A very merry Christmas to you and yours from Multi-Story Water! We’ve been pretty quiet in 2018, but here’s a seasonal greeting of sorts…
This is one of my favourite Christmas cards this year — a fat cat looking none too happy, because he hasn’t a snowball’s chance… (the red scarf – tie? – reminds me of Donald Trump but I’ve always been prone to over-interpreting things!). Anyway, the card is from Lynda, from Lower Baildon, who featured as a “character” in both my one-man show Too Much of Waterand our original Multi-Story Watershows back in 2012! She is also very much an actual person, whose home was flooded three years ago on Boxing Day, 2015, so the P.S. on her card was reassuring: “still above water : / ”
The river is high again this Christmas-time, after a lot of recent rain, but (touch wood) it’s nothing like as bad as 2015, and hopefully everyone will enjoy a safe festive season!
This was me last month (7th November 2018), decked out in my Christmas jumper, telling the story of Shipley’s flood yet again in Too Much of Water. When I first presented it for Saltaire Festival, 2016, I had no particular intention of ever performing it again, but people keep asking for it, so it still gets wheeled out occasionally (the script is permanently etched in my memory now). On this occasion I was performing at Manchester University’s Green Impact awards ceremony — an annual shindig they have to celebrate staff attempts at developing sustainable working practices… I was there to provide some variation in between two tranches of award-giving…
Too Much of Water (TMOW) is a piece that was made for intimate audiences, sitting or standing close to me in Roberts Park. On this occasion, though, the audience was a lot bigger than usual (as is apparent above!), so we had to “boost” the visuals using a live camera relay of the small objects at my feet…
Here I am, in fact, holding up the figure that represents “Lynda” — although frankly it looks nothing like her (I had to work with the dolls I was given…). You can just about see “her” enlarged on the screen behind me. Meanwhile my voice was amplified for the Whitworth Hall (where they normally hold graduation ceremonies, etc.) by a radio mic.
So here you have it… Salts’ New Mill, the Boathouse Inn, and Roberts’ Park’s Half Moon Cafe and cricket pavilion/scoreboard — all “under water” on Boxing Day 2015. (Models by the very wonderful Stewart Gledhill, of Higher Coach Road Residents’ Group…)
In case you’re wondering how this piece about Shipley went over with a bunch of Manchester University employees who mostly don’t know the place, it turns out the answer is: very well! The Green Impact staff sent an email questionnaire about the awards event out to everyone who attended it (142 people, apparently), and got 72 completed responses… which is a pretty good return, as these things go. Of these, a very pleasing 73.6% (i.e. 53 people) rated TMOW as a 5* performance — with another 12.5% (9 people) rating it 4*. Since nobody in the audience had actually asked to sit through this, this is excellent feedback. 🙂 In fact in the same questionnaire, 44 of the 72 said that TMOW was their favourite thing about the whole event (which was generally considered well organised, well catered, etc.). I’m sharing this info in the interests of full documentation, and of course in the spirit of self-congratulation… Joking aside, though, what’s important here is that these very personal flood stories — as they were experienced by Lynda and others — can still capture people’s attention and empathy, three years after the fact.
And so this is Christmas. Another year over, and a quiet one for Multi-Story Water, as we’ve mainly been working on other things. But watch this space, as we’ll be back in action in the New Year.
“In the beginning,” we are told, “God created the heavens and the earth.The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And . . . God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” (Genesis 1: 1-3)
Maybe that’s too far back. Maybe I should begin in the 1770s, when the first sections of the Leeds to Liverpool canal were cut — through Shipley and Bingley — the first stage in a process that would connect Leeds, Bradford and Liverpool by water, and catalyse those cities’ rapid expansion during the Industrial Revolution.
Or maybe I should just begin last month, when the Leeds-based arts collective Invisible Flock (with whom I have enjoyed some productive dialogues over recent years) invited me to attend the launch evening of their new, Liverpool-based installation, Aurora.Which is why, last night, I found myself walking through pouring rain in the Toxteth area of Liverpool, along with other intrepid visitors to Aurora‘s very first public showing. Everyone was cold and damp, and we’d been warned that we were likely to stay cold and damp, because we were about to step inside a reservoir. Toxteth Reservoir, that is: a remarkable, Grade-2 listed building that is part of Liverpool’s industrial heritage.
Those forbidding, sloping walls, built around 1845, were designed to contain and support vast quantities of water. This water, which presumably fell from the sky to begin with? — this being Liverpool — was held in a rectangular tank measuring around 2600 square metres. It was distributed as needed to provide clean water to the city’s rapidly expanding population, and also supplied early fire-fighting efforts, etc.
The roof of this vast space is held up with rows of iron pillars. Moving inside the building, we found ourselves navigating our way freely around a big rectangle of walkways, shadowing the interior edges of the building, which were marked out by coloured lasers. These walkways were all under 2 or 3 centimetres of water, so as we walked, patterns of coloured light rippled out in front of us.
I went into Aurora not really knowing what to expect. The last piece of Invisible Flock’s that I saw, Control, was a theatre show based on interviews with a myriad of “experts” — which explored who has what degree of control over the way the world is heading just now (politically, environmentally, technologically…). Control was all about the language from these interviews — words, words, words — and so I was expecting that to be continued somehow in Aurora. But instead… no words at all. Just impenetrable darkness, a void without clear edges, and water lapping around our feet, moisture clinging to us in the dank atmosphere. And light. Let there be light, said Invisible Flock. And behold, there was light. Especially, centrally, light picking out a big lump of slowly melting ice — hanging suspended in the middle of the space, and reflecting in the water below. Sometimes the ice was visible. Sometimes not.
As an experience, Aurora runs for about 40 minutes. Which is actually quite a long time when you’re standing in the dark and the cold, watching light play across water. If this were a regular gallery installation, it would be the kind of thing you’d just walk in and out of, when you’ve had enough, but here — like a theatre show — we all entered together and left together at the end. A captive audience. Trapped in the dark. Not quite sure how to get out even if you wanted to. So you’re very much left alone with your own thoughts. Partly because talking would seem, somehow, wrong in here. And partly because the sound score — an eerie combination of electronics and strings — is sometimes so loud it would drown out speech. Although it’s also sometimes so quiet that you can hear water dripping.A lot of things run through your head in a situation like this. I went through a phase, for example, of rejection and denial. It’s really just a big son et lumiere display, I thought to myself for a while. Where is the content? I’d read that this was some kind of local community project, so where was the community — other than standing around with me in the dark? I’d also read that this was to be a piece about global “water issues” like flooding and drought… but how can sound and light alone talk about those concerns?There was a stage in the show when we started to be shown more of the looming, arch-like architecture of the building — and though you can’t really see it in the picture above, it actually starting raining inside the building, around the inside of the exterior wall. This was the point when the piece felt the most “human” to me — an evocation both of man-made structures and of the weather we all live with in the north of England… the weather that Liverpool’s Victorian workers trudged through, just as we had today.
But what was most surprising, and most chilling perhaps, was just how inhuman, or rather nonhuman, Aurora turned out to be. To speak of flooding or drought is to speak, really, of the impacts on humans of there being too much water, or too little, for our accustomed ways of living. But in the end, Aurora seemed to me spectacularly unconcerned with such passing concerns. It really was about water as water. Mysterious. Impenetrable (even when we dive headfirst into it). Eternal. We’re made of it, we depend on it, but it does not need us.
For me, this thought was epitomised by the strange, hanging shapes that formed a kind of field, or cloud, or constellation around that central ice block. Shapes that looked at first like lanterns, then maybe water containers of some sort… but also weirdly alien. It crossed my mind, briefly, that they were the eggs of an Alien hive mother… Eventually I realised that they too, like the egg-like form in the centre, were ice. And they were melting. Water going from solid to liquid.
In one particularly eerie moment, these shapes hung very low over the water — as if threatening to descend right into it — before rising back up into the “stars”. The music during this whole section seemed mournful, haunting — I can’t even start to describe it — but in my mind the whole thing started to crystallise as a piece that was really, truly indifferent to human beings. Like the planet itself, perhaps. The planet that we are irrevocably altering with our own indifference towards it. The glaciers are melting. Sea levels are rising. The next Great Extinction of earthly species is already underway, and we started it — round about the time of the Industrial Revolution, when this building went up and we started burning fossil fuels at an ever-more-exponential rate. Aurora, then, evokes the facts of a very Dark Ecology. . . . But the oceans will outlast us. And so, in the end, will the ice.
Towards the end of the piece, sharp shafts of laser light begin to stab their way into the middle of the space — as if from the outer edges of outer space. And then, before you know it, those beams are catching and refracting through the hanging icicles, and the music goes from somber to strangely joyful, and there’s a dazzling symphony — or choreography, or something — of co-ordinated light and sound.Perhaps this, finally, is the aurora borealis evoked by the piece’s title. The Northern Lights. The spectacular natural light show that’s visible in areas approaching the north pole. (Come to that, it could equally well be the aurora australis – the Southern Lights. Both the ice-caps are melting, after all.) For me, though, something about those lights beaming in from outer space made it something else again…. A picture, perhaps, of an ocean-covered earth echoing with the music of the spheres — catching the starshine arriving from light years away, and amplifying its harmonies. An earth no longer despoiled by humans, but restored to one-ness with the rest of the universe…?
… Or something like that, anyway. Afterwards, I found two phrases from very different songs echoing around my head. From Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn, the chorus of his hymn-like 1979 song “Hills of Morning“:
Let me be a little of your breath Moving over the face of the deep — I want to be a particle of your light Flowing over the hills of morning
Or on a bleaker, perhaps more realistic note, some words from U2’s 2014 song “Iris” — a song of lament for the mother Bono lost when he was a child:
The stars are bright but do they know
The universe is beautiful … but cold.
Having reached its climax, Aurora ends, and mysterious ice blocks appear lit at the corners of the walkways, to help light our way out. Ice blocks with items frozen inside them… is this an arrow? a quill? …human relics of a forgotten civilization, preserved in ice forever.
But then, bit by bit, the magic ebbs away. On the way out, we can suddenly see the ramp up to the flooded walkways (when we came in, it was too dark…). Those familiar white lines marking the perimeters of a stage space or holding area. Suddenly so banal after the mysteries of what we just witnessed. But then that’s the way of magic, isn’t it? Sometimes its most magical when you can see how they pulled off the trick…
And outside, it’s still raining. It’s still Liverpool. And those walls that had seemed so imposing and forbidding when we went in seem suddenly much smaller, more ordinary… But ordinary like the outside of the Doctor’s Tardis. Because a moment ago they contained the universe inside…And so we repair to the launch reception for Aurora. Just up the street, on the other side of the Catholic Church, is the Mount Carmel Social Club… a community venue where members of the local community mix in with the slightly incongruous arty-types who seem to be staffing the show. Once everyone has a drink, the absence of words during the performance itself is (over-)compensated for by an excess of words from the great and the good — the Arts Council, the City of Liverpool, the commissioning body FACT, etc. It’s all the usual corporate verbiage that you get on such occasions, but it’s even harder to listen to than usual after what we just witnessed. Representing Invisible Flock, though, Victoria Pratt is refreshingly brief in her comments. She prefers, I think, to let the work speak for itself.
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.”
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…
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…).
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!
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!
“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 Water, which 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 Waters, my 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…
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 Benn, Labour 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 Sciencecame 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!
… 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.
[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 Lionswas 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…
It’s been a crazy busy week, so I’m only just now catching up on here on the blog — to say a few words about last weekend’s events in the Saltaire area. It was the Annual World Heritage Weekend celebrations for Titus Salt’s Victorian mill village — part of a worldwide celebration of UNESCO-designated heritage sites. Saltaire has been participating for 5 years now, but this was the first year when the Higher Coach Road estate was officially ‘on the map’ for the Heritage celebrations (as you can see from this map, from the WHW leaflet)…
Higher Coach Road falls comfortably within the “buffer zone” which restricts planning within sight of Saltaire (subject to UNESCO approval), and of course the whole area that the estate is built on once belonged to Sir Titus Salt. But the residents chose to mark the occasion by celebrating their own “heritage” as a post-war council estate by hosting a 1950s picnic … for themselves, and anyone else who wanted to join in….
The 1950s picnic was initially the brainchild of resident Ruth Bartlett, pictured below in this rather curious picture that appeared in the online version of theTelegraph and Argus
Ruth is pictured here having (no) tea poured for her by myself, Steve Bottoms. The T&A photographer, having turned up at the very beginning of the 12-4 slot during which we’d said the picnic events would occur, found that not that many people were there yet (because, seriously dude, who turns up at a party in the first minute?), and so asked those of us who’d dressed up to pose with embarrassed grins for the camera…
Ruth and I are seated here in the “outdoor living room” that was Multi-Story Water’s contribution to the festivities. Cleverly assembled by Anna Parker from visits to a string of charity shops, this installation of 50s furniture and nick-nacks was well populated over the course of the afternoon, as people came and sat down on the surprisingly comfortable furniture to enjoy the sunshine. (it was behind a cloud when the photographer came, naturally…) That blue folder poking out from under the coffee table contained a selection of stories I had prepared about the area and its community and watery histories. I read these on request, in response to people picking titles from a menu we provided… such as “The Malicious Mr. Pickles”, “Higher Coach Road in the Ice Age” and “Ten Minutes of Madness (The Derwent Avenue Murderer)”. This was our “streaming service” for an age when most people didn’t have television yet… and it seemed to go down remarkably well! Some of the stories prompted considerable discussion. One resident, for example, shared her memories of working at Salts Mill in the 1970s — because she remembered as a co-worker the victim of the murder in my “ten minutes of madness” story (a black tale for a sunny day – it proved an unexpectedly popular choice!).
Ruth and I had also collaborated on writing this leaflet, launched on this occasion as a joint effort of MSW and HCR Residents Group (the image shows the inside of the ‘gatefold’). In this slightly-tongue-in-cheek “heritage” leaflet, which will also be available from Saltaire Visitor Information Centre, we wanted to make the case for this estate as “Saltaire’s Other Model Village” — a development planned to blend in with its green and pleasant environment, which residents still take great pride in.
Here’s another of the shots from the T&A, with Saltaire’s towers visible in the background. Dressed in their versions of the 1950s are the current and recent chairs of the Higher Coach Road Residents’ Group — Pam Ruppe and Stewart Gledhill — who are flanked on either side by Kat Martin (left) and Lyze Dudley (right), both part of the Multi-Story Water team who dressed up for the day.
Now, it does rather look from these pictures as if nobody else was there… which is not in the least bit true. I’ll post other shots from the day as soon as I have access to them. [editor’s note: sure enough, other pics can be found here and here]. It was a perfect day for sitting out in the sun, for a chat with neighbours — whether enjoying food from the sandwich and cake stall masterminded by Irene Townend and other HCRRG members, or a little storytelling, or listening to music. We had “the bard of Saltaire”, Eddie Lawler, playing live on his acoustic guitar, and also a collection of old 78 rpm records from the 1950s that we played on the little machine pictured below (with which I was asked to pose for the most embarrassing photo op of the afternoon…). The most popular tunes turned out to be Cliff Richard‘s “Please Don’t Tease” and Brian Hyland’s “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” (which several picnickers seemed to know word for word by heart, and sang along…). Admittedly both those tunes were actually released in 1960, but what’s a year between friends? This is when a lot of people would have been moving onto the estate anyway: construction began in 1957, but continued until the early 60s.
After the picnic wound down, and we’d packed up the outdoor living room, Kat and I made our way to Fanny’s Ale House, for the first of three Saltaire-area performances this weekend of This Island’s Mine — the short play celebrating the history of Dockfield, which I discussed in detail in my last blog post. Again, it was nice to be complicating the “official” heritage story of World Heritage Weekend, by drawing attention to another, less celebrated Shipley neighbourhood. (In Dockfield’s case, the major developments occurred not in the Victorian or post-WWII periods, but at the beginning of the 20th century, when Shipley Council built Dockfield Road, Dockfield Terrace, and local works for gas, electricity and sewage). And on Sunday afternoon, in the bar of Salts Sports Association (just across the river from the Coach Road estate), it was a particular pleasure to perform the play for an audience made up of members of the Higher Coach Road Residents Group…
This Island’s Mine ends with a speech from Kat (based on interviews with Dockfield residents) about how, for all the improvements in living conditions we have nowadays, we’ve perhaps lost something of the sense of close community that was experienced by many local residents growing up (in the years when this was still very much an industrial town). This was a sentiment that I recall being expressed particularly clearly to me by some of the people sitting at this table — Stewart and Pat, Irene and Barry — when I first met and interviewed them back in 2012. So it was a particular delight, with Higher Coach Road Residents’ Group having become such a dynamic source of community identity over the last couple of years, to be sharing this story with them. It turns out that, just because something seems to have been lost, doesn’t mean it can’t be rediscovered with a little goodwill and ingenuity — because that sense of community may well still be there, lying dormant, and ready to sprout again…
That’s Barry in the middle of the shot above. He grew up in Dockfield, and has lived on Higher Coach Road since the 60s. He contributed some great new additions to the collection of memories we’ve been gathering around this little play. And on the right in the image below is Steve, one of the most active current members of HCRRG, who went straight off from Salts to visit one of the older residents on the estate — as part of a “befriending” scheme that the group has started, to tackle the problem of isolation experienced by some. HCRRG is doing some amazing work now… I salute you all.
And so, back to Fanny’s Ale House, and the last of our scheduled performances of This Island’s Mine this weekend. For an audience that included Rob Martin and Molly Kenyon, the dynamic Saltaire duo who really got the World Heritage Weekend celebrations established as an annual thing these past five years (this year they’ve finally been able to step back a bit and let others take the lead). So it was great to share this with them too! That’s Rob’s knees in the bottom right of the shot below — after Kat had managed to attack them by accidentally knocking Rob’s pint off the table with one of her props… The perils of live theatre! Fortunately nobody was hurt, and the show continued once the glass was swept up by Fanny’s quick-reacting staff…
A particular highlight for me of this last performance was the way that the audience took it upon themselves to animate some of our table props… Below is one spectator’s interpretation of a story Kat tells, at the end of the piece, about canoeists being attacked by swans on the canal outside the Amber Wharf flats… So OK, it’s geese not swans, and a skateboarding lego man not a canoeist, but that is the spirit of improvisation!
Happy World Heritage Weekend everyone. A great celebration of past, present, and – perhaps – future…
This was the scene just last night, in one of the flats at Amber Wharf. That’s the new-build properties next to the canal, in the Dockfield area of Shipley.
Sitting at the end of the table is Kat Martin, my co-performer in This Island’s Mine, the two-person play that we’ve devised and written about the history of Dockfield, and the close relationship that industry and residents have always had here with the River Aire, the Bradford Beck, and the Leeds-Liverpool Canal. This was the latest in a series of performances we’ve been giving in homes and pubs/clubs over the last week or so.
The other folk in the picture are last night’s audience (who prefer not to be identified by name, but were happy for me to share this pic), and strewn across their kitchen table is the “stage” of our drama — a map of Dockfield built up during the course of the play, using ordinary household objects from Kat’s shopping bags. Meanwhile, this was the view out of the window…
This particular flat overlooks what was once the junction of the Leeds-Liverpool and Bradford Canals. That’s Junction Bridge, built in 1774 at the same time as these sections of the canal network, to allow horses to get across from one tow-path to the other. This junction features prominently in our story, during the play, and it’s been one of the fun things, in performing it, to be able to point directly to where we are “on the map” as we speak. We’re talking about places and things that our audiences know well, but bringing a different perspective to them. So far, the reactions have been great!
One of the key locations on our map is Saltaire Brewery, whose main buildings were built as an electricity works for Shipley Council at the beginning of the 20th Century (later nationalised under Yorkshire Electricity Board). We were privileged last week to present a public performance of the play in the beer yard outside the Brewery Tap — on a gorgeous April evening in the setting sun (which kept everyone just warm enough!).
The picture above was snapped early in the performance (at a historical moment when the fields of Dockfield-to-be are farmers’ fields, yet to be built on… hence the animals) by Janet Wojtkow, one of our spectators… Janet is the partner of Tony Gartland, the Brewery’s founder and owner, so she took particular pride in snapping this picture…
… at the moment when we talk about how the former electricity works (represented by the light bulbs) is now the Brewery (represented by the bottle of Blonde). I actually had to pause mid-performance for a moment while Janet took the picture — much to everyone’s amusement. But that’s one of the nice things about the informal, round-the-table set-up for this play… there is a script we’re following, but people can also interrupt, ask questions, make observations, and we try to improvise satisfactory responses. It gives the show a lovely sense of liveness and one-off-ness every time we do it.
This conversational approach is also designed to elicit further contributions from the audience after we complete our story. The talking continues… At the Brewery, for instance, Janet shared the full story of why Saltaire Brewery is not in fact located in Saltaire but in Dockfield (it would have been in Salts Mill, it seems, but for the untimely death of its owner Jonathan Silver – and the subsequent hesitations of the interim manager). And this was just one of the additional tales we’ve been told… Take Geoff Roberts, for instance, pictured here in blue just behind my head on the right of the picture…
Geoff worked for decades in water quality control — for Yorkshire Water and its predecessors — and following our tales of Dockfield’s sewage works and plumbing, he told us how his very first work assignment, as a new employee in 1973, was to visit the pumping station next to the footbridge at the bottom of Dock Lane (again – very much part of our map!) in order to remedy a fault. It was quite the trip down memory lane. This performance at Shipley’s Kirkgate Centre was also attended by some with even longer memories, who told tales of Shipley and Bradford in childhoods before World War II.
Our most responsive and vocal audience so far was at Baildon Woodbottom Working Men’s Club last week, where our audience was almost entirely made up of people who grew up in Dockfield itself, in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Since the characters that Kat and I play — Barbara and Danny — are amalgams based on interviews with a number of folk of this sort of age (and also a bit younger… we’re deliberately vague about exactly how old the characters are), the performance sparked especially vivid memories from those watching. In the picture below, on the right, Tony Brannon is offering an observation, mid-performance…
… and you can tell its mid performance because the objects on the table are different from those we end up with at the end (see below!). Truth to tell, Tony had been one of my interview sources, and he’s also a regular at the club, so for him the performance really was like an extension of our previous conversations. He and the others became as much a part of the show as we were — in fact our 30 minute running time stretched to more like an hour, with all the interjections, observations, and debates prompted by our script! Personally, I loved the way that the line between ‘play’ and ‘audience’ became almost indistinguishable…
… and for all that they corrected — or at least disputed — some of our “facts” (as Tony said, everyone remembers things differently anyway), this audience was also especially appreciative of what we’d made. Mary (in the foreground on the left in the picture above) was especially keen, after the play, to know why we’d chosen to focus on Dockfield. She seemed delighted by the thought that the place she grew up in — the landscape of her own childhood, if you like — was being celebrated and remembered in a play (however low-key and informal it might be as a play). I had the sense that her own sense of pride in the specialness of that place was somehow being confirmed by this outside intervention. And she had a few additional stories to tell of her own — like the way that the railings along Dockfield Terrace had been cut down during the war, to feed the urgent need for metal for the war effort…
What I’m really proud about with this play, so far, is that it seems to “work” in different ways for different audiences. For these people at Woodbottom Club, it provided an opportunity to look back and remember together — they carried on talking for hours (literally) after the performance, but were still thanking us for this “special evening” when they left. Conversely, our hosts last night at Amber Wharf are relatively new arrivals in Dockfield, and so the play helped to ground them in the history of the place and answer some of the questions they had about it. In the end, I suppose, that’s the great thing about storytelling… a story has a shape of its own, but it can mean different things to every spectator, depending on the interests and experiences they bring to it.
Postscript. This was tonight’s performance — Wednesday April 19th — at Saltaire Brewery Tap. This week we came inside (no setting sun to warm us this time), and were joined by the biggest and most diverse audience we’ve had yet… Diverse in terms of both age and background. Gathered in two rows around our table, they included long-term Dockfield residents, more recent arrivals, and visitors from right out of town!
Indeed, among those present were a family from the Midlands… theatre and cinema enthusiasts who had come up to see the “magic lantern” collection at the Bradford Media Museum (an old-fashioned form of colour slide projection), only to discover that the collection has been shunted off down to London. They seemed delighted by our show, though (as if reassured that the North had managed to keep some culture of its own!). Despite knowing nothing about the Shipley area, they said that the history of industrialisation — that we tell through the microcosm of Dockfield’s story — was one they very much recognised from their own Black Country background.
“You’ve invented a new paradigm”, one of them told me afterwards. I confessed to not knowing what he meant. “A new model for doing plays,” he explained. “You could take this format and tell the story of anywhere.” And I suppose you could… Personally, I wouldn’t claim to any enormous originality in the format of this piece: the component parts come from a range of theatre forms. But it’s true I haven’t seen them combined in quite this way before, or for quite this purpose (telling the up-close story of a place, through the use of characters, rather than the story of characters, that’s set in a place). As I say, though, what’s most special to me about this piece is the way that it seems to invite such spontaneous, conversational responses — even as we’re performing it.
Acknowledgements: Special thanks are due to Kat Martin, my wonderful co-performer in this piece, and to Simon Brewis – our director, who also guided us skilfully through the play’s development phase, from my initial draft script. Simon also took the pics of the Woodbottom performance. Thanks also Janet Wojtkow (whose pics I pinched off our Facebook feed, where she’d uploaded them), Paul Barrett (for the Kirkgate Centre pic), and Ruth Bartlett (for tonight’s Brewery pics).
If you’ve tried to look at our site in the last few days, you may have been warned off by virus detectors. We got hacked by someone in Bangalore who put malware on the site. (Aargh!)
We think this is fixed now, but please bear with us while we get things back up and running properly. There are a few blog posts we’ve meant to share in recent days, which we couldn’t because of these unwanted visitors…
If you’re interested in our short play about Dockfield, This Island’s Mine, we can confirm planned performances at:
Kirkgate Centre – today, April 12th, 1pm
Saltaire Brewery Tap (Dockfield Road) – today, April 12th, 7pm
Saltaire Brewery Tap – Wednesday April 19th, 7pm
Fanny’s Ale House (Saltaire Rd) – Saturday April 22nd, 7pm (to coincide with Saltaire’s World Heritage Weekend)
Further dates to be confirmed.
Please note: this is an intimate performance designed for small audiences. You are welcome to just turn up, but if you would like to ensure a spot for one of these performances, please call or text Steve at 07504 417323. Alternatively, we can arrange another time/date/place to suit you! We’re taking this as it comes and trying to respond to audience interest as it arises.