Insured against future flooding…?

There’s been a weird sense of deja vu this week, as the persistent rain across large parts of the UK led to flooding particularly in northern Lancashire and Cumbria. As reported in the Guardian and Telegraph and elsewhere, upwards of 70 people had to be rescued, and many homes were underwater, after a new local record was set for rainfall in a 24 hour period… Some of the areas hit were the same ones affected by Storm Desmond just under two years ago, when severe flooding hit the Lake District in early December. That was followed, of course, in good alphabetical order, by Storm Eva — which brought the Boxing Day floods of 2015 to the Aire valley, Calderdale, York, and many other places across the north of England.

The aptly named Water Street, in Lancaster, earlier this week…

Let’s hope that history is not about to repeat itself. But river levels on the Aire have been persistently high again recently, just as they were in the run up to Christmas in 2015, and on Wednesday the Environment Agency issued a flood warning for the Upper Aire – west of Keighley. It all seems worryingly reminiscent of two years ago. But maybe we shouldn’t even be surprised… maybe this is the new normal.

“I mean the weather we’re getting now, it’s just totally different from the weather we used to get. You would never, at this time of year, you would never expect to get all these floods. When I was a kid we used to get snow four feet deep. Now it’s just rain.”

Those are the words of Phillip Moncaster, secretary of Baildon Woodbottom Working Men’s Club, when I interviewed him in January 2016, shortly after both the club and Phillip’s home had been devastated by the Boxing Day flood. I incorporated them, verbatim, into the script of my one-man show about how the floods affected Shipley, Too Much of Water. It seemed oddly timely to be presenting the piece one more time (and quite possibly for the very last time) last week at Leeds Town Hall. Here I am, in fact, putting Phillip in place next to his (former) home at Aire Close…

The occasion was a lunchtime meeting of the Insurance Institute of Leeds (or IIL – the local branch of the Chartered Insurance Institute, CII). Normally these lunchtime sessions are lectures by invited professionals on insurance-related matters. It’s basically a CPD slot (continuing professional development), and attracts a sizeable audience of folk from Leeds-based insurance companies. There were a good fifty or so people in attendance for the session last week, and this included a good handful from the Shipley/Baildon area, who enthusiastically introduced themselves to me afterwards. One woman announced herself as the person who had dealt with the insurance claim for Half Moon Cafe, in Saltaire’s Roberts Park, which was of course badly hit on Boxing Day (and features in the show).

James Spencer cleaning up Half Moon Cafe after the 2015 flood

I think the intention of Melanie Jordan, who organised this event, was to get her colleagues to think about flooding more holistically — not just as something they deal with in terms of paperwork and statistics, but from the human point of view. She had initially approached Chris Sharp, a curator with Leeds City Museums, who also then recommended me. We spoke as a kind of double bill: he went first with the more traditional powerpoint presentation, then I did my performance.

Chris had organised the Flood Response exhibition at Armley Mills that ran from last December to May this year. His remit is specifically to curate community-focused exhibitions that draw on contributions from local people, and so he had seen many images and heard many stories about the Boxing Day flood as it impacted on Leeds — particularly in the Kirkstall area. Chris He spoke movingly about his experiences with the community there while preparing and mounting the exhibition, and he also put the 2015 event in context with other, historical floods, that the museum service had records and images about. He gave a fascinating presentation at the front of the hall, and we then asked the audience to literally turn around to face the back wall, where I had set up for Too Much of Water.

This was an attentive audience, but also a rather quiet one. They seemed unusually reluctant to laugh at what I have come to think of as ‘the funny bits’ (I’ve done this show enough now to know when to expect an audible response), so I wasn’t quite sure how it had gone down. It was reassuring and heartening, then, to receive written feedback via Melanie this week, which was overwhelmingly positive. Apparently there is a standard online feedback form for these sessions, where respondents tick numerical boxes (Chris and I scored well, it seems), and then can also leave any ‘further comments’ they feel inclined to offer… The written comments are all reproduced below, in the interests of full disclosure!

There was one person who clearly did not like the unconventional format for this “CPD” session:

“Not really appropriate for a professional audience.”

And another whose response is difficult to judge from their deadpan one-line response:

I am not sure what I was expecting but it was not that.”

It was very nice to know, though, that at least one person who was not expecting “that” was nonetheless pleased they had come:

“I have to admit I had not picked up on the fact that this was the story of the 2015 floods told through the medium of drama, and had I had notice I might not have attended, but Stephen’s performance really brought to life the human impact of this event. Chris’s presentation also helped to tell the individual stories of an event that as an industry we refer to primarily in numbers.”

That latter point was also underlined by others:

“It certainly made me think about the insured’s position and what it must have felt like to be in that situation.”

“It was good to have a ‘real life’ aspect to the presentation which affected the local area.”

And then there’s this one, which is the sort of feedback that makes your ears burn:

“I have attended 4 CII lectures now (the last 4 – starting with Ogden) and they have all been excellent but this has been by far the best and I think it stood out because both speakers were not from an Insurance background which gave a nice change of perspective. Both speakers were exceptionally good, their parts of the presentation were well researched and well thought out and they really brought home to you the real human cost of flooding. The performance at the end was inspired and unlike anything I have ever seen before and it was extremely well done. Inspiring. Thank you all.”

(You are very welcome.)

Generally, the respondents didn’t go into much detail about how the presentations related to their day jobs as insurers, but there were a number of comments suggested that the afternoon is likely to be memorable. Perhaps it will have given a bit of an insight that will help these good people treat future flood victims with even more care and concern than they would have anyway…

Because if this is the new normal, there will be future flood victims, perhaps sooner rather than later.

Giving voice to “Val”, a Shipley flood victim

For the record, here are the rest of the remarks, in the order they came to me, complete with typos. (I’ve omitted only one, which was moaning about the microphone acoustics in the room.)

“Very different from the standard lectures. It was fantastic to get a local perspective of issues faced and brought to life in such an enjoyable an enjoyable way. Fabulous, definately one I will remember.”

“I thought the dramatization lecture was really excellent. Great job in organising That.”

“A very different style compared to usual lunchtime lectures and made a welcome change”

“A thoroughly enjoyable lecture, both speakers had very good presentation skills, especially Stephen Bottoms with his performance piece.”

“Very different . I guess the next thing I should do is ask my local councillor what Leeds has learned?”

“The event was outstanding particularly Professor Bottom section. More of the same please.”

“Very engaging presentation/performance”

“I thought it was a brilliant idea to split the Lecture into 2 Parts. Both parts kept me interested & focused.  The Play in particular was a good way to put us in the shoes of the poor people who suffered in the floods and was delivered in a fun yet captivating way.  Well done CII on bringing us something different yet crucially important.”

“Both presentations were well presented and useful in bringing the flood events to life and how these affected people, businesses and the community. Stephen Bottoms in particular was excellent.”

“I thought this afternoons lecture was absolutely brilliant.”

“Fantastic afternoon”

 

 

Postcards from South Africa: Leandra

As I write this, I’m sitting in a hotel room in Pretoria — once the capital of apartheid. The Multi-Story Water project has taken me to many, varied places over the last few years — mostly without needing to leave Shipley — but this week it’s brought me all the way to South Africa. I’ve been invited, as an observer, to join an expedition run by a related research project (“Patterns of Resilience”), which has also been looking at the relationship between water and community — only this time in a town threatened by drought, rather than flood. Strange as it might sound, I want to suggest in this blog that, in addition to the glaring differences between these research contexts, there are also some odd similarities…

The location for this research has been Leandra, a township in the Govan Mbeki region (a couple of hours from Pretoria and Johannesburg). As you drive into town, passing this welcome sign, you come immediately to another hoarding warning residents and visitors to save water.

What if … this was the last drop?” is a question that, thankfully, I’ve never had to ask myself living in the UK. But it’s a very real issue in Leandra: we arrived on a cloudy day which briefly turned rainy (complete with thunder and lightning), but in 2015-16 they had a significant drought period that impacted severely on the community.

“Water is life – sanitation is dignity”, reads the small print on the poster. But life and dignity are impacted by more than just water shortage when water is short here. This is a predominantly rural area, whose residents traditionally survived through subsistence farming. Nowadays, what with industrialisation and globalisation, the farms have become big commercial enterprises – with giant maize silos like the ones you see here. In drought conditions, workers on the farms and at the silos simply get laid off because there is not enough work for them to do. And that leaves them unable to buy the food supplies that they would once have grown for themselves…

The research in Leandra has established that, although the recent drought was less severe in strictly physical terms (i.e. low rainfall) than some previous recorded droughts, the community experienced it as more acute than in the past. That is, they have in some ways become less resilient as a consequence of this greater dependence on a buying economy. In the past, families knew how to save emergency supplies of maize from their subsistence farming, for use in times of scarcity. The stored maize might have tasted sour, one man told me, but at least it was edible. But when you’ve become accustomed to simply buying in bulk from your local Spar, then when it’s gone, it’s gone…

Let’s get back to that question of water and dignity, though. Because on the face of it, there isn’t much dignity to be had in Leandra. The vast majority of residents live in homes like this… if they’re lucky…… or like this, if they’re not so lucky…

In South Africa, they call it “informal housing”. Shacks built of corrugated metal — or anything else lying to hand — get put up without consent or planning permission on land that has simply been appropriated by people too poor to aspire to anything else. Such homes, as you would expect, do not have proper plumbing or sewerage, of the sort we simply take for granted in the UK. Most people have to walk to get water, and the distances they walk get exponentially longer in times of drought. Little wonder, then, that people here are regularly lectured about saving water by the authorities — via billboard messaging of the sort pictured above, as well as by lessons in school, and so forth.

Those same authorities, however, seem unwilling or unable to do anything to address the enormous infrastructural difficulties facing communities like this. It’s not just that better facilities are greatly needed: according to residents, even the existing water supply infrastructure is riddled with problems. Old supply pipes get broken or burst, and water is simply lost… In fact, one of the key points to come out of the research here is the awareness that residents do not always know very clearly whether water shortages are the result of actual drought or of these failures in infrastructure…

An added issue here is that people are dependent on piped or stored supplies, in a way that — again — wasn’t necessarily the case in the past. An older resident I spoke to recalled a drought back in the late 1970s which was made worse by a plague of locusts attacking crops. Even then, though, the water deprivation was not as severe as in the recent drought, because people could still find water in ground-springs in certain places. Those springs, he said, simply don’t exist any more.

I’m no expert on groundwater, but I can’t help wondering whether this experience of springs drying up is another consequence of the area being subjected to more industrialised farming. (It’s well established that the water table will drop if land is mined more intensively for water supplies.) Whatever — it’s clear for anyone to see that the ground here is extremely dry, even in a relatively drought-free year like 2017. I put my size 11 feet in the photo above to highlight the scale of the cracks in the landscape. And this is land that should be relatively wet, since it lies close by to the one small stream we found on our reccy of the area…
A closer look at the stream itself provides further evidence of why only the most desperate of drinkers would consider taking water from this “natural” source rather than from a piped supply.

Yes, that green is the actual colour of the water — I dread to think what’s been emptied into it (perhaps from the silos you can see upstream…?). What with the concrete culvert you can also see here, supporting the main road, I was put in mind of Bradford Beck, and all the stories that used to be told about how filthy and toxic it once was….

It’s not just the flowing water that’s polluted, either… Just look at this drainage channel, with the line of rubbish that’s been carried along it, and remains even when there’s no water…

Almost everywhere you go in Leandra, there is litter like this. I guess when the environment is already poor — in every sense of the word — there’s not much incentive to keep it clean. Apparently such littering is a problem all over South Africa, but nobody really knows what to do about it — and in the great scheme of the problems here, it probably doesn’t rank that high on the priority list.

But here is the thing…

The people here do not mirror the landscape and the housing conditions. All the stereotypical expectations you might have about “what poverty looks like” are thrown out of the window when you meet the young people from this community, who have grown up in this environment. Most of them live in “informal housing”, with large families, crammed several to a room, and in normal times (never mind drought) they expect to eat only one meal a day. But they are all immaculately turned out, and indeed very fashion-conscious!

This is a “selfie” of me with Thato — one of the young people from Leandra who has been particularly involved with the “Patterns of Resilience” project. We’re comparing our Converse Chuck Taylor’s, but beyond that, she’s actually much more stylishly dressed than I would know how to be! (And check out the Chanel logo on the person next to her…) I’m told Thato is also a talented artist in her own right — an amazing drummer and percussionist — and while I didn’t get to see her perform, the project event we attended at the local community centre did conclude with an extraordinary demonstration of collective, local talent by the Umdzabu Cultural Group — some of them pictured here in their more traditional performing costumes…

In this picture, these performers look like what they are — kids! — but in performance they were nothing short of awe-inspiring. On the small stage of the community centre, they presented a sequence of drumming, dancing and choral singing — and every possible combination of the three — which ran for over 15 minutes without a pause. Every time a particular sequence finished (a pounding high-kick routine replaced by a quiet, reflective song, for example) they moved from one phase into the other with such tightness and precision that there wasn’t even time for applause. And the sound of the pounding drums and thumping feet was almost overwhelming in that small hall. I was, as you can probably tell, blown away by the whole thing!

Now, you might think that I’ve got a bit off the topic of drought here, but far from it. In fact one of the key findings of the research here has been establishing the importance to the community of what they call “positive distractions” in times of hardship. Distractions including singing and dancing, the playing of collective games, and so forth. As one young person summed it up to me: “when children are playing happily, they forget to eat.” True enough — and in times of drought, that means that they forget (at least temporarily) that they can’t eat. I struggled at first to see the significance of simply being “distracted” from the elephant in the room, but when you think about it it’s obvious: the mental and emotional effects of hunger and thirst can impact on people just as can the physical, but if you can find collective ways to keep your spirits up and avoid sliding into depression or despair, you are — quite simply — going to survive longer.

The “Patterns of Resilience” project — run by the remarkable Angie Hart, from the University of Brighton, in collaboration with colleagues at the University of Pretoria and elsewhere — has focused specifically on engaging 43 young people from Leandra as “co-researchers” in learning about resilience to drought. They were even paid something to take part (an ethical way for the research team to put some of their funding into the community itself, while also valuing the young people as co-workers, not just volunteers). The research has included arts-based activities that have helped the young people to process and reflect on their own thoughts, feelings and coping strategies during the recent drought of 2015-16. It has also involved training them up as interviewers, to go and talk to elders within the community, such as grandparents, about their memories of drought over the longer term. Through this process, the young people have learned valuable things about themselves and their community, as well as providing the university researchers with important insights (some of which I’ve already mentioned in this blog).

I will admit to being sceptical, at first, about the real commitment of some of these young people to the project. And indeed, I did get a sense that some of the (perhaps less engaged) participants interpreted these activities as another version of the familiar encouragement, from the powers that be, that they need to “save water” – through rainwater harvesting, etc. (Let’s not pretend that universities do not have “power” in a situation like this.) But the more I talked to Thato and her peers — some of whom also came here to Pretoria this week for a two-day “think tank” event — the more clear it became to me that the real value of this project has simply been in asking the young people what they thought. 

Over and over again, I heard this from them: that nobody has ever been interested in their ideas before, let alone people from overseas (and “England” is a kind of fantasy land to these young people). The very fact of being consulted, they said, and of being asked to think actively about how drought impacts on themselves and their community — rather than simply having “messaging” about behaviour change foisted on them — has changed their own sense of perspective, and enhanced their own sense of value in themselves. That is not nothing. It might not give them any more food or water, but it might — again — help make them more resilient, or even – more activist

I said at the start of this blog that I saw similarities between Shipley and Leandra. Obviously, these are not nearly as pronounced as the huge differences. But I’ve seen here — in a more concentrated, life-and-death way — some of the same patterns we identified during our Multi-Story Water research. To put it bluntly:

  1. The authorities perceive a problem that needs addressing… whether of flood risk or, in this case, potential water shortages.
  2. The authorities try to provide “messages” to local communities about what actions they need to take to protect themselves (in the form of pamphlets, posters, or whatever).
  3. On the end of such one-way messaging, residents sometimes feel more “talked at” than engaged with. There’s even a sense, sometimes, that they feel condescended to… They’ve perhaps been stereotyped as “hard-to-reach communities” (a euphemism for being deprived or marginalised in some way), but nobody has really tried very hard to reach them.
  4. Meanwhile, there’s also a justifiable sense among residents that the authorities are not always doing all the things that they could be doing to address the problems – at an infrastructural level. In South Africa, where there is a widespread problem with political corruption, the lack of practical solutions is especially endemic.
  5. Creative research projects that try to create a more two-way dynamic with local residents, and seek to value their insights and expertise on what it means to live in a particular place, can help to provide fresh insights and change perceptions a little on all sides… What they can’t do, however, is fix the problem…

The problems in Leandra are, quite clearly, massive and intractable. I couldn’t live there, and wouldn’t even know how to begin to. But the people who do live there, for all the life-and-death difficulties they face, have developed very real forms of personal and collective resilience that need to be valued, honoured, and paid attention to.

 

Continuing to reflect on water stories…

Although the funded period of our Multi-Story Water research is now officially over, we’ve been busy in September with a number of “legacy” activities – relating particularly to our work around flood narratives. This three-part blog looks at some of these activities, under the headings (1) Reviving, (2) Recycling, and (3) Reflecting…

1. Reviving

At the start of the month, I presented Too Much of Water, my one-man storytelling show about the impact of the 2015 Boxing Day floods in Shipley, at the 7th International Conference on Flood Management (icfm7). This was held at Leeds University, and having been asked by the conference organisers to present the piece as part of their “cultural programme” (alongside all the more technical conference talk), I liaised with my former colleagues at the University’s Workshop Theatre to present the piece there (many thanks, especially, to technical director Lee Dalley).

This was the first of several new engagements for TMoW this autumn, so I took the opportunity to do a slight “upgrade” on the show. Despite having been very well received in previous performances, I have always felt there was something slightly missing: the piece focuses on the stories of six families whose homes were affected by the flood, but until now did not acknowledge the impact on any local businesses — which, in its own way, can be just as devastating. So I’ve now worked in a seventh storyline, that of Brian Tuxford of Northway Vehicle Sales – the van hire business next to Baildon Bridge. I told a little of Brian’s story in this blog last autumn, having met him after the first version of Too Much of Water premiered at Saltaire Festival. It felt important to include his story, and the show now feels more “resolved” to me as a result.

After the Workshop Theatre performance, we held a Q&A session about issues arising, to which I’d invited two excellent guest speakers – Jonathan Moxon, who is Leeds City Council’s chief flood officer (formerly of the Environment Agency, he has featured on this blog before) and Rosa Foster, who lives in Shipley, and is the Environment Agency’s lead FCRM officer for the Upper Aire Catchment (i.e. Leeds and everything up… FCRM = Flood and Coastal Risk Management – though there’s not much coastline on the Upper Aire!). The Q&A was videotaped and I’m delighted to be able to show it off above – it makes for an interesting discussion. (Though it’s a little difficult to hear the audience questions on the recording, due to the mic direction, the answers should hopefully clarify…).

2. Recycling

Our connections with colleagues such as Jonathan and Rosa has led our Multi-Story Water project to quite an active involvement with telling the story of the Leeds Flood Alleviation Scheme (this despite the fact that our project was centered in Shipley/Bradford! The Aire keeps flowing regardless of local government jurisdiction…). At the Leeds Waterfront Festival in 2016, in collaboration with Common Chorus Theatre, we presented After the Flood – a promenade performance that attempted to provide audiences with an engaging sense of some of the issues involved in planning for flood alleviation – and this included a brief synopsis of the “FAS” scheme (its brand new, collapsible weirs represented on this occasion by a [comically crap] demo involving a clipboard and a balloon…). A year on, at the 2017 Waterfront Festival, we worked more directly with the FAS scheme and its main engineering contractors, BAM Nuttall, to present Weir Science – an entertaining, in-depth look at the new weir construction at Crown Point. On this occasion, we collaborated with Phil Marken’s Open Source Arts – an important hub for the voluntary flood response in the Kirkstall area.

The FAS partners (including the EA, City Council, BAM) were hugely pleased with the extent to which we engaged festival-goers with the weir scheme – so much so that they’ve installed Jon Dorsett’s improvised mural, created over the course of the festival weekend in June – in their site offices! (I snapped this picture mid-September)

So, bouncing off the success of that event, we’ve been invited to get involved with the “consultation” phase for FAS2…. i.e the second stage of the Leeds Flood Alleviation Scheme, which will look beyond the city centre to help protect upstream neighbourhoods such as Kirkstall, Horsforth, Rodley…  The broad outline of plans for this scheme has now been unveiled, though many of the details are still being determined, and the FAS team are interested to gather public responses about how planned alterations to the river landscape might also benefit local communities’ experience of the river. A series of consultation events, in the form of pop-up information stalls in public places, has been planned for October – starting this Monday 2nd in Horsforth (see this link for full list of dates and venues) – and a team from Multi-Story Water will be present at each location. This time, we’re working in collaboration with both Common Chorus Theatre and Open Source Arts…

In this photograph, taken during rehearsals at Open Source last Wednesday, you can see Phil Marken on the left and Common Chorus director Simon Brewis on the right (with performer Alice Boulton-Breeze in the middle). That doll’s house will be familiar to anyone who saw After the Flood, and that’s because – on this occasion – we’ve taken the decision to carefully recycle and redeploy key aspects of previous performances, rather than trying to devise anything completely new. Reusing certain props will save us a bit in financial terms – because, after all, this is a public consultation, not a “show” with a production budget… More importantly, the consultation context is also distinct from the festival contexts we’ve previously worked in, and that’s affected our planning here…

There’s a serious point to the FAS team wanting to share their thinking about the new scheme – and to seek feedback – and we can’t upstage or disrupt that with anything too “showy”. So we’ve come up, instead, with a sort of “modular” presentation – composed of different props, arranged on a display stall, that all offer different talking points. The strategy will be to draw people into conversation around whatever catches their eye from our display. (The doll’s house and other components have been carefully integrated design-wise by Simon’s colleague Ellie Harrison.) We’ll then to seek their responses to the various ideas we’re opening up for discussion. We’re not thinking of this as a “performance”, as such, but as a series of unique, person-to-person conversations – led by Alice and fellow presenter Jaye Kearney — which use props and images as a stimulus for discussion. The conversations might roam between the different “modular” elements, or not, as the mood dictates … they can be as long or as short as suits the individual passer-by. The main thing will be to whet people’s interest, and thus – perhaps — encourage them to engage in conversations with the FAS team themselves (who can then offer more involved, technical detail if people want it). Some respondents would engage with them anyway, of course, but the thinking is this creative engagement approach might help to “soften the landing” for people more wary of uniformed officials… (even if the uniforms are just FAS-branded T-shirts).

We’re also hoping that our conversations will also generate some interesting feedback “data” for the FAS team. In particular, it’s hoped that a hand-drawn map of the Aire between Apperley Bridge and Leeds city centre – which we’ve commissioned from Jon Dorsett, who also did the Weir Science mural pictured above – will provide a usefully interactive way to visualise the proposed FAS2 innovations, and to encourage public responses…

Anyway, one way or another, we shall see how this works out. Further blogging to follow!

3.Reflecting

And finally… it’s perhaps worth mentioning that the Multi-Story Water project was discussed across Yorkshire’s airwaves last weekend (Saturday 23rd or Sunday 24th September, depending on your area). I was interviewed on the Paul Hudson Weather Show, which is syndicated across all the BBC North local radio stations – in Leeds, York, Sheffield, Lincolnshire… The whole programme is available for a month on the BBC iPlayer – with my bit starting almost exactly 30 minutes into the hour-long show. But I’ve also pirated the sound from the relevant section and uploaded here as a permanent record…

The interview experience was slightly odd. It involved very quickly spewing out ideas that I’ve been thinking about for a long time, and which really needed more detailed treatment. But of course, this was a local radio show and nobody wanted to listen to me banging on at length when there was an old Peter Cetera track called “The Glory of Love” to get to…

I say that with tongue in cheek, of course, and I’m genuinely grateful to Paul Hudson’s producer, Trisha Cooper, for inviting me onto the show and giving me the unexpected opportunity to discuss our research project. This came about because, after having me briefly trail the Weir Science performances on Johnny Ianson’s Radio Leeds breakfast show back in June, Trisha decided that listeners might be interested to hear more about the wider project that this had been part of.  Although it’s quite difficult to try to sum up several years’ work in five minutes flat… And I did, apparently, gab on a bit too long, which explains the oddly compressed editing toward the end of my segment of this pre-recorded show (the last bit, which refers to the other matters discussed in this blog post, doesn’t make much sense as a result).

Anyway… if you have read this post as far as this, you apparently don’t mind me gabbing on a bit… So thanks for indulging me, and enjoy the broadcast!

 

Of photos, films and beer mats… (opening our closing)

“If you build it, they will come…” In the composite image above, we see different corners of Shipley’s Kirkgate Centre last Saturday night, as visitors peruse the walls at the opening of our exhibition, “Celebrating Shipley’s Waterways” (a phrase borrowed from the tagline to this website). It was a real delight to see so many familiar faces that evening, helping us celebrate the official end-point of Multi-Story Water’s project work in Shipley. That’s five years of work, on and off (in two stages: 2012-13, and 2014-17).

One way or another, many of those there on Saturday have been involved in the project in one way or another over that period, although it was also really nice to make some new acquaintances among people simply drawn by word of the evening’s events. This was especially rewarding given that — if I’m honest — I had worried that mounting a retrospective exhibition was slightly self-indulgent, and might be perceived as such! I was, however, talked into going along with it by these two wonderful women…

That’s Ruth Bartlett on the left, of Higher Coach Road Residents’ Group, who has also been working in a part-time capacity this year to support other aspects of the MSW project. And on the right, my “research associate” for the last three years, Lyze Dudley. (And me looking like a loon in the middle.) If we’re looking pleased with ourselves in this selfie, it’s because we had just finished “hanging” the exhibition with about an hour to spare before our visitors began arriving. The whole thing was done somewhat “on the fly”, with a tiny budget, but thanks to Lyze’s efforts in particular (with her winding river of fabric round the building, and her carefully mounted A2 photographic prints as key visual features) it actually looks pretty decent. Just professional enough to look like a proper exhibition, but just “home made” enough to reflect the community centre setting and the simple, people-centred aesthetic of the project as a whole. (One whole room of the exhibition, in fact, is about our work in and with local waterside communities.)

Visitors for the evening first had the opportunity to view the exhibition and mingle a bit, and then we screened three short films to represent different aspects of the project: first, Floody (made this year with the Young Artists of Higher Coach Road, for Saltaire Arts Trail weekend), then Wading to Shipley (from way back in 2013, documenting a walk down Bradford Beck), and finally High Rise Damp (from 2016, our film about social housing conditions in Bingley, which has a particular resonance now, in the wake of the Grenfell tower fire last month). I had not, personally, had the opportunity to see this last one screened properly on a large screen before (although it has been screened on several occasions by Kirkgate Centre’s Paul Barrett), and it was particularly gratifying to see that it had a real impact on the audience, prompting much discussion in the interval that followed.

Then it was on to the live performances. I presented my one-man storytelling show about the Boxing Day flood, Too Much of Waterwhich was also very well received. (A friend who had seen it before made the astute point that its account of flood victims’ struggles with faceless bureaucracy resonated in fresh ways by following on from the difficulties described in High Rise Damp.) And then finally, after another short interval, we rounded things off with Salt’s Watersmy double-act with the Bard of Saltaire himself, Eddie Lawler, which we presented at Half Moon Cafe for the Saltaire Festivals of 2014 and 2015. Since then, it’s had outings further afield in Scotland and Manchester, and has been honed with the addition of projected images, so it was really nice to bring it back home to Shipley for this one last time… (I don’t have images of the live performances, but here is Eddie on the right, earlier in the evening, dwarfed by his fellow Friend of Bradford’s Becks, David Brazendale…)

So yeah, it turned out to be a real pleasure to present all this material – as a small, retrospective sample of what we’ve made over the last few years. And the warmth of the responses and feedback from those gathered was really gratifying. Moreover, as ever with this project, it’s the responses and the participation that are just as important as anything we might make… and on this occasion that point was represented beautifully through the medium of beer mats…

We’ve actually had these beer mats knocking around for a couple of years — with the MSW logo on the front, and this invitation to respond with words or pictures on the back. We’ve tried deploying them in a few different contexts but, frankly, without much useful take-up. Until this Saturday, I would have put this down as a failed experiment in data-gathering — somehow we’d never quite found the right context for them. But this evening, quite by accident, that context seems finally to have arisen, as this particularly engaged, responsive audience shared some intriguingly personal responses to the prompt “When I think of water…”

One striking factor in the responses is the way that water is associated by some respondents with occasions a long time ago, and far far away… As in the childhood memory, above, of a waterfall in Switzerland, or this recollection of the holy land…

Water is also associated in the responses with simple, everyday pleasures like drinking and bathing, although these are thrown into sharp perspective by the respondents:

The mat below refers not to past memories but to the fear of losing the (privileged!) life we have now, in an era of prospective water shortages thanks to climate change:

Finally, here’s a sentiment that I can personally identify with very strongly…

… In the years I’ve been working on this project, I’ve moved from Leeds to Manchester – where I’ve lived first in Sale, right next to the Bridgewater Canal, and now in Altrincham, where the house hugs the edge of a tiny stream with the delightful (twee?) name of Fairywell Brook. These choices on my part to live near water (and even, in the latter case, on a flood plain) have been deliberate, self-conscious choices arising from an intensifying sense of personal connectedness. Who knows, maybe this will turn out to be the most longest legacy of the whole project…

Thanks for coming, everyone. And for joining in the storytelling…

Weir Science (Part 2): Quod Erat Demonstrandum

Quod Erat Demonstrandum. QED. These three letters are usually used when something has supposedly been proved – but the phrase literally means “that which has been (or is to be) demonstrated”. Well, at Leeds Waterfront Festival, last weekend but one, we set out to demonstrate (without ‘proving’) how the Leeds Flood Alleviation Scheme’s brand new weir at Crown Point operates. Through the medium of street performance. And therein lies a tale…

In the first part of this two-part blog, I looked at the FAS scheme itself, and took you, dear reader, on a backstage tour of the heavy engineering work still continuing at Crown Point — in the middle of the River Aire — to install the new weir. But why was I, a drama professor, given this access to the site? It all goes back to an unexpected conversation with BAM Nuttall’s FAS project director Andy Judson, over lunch at a networking event last November. On that occasion, I found myself describing to Andy our contribution to Leeds Waterfront Festival 2016, the promenade performance After the Flood  — during which plans for the new weir were demonstrated using a clipboard and a balloon… (as seen below, in a scene featuring Nick DeJong and Joe Large). It was shame, I said to Andy, that the moveable weir mechanism itself couldn’t be demonstrated to the public, because (a) it’s underwater and (b) it will only be operated in potential flood conditions. When I said that, though, you could sort of see a light bulb illuminating over Andy’s head. “Maybe we could demonstrate it,” he said, “by building a mock-up model at ground level during the festival…”

And here is the mock-up model, as exhibited the day before the Festival by BAM foreman Mark Pheasey (left) and two colleagues including stakeholder relations manager Jonathan Bulmer (right). The model was originally going to be much larger — on the same scale as the real thing, and using one of the actual air bladders that will go into the weir installation (as seen below – the black rubber bladders stacked next to the metal weir plates at the FAS compound to the east of the city centre…).

In the event, though, there were logistical problems with the full-scale plan, so Mark Pheasey dreamed up the scaled-down model using painted hardboard for the weir plate (which really does look like the real thing – as you can see) and some much smaller air bags, which didn’t have to support the weight of the River Aire! Actually I think this worked much better than the full-scale model might have, because the air-bags in the mock-up could inflate and deflate in seconds, raising and lowering the hardboard weir, whereas the big bladder would have taken at least half an hour to inflate fully. Much better for demonstration purposes!

So this is the model in situ at the weekend, on the left (weir plate up), being explained to two members of the public by one of the volunteering FAS staff (the people with white patches on their T-shirt sleeves). On the far right is Andy Judson himself, chatting to the Environment Agency’s Mark Garford and others. The FAS team were on hand all weekend, in different combinations, to chat to the public about the scheme from a more official, technical point of view — using the model as a point of focus.

It became clear that word of the model demonstration had spread to some pretty influential places. Above is Hilary BennLabour MP for Leeds Central, who seemed genuinely fascinated by the scheme when he turned up early on the Saturday morning. And on the Sunday, Richard Parry, the Chief Executive of the Canal and River Trust (formerly British Waterways) also stopped by to see what we were doing (at which point I shamelessly asked for a picture with him…).

Despite this interest at policy level, though, the mock-up model and uniformed FAS team still looked — as they themselves put it to me — somewhat “dry” and “worky” for a festival weekend. Somehow the general public had to be engaged a little more eye-catchingly, and this is where Weir Science came in ….

… that’s the name we gave to the creative elements we built around the FAS model. “We” being Multi-Story Water and Open Source Arts, in Kirkstall, which is run by Phil Marken (one of the leading lights in Leeds’s voluntary flood response after the inundation of Boxing Day 2015). Phil himself wasn’t available at the weekend, but he had arranged for “graphic harvester” Jon Dorsett – above – to be on hand to gradually build up a visual record of the activities as they occurred, on four white boards that BAM staff had fastened to the open gate of their compound. The first thing Jon did was draw this appealing, cartoonish logo for us – to catch the eye of passers-by… (I love that he even hand-drew all the logos… a lovely counterbalance to the ‘official’ signage).

Phil had also consulted his address book of street performers and come up with one-man-band Jake Rodrigues, aka “Shabby Jake”, aka Professor Leaky-Faucet. This last was a new identity and ‘look’ that Jake created for us this weekend, inspired by the Weir Science title and by every mad scientist you’ve seen in books and movies… In fact Jake’s entire set was tweaked for context, as he engaged crowds in (seemingly) spontaneous renditions of “songs with weir in the title”… from Queen’s “Weir the Champions” to Vera Lynn’s “Weir Meet Again”, via the Pointer Sisters’ “Weir Are Family”, and many others. The results were hilarious, as were Jake’s various bits of improvised schtick about the weir model (“it’s a giant cheese toastie maker”) and explanations about the risks involved in flooding Leeds with custard…

In the picture above, taken on the Sunday, Jake is chatting with passers-by while accompanied by another of Phil’s recommendations — stilt-walker Nik, aka Das Isobar. The job of these two, whom I briefed carefully in advance, was to deliver a version of their usual act — wandering out and about in the immediate Leeds Dock area to attract attention — while also trying to encourage people towards the weir demonstration area. They did a tremendous job of this, by blending visual appeal with conversational wit. One of my favourite moments of the weekend was watching Nik, from the top of his stilts, chatting animatedly with a man from the Netherlands, who (craning up to look at him) was explaining in detail the history of his country’s reactions to the 1997 floods that engulfed about a third of their landscape… (Nik was only with us for the Sunday: on Saturday the same role was filled by an excellent contact juggler, Steve the Pirate, although I don’t have any good pics of him unfortunately.) Oh and also in the picture above, there’s the otter…

The otter costume belongs to the Environment Agency, apparently, and is often used at public engagement events. Here it is worn by Rosa Foster, one of the EA’s senior flood risk management officers, who found herself oscillating between waving goofily with the head on, and then lifting it up to explain details to passers-by… Rosa made the interesting point to me, though, that when she first put the costume on at the start of the day, people were waving at her, or posing for pictures with their kids, but weren’t readily being pulled in to talk about flood alleviation. After Jake and Nik started up, though, she found that the engagement process became much easier. Andy Judson made much the same point, telling me that the performers succeeded in creating a much “softer landing” for the FAS team’s more technical explanations … Once drawn in by the sense of fun, spectacle and banter, people were much more willing to express their curiosity about the weir itself… and some great conversations then followed. Throughout the weekend it became clear that the FAS team were having a great time chatting with people, since the level of interest was so much greater than they’re used to.

Here’s Professor Leaky-Faucet again (above), in the midst of the “pre-show” set that he delivered six times over the course of the weekend, before each of our Weir Science walking tours (starting at 12.30, 2.00 and 3.30 each day). On the occasion below, he was also accompanied by Nik — down off his stilts and doing his object manipulation routine. At one point this involved commandeering a child’s remote control joystick box, and appearing to use it to “drive” a wheelchair-user around in circles… this man played along gamely to hilarious effect (he was of course really operating his own chair!) .. thereby totally upstaging Jake!

Jake’s crowd-gathering set would end, each time, with him delivering his stompy, one-man-band version of the theme tune to the 1980s teen movie Weird Science — now renamed “Weir Science”…

… here are his lyrics, which stage manager Jenny and I (above) would point out with our fingers as he went… rather like the bouncing ball on karaoke lyrics…

As soon as Jake finished his song, I would then take over in my role as “Guy…from the Council” (complete with carefully selected hush puppies). Accompanied by “my glamorous assistant Jack” (“of all trades”) in head-to-toe BAM orange, we would then demonstrate the weir model before inviting people to come with us on a tour around the real thing… Jack (played by the aptly named Jack Waterman) would then read a mock safety briefing, during which people joining us were invited to put on hi-viz vests…

… and a surprising number of people proved willing to do just that (even though we made clear that the vests were optional – still it was a useful way for us to identify our audience on the move). Our first stopping point on the tour was a spot just by the river, where Jack would explain how the crane on Fearns Island had been erected – while also having a sly go at “men in suits and ties”, such as myself, who under-estimate the skills and expertise of construction workers such as himself…

My script for this was based on a gently satirical reading of the research interviews I’d done as preparation: the idea was to bring a human side to the story, to offset and balance out our more technical explanations.

And then it was off across Knights Way Bridge… stopping part-way across to get a good look at the weir itself — currently half-completed… Here we discussed what exactly a coffer dam is, and spoke in some detail about the scheme’s benefits for wildlife…

At one point, “Guy” even attempted to explain the possible reappearance of lamprey in the Aire by demonstrating with a visual aid …

After completing our crossing of the bridge, we stopped outside the Turlow Court apartment building — badly hit during the Boxing Day flood of 2015 — to reflect on some of the residents’ feelings about the flood alleviation scheme (which are generally very positive, despite the temporary inconveniences involved with the construction process).

Then, for our last stop, we brought the audience to a spot directly overlooking the new weir. This was within a fenced-off construction area, which had been specially tidied and made safe for us, for the weekend, by BAM staff.

Here, Jack and I shared various anecdotes, including the story of the moorhen who had made her nest against the upstream side of the part of the sheet piling used to construct the coffer dam for the first (now complete) section of the weir works… Since the nest could not be removed, either legally or morally, when they came to take the coffer dam down, the FAS team had to find a way of working around it — at some considerable cost and expenditure of time. And yet there are now moorhen chicks swimming happily around — who appeared right on cue for one of the Sunday performances, much to the delight of the audience! (I don’t have a picture of them, but here is a tern that stage manager Jenny spotted on the weir…)

Finally, to wrap up, my good friend Eddie Lawler would appear to sing his brand new song, written for the occasion, “The New Leeds Weir”. This had a great, catchy chorus involving making the imagined sounds of the weir moving (“Psst! Fsssh! Bub-bub-bubble! What’s going on at at the New Leeds Weir?”) which many audience members merrily joined in with. It was a lovely, relaxed way to conclude the presentation.

And then, before departing, many audience members wanted to stand around some more, look at the weir and the river, and ask further questions…

Back at the starting point, Jon gradually built up a visual representation of some of the feedback we received over the course of the weekend… Some of it related to people’s thoughts about the weir installation itself, and some of it was feedback on the way we’d presented and explained it to people. My favourite is: “Unexpectedly, I really enjoyed that!”

A huge thankyou to everyone who collaborated on putting this weekend together — to Andy, Jonathan, Mark and everyone at BAM… to Rosa, Mark Garford and others at the EA… to my “sidekick” Jack Waterman, to Phil Marken and Open Source arts, stage manager Jenny, street performers Nik and Steve, and of course two very different musicians who wrote original material for the occasion… Jake and Eddie… Thanks all!

By the end of the weekend, Jon had pretty much filled up that big expanse of whiteboard, and it was the last thing to get dismantled on the Sunday. I gather it might get preserved as a mural in a meeting room somewhere. So I made sure Jon signed it, bottom right corner. QED.

Weir Science (Part 1): Hold Back the River

This is me, taking a selfie, rocking head-to-toe orange. Something of a contrast to my usual look, but this is a blog post about contrasts. I’ll explain the new look shortly, but first…

The last couple of weeks have seen striking contrasts in weather patterns (climate change? wot climate change?). At the peak of a mini-heatwave that had us all sweating, June 21st was the hottest June day in the UK in 40 years. But only a week later, after several days of persistent rain, Bradford was once again facing flood warnings across the district — with water at perilously high levels in the Shipley area along both Bradford Beck and the main River Aire. Appropriate, then, that we also saw the publication this week of a long-awaited council report on Bradford’s preparedness for future flooding — which concludes that the serious budgetary cutbacks Bradford has experienced in recent years has left it vulnerable and exposed to “accelerating climate change risks”.

This report, from a committee chaired by Shipley’s own Green party councillor (and all-round lovely human) Kevin Warnes, is far better-informed than another report published last autumn by a different committee (which I critiqued in this previous blog post), and took advice from local figures who really do know what they’re talking about (such as the chairmen, respectively, of the Aire Rivers Trust and the Friends’ of Bradford’s Becks, Geoff Roberts and Barney Lerner). And while the report is frank about some of the council’s own failings, its key conclusion about insufficient funding points the finger (implicitly) right back at central government — since Bradford is among those councils who have been most disproportionately hit by austerity-era cutbacks (and faces another £32 million in cuts over the next couple of years). My last post on this blog was – in part – about the desperate under-funding of social housing in the area, but the shortage of adequate flood defences is symptomatic of related economic disparities…

Speaking of which… if we’re looking for contrasts, let’s head 12 miles downstream to Leeds, where a very expensive bit of flood engineering is still under construction…

This is the weir at Crown Point — aka Leeds Dam. The rather aesthetically appealing waterfall effect on the right of the picture (i.e. the north side of the river) is created by the brand-new, state-of-the-art weir installation that has replaced the old industrial weir (versions of which have held up water here for about 700 years). The idea with this new weir is that it gets lower – or even disappears completely – in high water conditions, thanks to the pressurised air bladders underneath it, which can simply be deflated to lower the level of the water on the upstream side. It’s the first time this technology has been used in the UK as a flood alleviation measure – and it’s being installed not just here at Crown Point but downstream (on an even larger scale) at Knostrop weir. These weirs, combined with the new flood walls running through the city centre, up as far as the railway station, comprise Phase 1 of the Leeds Flood Alleviation Scheme (FAS).

This £47million scheme (underwritten by the City Council, with central government support) will soon be followed by the even more expensive Phase 2 – covering points east through Kirkstall to Horsforth – using money provided by then-Chancellor George Osborne in the aftermath of the Boxing Day floods of 2015. Bradford, by contrast, was offered nothing — and the big difference of course is that money follows money. Or, to mis-paraphrase the biblical parable of the talents: “To those that have shall be given more.”

It’s apparently quite unusual, in the world of flood defences, for so many millions to be spent on such a specific, geographically-limited scheme as this. It’s reckoned that the new Crown Point weir, when lowered, will reduce upstream river levels on the Aire about as far as Victoria Bridge — so not even quite as far as the station. That’s a fairly short stretch of river, but it’s an extremely high value stretch of river. Better flood protection here will mean greater peace of mind for the major businesses and residential complexes on either side of the river — and will make it more likely that further inward investment will flow in to the city (especially in terms of the mooted regeneration of the South Bank area). So that’s why this investment has been made… and the results are, let’s be honest, pretty awe-inspiring… That coffer dam is quite literally holding back the River Aire, so that contractors have access to the riverbed.

This is FAS foreman Mark Pheasey, descending the gangway into the coffer dam, where the second section of the new collapsible weir is currently under construction (it’s now due for completion around September). Mark, also pictured below, is one of my new favourite people — helpful, generous, knowledgeable — after being assigned by his employers, the engineering contractors BAM Nuttall, to show me around the site…

I was granted this privileged access (and required to wear orange) as part of my preparation and research for Weir Science — our latest Multi-Story Water performance project, which I’ll document in the promised “Part Two” of this blog post. For now, though, just check out the big boys’ toys…

This is the main crane on site, weighing in at a modest 250 tonnes. The counter-weight alone (the big red bit on the back) is 86 tonnes. Mark laughed when I expressed amazement at this behemoth, because BAM deals with much bigger cranes on other sites. But still, it is way too big to have been driven here… It had to be assembled, here on Fearns Island (in the middle of the river), through the use of a smaller, mobile crane (a mere 110 tonnes) that was driven across to the island via a temporary stone bridge – erected across the narrowest part of the navigation. The big crane is basically being used as a very large coat-hanger from which to suspend equipment like this… (press play and insert fingers in ears…)

This hammer is pile-driving sheet metal… It’s the stuff the coffer dam is made of, but the row going in here is part of the permanent foundations for the new weir. This is “heavy metal” in action, and it’s being installed by a team of highly skilled contractors. BAM workers get assigned to work around the country in teams, where they’re most needed (Mark’s home is in Hartlepool – so mostly he only gets back to see his family at weekends). The guy you see in the video above, lining up the hammer so it falls just right, has been doing work like this for decades. (I didn’t catch his name, sorry…)

But if you’re not easily impressed by scale and power, you might prefer this bit of video instead…

Here we see the River Aire having a minor disagreement with the coffer dam holding it back, and leaking through the cracks to make a new, miniature river along its own river-bottom… A pump system is in operation to deal with this, 24/7.

 

Further along Fearns Island, we can glimpse the new weir doing its thing, while – across on the far side of the river – the new flood walls are still under construction (that white concrete will eventually have red-brick facing on it to blend in with the surrounding buildings). And to the left, also across on the far side, that scaffolding-covered block is the operations booth for the new system. Though the building itself isn’t finished yet, the key machinery has already been installed inside, as Mark showed me…

That touch-screen computer has adjacent settings on it for the two weir plates that will form part of the new weir. Since one of those plates is already operational, all the relevant readings are visible. But since the second plate is not yet installed (inside the coffer dam), that simply shows as being offline.

Whatever. I must admit that I was more drawn to the old school, lower-tech look of the pipes and dials below. And, yes, sadly, my inner child found some measure of amusement in the notice on the left…

Many thanks to Mark and BAM for a fascinating tour of the weir works. It gave me much of the material I needed for Weir Science, which we presented as part of the Leeds Waterfront Festival last weekend (June 24th/25th)… [see Part 2 of this blog].

Though based primarily in Shipley, the Multi-Story Water project has made annual forays downstream along the Aire to present performances at the LWF (see After the Flood and Seven Bridges under the Performance tab on the menu bar above). Working in Leeds has always felt like a different, but related context to Shipley, but this year the contrasts have seemed especially pronounced. Last year, an investigation led by this project established that there would be little to be gained, in terms of flood mitigation, by removing Shipley’s old industrial weirs. (Even if the money was available, which it isn’t.) In Leeds, though, they’re transforming a centuries-old landmark into contemporary art…

“Site-specific” pop-up films for Saltaire Arts Trail

[note: this piece was originally posted on 1st June but had to be taken down and and then restored for technical reasons. The text remains as was.]

It’s not every day you get to watch a film under water… But last weekend (May 27-28), that’s exactly what audiences were doing near the River Aire, west of Roberts Park…

We made a little pop-up cinema in the small passageway that runs underneath the Barden Aqueduct — the stone ‘beehive’ structure at the end of the Higher Coach Road flood plain — to screen the world premiere of Floody, a 9 minute movie masterpiece made with the Young Artists of Higher Coach Road…

This was the view from ‘backstage’ area, looking towards the river and the rest of the aqueduct — which for 150+ years has carried water supplies to Bradford, en route from the Yorkshire Dales. This passage under the pipe bridge was itself completely submerged during the major flood on Boxing Day 2015 — another reason why we dubbed this pop-up space “The Underwater Cinema”…

Here’s the entrance to the cinema (with a couple of lucky punters just entering!). It was identifiable mainly by the bit of black cloth hung across the entrance, to block out light, and the tell-tale sign of the hazard-taped extension cable carrying power to the projector from the nearest house… Audience capacity was limited, but at 9 minutes long we could restart the film regularly for the next group of passers-by, and we had a pretty steady stream of visitors, coming off the riverside path near the footbridge across the Aire…

As a film, Floody is very much the vision of the ‘Young Artists’ — a group of mostly primary-age children who have been meeting most Wednesday afternoons, for almost a year, for open air art workshops on the flood plain between the river and the Higher Coach Road estate. Indeed, the film features footage from one of these workshops, which have been run by the amazing Nicola Murray, of Spongetree arts in Baildon…

Facilitated in film-making workshops by Simon Kerrigan and Sian Williams (who also then edited the footage into its final form), the kids devised, acted, and shot a kind of horror thriller, in which a monster called Floody evolves from plastic bags abandoned in the river, and brings on an enormous storm, before being vanquished by the heroic children (who then remind us always to put our plastic bags in the recycling…). And if you think that sounds not-too-scary, well, there really is a moment in the film that made a lot of people jump… (As this hilarious bit of footage of “young artist” Leo demonstrates! Thanks Ruth Bartlett!)

The pop-up screening was arranged as an unofficial contribution to Saltaire Arts Trail, which runs every year on the last weekend of May. The “trail” is officially limited to a tour around Saltaire mill village itself: you get to nose around various people’s homes, which have been temporarily transformed into miniature art galleries displaying work from far and near. But we thought why not get people to “trail” out a little further along the river, and as some of the comments left in our feedback box showed, visitors to SAT were delighted to discover this added extra!

The ‘lure’ for visitors to walk out along the riverbank was another pop-up film installation in Roberts Park… (People who enjoyed this one were encouraged to venture out further for its companion piece.) The Salt Lions was set up in one of the park shelters (the one closest to the HCR estate), and attracted a consistent stream of visitors, who came off the sun-soaked park promenade to enjoyed the shade and a bit of a sit-down…

The Salt Lions is a 6-minute spin-off from the film project, which celebrates the Victorian bedtime tale of how the stone lions on Victoria Road  would leave their pedestals at night and wander down to the river to drink its waters. The kids responded to this by making a sepia-tinted silent movie, complete with captions, in which three of them hunt high and low around Saltaire for the “missing” lions…

Despite our best efforts with hessian hangings, it was difficult to mask the light out as much in the park shelter as under the aqueduct, so the film image was fainter and smaller (as the projector had to be placed fairly close to the screen). In a weird way, though, this complemented the silent movie “look” of the film, making it feel very old school indeed, like an old fairground cinematograph… And certainly audiences did not complain (kids of all ages, used to hi-tech digital gadgetry, watched this flickering image with rapt attention!). There was something about the film that just worked in this setting at the end of a Victorian park promenade… which of course was part of the intention.

This is Hannah, who features prominently in both our films – as she’s one a hard-core group of “young artists” who were ever present during the making of them. (Many more tended to come and go, depending on weather and mood…) Among the other stalwarts were Leo and Oliver – pictured below. These three not only hung out supporting the screenings at park and pipe bridge all day Sunday, they also showed up bright and early on the morning of bank holiday Monday having overnight prepared a new advertising hoarding for the park screening. Not only that… they had hand-signed whole fistfuls of autograph slips to hand out to their adoring public… (in their hands below)

The only problem was that by comparison with the sunny weekend, the Monday turned out to be cold and drizzly — with both park and flood plain thus largely deserted of passers-by (except for reluctant dog-walkers). We therefore took the collective decision not to try to remount our outdoor screenings — and instead got permission from Half Moon Cafe to set up indoors with them…

Having opted for a single location, we alternated screening both films for a few hours to customers coming into the cafe. I have to say that the atmosphere wasn’t quite the same: both films had worked particularly well in their sited settings (monster movie in the dark under the bridge; sepia cinema on the park promenade…) and the more neutral cafe setting didn’t have quite the same charge. But The Salt Lions could at least be seen better… Meanwhile, the kids themselves became the show, hiding behind the screen and popping out at the end (as if breaking out of the film!) to bow for applause and even take questions…

The Young Artists clearly took great pride in showing off what they had made to the public, and didn’t tire at all of watching the same short pieces over and over again with new audiences. And they handed out a lot of autographs… The project of working with these kids over the last year has been very beneficial for their personal confidence (a point marvelled at by some of their teachers, Nicola tells me), and in some ways it’s the environmental aspect of this that’s been most important. By that, I don’t just mean working with natural materials, which they have done a lot of in the art workshops. My point is that, because we had to work outside in the open air (because there is no obvious indoor space in which to congregate on the estate), the kids have always known they can walk away at any time… (and when it’s cold or wet, they’ve done just that!) Perhaps paradoxically, it’s that freedom to move in or out that has allowed them to commit… without ever feeling trapped in a room, or as if they were “at school”. The degree of dedication and buy-in which some of them have shown as a result is really striking… They didn’t have to be there, and so they chose to invest themselves. And we’re all really proud of the results…

Spared by Storm Doris

This was the slightly scary-looking state of Saltaire weir, three nights ago on Thursday 23rd February, after the country had been battered by Storm Doris…

16865113_10211387956322079_5698127446383449307_nOnly this morning, Ireland was hit by the next alphabetically-named storm coming off the Atlantic this winter — Storm Ewan. (Previously we’ve had Angus, Barbara and Conor. Sounds more like a sitcom than extreme weather, but whatever…) Thankfully, there’s been nothing like last winter’s “E” storm — Eva — which brought the chaos of the Boxing Day floods. But as these images show, the Aire was again perilously close to breaking its banks on Thursday…

16649155_10211387956882093_8829426053666866144_nThese pictures were taken by Higher Coach Road resident Syra Lax, who posted them on the HCR Residents’ Group facebook page (from where I have pinched them, with her kind permission). That page is becoming a really valuable source of local news, debate and eyewitness observation. Since it is intended for “Higher Coach Road Residents Group and Friends”, I recommend getting yourself added as a friend, even if you don’t live on the estate.

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Last Christmas: a view from the air

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Tomorrow, Sunday 18th December 2016, we’re holding a Christmas party at Baildon Woodbottom Working Men’s Club for the Higher Coach Road Residents Group — and other invited members of the local community. We held a similar event around this time last year, shortly before the club was devastated by flooding on Boxing Day. That’s the club’s buildings, there, on the lower right of the photo above. The ‘proper’ river is to its right, and the lake that was Woodbottom cricket pitch is to the left. This was 27th December 2015, as the flood water was starting to recede.

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Here’s a closer view of the club and adjacent caravan park… And below, another view as the aerial drone camera turns clockwise to show the rest of the club and the upstream area.

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Below, moving further upstream but looking back — a higher and wider shot of the whole area. Here, the main course of the river is much clearer, just off to right of centre. The club is in the middle towards the back of the shot, and in the foreground, Baildon Rec and the local Sea Cadets hall.

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Then, below… just a little further upstream still, and turning clockwise again to look west, we have the four houses of Aire Close — right next to the river — and the Victoria Mills complex on the opposite “bank”. In the distance, to the west, is Saltaire. Notice the visible watermark on the buildings in this shot, since the water is already well down on where it had been the previous day:

DCIM100MEDIADJI_0009.JPGI’m very grateful to Brian Tuxford, of Northway Vehicle Sales (on Baildon Bridge) for sharing these images with me and allowing me to put them up on the blog. I featured Brian a few weeks ago, in this blog post, but it’s taken me a while to get these images up (because the CD he gave me had got corrupted somehow, and I had to get technical support to recover the photo files). Anyway, it seems appropriate to share them at Christmas — one year on.

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Above, we see the view from just downstream of Baildon Bridge, looking west. The cricket pitch etc are to the back of the shot now, and in the foreground we see the retail area east of the bridge, off Otley Road… United Carpets, and in the bottom right, the garden centre section of B&M. The river channel proper is to the left. The collection  of white vans in the middle of the shot is part of the Northway Vehicles fleet — the part that hadn’t been swept away by the flood — and you can see here just why Northway’s compound was in exactly the worst place as far as the flood was concerned… right in harm’s way as the water diverted across the cricket pitch tries to find its way back into the main channel. Below we see the same scene in reverse (i.e. the other side of United Carpets is now to the left; the river is to the right), and here you can get a very clear sense of the trajectory that would have been taken by the 37 vehicles swept downstream off the Northway lot…

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The shot below gives some sense of how bright and sunny it was, on the day after the storm. Again we’re looking west, with the club to the left and the Rec in the centre of the shot. In the lower foreground is Otley Road, coming away from Baildon Bridge…

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If you compare the shot above with the shot below — which seems to have been taken later in the day, when the water level had further receded — you can see how more of the road is now visible. And how the worst flooded part of it is actually around the junction with Green Lane… The bridge itself, to the left, and everso slightly raised to cross the river, is by this point comparatively dry. Which may be why the vehicle trying to ford through the flood water had thought it safe to ignore the road closure signs at the other side…

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Particularly clear from this photo above is the way that the main river channel goes through a noticeable curve or bend as it comes under the bridge. Hardly surprising, then, that in high water — and with the channel under the bridge itself partially blocked by debris — the river diverts itself straight across this area, in a sort of “short cut.”

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Finally, then, back to the club. And the vapour trails in the sky, reflecting in the standing water on the cricket pitch. And one, stranded blue car, which is not going anywhere fast.

Merry Christmas, one and all.

 

Flood Response @ Armley Mills

It was a pleasure and a privilege this last Thursday evening, December 8th, to have the opportunity to perform Too Much of Water, my one-man show about the Shipley flood last Christmas, at Leeds Industrial Museum — aka Armley Mills. The occasion was the opening of a special exhibition titled Flood Response. A single room in the basement of the museum is jam-packed with varied, colourful, striking exhibits documenting the impact of the Boxing Day flood in (mostly) Leeds. As the title implies, the exhibition looks at how communities in Leeds, especially in Kirkstall and Armley (the mill itself was directly hit by flooding), responded to the flood, often by showing a surprisingly festive spirit of resilience and co-operation, and thereby turning a crisis into a form of community-building. In the same spirit, the exhibition itself is labelled a “community exhibition”, and as such is composed largely of material donated by members of the public, rather than being professionally produced or commissioned.

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The curator of this rather remarkable display is Chris Sharp, pictured here on the right — his first big project for Leeds City Museums. He’s done a tremendous job (I really do recommend you visit). The exhibition was officially opened by Councillor Judith Blake, leader of Leeds City Council, pictured below during her speech, during which she spoke with real passion about the city’s response to the flood crisis..

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To Councillor Blake’s right here is Councillor Lucinda Yeadon, deputy leader of the council and (more to the point in this context) the ward representative for Kirkstall. As such, she was directly involved in the community response to the flooding along Kirkstall Road, and she really does seem to be one of those (rather too rare) politicians who inspires the confidence and affection of her local community. The exhibition opening itself was attended by quite a diverse crowd of invitees, enough to pack out the exhibition space, but here too the spirit of inclusion was apparent. This wasn’t just the predictable collection of luvvies and bigwigs you might expect to see at an exhibition opening, but a cross-section of people from the local community who had got involved in the flood response effort, in one way or another. (And here’s a few of them…)

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I’m very pleased to say that Multi-Story Water’s own contribution to telling the story of the Leeds flood response is on display as part of the exhibit (which will run for six months). Our promenade performance After the Flood — devised for Leeds Waterfront Festival in June — is on display in a new film version. We completed editing just in time for the exhibition opening. And OK, yes, some kind of technical glitch meant that the film file wasn’t playing on the digital screen designated for it on Thursday (i.e. the one to the left of this chap’s head, in the picture on the left), so it had to be temporarily installed on  an alternative screen at ground level. This hiccup should be resolved soon, though. And in the meantime you can also view the film online… Just look for After the Flood under the “Films” tab on the menu bar above… 

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This is actor Kat Martin — who you can just about see on the screen in the exhibition shot above — performing ‘live’ in After the Flood, as “Poppy”, a young woman whose family’s business on Kirkstall Road was badly affected by the flood. (The doll’s house represents the business, and the small figures are Poppy’s parents…) I’m really rather proud of this piece, made in collaboration with Simon Brewis’s Common Chorus Theatre, but on Thursday night, attendees at the opening were too busy milling and chatting to concentrate long on a video screen… Instead, after the speeches were over, they were invited upstairs to the museum’s cafe space for my live storytelling performance, Too Much of Water (both it and the ATF film were requested by Chris Sharp for the exhibition and opening – thanks for the opportunity, Chris).

Anyway, here I am, as pictured/tweeted by Geoff Roberts…

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When I originally performed this piece in Roberts Park, for Saltaire Festival, it was mid-September and the Christmas tree and jumper seemed amusingly quirky. Since then, I have performed it around the country (Exeter, London, Cambridge, Manchester, Leeds), and I’m aware that by now — in December — I’m in danger of looking like I’m just trying too hard to be seasonal. Be that as it may, the performance was very well received by attendees at the opening, several of whom made a point of introducing themselves afterwards and thanking me personally (which was very nice – thankyou!).

What people find moving, I think, is the piece’s focus on some of the smaller, more human details of how people were affected by the flooding (the script draws from interviews with a number of people in the Shipley area, who are represented by the small wooden figures). I was especially flattered by the suggestion of one senior flood risk officer, who saw the piece on Thursday, that anybody who works with people affected by, or at risk of flooding (be it for the Environment Agency, local council, or whatever) ought to see this piece, because it will help them reflect on what it’s really like to be in those circumstances. High praise indeed.

On the other hand, I heard on Friday — from another friend who couldn’t attend the opening — that a couple of his colleagues at the Environment Agency, who had been at Armley Mills to represent on Thursday, had felt slightly uncomfortable watching the piece. They wondered if I was attacking the EA’s warning efforts in Shipley around the time of the flood. I’d just like to say, publicly, that I’m really sorry if they felt that way, because this was never my intention. Yes, certain details are documented in the show, as seen from the point of view of my interviewees, that might perhaps be seen as not reflecting all that well on the EA, but I was very careful in writing the piece not to make any comment either way — simply to represent the facts as best I could establish them, and let spectators draw their own conclusions. And I do make the point in the show that the Agency too, in its own way, was inundated on Boxing Day — struggling to keep up with the pace of events as the crisis unfolded in multiple towns, in multiple catchments, simultaneously. They, too, are only human.

With that in mind, I’ll close here by pasting in Scene 5 of our After the Flood film — “the Agency Man”. Hopefully this provides some sense of just how tricky the EA’s job is, in terms of Flood Response – often having to be all things to all people. In my (finite) experience, they usually do a great job, in often very difficult circumstances.