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.

Everything you wanted to know about making a radio documentary but couldn’t be arsed to ask

 

A few years ago I wrote a 15 minute essay for a BBC Radio 3 series called In Praise of the Midlands. It was pretty straight forward. I banged out 2,000 words on the topic of The Defiant Individualism of Arthur Seaton, made a few tweaks over email with the series producer Robert Shore, booked a studio and read it out. Then I did some vox pops for a BBC Radio 4 series called Made in the Middle. Both were Made in Manchester productions and creative director and founder Ashley Byrne asked me to pitch other ideas. Although I was really interested, I didn’t have time. I was balancing two jobs and every other waking hour was spent cobbling together Dawn of the Unread or doing Notts propaganda for LeftLion.

After three years of hard slog Dawn of the Unread got a full stop of sorts when it was published as a physical book by Spokesman Books in 2017. In March last year I jacked in LeftLion after 13 years of blathering on about all things Notts. Ashley, forever patient, got in touch again and I pitched the idea of exploring pit poetry in the East Midlands. A year or so later and it’s going to be broadcast this Sunday on BBC Radio 4 in the three part series Tongue and Talk: The Dialect Poets.

The series kicked off on 13 May when Catherine Harvey returned to her roots in the North West of England to see if the dialect poetry of the cotton mills of the 19th century is alive today. In episode two, I explore a bit of the Notts accent and then have a natter with retired pitmen still reciting their dialect poetry in venues across Nottinghamshire. The final episode sees Kirsty McKay return home to Northumberland only to discover the erosion of dialect and culture by the encroachment of urbanisation and influx of people moving into the area.

I’ve blogged the arse out of the content of the episode for various websites (see related reading) so I thought it would be useful to share a few of my experiences of writing for radio. The most difficult thing about writing an episode that involves interviewing lots of people is that you’re blind to the process. On this page I can see my thoughts in words. I can delete things and go back to earlier drafts. But I can’t see audio. The editing down of the interviews was done by the internal producers at Made in Manchester. I produced a script with fillers and suggestions of where interviews should go, but ultimately I was working blind. Writers aren’t used to trusting other folk. We write because we’re greedy and we want control. So letting go is difficult, but not when you trust those around you.

Ashley explained that sometimes the writers get to listen to the audio and suggest the bits of gold they want included. But because this was my first time, and we had a bit of a tight deadline, they did the editing. I then received various We Transfer edits of the work in progress. Given that we easily recorded over 10 hour’s footage, how on earth were they going to get it down to 27 minutes and 36 seconds long? It was a headache I was pleased to avoid.

I think we did four recordings in the studio, gradually chipping away at fillers. Then as we neared completion it was a case of reading out multiple introductions of guests to ensure our verbs covered the three tenses: past, present, and future. This typically included rattle such as: Next up is…Later we will be talking to…We return to…Our next guest…etc. The last thing you want is to get a call when you’re on the lash asking you to get to studio pronto just to say ‘And now we have’.

It’s obvious but it’s worth stating: Recording on location means there are different noises, echoes and nuances in the recordings. So ensuring consistency for the fillers was vital. This also threw up some challenges as I sometimes had to think up things off the cuff rather than having the luxury of contemplating thoughts in Word. Different medium, different rules. Fortunately I was in the very capable hands (or rather voice) of Iain Macknes, Made in Manchester’s Head of Production. Iain also gave me some really good advice. He told me to try and sound friendlier. To remember the programme was going to be broadcast in front rooms and kitchens while couples washed up. I was barking a bit at the beginning, perhaps laying too much emphasis on the flat Radford vowels of Arthur Seaton, speaking as if I expected to be attacked. This is odd because my voice is naturally quite quiet. I think because the programme meant a lot to me, in that I had a responsibility to Nottingham to do a good job, I was drilling out words so that they left my mouth as concrete, something that no listener could break.

When we were recording on location I worked with three different people. This was simply a case of who was available at the time. Each person had their own technique and tips, although all of them were keen to record doors being opened, footsteps across paths, and live location introductions. I was advised by Ashley in one recording to repeat certain words as someone was talking as this reminded listeners I was there and conveys interest. But I didn’t like this as much because I tend to laugh a lot and so it sounds like I’m laughing at people when I repeat what they say. But this might be my own paranoia. Hearing your own voice is really weird. I’m a bit more used to it now after doing The Nottingham Essay series on YouTube, but I don’t like it. Feels like I’m in a David Lynch film.

Catherine Harvey was the series producer and so was tasked with ensuring consistency among the programmes. This meant ensuring we kept a good beat between poems – it is a poetry programme after all, and explaining dialect. Then of course there’s the BBC who have their own rules and regulations. Overall this meant we didn’t get the full force of Al Needham’s bawdy irreverence, and we also missed out on Lord Biro’s memories of the Strike. I had a really interesting chat with Norma Gregory about her research project Digging Deeper: Coal Miners of African Caribbean Heritage but we were unable to use it in the end as the emphasis of the programme was poetry and dialect. I’m hoping to make this available on soundcloud at some point.

I’m really pleased with what Made in Manchester have done and I’m really grateful that Ashley Byrne has shown faith and pestered me to do summat. There are a few things that I would like to change given a bit more time, but the story has to end at some point. Writers never learn this lesson. That’s why we keep telling the same story over and over again. I guess my story is Nottingham. Perhaps it’s time I moved somewhere else.

Talk and Tongue: The Dialect Poets is broadcast at 4.30pm on Sunday 20 May

RELATED READING