The Big Read

Students from Stoke on Trent high schools visited the university to celebrate their entries to the Sentinel Big Read competition. All year 9 pupils in the city received a book of cartoons inspired by childhood reads, and the Big Read competition continued the theme.

Pupils visiting the uni for the presentation of prizes took part in Masterclasses from Comic Arts and Creative Writing. Thanks to 2nd year students Jordan and Romisa who helped the pupils create characters for new stories.

Congratulations to everyone who took part, was nominated or won a prize.

Read more here https://www.stokesentinel.co.uk/news/stoke-on-trent-news/meet-prize-winning-comic-strip-2745293

2nd Year Trip to Gladstone Pottery Museum

Students on the Victorian literature module visited the Gladstone Pottery Museum in Longton to learn about Dickensian working conditions and the pottery industry of Arnold Bennett’s Anna of the Five Towns. A guided tour from one of the museum’s experts helped contextualise child labour, working conditions, labour organisation and how pottery workers were paid, along with many other things. This picture shows students outside one of the distinctive bottle ovens which feature across Stoke’s cityscape.

Many thanks to the School of Creative Arts and Engineering for financially supporting the trip.

Much Ado about World War 2

Northern Broadside’s Much Ado  About Nothing, which we saw last week as part of the Shakespeare module, transplants the action to WW2 England. Beatrice becomes a land girl, in wellies and sensible tweed, while Benedick is in the uniform of the RAF. Robin Simpson and Isobel Middleton in these roles absolutely steal the show, but they are wonderfully supported by a cast which brings the play to life. Alongside the verbal jousting between the will-they-won’t they central characters which characterises Shakepeare’s romantic comedies, there are delightful interludes of big band jazz, barber shop quartets, dancing and camp comedy.

The Guardian, in a 4 star (out of 5) review, describes how the company make ‘dynamic use of the in-the-round space and, for all the Dad’s Army daftness, venture boldly into the play’s darker corners of treachery and deceit’.

picture courtesy of Northern Broadsides

Harry Potter Visit

Students on the Children’s Literature module visited the Warner Bros. Studios for a tour of the Harry Potter studios near glamorous Watford. For students who are studying the Harry Potter novels as set texts, this trip was an enchanting and enlightening addition to their research and interest in the work of J.K. Rowling.
 
“I was on a train going from Manchester to London, looking out of the window at cows and I just thought “boy doesn’t know he’s a wizard goes off to wizard school”. This now-famous quotation from Rowling’s interview with Stephen Fry at the Albert Hall, 2003 is neatly paraphrased above the entrance to the exhibition and immediately situates the importance of the author and text as the foundation of this entire franchise. A display showing the creative process of adaptation, from novel to screenplay, is also emphasized in creative statements from the screenwriters and directors of the feature films. It was an invaluable insight into the creative and technical processes involved in adapting an imaginative work of literature to visual mediums– a memorable and magical experience which brings the study of literature to life.”

New Claybody Production

It was fantastic to be back at the old Spode factory for some ‘site specific’ or ‘found space’ drama. In Hot Lane, Claybody Theatre and English and Creative Writing Honorary Doctor, Deborah McAndrew, develop many of the characters we met in last year’s Dirty Laundry. The play is billed as ‘passion and betrayal in the six towns’ and it traces how the mundane lives of an industrial community contain as much drama as you find anywhere. Set in the 1950s, the drama explores how the war disrupted moral codes and how the intervening years have introduced technological innovation, but very little social progress for women. The local colour and a palpable sense of the time are created by dance hall scenes brought vividly to life by community dancers. The simple design moves us seamlessly between the domestic spaces of the pottery owner and the homes of ordinary pottery workers.

Angela Bain superbly reprises her role as community matriarch, Frances from Dirty Laundry, as does Philip Wright as Pottery owner, Richard Wareham, which is not to diminish the excellent performances of the whole cast. The Potteries accent is hard to master unless you are born to it, but the whole cast transport the audience to 1950s Burslem with ease (Philip Wright, some-time ago, told me that he’d learned the accent from watching videos of Port Vale’s Tom Pop – now there’s a Stoke accent). The students who accompanied us had a great time and were taken with the atmosphere of live theatre. Early next year, we will be visiting the New Vic for Broadsides’, Much Ado.. (directed by Claybody’s Conrad Nelson).

Deborah tells me that she is considering a prequel: this is box-setting at a very gentle pace!

Contrasting Nights at the theatre

The New Vic’s recent show, Table, was first staged at the National in 2013 and had its regional debut here.

It was one of the best evenings of theatre I have been privileged to be part of in some time. The table of the title is made by a carpenter in Lichfield at the end of the 19th century to mark his marriage. The table is then a mute centre-piece and witness to the joys, clashes and changing social and moral shifts in the family over the next 6 generations. There is humour and lust, as well as crisis and despair in Tanya Ronder’s script. The enduring message is that we are shaped and fight against both our family and the invisible social forces which seek to regulate our behaviour – moral codes, religion, the previous generation. The narrative is not linear, and the play is carefully choreographed to slip backwards and forwards in time and between Lichfield, London, Herefordshire and Africa.

The cast were excellent and the energy they put in to their performances deserved a fuller house. It is disappointing that more interesting and challenging theatre at the Vic does not receive the attention it deserves from an otherwise loyal audience.

In contrast to the intense seriousness of Table is the current production, Astley’s Astounding Adventures. Staged to mark the 250th anniversary of the founder of the modern circus, Newcastle Under Lyme’s own Philip Astley (he was the originator of the 42 foot ring with clowns, jugglers, acrobats and trick riders we know today), it is part of a programme of events and circuses around the area (my favourite so far was Circolumbia – South American hip-hop circus!).

This production is a joyous celebration of a working-class lad’s rise through the military ranks to become a circus impresario. The entertainment moves at a breathless pace. The central characters live, love and perform amazing circus stunts while maintaining excellent North Staffs accents (I’ve lived here 25 years and I still can’t do it) – sometimes while upside down. There is juggling, acrobatics, trapeze and that dangling from curtains thing. The circus in this play is genuine circus, not the faint impression of circus that theatre usually resorts to. I won’t tell you how they convey the horses and trick riding – you’ll have to find out for yourselves. The whole thing is accompanied by a little orchestra.

Astley’s is not exactly Beckett, but it is a great night out.

So, two contrasting but equally rewarding evenings.

The autumn season at the Vic has many promising productions, which we will be organising trips to.

images courtesy of the New Vic theatre

Honorary Doctorate for award winning local playwright

Debbie in her ceremonial robes and delivering her inspirational speech, with fellow Honorary, Tristram Hunt (former Stoke MP and current V and A director), just behind her.

English and Creative Writing nominee, award winning playwright Deborah McAndrew, received her Honorary Doctorate at the Staffs uni graduation ceremony at the glorious Trentham Gardens. In her acceptance speech, Debbie told the Class of 2018 how she journeyed from Coronation Street to the stages of London and then to Stoke to become a playwright, a mum and a beekeeper, where she finds the inspiration for much of her recent work. She inspired the graduates with her appeal to ‘bloom where you are planted’ and to bring your contribution to the community around you, which she has done herself. Claybody theatre, the company she set up with her husband Conrad Nelson , puts on high quality theatre with local and regional resonances in unconventional theatre spaces. Debbie said of the award of Honorary Doctorate: “I have loved living and working in Stoke and working with the students of Staffordshire Uni and I thank everybody at the university for the wonderful day I have had. I particularly wish the Class of 2018 all the success they desire”.

Deborah McAndrew is a Staffordshire based, award winning playwright and educator. She won the UK Theatre Award and the Manchester Theatre Award for Best New Play for her World War I play, An August Bank Holiday Lark. She has worked extensively at and with the New Vic in Basford, where her recent adaptation of Arnold Bennett’s Anna of the Five Towns was a great success. Her adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac was a critical and popular success. She is the creative director of locally based theatre company, Claybody Theatre, which produces plays of local relevance in iconic local sites – staging Ugly Duck in the Burslem School of Art (followed by a successful transfer to the New Vic) and a new play, Dirty Laundry, in the China Hall at the Spode factory. She is the author of nineteen original plays and adaptations. Through Claybody, Deborah both celebrates North Staffordshire identity and promotes culture in the city. She is a familiar voice on Radio 4 drama, has worked extensively (as an actor and writer) with the internationally renowned Northern Broadsides, and works with the Writer’s Guild to promote drama.

Deborah has worked to promote literacy and creativity in schools, most recently as the National Literacy Trust Author in Residence at Ormiston Horizon Academy. She has taught playwriting to drama students and given visiting writer talks to creative writing students at the university.

Deborah has also written for the Sentinel, celebrating the culture and history of the city, as well as bee keeping.

Deborah is a creative figure of national importance who supports and celebrates Stoke on Trent at the local, regional and national levels, and who has promoted creativity and literacy to the young people of the city.

 

 

 

City Myths Symposium in London

The Association of Literary Urban Studies organised a symposium last week at the Institute for Historical Research at the University of London. Scholars came Finland, Estonia, Australia, Italy and all over the UK to share their research. The theme was The City: Myth and Materiality. There were excellent papers on a wide range of topics. The ones that resonated with my own interests were those that explored how stories are told about the metropolis by marginalised groups, and how those stories – sometimes nostalgic – can be employed to challenge official urban histories. The city, as so many urban commentators have argued, is unknowable in it scale and complexity. Stories, then, become a strategy for controlling and ordering the seeming chaos of urban life. Diverse papers on urban planning in Rochdale, anti-austerity demonstrations in Athens and New York baseball in Don DeLillo’s Underworld revealed the power of personal myth to comprehend the materiality of the city. Jennie Bailey (MMU) described her project to capture the stories of social housing tenants displaced by regeneration projects in Rochdale. Markuu Salmela (University of Tampere) explored a ‘Subway playoff’ between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants, portrayed in DeLillo’s epic novel, to reveal the nostalgic narratives of sports teams after they have been relocated away from their original communities (work which echoes my own concern with portrayals of the Dodgers and Ebbets Field in Paul Auster’s fiction and films). Maria Mitsoula’s (Edinburgh) paper on the marble mythologies of Athens, and particularly how protesters used marble from a recently regenerated city square to violently challenge the authorities, showed how unofficial mythologies can remake city spaces and provide a radical alternative to official myths of the city.

Tom Wolfe, author of The Bonfire of the Vanities

Tom Wolfe  1988. Wiki commons

Tom Wolfe, the American writer, has died this week at the age of 88. He is known as the author of two significant novels: The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (recounting his experiences with Ken Kesey and the Merry Tricksters in the 60s) and The Bonfire of the Vanities (made in to a movie starring Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis and Melanie Griffith in 1990). But his greatest influence has been on the writing that he termed New Journalism. The movement has given us Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (about a quadruple murder in Kansas), Michael Herr’s Dispatches (recounting his experiences of reporting the Vietnam war) and Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (an account of a drug-fueled trip to report on a motorbike race in the desert) – these works have the quality on a ‘non-fiction novel’ (Capote’s term) because they reimagine or report upon actual events. Wolfe anthologised the writing of these authors, himself and others in The New Journalism (1975) and gave a name to a style of writing that had emerged as a response to the 1960s. Wolfe claimed that the novel was bankrupt, and called instead for a form of writing that was as accurate and neutral as journalism, but as creative and involved as the novel written by the realists and naturalists of the nineteenth  century (Balzac, Zola and Dickens). Wolfe rejected the experimentation of postmodernity, preferring the conventional linearity and representational strategies of realism, seeing in it an immediacy and emotional involvement that gives the work greater authenticity. Readers of The Bonfire of the Vanities (the topic of a chapter I am writing for a new monograph on the contemporary New York novel) will know from its epic scale and reach that it has more to do with Dickens’ panoramic views of London than it does with the fractured narratives of contemporaries such as Thomas Pynchon or E L Doctorow, whose experimentation he rejected as artificial.

Paris trip

I don’t think that I can do justice to Paris in writing. Even Charles Baudelaire, the 19th century poet of Paris (the poet of Paris, note, rather than a Parisian poet), was sensitive to the troubling nature of writing about Paris when he asked in Le Spleen de Paris (1869):

”Who among us has not dreamt, in moments of ambition, of the miracle of a poetic prose, musical without rhythm and rhyme, supple and staccato enough to adapt to the lyrical stirrings of the soul, the undulations of dreams, and sudden leaps of consciousness. This obsessive idea is above all a child of giant cities, of the intersecting of their myriad relations.”

A group of 1st and 2nd year students set off at way-too-early O’clock on Saturday morning and reached our hotel near the Gare du Nord in the early afternoon, leaving time for a trip to Montparnasse and the Sacre Coeur, followed by dinner in a properly Parisian bistro.

Sunday morning we were at the Musee d’Orsay to see the great impressionist and post-impressionist works of Monet, Manet, Gustave Caillebotte (it’s important to have a bottle of wine when doing a spot of sanding) and Van Gogh (amongst many others).

 

In the afternoon we found ourselves underground with the Paris dead in the catacombs (we suspect that some of the inhabitants hadn’t survived the queue outside) and in the evening saw Paris at night from the Eiffel Tower.

 

Monday morning we visited Notre Dame and the famous hang-out of Paris’s modernist literati (Joyce, Hemingway and Stein amongst them), the Shakespeare and Co bookshop (with Aggie the book-loving cat).

All this in 48 hours! Time for a sit down.