Masters of Art and Sport

‘Masters of Art and Sport’, currently showing at the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, yokes together art and sport as part of Stoke’s European City of Sport 2016, with a nod to UK City of Culture 2021. This conjunction has an august heritage, as the Ancient Greeks, originators of the Olympic Games in honour of Zeus, believed in the capacity of sport to build moral character and celebrated its glories in their plastic and decorative arts.

greek-vaseThe exhibition features two disparate talents: Philadelphia born Paine Proffitt, who has adopted Stoke (and Port Vale FC) as his spiritual home, and Manchester artist Philippe Aird.

Aird, who was at one point taught by L. S. Lowry, speaks on camera of throwing off the shackles of ‘figuration’ in favour of a dynamic, performative abstraction – experiments in colour and texture – from which elements of the figurative may still emerge.


The central work was created with 2004 Olympic gold medallist, Darren Campell, for Manchester World Sport 08. It symbolises aspiration and success in the colours bronze, silver and gold, and the journey taken by both sportsman and artist in achieving their goals – in this case the technical challenge presented by Aird’s unusual chosen medium (resin and oils) applied to a dark canvas.

The exhibition of twenty numbered canvases also functions as a retrospective showcase for Aird, who died last year.




Proffitt’s work, which alludes to cubism and sometimes surrealism, here presents a nostalgic view of the Beautiful Game (though he also has a professional interest in baseball and ice hockey). Trained as an illustrator, Proffitt has recently been in considerable demand by football clubs nationally and is sold locally through the fantastic Barewall Gallery in Burslem.


These two artists may well divide taste – as did the Lowry-Berry exhibition last year. However, in this case there exists a link between Proffitt’s figurative nostalgia and Aird’s more challenging abstraction in the form of the short-lived Italian movement, Futurism (not featured in the exhibition). The Futurists celebrated not only the speed and violence of the machine age before WWI, but also human athleticism.

dynamism-of-soccer-playerHere Umberto Boccioni’s 1913 work ‘The Dynamism of a Soccer Player’ (MOMA) illustrates this stylistic bridge. The moving figure in its environment is translated into a collection of planes and geometric shapes – the cubism alluded to by Proffitt. At the same time, the dynamism, composition and near abstraction of this image, in which elements of the figurative remain discernible, echo Aird’s more organic neuron-like shapes.

Events such as City of Sport/Culture are required to reach beyond the customary consumer and to leave a legacy. A paying art exhibition does not necessarily do this, though here the organisers have recruited four Ambassadors of Art and Sport to spread the word. What it does do is to lead the viewer from a thoroughly accessible art form to a more intellectually challenging one. One can also discern a grander aspiration to re-establish the more comfortable relation between sport and high culture enjoyed by classical civilisation. Good luck!


Paul Beatty, first American winner of the Man Booker Prize for Literature

Paul Beatty has won this year’s Man Booker Prize for The Sellout. His work satirises the hypocrisy and contradictions of racial politics in the US, drawing attention to the effects of economic and social segregation on the black communities of America. This most recent novel tells the story of an African-American visionary who reinstates slavery and segregation in his LA suburb to put it back on the map, and the subsequent Supreme Court trial – ‘Me v the United States of America’.  Beatty’s second novel, Tuff, explores the world of NYC gangs and the mentors who promise to save black men from a life of crime through capitalism. White Boy Shuffle, his first novel, explores the history of black leadership through a black poet with a European name, Gunnar Kaufman, who is moved by his mother from Santa Monica to the ‘hood in search of authentic black experience. Gunnar witnesses police oppression (the LAPD are ‘dressed to oppress’), riots (a ‘psychological placebo’, a ‘vitriolic stimulant’ and ‘Carnival, ghetto style’) and gang culture (Psycho Loco and his gang, the Gun Toting Hooligans, are laugh out loud parodies).

Throughout his work, Beatty focuses on the roles of parents in shaping his young black and male protagonists, and the transmission of the legacies of slavery and segregation from one generation to the next. On Radio 4 this morning, Beatty said his work contemplates ‘how we measure progress’.

This award should propel Beatty’s earlier novels back into print; come on Random House, this stuff deserves a wider readership.

Broadsides in Stoke

The lovely people at Northern Broadsides theatre invited me to see a read through of their upcoming production, Cyrano de Bergerac. A read through is quite close to a performance, but with the script in hand. This adaptation, from award winning playwright Deborah McAndrew, retains some of the rhythms and rhymes of the original (which was entirely in couplets).


The story is probably best known from the Hollywood version starring Steve Martin, which is played pretty much as a joke about Cyrano’s big nose. Here, Cyrano is a talented Renaissance man who displays equal panache with his sword and his verse. But his ugliness is his curse and is contrasted with the beauty of Roxanne. He can only admire her from a distance, until his skill with words is needed by a handsome but intellectually limited cadet who takes Roxanne’s fancy. McAndrew demonstrates a keen ear for comedy – even in verse – and handles the poignant resolution with… well, with ‘panache’

I can’t wait for the production at the New Vic theatre early next year.

It was fascinating to see, along with a small invited audience, part of the creative process. Director, Conrad Nelson, and McAndrew told me afterwards that performing the play in front of a small audience is part of the ‘alchemy’ that animates a work, and it allows them to get a sense of what needs to stay and be drawn to the audience’s attention, and what needs to be cut. For the creators, showing us a bit of ‘how it’s made’ also allows them to bring friends of the company together and show off interesting buildings in the area.


The Wedgewood Institute, where we were gathered, is about to be renovated as a result of a grant from the Prince’s Regeneration Fund. It was built in the mid-nineteenth century for the education of the factory workers of Burslem and it stands opposite the equally impressive Burslem School of Art, whose famous alumni include renowned artists such as Arthur Berry and ceramic designer, Clarice Cliff (google her stuff if you don’t know it, it’s wonderful).

Nobel Prize for Literature 2016: Bob Dylan

I have a confession to make: I do not like, nor have ever liked, listening to Bob Dylan’s music. This is surely  heresy as today sees the announcement of Dylan’s 2016 Nobel Prize for 2016-05-25-1464211797-4748536-bobdylanearly1960sLiterature, and it has left me with some mixed feelings.  I have among my friends and colleagues on social media many poets and writers and musicians, and the debate out there is passionate, emotional, fierce. Perhaps what surprises me the most is my lack of resistance  to this news; while I cannot suddenly purport myself an overnight fan of Dylan’s work, I do err on the side of the poets speaking in his defence. What I am certain about is Dylan’s unequivocal talent as a lyricist, and that writing lyrics is not the same craft as writing poems. Each of these disciplines is distinct and comes with its own complexities and challenges; one is not ‘better’ than the other. If I were a songwriter, I’d be proud to have written:

Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free,
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands,
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves,
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.” — Tambourine Man

The sonic undulation of sibilance in the second line of this lyric is poetic, as is the clean and unusual imagery (‘diamond’ ‘circus’). Is this a poem? Is this a lyric? Dylan has been awarded the prize for ‘having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition’, and to my mind, this extract above supports this position.  I would go further and suggest that Dylan also innovated and energised the form of the American song.

This award also brings into debate old divisions between supposed high and low culture for some, and I say, perhaps it is time to get over this class war of culture.  For some decades now, those boundaries have been blended, deconstructed, questioned, dismantled–so why are some commentators even calling into question the validity or possibility of the Nobel literature prize going to a songwriter?  I say, why not?  When I wrote my PhD, on sonority in literature by writers who might have ‘once-upon-a-time’ been called ‘minority’,  I included African-American spirituals and Welsh folk songs in my literature review not just as cultural documents, but for their distinct contribution to our literature.  It is about time perhaps to review what we call literature and broaden our consideration of all written cultural artefacts–perhaps we will soon see a Nobel Prize for Literature award to a video-game.

Do I still dislike listening to Dylan’s music? Yes–but to deny him a Nobel Prize for literature as a songwriter would be untenable. This prize is not about calling Dylan a poet; it is about acknowledging songwriting as a legitimate form of literature.

(Image Credit: Huffington Post)

National Poetry Day, 2016


Today is National Poetry Day, and I spoke earlier on BBC Radio Stoke about my poem, ‘Kith and Kiln’, which his written from the point of view of a pot-bank. Viewing Stoke as an outsider, I am always struck at how uniquely elegant these structures are. They remind me of grand old ladies watching over us, keeping us in check, asking us to mind our manners.  Here is the text of the poem and a link to the broadcast:

Kith and Kiln
 by Lisa Mansell
 “Home is where somebody notices when you are no longer there. ”
    ― Aleksandar Hemon.

Am I still here?
 Do you see me
 notch the oxide sunset
 like an ancient etching?
 I've always hunched here, under rain 
 or low-scud cloud--

 heard distant Hanley goose-honks;
 watched unhusked skinheads
 in a drunken slump stumble to
 their midnight dhansak shank
 and I used to dream of gathering the crazed hem
 of my brick-skirt  (a drey of cindered mesh
 that cloisters my nesh in winter)

to waltz at the moon in blousy damask
 and tease the bone-ash stars:
 to fang their quartzy flux.
 If I could speak
 I would talk in round vowels
 of wom and dome,

and I'd ask you to stay--

but my throat is damp with rain
 without the rasp of caulk-smoke
 from my clayfire belly.
 If you must leave me, then do it quick
 before you see me untruss myself
 brick by brick 
 'til I am just a spill of sheeded powder
 whispered on history's lips 
 like a cipher.

 Do you see me?
 Am I still here?


 I also asked colleagues and students to submit their poems today, and these poems show that we are all different; our poems are different are as different as we are. We have poems here that are political, historical, formal, informal, experimental, observational; there is always time for poetry.  I hope that you enjoy them:

by Kay Deakes  (Admissions & Enrolments)
Click on the poem to view as high-quality image



by Margaret Leclere (Senior Lecturer in Screenwriting)

Oh El Salvador
What do I know of it?
Pictures on TV
Darker people dying,
Suffering and crying.
What do I see of it?
Flesh wounds are a blur
A stain of red, a wail of dread
Gunshots whistle over whose head?
What do I feel of it,
Cuddled on this couch?
My cigarette is out,
Uncomfortable, I shift about.

A young man tells his tale, sharp-featured,
Torture too terrible.
They always suffer, those with dark eyes,
They always have. They hardly feel it.
We’ve seen too much of it.
I wish I could get comfortable.
What does it do to me, El Salvador?
There’s a pain on my poor face,
I see no pain on yours:
You’ve seen too many faces crushed by the wheels.
You don’t wring your hands,
Hands bound by the thumbs or with fingernails pulled off.
Those eyes plucked out were bright before,
Legs cracked moved swift before,
Lips so swollen kissed before.

How stupid the sad clown, or the happy clown.
How despicable our sentiment.
Blubber lips, wet eyes, near tears,
Hangdog, slouched, insomniac.
Poor kleptomaniac, megalomaniac,
Poor pre-menstrually tense, agrophobe, claustrophobe.
Poor me. Deprived, depressed, oppressed, obsessed.
Despised. Long pig.

El Salvador.
There would be pleasure in the cry
Did it not stick at my throat.
I would love
To pad gently through Noddy’s bubble world
When the giant has made the soft snow fall
And call, scream, blow it all away
With the cry – El Salvador.
Lamposts would fall, engines would stall,
Pretty lace curtains would crinkle and curl
And a crack would travel up the wall.
The dome burst, for El Salvador.


[p.s.  Margaret wrote this when she was a student in response to the 1979 events in South America.]

by Kate Moore, Level 6 Creative Writing.
Click on the poem to view as high-quality image


Vogue Brides
by Kerry Jackson   (Level 4 English and Creative Writing)

Vogue brides blushing since 1910.
Each dress, each decade just as dramatic.
Girls still scarpering, now and then.
Designers faultless, flaunting and charismatic.

Roaring twenties birthed Bara, bobbed brides.
Forties gowns were war filled simplicity.
The Valium lovers of the sixties, veils headlined.
The naughty women wore bold for publicity.

Beneath the twenties were unseen rompers.
Forties barely seen girdles revolutionary.
Maidenform the sixties liberal enough for an encore.
The thongs of this decade everyone but he would see.

Nearly virginal, probably pregnant, almost reluctant.
At least she got to wear a dress so decadent.

[Inspired by the title Brides in vogue since 1910]


Writer and Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing, Paul Houghton offers his thoughts on his favourite poem, “Memories of West Street” by Robert Lowell


It’s worth it alone for the line ‘Like the sun she rises in her flame-flamingo infants’ wear.’

But it’s a great poem about middle age disappointment, crime and hospital incarceration! I love its stories within a story structure and blazing images.

In 1990, when I was staying in Boston, I met Lowell’s best friend, a wonderful man – a painter named Frank Parker. He had sad but fascinating stories about Lowell excitedly reciting his poems in the kitchen while he (Frank) and his wife were trying to retire to bed!


Memories of West Street and Lepke
Robert Lowell

Only teaching on Tuesdays, book-worming
in pajamas fresh from the washer each morning,
I hog a whole house on Boston’s
“hardly passionate Marlborough Street,"
where even the man
scavenging filth in the back alley trash cans,
has two children, a beach wagon, a helpmate,
and is “a young Republican.”
I have a nine months’ daughter,
young enough to be my granddaughter.
Like the sun she rises in her flame-flamingo infants’ wear.

These are the tranquilized Fifties,
and I am forty.  Ought I to regret my seedtime?
I was a fire-breathing Catholic C.O.,
and made my manic statement,
telling off the state and president, and then
sat waiting sentence in the bull pen
beside a negro boy with curlicues
of marijuana in his hair.

Given a year,
I walked on the roof of the West Street Jail, a short
enclosure like my school soccer court,
and saw the Hudson River once a day
through sooty clothesline entanglements
and bleaching khaki tenements.
Strolling, I yammered metaphysics with Abramowitz,
a jaundice-yellow (“it’s really tan”)
and fly-weight pacifist,
so vegetarian,
he wore rope shoes and preferred fallen fruit.
He tried to convert Bioff and Brown,
the Hollywood pimps, to his diet.
Hairy, muscular, suburban,
wearing chocolate double-breasted suits,
they blew their tops and beat him black and blue.

I was so out of things, I’d never heard
of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“Are you a C.O.?” I asked a fellow jailbird.
“No," he answered, “I’m a J.W.”
He taught me the “hospital tuck,"
and pointed out the T-shirted back
of Murder Incorporated’s Czar Lepke,
there piling towels on a rack,
or dawdling off to his little segregated cell full
of things forbidden to the common man:
a portable radio, a dresser, two toy American
flags tied together with a ribbon of Easter palm.
Flabby, bald, lobotomized,
he drifted in a sheepish calm,
where no agonizing reappraisal
jarred his concentration on the electric chair
hanging like an oasis in his air
of lost connections. . . .

From Selected Poems by Robert Lowell, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc. Copyright © 1976, 1977 by Robert Lowell. Used by permission.