Forget the Brexit Party, what we need is a Colour Party…

When Sir George Lindsay Holford (1860–1926) inherited Westonbirt House, he set about continuing his father’s work in developing the Westonbirt Arboretum. He did a magnificent job, with the site handed over to the Forestry Commission in 1956 and Forestry England in 2019. It is now known as the National Arboretum and consists of over 18,000 trees and shrubs, over 600 acres.

Sir George also inherited Dorchester House in London, home to an impressive art and book collection. But he wasn’t much of a reader and so spent most of his time at Westonbirt. An article in The Times from 1926 states:

“He was indeed, one of the most successful amateur gardeners of the time, and though famous as a grower of orchids, amaryllids and Javanese rhododendrons, his garden and estate show a wide catholicity of taste. The arrangement of the many rare and exotic trees there and the skilful use of evergreen species as background and to provide the shelter so needful in a cold district like the Cotswolds, have rarely been equalled; there is no crowding of the trees; each is able to show its true form and all have been well cared for. On few estates has the autumnal colouring of deciduous trees been so cleverly used by harmony and contrast, as, for instance, in the planting of Norway maples and glaucous Atlantic cedars.”

I love trees and books, so I’m a bit jealous of Sir George. But I’m dedicating this blog post to him because he once held a ‘colour party’ picnic in his Acer glade. I’m sick of hearing about, to borrow from D.H. Lawrence, ‘ugliness, ugliness, ugliness’ whenever I switch on the radio or open a paper as the Brexit Party dominates the national conversation. So, in homage to Sir George, I’m proposing a colour party. To get involved, just run to the woods and enjoy autumn colours. I think everyone should do this before voting. And instead of focusing in on boundaries and borders, think instead of how such ‘mechanical thinking’ (another Lawrencian phrase) has led to the absolute destruction of the natural world and its resources and the ushering in of the Anthropocene.

Robert Macfarlane, who writes eloquently about these issues, helped to raise awareness of the Sheffield tree protests in 2013 when a Private Finance Initiative contract set up by the council nearly led to 17,000 trees to be felled in a cost saving exercise that would have removed colour from leafy suburbs across the steel city. Now more than ever we need to have colour parties; to stand under trees in the rain and listen to how different leaves create different tempos with the downpour; to bestow trees with legal rights – for it’s not just colour they provide but the oxygen that we breath. The one thing we don’t need is to fixate on the parochial jingoism of the millionaire Nigel Farage, son of a stockbroker.

Animating graphics for Sillitoe project Cheap Gossip for Retail Later.

This is the third of three blogs originally published on the City Arts website for Words for Wisdom, a project which aims to bring older and young people together through literature. During my commission we explored Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and uncovered an incredible artist called Paul Warren who illustrated the animated graphics for the project: Cheap Gossip for Retail Later.

Whenever I complete a commission there’s that moment where you sit back and reflect on what went well and what you would do differently. Working with City Arts has taken this to another level, clarifying what it is I’ve been doing all my life: I basically find excuses to talk to people.

Journalism is all about navigating a city through the minds of locals, discovering the weird and wonderful things that people get up to – the woman who sends the Queen a teddy bear every year, the puppeteer who wants to cover the Council House in felt. I’ve met them all over the years. I’ve always believed that my digital projects were a celebration of literary heritage, but really they’re an excuse to collaborate with a broad range of disciplines and people. The Sillitoe Trail explored the enduring relevance of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning through a beatboxer, jazz bands, a historian, memoir, actors, writers and many more. Dawn of the Unread enabled me to promote organisations I strongly believed in – Sparrow’s Nest Anarchist Library, The Nottingham Black Archives, The Women’s Centre, the Bertrand Russell Foundation. For Words of Wisdom I’ve met people I wouldn’t have come into contact with otherwise, some of whom I now consider as friends.

In the 20 sessions we hosted across four venues in Nottingham, we used Sillitoe’s writing to reflect upon our own experiences. Some people were uncomfortable with writing, others were unable to write on account of their physical health – such as Brenda at Radford Care Group, who has such severe tremors she joked ‘imagine what it’s like when I try and eat me dinner’. Instead, they shared their memories verbally. The purpose of these sessions wasn’t to force people to write, rather to express and share ideas – whatever that may entail.

During one session, a participant who had served in the army from 1961-4, said he was more comfortable with drawing than writing. He was very dismissive of his art, but agreed – after a little encouragement – to send over a sketch later that evening. His email would change the entire shape and format of the project. His name is Paul Warren.

Paul’s sketch, drawn on an ipad, was of a group of drunken men. The style is reminiscent of a watercolour due to the texture and brush strokes, with some aspects given more emphasis than others. This created the feeling of the characters being both present and absent. Paul explained that he was influenced by the concept of Impressionism, drawing glimpses of moments rather than the completed pictorial composition. I personally loved his characters long flowing limbs which created a sense of inebriation – you could feel the alcohol running through their limp bodies. It felt like they could collapse at any time. His work reminded me of Paul Waplington, the Nottingham artist who captured the liveliness of people and places through his rhythmic paintings.

I had originally intended to create a YouTube video for the project output but instead opted for a series of vignettes to be animated by Paul’s artwork. Each one would include a framing quote from Sillitoe, and then an audio of a participant’s story. At first, Paul couldn’t see the value of his work. He felt he had underachieved in terms of an art career, perhaps because his working life had not afforded the time to perfect his craft, but me and Kate Duncan took a different view. He’s an incredible talent, and we wanted him to be the fulcrum of the project. He later gave us access to his dropbox account where we unearthed hundreds of portraits of people.

This is why projects like Words of Wisdom are so important: They allow space for creativity. They place a value on self-expression. They provide validation to hidden talents.

Better late, than never at all…

Words of Wisdom: Choice Gossip for Retail Later, 12 November (6pm-8pm), City Arts, 11-13 Hockley, Nottingham. NG1 1FH   

Book tickets from Eventbrite here