta Wylde, our beloved Max of course, & the rapid-tongued Scott TheRedman Redmond – presented some of the highest standard & absolute quintessence of performance poetry a la 2018 – when the post-modern polemical story-chaunt is all.
I’m not dying I’m transcending… & if I transcend you’ll transcend with me
With half of the audience & all the performers making an effort aesthetically, & webbing & branches hanging off the walls of the venue, a genuine Tam O Shanter like vibe was gothically invoked. Thus setting & content were perfectly matched, upon which occasions good times are guaranteed, a tradition which Murder Ballads perpetuated with ease. A fluid, fascinating, & above all entertaining night’s entertainment.
Edinburgh International Book Festival
Baillie Gifford Main Theatre
Carol Ann Duffy doesn’t smile much, one never knows how to take her. So when it was announced at the beginning of the event that there would be no question-and-answer session at the end, and that the poets who were taking to the stage had asked us not to tweet during the performance, there was that kind of hush you get when everyone wonders whether this was going to be a po-faced afternoon. As it turned out, there was no need to worry at all, because it was a sheer delight from beginning to end, so much so that the hour went by in what seemed to be the proverbial twinkling of an eye.
Carol Ann has an ongoing policy of seeking out relatively unknown, emerging poets and championing them. The presentation today included two of her latest protégés, Mark Pajak and Keith Hutson. Neither of them had ever appeared in a Book Festival event before – Mark said he had been here as a punter – and when I asked them afterwards how it felt now it was all over, they both testified to the adrenalin still working. You wouldn’t have known that they were anything other than totally relaxed from how they came across in front of the audience; this isn’t really all that surprising, as they had both given readings before, that much is obvious.
Mark Pajak is a Liverpudlian. He has a careful, lilting delivery which – he won’t thank me for this – reminds me a lot of Roger McGough. I know, such comparisons are inevitable whenever a poet from Liverpool appears. In Mark’s case there is something about the timbre of his voice and in the questioning inflection at the end of lines that evokes this. It is a style of delivery that captures and holds the attention, however, and it makes an audience hang on his every word. There is a lot of humour in his work, and a lot of tenderness. His account, a love poem if you will, of a stupid prank that he and the best friend of his childhood and youth carried out, and how it led on to the rest of their lives was… all right, I’ll say it… one of the most wonderful expressions of friendship since Edward Elgar wrote ‘Nimrod’. Over the top – moi? I’m being honest here, it was a Scouse David-and-Jonathan thing.
Keith Hutson was either born in Lancashire and lives in Yorkshire, or vice-versa. Anyhow, the Roses cricket matches must be hell for him! In contrast to Mark, Keith delivers his poetry and the intervening patter with a broad if imperfect grin. One tooth is missing. “You should see the other poet. All I said was don’t give up the day job!” His speciality is the celebration of bygone stars and meteors of the music hall and variety. His subjects ranged from an impresario who, after a walk-out by his whole cast, performed solo on stage every character in the story of Dick Turpin, to bandleader Ivy Benson and the resentment directed her as an outstanding female in a male world, to railway-obsessed, RADA-trained (hah!) Reginald Gardiner. I think Keith was tickled when, afterwards, I said “Reginald Gardiner – that’s the ‘biddly-dee, biddly-dah’ man, right?” Readers, that’ll only mean something to my generation, people who remember ‘Uncle Mac’ on the radio on Saturday mornings!
Carol Ann bracketed the event. She flagged up the humour of the event by opening with her short poem about encountering a gorilla at Berlin Zoo; they stare each other out, the gorilla’s gaze barely concealing rage – “with a day’s more evolution, it could even be President.” Okay, well-judged there, she took a chance that a certain politician currently prominent on the world stage is not popular in his ancestral country and it paid off. Her finishing poem was a sestina. Carol Ann can do this, she can bend old poetic forms to her will. This sestina depended on the repetition of six words (of course): arseholes, gatekeepers, chancers, tossers, bullshitters, and patriots. In passing, I wonder if, when she first wrote that poem, she speculated beforehand which of those six words spellcheck was going to reject, and whether she experimented just to see whether her computer would accept the American spelling of ‘arsehole’. Anyway, that’s hardly relevant, because her sestina wove those words and several homophones round themselves like the patterning on a Fair Isle jumper. I confess that I have never been her greatest fan, but reviewing a reading by her and, as is necessary in a good review, leaving my prejudices outside, I can say that I now see precisely why she was awarded the Laureate. Applause.
Overall, this was a splendid event to start of my personal tour of duty at Charlotte Square – thank you, Book Festival – but as always it felt much too short. I know, that can’t be helped.
Edinburgh International Book Festival
If any of you are for some bizarre reason unaware of who Rose McGowan is at this stage then its time to be introduced. McGowan was until recently mainly known as an actor, appearing in independent movies but also toying with the majors in films such as “Scream” and the successful TV show “Charmed”. All that changed though last year though when she became a Hollywood whistle-blower with regards to the sexual abuse prevalent in the film industry. Her courage in doing this helped to bring down Harvey Weinstein, one of Hollywood’s biggest players as well as encouraging other women to come forward with their own experiences kick-starting the ‘#MeToo movement’. But you knew all that already – unless that is you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last year. What you might not be aware of is that McGowan is now also an author and was here at the book festival to promote her autobiography, “Brave”. It was clear from the start of the interview that Afua Hirsch herself is something of a fan so I was concerned this was going to be a rather fawning affair – the acolyte stroking the ego of the glamorous movie star. Yet from the very beginning it was apparent that McGowan was not that kind of actor. Giving us a reading from the introduction to her book it became clear that her journey from Hollywood starlet to social justice warrior was complex and owed much to the harsh lessons of her early life.
McGowan described how her upbringing in a religious cult, “The Children of God” led her to have direct early experiences in the abuse of power which she feels is also so prevalent in Hollywood. She described how she feels the use of trigger words, punishments and similar cult techniques are used not only in Hollywood but also in the politics of Trump. In fact it was Trump’s election that encouraged her to contact the press to break her story early ( she was already writing the book). Sick of seeing the rise of sexism and racism his presidency seemed to foster she felt it was the right time to speak out. McGowan mentioned almost casually that when she was attacked by Weinstein she told people right away but was ignored or dismissed. Feeling voiceless she essentially just ploughed on with her work trying to distance herself from the culture of Hollywood whilst remaining working within it, an experience she described as being “a lonely road”.
Whilst working on her book and when she started to talk openly about her experiences she began to be hacked, stalked and spied on, an experience which has in part led her to selling her Hollywood home and living out of a suitcase. As she describes it “Hollywood acts like the mafia to protect its own’. This did not silence her however but merely encouraged her in the belief that she was doing the right thing. This steely resolve is clearly at the core of her as is a sharp self-aware intelligence which is critical of her own previous inability to see the warning signs of threat and danger in her early days in the industry. A former teenage runaway with ‘street smarts’ she could only put it down to being overwhelmed by the oily charm of ‘people who were not my people’. McGowan acknowledged that the last year has been tough on her and that “the stress of it almost snapped me’ but that it was fantastic that so many people were now coming forward to tell their own stories. When questioned if she had any inkling as to how big this would become she said that she didn’t think about it at all, that she just needed to act in order to as she put it “make it impossible to look away”.
The roots of the abuse she feels run very deep indeed and she described the serial abuse of aspiring starlets in the 1920’s as being not the casting couch but “the rape couch”. She described how she has been forced to look back over some of her early sexual experiences within Tinseltown in a new light as the molestations that they really were. Far from being merely an issue within the industry she feels that if women look back over their own lives they too will recognise this.
McGowan expressed her feeling that Hollywood holds a ‘fucked up mirror’ for all of us to gaze within and shows us a distorted image of the world which is damaging to both men and women alike. She feels that it is important for all of us to be self aware and critical of the culture we live within and be conscious that “what you have consumed from birth has formed you”. She feels that the images of women in much Hollywood product have a toxic effect on self identity and self esteem saying that “the men who thought they owned me think they own you too” This could all risk sounding a little hypocritical coming from an actor involved in the movie making machine itself but in fairness to McGowan she has remained mainly in independent cinema and been canny about her choices ( ‘Charmed’ being the longest running female led show in network history). She also is quick to point out how difficult this is admitting to loving ‘classic movies’ herself.
McGowan sees herself as essentially an optimistic person, and believes that Trump is in a sense an enabler of the kind of radicalism she espouses. She has no fear of offending and admits that to an extent it has cost her a more conventional creative career but believes that “being well behaved was not working in our favour”. By the end of the talk I was a fully paid up member of the Rose Army and would have happily taken the Queen’s shilling to do battle on her behalf. She was an eloquent, passionate and bracingly honest speaker who’s courage in speaking out against one of the most rich and powerful industries in the world has given us all encouragement to challenge corruption where we find it. Long may she reign.
Real Talk is both a hugely beneficial social enterprise & the fertile bedsoil of a right good yarn. The Mumble caught its founder for a wee blether…
Hello Lily, so where ya from & where ya at, geographically speaking?
Lily: So I’m originally from Connecticut in the USA. I moved to Edinburgh when I was 20 and have been here for the past 5 years and it has become home to me.
When did you first realise you could tell a good story?
Lily: From a very young age I was enraptured with reading, consuming anything I could get my hands on particularly fairytales and high fantasy. I think that this early immersion in story made me naturally inclined to want to tell and share the stories I learned. My Mom constantly reminds me how I’d regale my family with minute details of my day each night at dinner (whether or not the audience was that interested). However it wasn’t until I got involved with theatre at age 9 that I really honed the more performative element of sharing. While I only acted for a few years, I think those foundational telling skills have stuck with me. So it has been a journey from loving to tell to actually developing my craft and I’m presently doing my storytelling apprenticeship at the Scottish Storytelling Centre and am a part of TellYours2018, a development programme for the next generation of UK storytellers.
You are stranded on a desert island with three good books. What would they be?
Lily: Oh my, this is really hard because quite a few of my favourite books are a part of a series… If I’m being cheeky I might bring along the entire His Dark Materials Series by Phillip Pullman in one book (which does exist because I have it). I’d bring along The Door by Magda Szabo, there is something haunting about it that makes me want to read it again and again, and then lastly the entire anthology of Grimm’s fairytales for a bit of variety :]
We are here to talk about an event of yours later this week, under the Real Talk banner. Can you tell us about the organisation?
Lily: So Real Talk is a mental health storytelling social enterprise. Our vision is world that celebrates transparency and authenticity around experiences of mental ill health and actively supports wellbeing. In practice we support people who have experienced mental ill health to learn how to share stories about their lives. We have a process where we deliver two workshops that use traditional storytelling tools to help participants craft a 10 minute story. After these 2 workshops we host a community event where these stories are shared to an audience and used as an entry point to speak about mental health more widely. We’ve found the process and these events really cultivate compassion for oneself and for others.
How did you get involved?
Lily: So I’m actually the founder of Real Talk. It was born out of my own experiences with mental illness and realising the need for more safe spaces for people to talk about their mental health and for other people to listen. It started as a passion project in 2016 and over the past 2 years I’ve been slowly transitioning to working on Real Talk full time. It has been quite challenging starting up a social enterprise but also so rewarding. I’ve met hundreds of people all looking to connect about mental health and excited about the power of stories. You can learn more at www.realtalkproject.org.
I can imagine there are some emotional moments involved. Do the storytellers find it a cathartic experience or is it sometimes too much?
Lily: There are definitely some deeply emotional moments along the process. There is catharsis in sharing a bit of yourself to an audience, empowerment in being to share your story in your own words but of course the nerves and tentativeness that comes from acts of vulnerability. I think this is where the process is really important, storytelling as a creative practice is a wonderful vehicle for holding people where they are. However we always emphasise that participation is voluntary (so if people don’t want to complete the process they don’t have to) and I hold a COSCA Counselling Skills certificate and Mental Health First Aid training so am always on hand to help signpost to further support if needed.
Can you tell us about the event at the Scottish Storytelling Centre?
Lily: On Friday the 27th of July at 7.30pm, we will be hosting one of our community storytelling sessions. 7 participants will have come through the process and will be sharing 10 minute stories to a public audience. After all the stories are shared I’ll facilitate breakout discussion between the audience members before ending with an informal Q & A between the storytellers and the audience. We’ve run 11 events to date and they are always magical evenings where people come together to witness each other.
How much experience do the storytellers have?
Lily: Most of the tellers have very limited storytelling experience in a performative way, though some people definitely have experience with public speaking. For some it’s actually their first time sharing a part of their story in this way. It’s a big range but that is exactly why we have this preparatory process, so everyone has had a space to decide what story they feel comfortable sharing and how they want to do it. I’m always humbled by the creativity, bravery and strength of each speaker, even if they don’t see it in themselves.
What do you think the audience will take away from hearing the stories?
Lily: Insight, emotion, resonance, clarity, empathy. Because the audiences are diverse, everyone takes away something different but I think that having genuine insight into someone’s lived experience really breaks down stigma and barriers. Some are supporting a loved one who is suffering, so to hearing a real story helps them know how to help. Others might be suffering themselves and the power of realising you aren’t alone in your journey cannot be understated. Others are just curious and we hold safe space to talk about mental health openly, which we don’t always feel allowed to do during our day-to-day lives.
What does the rest of 2018 hold in store for both yourself & Real Talk
Lily: The rest of 2018 hold incredible potential! I’ll be working away at building Real Talk’s foundation as a social enterprise; building a team to help run it and expanding our event series. Hopefully we’ll be collaborating with other awesome organisations and supporting more people (feel free to get in touch!). Personally I’m hoping to graduate from my storytelling apprenticeship this year and start working as a traditional storyteller out with my work with Real Talk.
Friday, July 27th
Scottish Storytelling Centre
How to get the most out of your gallery visit
How do you feel about visiting an art gallery? Do you go for pleasure, for education, self-improvement or to socialise? Or do you avoid them and feel that art is just not for you? Many people feel uncomfortable just stepping over the threshold of a gallery, whether it’s a huge and majestic Victorian building or a temporary white box as cutting edge as they come. Maybe you just nip in for some quality cake and a clean loo?
If it’s pleasure; at the appreciation of human-made beauty, the vision and talent in expressing it to us, the viewers, does the act of viewing the art actually engender a feeling of joy inside you? Can you express that joy in an environment where you’re frightened your shoes will make too much noise on the ancient marble floor? This may come more easily to the introverts among you, savouring the silence and opportunity to have your own private encounter with a beautiful painting and the mind of the artist. What about the extroverts among you? Can you express that joy when you’re trying to quietly cross that marble floor or tentatively pad across the carpet? Perhaps you’ve gone for self-improvement purposes. If so, it could be a little easier to gain some satisfaction from spending your precious time, as you add to your bank of cultural capital. Or you might simply appreciate the respite from a frantic life; a chance to feel solemn, silent and dutiful, like in a Presbyterian church or libraries of old.
Or do you prefer the ‘cocktail party’ setting of a smaller gallery, and relish jumping into the intellectual debate with passionate, quirky artists discussing cutting edge contemporary art? Or do you worry that you don’t quite understand, that commenting at all will mean missing the mark with an inane comment, or worse, unwittingly become part of an experimental performance piece? Does it feel like forced intimacy, standing awkwardly with your wine glass at smaller events, where you feel expected to say something worth ransacking the smaller, more homely silence of a white-walled box? Uneasy at a sense that the artists might be observing you observing their thoughts made manifest. Do most of us realise the extent to which we have been trained to behave in prescribed and acceptable ways as we enter these environments?
I’m just as ambivalent about children making noise in libraries as in art galleries. I want to hush noisy children so I can concentrate on reading in our shared space, but perhaps I’m only resenting their freedom because we had to be quiet, back in our day. I’m glad they feel free enough to express themselves; perhaps they’re part of a budding, enthusiastic pre-school book group. Just not when I’m there. I relate to their childlike state in a way, as I seem to have something resembling a middle-aged onset of ADHD, where sitting still or concentrating for long periods is difficult, but I generally manage for others’ sake. I can’t bring myself to raise more than a whisper in a library, but, bloody hell, in other settings, I want to join in with the conversation, in an almost ‘repressed Tourette’s’ type way. I want everyone to join in. If I’m honest, generally I want all hell to break loose and it to become one big carnival. Politeness and shyness merge with bourgeois norms of behaviour in high arts settings, hell, even cinemas, and it drives me to distraction. British audiences are expected to refrain from moving their bodies or making any noise during a play, except for polite applause or perhaps a hastily wiped tear. Partly because in an urban setting, the audience are the maligned or tolerated ‘public’, rather than friends and acquaintances, and the British are still the last nation on earth to embrace a messy and unnecessary display of emotions. Unless it’s splashed across a wall or screen or stage and safely at a distance. Perhaps the tots in the library are leading the way forward after all.
We seem to edging back toward the boisterous interaction of Shakespeare’s audiences in theatre settings, and it’s becoming increasingly acceptable, even necessary, in visual art environments. Accompanying a school group to the National Gallery is much more engaging and fun than going alone. I learned more about the secret symbols embedded in paintings in an hour than I have in years. We could take over the space and not worry about annoying anyone else or depriving someone more deserving of the leather couch. If art galleries went the way of museums with hands-on activities, even for adults, or just meeting or watching artists at work it would make you feel part of the place and stay for longer. There’s a wee gem of an exhibition currently showing at the oft-overlooked Inverleith House in Edinburgh’s Botanical Gadens; yet another collaboration of poetry and art that both delights the senses and delivers an deep message. The gallery space is warm and welcoming for all ages, this time with quiet opportunities for children to allow nature to inspire their creativity.
There are huge debates about why certain ‘demographics’ are less likely to visit British art galleries. Mostly between people who are not from ‘those demographics’, who, in awkward terms, display some imaginative ideas of what, for them, constitutes ‘the other’. Some of it is simply a ‘perception problem’, that art galleries are for the white and middle-class, and indeed, there is often a very real psychological discomfort for certain people in places that are not, perhaps in small but significant ways, welcoming to all. Women artists, working-class artists and artists of colour are still underrepresented, marginalized and ‘othered’ by curators and board members who are not from these backgrounds, partly because of the narrow understanding that results from stultifyingly homogeneous social and professional networks. As talented artists and their works suffer unduly from the lack of exposure that they deserve, whether through tokenism, pigeonholing or downright exclusion, some important conversations about history and society are also being omitted from the mainstream art world. The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s idea of ‘cultural capital’ is often used to explain why the intellectual elite, reared on a steady diet of high art from childhood, frequent and feel at home in high art institutions, which generally cater to their particular interests. Content, and how and by whom the content is curated, of course, can also be key, and is currently the subject of heated debates. http://www.voice-online.co.uk/article/black-people-dont-go-art-galleries.
With major prizes going to women artists of colour recently, notably, Lubaina Humid’s 2017 Turner Prize win, and Barbadian-born, Glasgow-based artist Alberta Whittle claiming the 2018 Margaret Tait award, this no doubt encouraged the new director of Glasgow International to hold a variety of exhibitions, talks and performances by artists of colour. This was particularly welcome in the wake of Transmission’s Gallery’s funding recently being unceremoniously cut by Creative Scotland. The decision was made despite Transmission receiving high acclaim for their work and social impact by the very same organisation. The artist-run institution, founded by Glasgow artists in 1983, has continued in its radical tradition to encourage important conversations, particularly around Black art and artists, gender and sexuality; pushing boundaries and inspiring new ways of thinking. One of these artists is Camara Taylor, exhibiting at GI this year. Seeing as this is exactly the raison d’être of contemporary art, this has been a massive blow to both the artists and Scotland’s modern art scene. https://frieze.com/article/why-did-creative-scotland-defund-storied-glasgow-art-gallery-transmission
One of the exhibitions I attended at Glasgow International was ‘(BUT)..WHAT ARE YOU DOING ABOUT WHITE SUPREMACY? which included powerful live performances to a rapt, multiracial audience. https://manystudios.co.uk/syfu/ Sometimes the conversations that result might be unsettling for some people forced to reflect on and reframe some of their most cherished or simply unconscious beliefs about their own history and identity, but that’s precisely why art must make space for them.
The fear of ‘wasting time’, is a real one. Whether you’re hustling on the breadline, trying to make ends meet with three dead end jobs, or hustling as a CEO of an investment bank, the risk of wasting time aimlessly wandering around a gallery that doesn’t immediately serve your needs, is not one you are going to take. Even the visitors don’t like to waste too much time. Various studies have shown the average visitor spends 30 seconds in front of a painting, perhaps a masterpiece that has taken decades to complete, with careful patronage from a house of aristocrats or royalty. It’s rather like gobbling up a beautifully cooked and arranged dinner in 5 minutes flat. But, hey, don’t stay there just because you feel you should. The gallery will be gaining extra points for a steady stream of punters anyway. But why might you want to go to a gallery in the first place? What do you expect to gain from going? Seeing as most other arts, from novels to songs, involve story-telling of some kind, perhaps the emotional connection can’t be had easily without knowing something of the back story. Of the artists, the time, the place, the emotional state they were in during the period of creation and who else and what else they may have been responding to. I’ve been doing some research into Scottish historical figures and how their personal stories relate to wider themes, and it’s been exciting to spot them in both the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery, and realising how just how limited and misleading the information plaques very often are.
Big galleries are free, open, not demanding of a special invitation. You can stay as long as you like. In theory, it is entirely democratic, as it’s yours to share during opening hours. Yet, for many people, it doesn’t feel that way. The National Gallery in London changed their stairs at their entrance because apparently people found them intimidating. Do you like the majesty of columns and chandeliers or does going into these buildings, with architecture that stems from a tradition of an entrenched class structure, make you feel like you don’t belong there? Temples all over the world have stairs. Even the Christ statue in Rio has 220 steps… Ordinary people make the pilgrimage. Yet how familiar might we find the surroundings, let alone the people, of Oxford University if we haven’t gone to a top public school? How at home might we feel in the Houses of Parliament? The Vatican? Do we need to feel a sense of belonging? Does the beauty elevate us or oppress us? Edinburgh is well known for its snobbery, and tribal groupings easily coalesce around ‘low’ and ‘high’ art. Neu Reekie! is a local arts organisation that loves to mess with this dichotomy, and enjoys taking over otherwise solemn spaces like the National Galleries with an irreverent mix of poetry, music and animation, creating an atmosphere that’s a little freer. http://www.theskinny.co.uk/books/events/neu-reekie-does-titian-national-gallery-of-scotland
Collective (www.collectivegallery.net), a contemporary art gallery that’s been based in Edinburgh since 1984, has recently made the heights of Calton Hill its new home. It states emphatically that a major part of its mission is to be the friendly face of contemporary art precisely in order to encourage dialogue. Accessibility is its watch word; extending itself to offer an experience welcoming to all, adapting the trails to the site and the exhibitions to accommodate visitors who are blind or partially-sighted. I’m sure with advances in technology, visiting an art gallery as a blind person will be just as fulfilling as for a fully sighted person https://www.rnib.org.uk/blind-artist-launches-genuinely-audio-visual-art-exhibit-aid-talking-books.
However, a couple of years ago, I excitedly stumbled across their temporary gallery, in use while the painstaking restoration process was being finished, but I was left to my own devices in an exhibition I found bewildering and incomprehensible. I had no idea what I should ask the assistants to help me understand, and instead was happily distracted by the incomparable view of the city which in itself gave me the sense of elevation I needed. I hope Collective put their money where their mouth is for their relaunch later on this year, because their relaunch is a very impressive and ambitious project. They hope to create a visitor experience that encompasses not just contemporary art but heritage and science, having restored Playfair’s original observatory from 1818. They’ve put a great deal of effort into letting visitors choose the level of freedom or support and guidance that they might need and are hoping to create a space where people feel especially welcome, relaxed and inspired to observe their own reactions and engage in dialogue with others.
And of course, this should perhaps be the main point of creating, funding, and visiting contemporary art in the first place. The thoughts, conversations and debates that follow from experiencing and being affected by the art; the blending of the unique personal resonances that each viewer has due to their mood, life history and hopes for the future. I’m always interested in the ways one might catch something of the possibly ephemeral responses, solidifying them for just long enough to transmit a spark to the next along the circuit of new ideas, filtering through and co-creating a change in the zeitgeist. Or this is perhaps too much like pinning down a butterfly, for no one can foresee where or what a thought or word might spark. The Sunday lunchtime poetry events that accompany the Royal Society of Artists annual exhibition have recently drawn me back again and again, to look at the artworks through someone else’s lens. The poems have been written in response to selected artworks, and the events allow time for questions and discussion about the themes that emerge. https://www.scotsman.com/lifestyle/culture/art/art-review-the-rsa-annual-exhibition-2018-royal-scottish-academy-edinburgh-1-4739530 Fortunate to attend the private viewing, I enjoyed reading Raman Mundair’s powerful poem accompanying a short film by Pernille Spence/Zoe Irvine. However, I felt rather rootless wandering around the vast exhibition alone. Returning to their poetry events and sitting next to the artworks has given me the time, space, comfort and company to enjoy the exhibition’s varied works in much greater depth.
Often people are simply afraid they will have nothing to say, or won’t have the required background knowledge to make comments that are informed enough without feeling embarrassed. Part of this perhaps stems from the fact that our hierarchical education system lays down very early whose ideas carry the most legitimacy and weight. What if we fully integrated both democratic dialogue and art into mainstream schools in the UK like Paolo Friere advocated, or alternative schools like Krishnamurti schools do? Rather than relegate it to a separate, second-class subject? If children’s ideas were treated with more respect from the beginning, and a constructive and ongoing dialogue was encouraged in the classroom, we might have a generation of learners who, as Sir Ken Robinson would say, are not afraid to make public ‘mistakes’.
In the meantime, the risk of appearing foolish or wasting precious time can be mitigated by friendly gallery staff, and creative ways to engage the viewer, without doing all of the ‘work’ for them. If, as a punter, you’re still a little unsure, here’s some handy tips to make the most of your experience. At least let people know they can have an exhibition list for basic information about what they are looking at. If people have some background knowledge of an artist and painting, or their sense of curiosity is piqued with the help of a friendly assistant, they might just spend longer than 30 seconds in front of it…come and see it again..read about it online..discuss it..respond to it artistically..maybe even buy it!
By Lisa Williams
Six years ago when I landed in Scotland, dragging my two reluctant children from their idyllic childhood on the white sand beaches of tiny Caribbean islands, we were hard pressed to find any community or events in Edinburgh that resembled anything they knew. Enjoying the novelty of our new community, we threw ourselves into traditional folk nights, attended ceilidhs, learned a couple of Scottish dances and even grew to appreciate bagpipes. But there was always a yearning for some Caribbean colour and vibrancy, to hear some bass played to the point where the walls shook, and to not always feel like an ‘exoticized or misunderstood minority’. We held parties where Scottish friends came, but turned the music down, or off, or put on the music that they were familiar with. There was the occasional reggae night in Edinburgh where I didn’t worry in the least about being the first or only person on the dance floor; the music was enough. Soca, the energetic, fast-paced, modern form of calypso that you hear at a Caribbean carnival, was nowhere to be heard, except for our Saturday mornings cleaning the kitchen at home. Scotland is only home to about 3,000 people of Caribbean descent. Glasgow has the lion’s share, even after the mass exodus of a Caribbean community in the late 1960’s after land was cleared for development of the railways. And yet, Scots role in the Caribbean has been huge over the centuries, ironically in this case, including a hefty contribution to the development of Scottish Rail by a Scottish plantation owner compensated for losing his ‘property’ after Emancipation. Yet, fairly rapidly, over the past five years or so, awareness of our shared cultural heritage is coming to the fore, across the spectrum of the arts.
There are some regular, well established reggae nights, mainly run by Scottish men, such as Steve Messenger with his monthly night at the Bongo Club. Reggae Got Soul is a mix of reggae and soul run by two Scottish guys, one of whom, Jeremiah, was part of the very first reggae soundsystem in Edinburgh; both sets collaborate with a Jamaican MC Ras Istallion to add some authentic Caribbean flavour. Jeremiah is a true lover of reggae, also being an artist whose work forms a tribute to reggae legends across the years. His Facebook page, Original Jeremiah, has a solid following across the world. The Gambian community in Edinburgh love their reggae too, and DJs such as DJ Gadda and DJ Jobiz are building their own following, most recently with a Thursday night at new club La Vida. Well known DJs occasionally make an appearance. Seani B, the best known dancehall DJ in the UK, with his weekly show on Radio 1 Xtra, threw the afterparty for the MOBO awards in Glasgow in 2016, hosted by Glasgow Reggae. David Rodigan, responsible for introducing reggae to a huge audience in the UK over the past few decades, is even making an appearance on November 3rd at Cabaret Voltaire.
The real power of reggae, however, is in live music shows, and the inspiration and feeling of togetherness and upliftment the singers give their followers. Glasgow, with its choice of venues and home to party lovers, at least, can pull some of the heavyweights from time to time. I’ve made pilgrimages to Glasgow to see various acts like Chronixx, Protoje, and sadly missed a few like Toots and the Maytals, Aswad, Misty in Roots and up and coming Raging Fyah. They are in small, intimate venues like the Rum Shack or the O2ABC, which means you can often get the chance to dance at the front of the stage or even go backstage and have a chat. In Edinburgh, it’s still a rare treat to get a well-known name, but the Wee Dub festival brings live acts like Macka B and soundsystems like Channel One out of London. Occasionally legends like Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry drop into a sold out crowd, populated by Scottish diehards of all ages.
Soca, however, in the absence of a sizeable Caribbean community or an annual Carnival, is still very much a niche market. I stumbled across a fantastic soca fitness class in a church hall, run by Lee-I John from St.Lucia, with his carefully designed Caribbean counterpart to Zumba, that I am still koping that he will take nationwide. The Jazz and Blues Festival have brought Caribbean bands from Trinidad, the Bahamas and Martinique to take part in their street parade along Princes Street. I took great pleasure in joining in with the costume making and dance workshops, and dancing along Princes Street with the Junkanoo Commandos. It was truly a highlight of 2014! But there are few DJ’s around, like DJ Yemster of Dundee, who are masters at delivering a high-energy mix of soca, dancehall and conscious reggae in a perfect party blend. On November 2, DJ Yemster will deliver his set as part of an evening’s entertainment showcasing Grenada, with a screening of Vanishing Sail at the Granary in Leith. The crossover comes when you include arts from the Spanish Caribbean, namely Cuba and the Dominican Republic; not exactly shared heritage with Scotland, but definitely worth a mention as a growing presence of dance and music from these islands in Edinburgh and Glasgow.
However, this lack of awareness of contemporary Caribbean music and dance may be about to change. Project X is a network of dance teachers from the African-Caribbean community based in Glasgow. ‘Through workshops, performances, artistic opportunities, discussions, screenings, a symposium and more, they platform contemporary and traditional dance forms whilst broadening perceptions and representation.’ (www.projectxplatform.co.uk) Part of their work involves going into schools and working with the pupils. This autumn, as the founder of the Edinburgh Caribbean Association I was part of Claudius’ England’s Reclaimed Territory, bringing Caribbean culture into schools in Scotland with the aim of the pupils beginning to recognise the many historical links between the two regions. Claudius England, a Jamaican gospel-dancehall singer, collaborated with the rest of the Jamaican team; Heidi Bryce, an artist and dance teacher who works with Project X, and a ‘jerk specialist’ chef, Clive Birch, who, as a trio, immersed Portobello High School for two days in the sounds, scents and moves of the Caribbean’s most globally influential island. Although the S1 pupils were at first hesitant about moving to the unfamiliar rhythms of Jamaican music, by the time the two days were up, even the boys with a serious image to protect were up on stage, joyfully dancing along with their principal, in a way that the school had never seen or anticipated. Dance, music and food were used as a vehicle for the pupils to connect with Caribbean culture, and be encouraged to do their own research into the far-reaching historical links between Scotland and the Caribbean, learning about and ultimately moving past the ugly reality of centuries of slavery, of which the Scots played a huge role.
This legacy is now just coming to the forefront, as Scots acknowledge their hugely profitable role in the slave trade. The Empire Cafe, set up by Scottish writer Louise Welsh and architect Jude Barber was a pop up cafe in the Briggait in Glasgow to form one of the cultural activities alongside the Commonwealth Games in 2014. Poetry, art, drama and music were all commissioned to explore the history of the Scottish role in the slave trade. One of the events that stood out was Emancipation Acts, produced by Graham Campbell (our first African-Caribbean councillor in Scotland) and his partner Anne McLaughlin, former SNP MP. Staged in four acts around Glasgow, it was a fabulous piece of theatre, staged in four areas of Glasgow connected with the slave trade, including a graveyard where many Glaswegian merchants lie, and finishing in a joyful celebration of African culture by the disaporic community in Glasgow outside the Museum of Modern Art, the former holiday residence of a wealthy plantation owner from Glasgow, tipped to be the future home of Scotland’s Museum of Slavery. Sir Geoffrey Palmer, a Jamaican professor, historian and activist gives much of his time to educating the Scottish public on the history of slavery, and the response is invariably slightly shocked, but very positive. Scottish historians like Tom Devine and Stephen Mullen among others have also been doing some deep investigations over the past decade to bring this formerly hidden history to light.
As part of Africa in Motion film festival’s summer internship programme, ‘Reviving Scotland’s Black History’, I went on a Black History walk with St.Lucian historian Marenka Thompsom-Odlum https://www.africa-in-motion.org.uk/blog/from-grenada-to-glasgow-curating-with-own-experience-by-elizabeth-williams/ who shared a wealth of knowledge about where much of Glasgow’s wealthy merchant families had made their money, by showing us street names, paintings, sculptures and gravestones around the city. She has been on the lecture circuit during Black History Month, and along with other historians, is working hard for all this fascinating research to be known, and eventually be part of the school curriculum in Scotland. The undercelebrated history of soldiers from Caribbean ex-colonies who fought for Britain in both World Wars was brought to our attention by Selena Carty of Black Poppy Rose www.blackpoppyrose.org during a fundraiser I held for Haiti after hurricane Matthew in Glasgow in November 2016 with acts like Ladies of Midnight Blue, Hannabiell and Yillis, www.hannabiell.com a Jamaican-American and Dominican Afro-Latin percussion, brass and mbira duet. www.hannabiell.com Again, the members of the audience from Scotland were shocked not to know about this history, and keen for more information.
Sometimes this history has been brought to us through music and art. Brina is a world reggae artist currenly based in Stirling, who has brought the historic link with Scotland to us through her music project, Jamaica Sings Robert Burns, www.jamaicasingsburns.com. An album with covers of Robert Burns classic songs by top Jamaican artistes alongside Brina, including Ken Boothe and Addis Pablo, and she has sung several of the songs from the project at Celtic Connections and other platforms in Scotland. The project began after facts emerged about Burns trying several times to board a ship to Jamaica to work as a bookkeeper on a slave plantation. Most Scots I talk to about this now seem to know about it, which means the formerly hidden history is starting to ripple through the national consciousness. Graham Fagen, a Scottish artist, has used both genres to explore our shared heritage. Graeme has been working with Caribbean artists for the past few years, and recently the National Portrait Gallery held a video installation of a collaborative version of the Slave’s Lament by Burns with Sally Beamish, the Scottish Ensemble and reggae singer Ghetto Priest. www.grahamfagen.com
The fine and conceptual art scene in Scotland has a variety of artists of Caribbean background working and collaborating with each other. One of these hubs for artists of colour is Transmission Gallery, www.transmissiongallery.org an artist-run space in Glasgow that hosts some very fresh and interesting work from a range of young artists. One of the committee members is Alberta Whittle is a conceptual artist and curator from Barbados, based in Glasgow, doing some groundbreaking work with creative strategies employed to question the authority of postcolonial power. www.albertawhittle.com Eddie ….
Caribbean culture is tentatively beginning to become part of the mainstream arts programming in Scotland across the genres. Theatre, film and comedy are the areas that could still do with a boost, but as interest in and understanding of the Caribbean grows among Scottish audiences it will no doubt come in time. The Edinburgh Book Festival and poetry events and festivals have a growing platform for writers of Caribbean background, no doubt partly due to the recognition given to two poets from the Caribbean, both recent winners of the Forward Prize, Kei Miller and Vahni Capildeo from Jamaica and Trinidad respectively, both of whom taught at the University of Glasgow for several years. Neu Reekie put together a Jamaica-themed evening at the National Portrait Gallery in 2015 with Brina performing alongside Selena Godden and Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze, and the Scottish Poetry Library www.scottishpoetrylibraryh.org.uk under the directorship of Dundonian Asif Khan has expanded its repertoire to bring Caribbean poets such as Jamaica’s Poet Laureate Lorna Goodison. The new Outreach Coordinator Hannah Lavery is of Jamaican-Scottish background, also runs the Coastword Literary Festival in Dunbar www.coastword.co.uk and will no doubt continue to diversify the programming content. This year’s Book Festival included writer Zadie Smith, and Guyanese poets Grace Nichols and John Agard. The Edinburgh International Festival in collaboration with the British Council put on a fantastic cross-genre event called Fire Down Below which had a cross-section of academics from literature, art, poetry and publishing to discuss modern pan-Caribbean identity in a post-colonial context. The day before had a lecture by Jamaican-British artist, curator and art historian Eddie Chambers www.eddiechambers.com at the National Portrait Gallery, and who is now living part-time in Edinburgh who will doubtless be an influence on Scottish cultural policy. He’s the author of numerous books on Black British identity as it relates to music and art, such as Roots and Culture: Cultural Politics in the Making of Black Britain.
Caribbean film is beginning to have a platform this year as part of Africa in Motion Film Festival, which is a ten day festival spanning a range of venues across Edinburgh and Glasgow, including the Filmhouse. www.africa-in-motion.org.uk Two events are part of the Reviving Scottish Black History Programme. On November 1, there will be a screening of two films, as part of an event The Transatlantic Slave Trade Acknowledged at St. John’s Church in Edinburgh; 1745 (Scotland) and the Crying Conch (Haiti) which explore slavery and its enduring legacy including a debate with historians Geoffrey Palmer and Stephen Mullen. However, important as slavery is to explore, Black History needs to expand the narrative with something more positive. This is why I chose to curate a screening of Vanishing Sail on November 2 in Leith, www.vanishingsail.com a documentary about the legacy that Glaswegian shipwrights left in the tiny island of Carriacou, which forms part of Grenada. It’s a beautiful story of a dying craft, kept alive mainly by a single family in the village of Windward, known in the area for its Scottish cultural connection through fiddle music and a dominance of Scottish surnames and ancestry. We are linked in so many ways, and I hope that the arts in Scotland can continue to explore the connections with the Caribbean as time goes on.
Tickets for Vanishing Sail here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/vanishing-sail-film-dj-yemster-after-party-tickets-38382083846