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.
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’.
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).
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!
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.
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
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.
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, 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.