English Graduate Launches His New Play

Staffs Uni English graduate, Ed Hilton, is launching his
play, Pit Boy to Prime Minister, at the New Vic Theatre on May 25th.

The play follows the life of Staffordshire miner, Joseph
Cook, who left Silverdale for Australia in 1885. After working in mining there,
he became involved in Labour Party politics and progressed from the New South
Wales State Assembly to become Prime Minister of Australia in 1913.

Ed is seen here with Malcolm Henson from North Staffordshire Press and the script.

Ed graduated from Staffs in 2017 before going on to do a Masters at Keele. Once his play has been realised on the stage, Ed intends to go in to teaching where his background in both English and Creative Writing will help to enthuse a whole new generation of literature scholars.

Our warmest congratulations go to Ed.

Alumni news

English graduate, Jack Hawkins, recently met Bret Easton Ellis at the book tour to promote his new novel, White. Jack got his taste for BEE reading American Psycho on the Contemporary American Fiction module.

Jack writes: “I’m enjoying White. It’s part memoir, part diatribe against political correctness, safe spaces and the ‘cult of likability’. His perspectives on film and writing American Psycho are interesting, too. A lot of it has been taken from his Patreon podcast.

There’s a great article in The Guardian about the publication of the recent book. It’s interesteing to read about the circles Ellis was moving in during the 1980s. He knew Jay McInerney (Bright Lights, Big City), Tama Janowitz (Slaves of New York) and Jonathan Lethem (Motherless Brooklyn) – all great writers and books.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/apr/28/bret-easton-ellis-millennials-white-interview

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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

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War – The British Library, special exhibition.

Listen! And I will tell you of the best of exhibitions that I saw in London yesterday…

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War at the British Library. This exhibition will end on February 19th, so I urge you to go along as soon as you can – its like will never be seen again in your lifetime. Full price tickets are £16, concessions available, booking in advance of your trip is essential.  For bookings, visit: https://www.bl.uk/events/anglo-saxon-kingdoms

Allow around 2 hours to see this exhibition – its scope and breadth are unspeakable. This is the ‘greatest hits’ of the literary life of the British Isles between the withdrawal of Rome (early 400 CE) and the Battle of Hastings (1066). The hefty 424-page exhibition catalogue (pictured here, £40 hardback) has been essential in helping me to digest the experience as it was almost too overwhelming to absorb the detail of its 180 objects.

As you may expect, the bulk of the books assembled here are Latin texts created during Britain’s early ecclesiastical culture; these were copied by scribes on vellum and richly illustrated. Preservation rates are strong in these elements of the collection as these sacred texts were cared for and then often hidden in order that they survived the Reformation. These texts are numerous, but were written for the Church, in the language of the Church. Even if they had been permitted to see one of these books, the average inhabitant of these islands would not have understood them.

For me, the real high points of the exhibition were the displays of texts written in Anglo-Saxon English (or ‘Old English’) of which there are so very few in existence: not many were ever created as Anglo-Saxons were largely illiterate, yet this was the language of the ‘common folk’ of these lands, predominantly consisting of, or descending from, Scandinavian and Germanic people who had variously invaded and settled here. As the subject-matter of these books was often more secular in nature, this tiny portion of literature has not always benefitted from the protection of the Church in the way that their contemporary Latin books have. We owe a great debt of gratitude to figures such as Sir Robert Cotton (1571-1631), an antiquarian bibliophile who collected so many texts and documents in his personal library.  The best-laid plans, however, go oft astray – a fire destroyed and degraded many of his books in 1731, at which point his collection was already highly regarded as a national treasure.

One of the texts which was partially destroyed by this fire is known as Beowulf (named retrospectively for its protagonist hero as no title is given). The best estimation is that this text was written down around 1000 CE, but it contains a tale handed down for many generations before that via the oral tradition. This is the first known ‘story’ from the British Isles: it recounts a tale of Danes and Swedes combining forces to do battle with monsters and dragons. This type of story, brought to Britain by an immigrant culture, came to form the modern-day Fantasy genre via the work of Anglo-Saxon scholar, J.R.R. Tolkien in the mid-20th century.

The exhibition sees the return to these shores of some texts which have not been seen in Britain for quite some centuries, such as the Codex Amiatinus – a gigantic illustrated bible which takes several people and a wheelbarrow to shift (Northumbria, created before 716 CE). Also experiencing a homecoming is the Vercelli Book (c. 975 CE) which contains several of the most important and profound poems in Anglo-Saxon and has been housed in Italy since the early 1100’s: the supposition is that a Pilgrim took it from Britain to Rome and never brought it back – to be fair, it does look heavy…

It’s not just religion and secular poetry on display here: the early British understanding of astronomy and medicinal remedies is on offer here too, along with maps, letters, accounts of Far-Eastern exploration and a collection of early music. These scores are accompanied by a set of headphones so that you can hear recordings of the music, which pre-dates the development of the major-minor key systems – chillingly beautiful in its modal inflections.

Fittingly, the through-flow of the exhibition terminates with The Great Domesday Book (c. 1086) which marked the Norman conquest’s full comprehension of the territory they had colonised following the Battle of Hastings. This account of every house, pig and slave in Britain sits beneath a short but helpful video by leading historians who give the circumstances of the book’s creation.

If all this isn’t enough, the exhibition is liberally studded with Anglo-Saxon ‘bling’ which adorns the walls as you move from one set of book display-cases to the next. Precious treasure from the Sutton Hoo ship burial and the Staffordshire Hoard is displayed for context – the Potteries Museum of Stoke-on-Trent is given a thankful acknowledgement as a lender to the exhibition.

The British Library has been planning this exhibition for around 7 years – it has taken this long to carefully coordinate and curate this event which has gathered together precious British books from as far afield as New York and Florence, as well as the prestigious UK collections such as are housed in the University libraries of Oxford and Cambridge – and, of course, the British Library’s own Treasures Collection. The international effort behind this exhibition corresponds with a genuine sense of the pan-European character of early Britain, and serves as a timely reminder of the fruitful nature of cultural exchange and integration – be that though the spread of Christianity from Ireland and Rome, or the multiple immigrant cultures from Northern Europe. The exhibition shows that the deeper we look into Britain’s past, the more it seems to be composed of a fascinating collage of many cultural voices.

If you like books – you really must go. If you don’t like books…. well, you really must go and see a special Doctor about that.

Photos: the front-cover of the exhibition catalogue, and its double-page spread of the richly illuminated Lindisfarne Gospels (Northumbria, c.700 CE).

Melanie Ebdon.

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.”

The Art of Recycling

I recently had the pleasant though difficult task of judging the Heritage category at the Three Counties Open Art Exhibition administered by Keele University at the Burslem School of Art.  Heritage, of course, has many aspects, encompassing the built environment and remnants of the industrial past as well as less tangible manifestations.

The Exhibition features many such – from a museum interior, to images of Stoke-on-Trent’s steelworks and potbanks (Francis Proudlove), to the cultural heritage of football and pubs (Geoffrey Wynne), with their undeniable emotional resonance.  Any one of these would have been a worthy winner.  Upstairs in the Arthur Berry room is a concurrent exhibition, ‘Common Ground’ by Ian Mood, inspired by the artist’s close family history as well as Stoke-on-Trent’s urban landscape.The work chosen for the Heritage prize, after no small degree of agonising and with the help of sponsor Ford Green Hall’s Neil Dawson, was a small collage in the upstairs gallery, Rising.   Created by Stoke-on-Trent’s Sheena Kelly, it is a stitched collage in ‘mixed media’ depicting a smoking kiln, factory building and canal.  Fragments of text: ‘we love locally’, ‘in small batches’ etc. also suggest pottery production – a particularly artisanal industry.  The slightly naïve execution references Stoke-on-Trent’s industrial heritage, but also comprises a witty commentary on the current state of the city along with the global problem of waste production and disposal.

The term ‘mixed-media’ can hide a multitude – Rising is made of refuse, bits of old packaging.  One connotation is the waste of the pottery industry and its workers.  But there is a positive spin – not least in the title: just as rubbish is recycled into art, the industrial heritage buildings depicted here are being turned to new use.  Middleport Pottery, still successfully producing Burleigh ware, is currently hosting the Weeping Windows ceramic poppies installation.  This is expected to generate a significant influx of cultural tourism in Burslem and beyond.  Empty shops are hosting pop-up art events and all over the city heritage buildings are being turned to new uses.

Enquiry to a delighted Sheena revealed that much of the material was provided by a packet of Kettle chips.  In the service of research I purchased two packets myself – Sea Salt & Crushed Black Peppercorns and ‘Sea Salt and Balsamic Vinegar of Modena’. These are marketed as proper posh crisps: ‘hand cooked’, ‘absolutely nothing artificial’ – their credentials to authenticity and the artisanal are loudly trumpeted.

A quick visit to the kettlebrand.com website reveals reassuring information on the company’s sustainability practices: ‘Sustainability comes first’, we are told; ‘our natural promise extends beyond the ingredients’.  The tone is mildly patronising, puns aside: ‘We’re chipping in to live in harmony with the environment around us . . . .   The truth is, we all need to care for the planet.‘  However, they sorrowfully admit, it has not yet been possible to find an environmentally friendly form of packaging which would protect ‘the quality and freshiness of our product all the way to your favorite chip bowl’.  Hence, at the moment, each packet bears what we might dub the mark of McCain, also incorporated in Rising: ‘Sorry, this package is not currently recyclable.’  I suspect the truth of the matter is that they haven’t been able to find an environmentally friendly form of packaging that would not impact negatively on the bottom line.  Kettle is not the only brand to feature in Rising: a bird (dove?) flying upwards across the middle ground is made of a San Pellegrino ‘Eco-lid’ – 100% recyclable, apparently, but pretty much redundant and serving rather to confirm the pretensions of this pricey Euro-pop.  (Parent company Nestle scandalously promoted powdered baby milk in developing countries back in the day.)

Kettle chips, in common with most successful brands, has been subject in its short history to multiple merger and takeovers.  At one point it shared a stable (Kellog’s) with its polar opposite in crisp terms, the reformed and apparently pre-masticated aberration of a potato snack that is Pringles – “once you pop you can’t stop”.  It is currently owned by Campbells Soup, whose flagship product spawned perhaps the most iconic food art of the twentieth century – Andy Warhol’s pop-art Campbell Soup Cans (1962, MoMA).Ironically, given the mass-produced subject and advertising by which Warhol was inspired, the medium here is painted canvas – a separate painting for each of the 32 flavors.

Rising, then, is part of a now rather august tradition commenting on consumer culture.  We are all aware of the gaps between rhetoric and reality generated by organisations in their marketing and PR.  Kelly has cleverly recycled this rubbish while speaking gently of the Potteries industrial past and its pain and looking optimistically to the future.

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.