Monday, 17 March 2008

Alamayou and Arthur

Richard Wilcocks writes:

Its rare - and perhaps unwise - to try and stage a piece that's written for radio. But the style, scope and subject matter of Peter's play made us risk the attempt.
That's a quote from the programme for I was a stranger by Peter Spafford, the first of the double bill from Theatre of the Dales which was performed on Saturday and Sunday evenings in the studio at the Yorkshire College of Music and Drama in Shire Oak Road. The studio was full to overflowing on both occasions. The programme continues:

We hope you'll enjoy this curious hybrid, where actors carry scripts as in a broadcast, at the same time as telling the story visually.

We did enjoy it. We loved it. During the post-performance discussion yesterday (Sunday) the director, David Robertson, who also played Captain Speedy, seemed a little uneasy, wondering whether the show had really worked, because actors wandering about with scripts was unusual, like a rehearsal.

If he was fishing for compliments, he caught fat trout, glistening and beautiful. The play is the story of Prince Alamayou of Abyssinia, captured at the age of seven as a kind of afterthought after the British had defeated his father, King Tewedros, and indulged in extensive looting of ancient treasures. The play traces his journey from Africa to India to Rugby School to Sandhurst to Headingley, where he lived with Cyril Ransome, father of Arthur.

The play has plenty of local references, of course. Alamayou, in search of his lost identity and breathing industrial air, walks about in Headingley in the middle of the night, which is not really advisable even today unless you are with friends and dressed as a bumblebee. He visits the menagerie in the zoological gardens, the very solid wall of which can still be seen in Chapel Lane, and he is holed up in Hollin Lane, which is very much still there, just a little changed since the time when a prince was dying of pneumonia, bombarded by telegrams from Queen Victoria, deeply concerned about the impending death of one of her little pets, a pretty black boy with a winning smile.

Jamal Rahman was a superb Alamayou. He's in the foreground of the photo below watched by - not in this order - Danny and Jessica Neale, Arif Javid, David Robertson, Jane Oakshott, Maggie Mash, Richard Rastall and Stuart Fortey.

Stuart Fortey was in his own short play, Duffers, which followed, playing Cyril Ransome, as he had in the previous one. It illustrated this 1930 quote on Swallows and Amazons from Arthur Ransome:

The children in it have no firm dividing line between make-believe and reality, but slip in and out again and again, exactly as I had done when I was a child and I fancy we all of us do in grown-up life.....In a way we were making the best of both worlds.
Stuart was playing dead when he was on stage looming behind David Robertson's entirely convincing Arthur on the banks of a Cumbrian river, a black-tied spectre with a sour voice. Jessica Neale playing Ransome's rather neglected daughter Tabitha is, incredibly, still at school - Notre Dame Sixth Form College - where she is doing Theatre Studies. She was terrific. We'll be hearing more about her in the future.

The Arthur Ransome Society was represented by Margaret and Joe Ratcliffe (that's them down below) who came with relevant books and who contributed to the discussion afterwards.

So, an excellent last evening of the LitFest. We've not really finished though.

                                                 Photo by Richard Wilcocks

                                               Photo by Richard Wilcocks

Underground poetry

The trouble with poetry in cafés is the noises off - in this case a mildly irritating air conditioning unit and (for a few minutes) a vacuum cleaner upstairs. It didn't really matter, though. We were warm.

James Nash is such a kind and amiable compere that everyone present ended up feeling kind and amiable too. The Sunday afternoon session began with James reading a few of his best-known published pieces and that set the tone for the next two hours.

He made humorous references to timings, threatening to gag performers who strayed past the five minute limit with his own hand. It worked. This must be the most worrying thing about being a poetry compere - people just going on and on indulgently. Well they didn't. In one or two cases, the audience would have loved them to go on and on, but they stuck to the limits. James's yoke is easy.

As in the Café Lento the previous day, it was little things, small incidents, large musings. There seemed to be more published volumes about - slim tomes lovingly produced. The poets' places of origin seemed more important as well......Belfast, South Carolina, Liverpool......formative influences. Now here they all were in a cellar in Headingley.

"We should do this more often," was heard as a happy audience, pogged-out on poetry, climbed the stairs to brave the cold wind outside. We should.

Below, James Nash, Sheila Chapman from Irish poets' group Lucht Focail, the audience.

A piacere

Saturday evening in Café Lento. Closed sign on the door. Twenty nine sundry poetic souls packed inside. Through the steamy window, a typical Saturday street for Headingley: passing cars, a siren, the odd scream of laughter, two girls dressed as bumblebees...

Richard Lindley, who runs the café, runs the poetry, and it's a little bit like a Quaker meeting, with people standing to read as the spirit moves them and as Richard beckons (mostly they read, but one of them quotes from the Hebrew scriptures which are in her head) and everyone else glowing with encouragement and appreciation. Richard is gentle but businesslike.

He dispenses free coffee and quiz papers (where do these lines come from and so on) for the interval. He chats and jokes with everyone. He's in a long line of literary hosts stretching back to the one at the Tabard in Southwark. Cafés, he knows, go well with poetry. Short stories too - but that's for the future.

The poems are usually very personal (no surprise), and often have a focus on small incidents, tiny happenings with great significance. Start with the cosmos and you'll fall like a brick. Start with a brick and you'll end up with the cosmos.

Below, Cosmos:

Saturday, 15 March 2008

The Brontës and their circles

Robert Barnard gave a talk entitled People the Brontës Knew this afternoon, to a large and appreciative audience sitting at tables in the New Headingley Club, fortified with home-made cake and Yorkshire tea. It was connected to A Brontë Encyclopedia: the indefinite article signifying academic modesty is officially favoured, but this major (definitive?)work (published a few months ago) should soon be up there with the likes of Juliet Barker's The Brontës. Up there with Clement Shorter too.

Magazine editor Shorter produced
Charlotte Brontë and her Circle in the 1890s, and it was his title which provided Dr Barnard with the talk's structure. "Some might think that she didn't have a circle....but everyone has one....although you would be hard-pressed to find one for Emily.

"I am going to talk about two or three circles. The first is the one which Patrick and Maria gathered around themselves at Thornton."

Thornton was described as a place where the gentry (which included the clergy) was "not really impressive" but where it was more numerous than in Haworth. Thanks to Miss Elizabeth Firth of Kipping House, who welcomed the Brontës there in 1815, we know about most of the social engagements of the time. Less than three months after Maria's death, "Patrick contacted Elizabeth, then aged about twenty-one, and must have proposed marriage, because she records that she wrote back to him telling him that it was her last letter to him."

She probably considered him to be of too lowly an origin. And he was Irish, too: "Attitudes to the Irish were perhaps a little similar to some present-day attitudes to groups like the Poles.....It was not usual for people of a humble Irish origin to espouse English conservatism."

Quoting from Dudley Green's
The Letters of the Reverend Patrick Brontë, Dr Barnard showed how Patrick, "although he cringed to the gentry he met at Thornton", and although he wrote that "a warmer or truer friend to Church and State" could not be found, nevertheless found himself bound to "advocate the cause of temperate reform".

The end of Patrick's association with "extreme conservatism" and the Thornton Circle was marked by his letter to Dr Outhwaite of 20 September 1844:

I thank You for your Laconic Letter - I will try to abide by your - prescription for in good sooth, I have much need of patience, especially, when under affliction, such as may arise from Old Age, and Old Friends. - But that God to whom you refer, will judge You and [me], on the day of Doom, when we shall be more on a Level than we are now are - You have in times past done me [and mine]good for which I shall ever be thankful, whatever you now do, or may do, in time to come -

I remain, Sir
Your most obedient Servant, P. Brontë

The second group of people which Dr Barnard selected was the clergy - part of Charlotte's circle. "We can guess her opinions from reading the opening chapter of
Shirley in which clergymen are ridiculed." Clergymen were the only ones who could be regarded as matrimonial prospects, and Charlotte did not think much of most of them - for example the one who absconded with charity money (Smith), the one with profligate habits (Collins) who was physically cruel to his wife and children, infecting her with syphilis, and her father's close friend William Morgan, referred to as a boring "fat Welshman", and whose visits she detested.

"For Charlotte, the majority of clergymen were stupid and mediocre, with few prospects. All they did was to pass the time between meals quarreling. They lacked any zest for life.

"So what an eruption of vigour it must have been when William Weightman arrived! He was exceptionally lively and outgoing, with a wonderful warmth emanating from him......such a contrast with her brother Branwell, always looking in on himself.....Weightman had a sense of love, of humanity.....all the Brontës were in love with him.....he sent them all Valentines, including Ellen Nussey."

The third circle selected was Charlotte's society of her equals. "This was the sort of society which she had been aiming for all her life. The evidence is in the Juvenilia, which is full of literary controversies."

Most of the members of this circle were connected with London, a place of "venomous literary quarrels" which Charlotte had long been aware of before her visits. She knew about disputes surrounding MacPherson (alleged Ossian translator) and Byron, and the vicious denigration of John Keats and Leigh Hunt in Blackwoods magazine ("the Cockney School of English Poets"), so she was well-primed when she met a collection of in-the-flesh critics at a dinner organised by George Smith. She found, unsurprisingly, that critics were more presumptuous and domineering than the actual writers.

In London, she met people she would never have been allowed to see previously, and her attitudes and opinions were suitably amended. Thackeray "fell off his plinth" after her earlier infatuation with him. She became disillusioned with him "and his duchesses". She also stayed in Ambleside with Harriet Martineau - an atheist. "Of course she was lucky to have such friends and guides as George Smith and W S Williams."

"I cut down on the Juvenilia in the Encyclopedia. Some characters are referred to only fleetingly, and they are all covered by Christine Alexander."

Here are the details if you (or your library) want a copy.

Europe / Rest of World £55.00
Australia / New Zealand A$198.00
ISBN13: 9781405151191
ISBN10: 1405151196

Publication Dates

USA: Aug 2007
Rest of World: Jul 2007
Australia: Sep 2007

Format : 246 x 171 mm , 6.75 x 9.75 in

Details : 416 pages, 50 illustrations.

Robert and Louise Barnard's A Brontë Encyclopedia is an A- Z encyclopedia of the most notable literary family of the 19th century highlighting original literary insights and the significant people and places that influenced the Brontes' lives.
• Comprises approximately 2,000 alphabetically arranged entries
• Defines and describes the Brontes' fictional characters and settings
• Incorporates original literary judgements and analyses of characters and motives
• Includes coverage of Charlotte's unfinished novels and her and Branwell's juvenile writings
• Features over 60 illustrations

Friday, 14 March 2008

Another great evening

Another packed audience at the library, this time including a number of children......all the spare seats were in use.

Joe Williams in role as Olaudah Equiano made a deep impression as he related his amazing life story, and Janet Douglas proved to be a walking encyclopedia as she talked about the composition of anti-slavery societies and the visit to Leeds of Harriet Beecher Stowe, who called in at the grand house in Headingley of Edward Baines, editor of the Leeds Mercury.

The interest and involvement of the audience in the question and answer sessions was evidence, if it was needed, of the great success of the evening.

Below, Janet and Joe:

Thursday, 13 March 2008

These children can fly!

About three hundred people – students, parents, friends, visitors – were in the main hall of Lawnswood School this evening (Thursday 13 March) for the school’s first Poetry Slam.

It was also the first one in the short history of the Headingley LitFest, which promoted the event.

A Slam is a sort of competition, but it’s a lot more than that. It’s a loud, musical, happy and infectiously fervent happening, where individuals and groups – in this case young students – can display their talents and build up their confidence.

The Slammers, 12 and 13 year-olds from Lawnswood’s Year 8, had been encouraged, stimulated and nurtured by performance poet Michelle Scally-Clarke in a series of rehearsals. She performed herself, all too briefly, in the second half of the show.

At the beginning, she was introduced by the main organising teacher, Amanda Stevenson, along with the school's Senior Dancers, who set the tone for the rest of the evening.

Performances were mostly well-rehearsed and fluent, and were all characterised by driving energy and enthusiasm. Based on personal experience, they were about identity, self-pride, hopes for the future, belief in social diversity and opposition to racism.

The judges were teachers Donna Cartwright and Richard Raftery (himself a performance poet), and Richard Wilcocks, representing the LitFest, who commented, “What’s a festival without terrific young people like this? We must do more of this sort of thing next year.”

The winning group (from Class 8AGH) consisted of Lyndon Leonard and David Shutt, who scored highly in the three categories of Confidence, Content and Performance.

The winning individual was Prya Lota.

“These children can fly!” was Michelle Scally-Clarke’s comment.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Good old Samuel Plimsoll

Nicolette Jones talked to a large audience to open the LitFest in Headingley Library this evening. All seats were taken.

With a Power Point screen behind her showing Victorian illustrations from Vanity Fair, The London Sketch Book and Harper's Weekly, she brought Samuel Plimsoll to life - and all of those present probably agreed that his memory has been far too neglected.

Jones's account is entirely worthy of its deserving subject....Plimsoll emerges as a great reformer wrote Sarah Burton in the Independent at the time of its publication in 2006 - and that just about sums it up.

Although she now lives in London (in Plimsoll Road of course) she was originally a native of Headingley, having been brought up in Rochester Terrace.

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

More launch pics

Below, Jane Oakshott and Mary Francis, Richard Wilcocks.

Monday, 10 March 2008

Well and truly launched!

The well-attended LitFest launch party happened on Sunday evening: by all accounts it was a tremendous success.

Richard Wilcocks thanked the owner of the house where the party took place - June Diamond - and other members of the small committee which has been behind LitFest preparation - Mary Francis, Rachel Harkess and Vivian Lister. Poetry followed - from Trio Literati, Murray Edscer and Michelle Scally-Clarke.

Then came the auction of various donated items, which included a device for making newspaper into burnable logs, a bottle of Irish whiskey and a silver necklace from Azendi. Auctioneer was Trevor Bavage, total raised was £204.50

Music and chatting continued long into the evening, in the house and under the gazebo in the garden. Now for Nicolette Jones on Wednesday.......

Below, Trevor Bavage auctions the log maker and Michelle Scally-Clarke reads from her most recent collection She is: