The Bigger Picture Project – arts and inclusion

For the past year I’ve been working with Loretta Trickett on research for The Bigger Picture which explores the impact of intergenerational arts programming on the experiences of exclusion and isolation within minority communities in Nottingham. This is a multi-collaborative project that includes researchers at the University of Nottingham, Nottingham Trent University and Bright Ideas Nottingham. Together we have been looking at cultural institutions such as National Justice Museum, New Art Exchange, and Nottingham Contemporary as well as many others.

Loretta has held focus groups with various retired people to try to identify possible barriers to the arts and how local organisations can make themselves more inclusive and accessible. Her research has found strong correlations between the arts and health and mental wellbeing. A lot of the retired people she interviewed stated that the arts fill an essential gap in retirement by essentially providing stimulation and building community. One interviewee talked of the arts being a ‘cultural trigger’ that led to obsessive behaviour. He stated that being intrigued by a painter could lead to him reading books about the artist, visiting countries related to the artist, or learning to paint himself. Other people talked about having no time during their working lives to pursue personal goals and then being busier in retirement than they were at work. Over and over again the research reinforced how important the arts were to individuals on numerous levels, not least in providing a sense of self now that work no longer defined their identity.

My role in the project has been finding ways of disseminating the research so that it’s more accessible. This was done through a visual narrative and a graphic novel.

The visual narrative was created by Paul Fillingham, Richard Weare and me. This 35-minute film condenses hours of focus group meetings. The aim was to find recurring themes and categorise experiences so that viewers could get an overall feeling of how the retired felt.

I like the idea of a continuous multi-authored narrative and first got the idea when I worked at LeftLion magazine. The editor at the time, Al Needham, wanted to tell Nottingham’s version of Hillsborough but was cautious given the sensitive nature of the subject matter. The best way to do this was to piece together first-person experiences in one article, thereby allowing self-representation. Two years ago, I helped put together a similar project for the East Midlands Heritage Awards whereby Richard Weare and me conducted interviews with heritage professionals and then sutured these Vox Pops together to create Heritage Confessions.

The graphic novel is for Whatever People Say I Am, the follow-on project to Dawn of the Unread. I held writing workshops with a group of retired people and together we identified key issues they faced on retirement. I then gave them a series of questions (‘what do you miss most about work?’ ‘what is the most important thing to you in retirement?’ etc) and compared their responses to try to narrow down themes and find common patterns. Then we worked on a narrative arc and eventually produced a multi-authored script. This was really important as it enabled the focus group to create something tangible and experience the joys (and frustrations) of writing a script rather than having one imposed on them. If they enjoyed this process, hopefully they would carry on writing…

The script is currently being illustrated by John Brick Clark. Brick is retired (born in 1949) so he was the most appropriate artist for the commission. John was one of our previously commissioned artists for Dawn of the Unread. I don’t want to give anything away, so keep your eyes on the Whatever People Say I Am website. Our aim is to publish this first story for April.

I’m also working on another story for this project about a care home. It involves a Lancaster bomber pilot, a woman with a male horse called Princess, and an 87 year-old taxi driver from London who read his first poetry at 86. More of this in another blog…

On Friday 1 February Loretta and me presented our findings at the Nottingham Contemporary in what was one of the most enjoyable conferences I’ve ever been to. Karen Salt (University of Nottingham) produced a pack of cards that ask various questions and enable arts organisations to understand their aims and objectives in relation to participation. These act as triggers for critical conversations, and had everyone talking in a way that wouldn’t usually happen in a conference.

Bright Ideas, led by Lisa Robinson, took feedback to another level, putting on a performance in which arts organisations were asked to take a health check. The play was performed by a community of researchers who had not met prior to the project and was funny, inciteful and clever. They addressed some difficult issues in a very thoughtful way and I’m sure the organisations in question learned a lot more about their practice than they would from the dreaded feedback form.

Too often academic research is cold, stale and so far up its own arse it (insert witty comment here). This led Geoff Dyer, in Out of Sheer Rage, to conclude of academic criticism that it kills everything it touches. ‘Walk around a university campus and there is an almost palpable smell of death about the place because hundreds of academics are busy killing everything they touch.’ This was not the case on Friday. Together, we produced some innovative and engaging approaches to research that were fun, informative and accessible.

The Bigger Picture is a collaboration between Nottingham Contemporary, New Art Exchange, National Justice Museum, Bright Ideas Nottingham, University of Nottingham, Nottingham Trent University and Midlands4Cities. Funded by Arts Council England. Nottingham Contemporary’s public programme is jointly funded by Nottingham Trent University and The University of Nottingham.

#MondayBlogs Heanor Coalmining Literary Heritage Tour

Narratives of coalmining have tended to focus on the lives of men from the North East, Yorkshire, and Wales. But thanks to the work of Natalie Braber and David Amos, the history of the East Midlands is starting to be recognised. It was through their research that I came across the pit poet Owen Watson, who plied his trade at Heanor.

Heanor colliery started off mining for shallow coal, then when this ran out they sunk bell pits. This was particularly dangerous as coal had to be got out sharpish before the pit sides collapsed. When they needed to go deeper underground, engineering was required. Shafts, horse gins, and other structures were erected, with headgears and engine houses following soon after. Iron and steel industries began to develop to support these needs. Work was plentiful, communities developed, British history was written. But industrial developments were pricey which meant big organisations and wealthy families stepped in and took over during the 19th century. In Heanor, mining operations were dominated by the Butterley Company and the Shipley Collieries.

If we skip forward a century, the Coal Industry (Nationalisation) Act in 1946 established the National Coal Board. This was responsible for underground mining and later, opencast mining. Despite developments in mechanisation and the sinking of new collieries, the industry was doomed, unable to compete with oil, gas and nuclear power. As the Heanor area was a very old coalfield, it wasn’t long before local pits got shafted. New Langley Colliery was closed in 1960 and Ormonde followed on 25 September, 1970 – despite employing 1219 miners in 1963, who collectively were turning out 4200 tonnes a day. With it went a whole way of life, as well as community.

In a recent documentary for BBC Radio 4 called Tongue and Talk: The Dialect Poets, I chatted to Bill Kerry III who has updated Watson’s poem Wheer are t’ gooin’ when Ormonde shuts? into a folk song. The poem was originally published in Strong I’th’ Arm – The Rhymes of a Marlpool Miner (1975) and captures the uncertainty and optimism that miners felt as pits closed and they were forced to try and find work elsewhere, as captured in the opening three stanzas below.

Wheer are t’gooin’ when Ormonde shuts?/You hear where e’re you go -/Ah have na’ made me mind up yit!/Ah have na’ exed ah Flo!

Ah’m thinkin’ o’ gooin’ t’ Babbin’ton!/ What abert Moorgreen?/ Ah know they anna’ long t’ goo -/Tha’ knows pal, what ah mean.

It doesna’ matter wheer tha’ goos/Tha’ll ‘ay t’ flit agen/But it tha’ goos a long wee off/What abert your Gwen?”

As a result of the programme Owen Watson has been added to John Goodridge’s database of working class poets. This means his work will be read by future generations. I’m particularly proud of this as there’s no point doing projects unless they have genuine impact. But the real highlight was being contacted by Watson’s grandson Richard Buxton shortly after the broadcast. We met up for a cuppa and he told me more about his talented grandfather.

Watson was a quiet, serious man. Richard was seven when Watson died in 1980 but he had vivid memories of walks with him on a Sunday afternoon around Shipley Park. Watson lived opposite Shipley Park on Roper Avenue in Marlpool. “We used to walk around Osboune’s Pond, up to Mapperley Reservoir then into the woods around the old Shipley Hall, where he would show us the gravestones of the Squire’s dogs buried in what would have been the grounds.  All the while, he would be pointing out different mushrooms and toadstools, what you could eat, and what you couldn’t and asking me to listen to the sounds of the natural world and telling me which bird was responsible for which song. He’d often break off a sprig of Hawthorn and give it me to chew, saying it was better than bread and cheese.”

The love of nature is a familiar theme among miners, presumably because they spent most of their lives in darkness in the bowels of the earth. This is epitomised by the work of DH Lawrence whose novels are crammed with references to nature and names of flowers, many of which he learned through walks with his father who worked at Brinsley Colliery in Eastwood.

These walks clearly had a profound effect on Richard. “I credit him with sparking my interest in the natural world and birds in particular.  I work for the city council but my dream job would be working for a Wildlife Trust or the RSPB.  I’ll always be thankful to him for this. He was a great naturalist and artist and I’m sure that my love of natural history comes from our walks in the countryside at a formative age.  He was an expert at identifying bird song and seemed to me to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the natural world.”

Miners could be a rough lot, but many were incredibly creative too. Art, poetry and music offered an escape from monotonous labour, as well as a means of coping with the constant threat of death. Owen Watson was also a gifted artist and his grandson remembers him helping him draw a picture which was shown on Midlands Today (they used to show artwork that people sent in before the weather forecast).

To celebrate Owen Watson’s life and work there’s a literary walk planned that will start at Eastwood library. On this we’ll be retracing his walk to work and reading his poems along the way. It’s being led by David Amos and will include some of the updated folk songs as well. Please see the mining heritage website for updates or David’s Twitter profile

The walk will start at Eastwood Library, Wellington Pl, Eastwood, Nottingham NG16 3GB.