Friday, 7 December 2018

Carnival of the Animals at Shire Oak Primary School

Poetry assembly at Shire Oak Primary School, Thursday 6th December 2018

The audience came in  – a score of parents, some grandparents, some small siblings – taking their seats for the performance by Mr Martin's year 3 of the poetry they had carefully crafted over the past three sessions. The theme this time was Animals, and the audience – which included classes 1, 2 4 and 5 - was given the challenge to guess which animal was being described.  We learned what they liked, where they lived, what they felt or did.  A good stretch of the imagination for anyone and inspiring for the classes that we hope will be able to follow on this work in future years.

Some youngsters read their whole poem, some just their favourite line. And although a couple of the children had been in tears of fright in the final rehearsal they still rose to the occasion and delivered their own work with confidence and brio.  This opportunity is about far more than just writing their own poetry, it is about developing the panache to deliver it to a large audience of peers and other school staff filling the school hall.  At eight years old, not bad!  The work is inclusive too, with children of widely differing abilities able to contribute and grow.

As Ian Martin, class teacher, said “This work gives my class the focus, motivation and the opportunity to make them believe they can write, and do, things that people want to listen to. It's great that they get to perform in front of their parents and others too.”

The assembly is the culmination of the work they develop through drafting and editing with James Nash, the professional writer and poet whose work with this school over the years always creates a sense of anticipation.  He was described by headteacher Jane Devane as 'a long-term friend of the school', adding that “Working with a real poet helps our children to see writing as exciting and something they can do. Marvellous.”

We visited a huge range of environments – the deep blue sea, the jungle, the wild, the zoo, the desert, the forest.  We had a wide variety of creatures too.  The blue-tongued skink and the pangolin were rather exotic, but we had plenty of others – kangaroo, otter, brown bear, rhino, shark, a wonky starfish  and a cheetah for starters.  We had a twitchy nose, a dream of eating fish, sleek fur, shiny green eyes, sharp teeth and a talent for remaining hidden.

Some of the individual imaginative lines from the children:
I can see grass waves
I look like a rock with a horn
No one can see my face - I am a star fish
I am the colour of a chestnut
Slimy fish wet fish
I'm a fast climber
I can camouflage
I want to fly but I'm scared of heights
I am the colour of rocks
Sharp claws to rip my prey

… and their opinions too
Working with a real poet was great.
It was fun!!

I learned how to write a poem
I have seen how important it is to edit and redraft my work to improve it
I loved being able to show others in the school what I can do
I will remember that this project was ACE!

Once again, thanks are due to the Inner North West area management committee for supporting this work. 

Monday, 3 December 2018

Trumpet Voluntary

Poetry Assembly at Ireland Wood Primary School
Thursday 29 November 2018

The wind blew most of the audience in – from a wild and blustery day to a calm and purposeful assembly.  The strains of Glen Miller's 'In the Mood' welcomed us as two classes from year 6 filed in respectfully quiet and ready to perform to the two year 4 classes, a couple of dozen parents and ten school staff.   An ensemble recitation of 'In Flanders Fields' by John McCrae set the scene.

The theme was the Great War, and James Nash – the professional writer and poet commissioned by Headingley LitFest to work with the children – had taken in a battered trumpet as a stimulus to the imagination of the youngsters.?  What had it seen?  Where had it been?  What had caused the dints and cracks to its once-shiny surface? 

Many of the sixty youngsters stood up as an audiotape played some first draft lines that conveyed their 'gut reaction' ideas.  They followed on with others standing up as their more polished work, carefully redrafted and edited in the workshops that James co-ordinated was also played. This meant everyone  in the room could hear the perception, the emotion and the careful crafting that had gone into all their works.  And they stood like soldiers, quite moving and their idea just before the performance began.

A few students also were confident enough to read out sections of their work using the microphone.  Interspersed with explanations from both James and Adrienne Amos, the year 6 teacher who had co-ordinated the work.  Which was extensive – preparation, development of the ideas between the workshop sessions and a magnificent display of each of sixty poems taking up one whole wall in the hall.

What had the young people learned about writing poetry from all this?
“That it doesn't have to rhyme.”
“Don't have to do it all at once; look at it with fresh eyes.”
“It can be about anything your imagination extends to.”
“Doesn't have to make sense at first; you work to make it mean more as you go.”
“Making poetry together is fun.”

What had the teachers learned from the work and enthusiasm shown by the children?
“That their vocabulary improves astonishingly.  Who thought they would use words liked humbled, bereft or smothered so eloquently in their work?  Such a brilliant opportunity to extend their vocabulary, nowadays such an important skill.”  Mrs Amos
“That working with a 'proper poet' had produced an incredible standard of  teamwork, polished performance and confidence across the whole group.”  Mrs Green, deputy headteacher.
“That the children always comment in the end-of-year review that the poetry workshops and their pride in what they achieve is a highlight of their year.”  Mr Blackburn, Headteacher.

And some last lines from the children
If you play me you will hear my pain.
My mouthpiece tastes like blood.
This trumpet gives me courage.
Crushed by a tottering warhorse.
Dark, scratched and isolated.
It has a story, like you and me.
Its owner loved it like a mum
As he played his song, he tasted a bit of home.
It is a dented and broken body, left abandoned ...

… and I was reminded of the recent news story that the German bugle war poet Wilfred Owen
had found on the battlefield in 1917 and kept with him until his death just a week before the end of the war was played for the first time in public over his grave in France just three weeks ago. He too had loved the poignancy that a lone instrument inspires.

Thanks to the Inner North West community Committee, especially local councillors from the Weetwood area, who support this work.

Saturday, 29 September 2018

'Merry Melancholy' at Leeds Library

Conrad Beck writes:
Jenny Hill and Simon Nisbett
         Photo: Richard Wilcocks         
A performance of A Rehearsal of the Life and Death of Robert Devereux, Second Earl of Essex by Merry Melancholy (Jenny Hill and Simon Nisbett) took place in the performance space of Leeds Library last Thursday (27 September) in front of a substantial, very appreciative audience. It was a rare treat, more a recital than a play.  

Jenny Hill was in role as 'Susannah' and Simon Nisbett as 'Richard' who are rehearsing and planning for a book launch - in 1624. The book in question is Honour in his Perfection by Gervase Markam, which is dedicated to the live of Robert Devereux, who was, it turns out, not very perfect. Arcane? Entertaining? Relevant to today? Yes to all of those. Mainly entertaining.

Shaped, most appropriately on this occasion, like a teardrop, the lute was the popular instrument of choice in the Renaissance period, closely related to the oud played then and now in the Arab world and probably an import in medieval times from Spain. It was valued for its gentle, meditative sound and has been increasingly popular in the last few decades.

Devereux knew one of its most famous users - the great singer, composer and lutenist John Dowland, who died in 1626, a couple of years after Markam's book was published. His music was everywhere, and he was one of the many artists (like playwright Christopher Marlowe) who dabbled in espionage on his jaunts to perform in countries like France and Denmark, under the control of Elizabeth's spymaster Sir Robert Cecil. There were rumours that he was a secret Catholic.

In conversations between Susannah and Richard, the details of Devereux's life were relayed to the audience. His relationship with Elizabeth was crucial. A reckless and attention-seeking man who was loved by the London masses, it seems, he was really worried that she was a mere woman, and like other courtiers, tried to install himself as her lover and possible replacement. It worked up to a point.

On one occasion, presumably because of a tiff, he turned his back on her, something one never, ever does, and she boxed his ears. At this, his hand went to his sword. He actually survived, but she sent him abroad on official business. This was not as a diplomatic emissary but as a military leader. Aristocrats were assumed to be good at things like that.

He arrived in Ireland to engage with the army of the rebellious Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone. Oppression and conquest of the barbarous Irish was the order of the day, but Devereux failed miserably, and one morning, back in London, he barged unannounced into the presence of the queen, something one never, ever does. She was outraged, because he hadn't washed since the campaign and she hadn't had her wig or her make-up put on. 

He was ordered into house arrest, and his monopoly on the import of sweet wine into England was curtailed. At home, he wrote lyrics in the fashionable melancholy style and no doubt finished off the last of his stock of sweet wine with his friend John Dowland. It was not long after this that he managed to organise a doomed, quickly-crushed coup against the royal palace, ending up in the Tower of London to have his head chopped off.

All of this fascinating story (the theme of a number of films and plays) was conveyed to us exquisitely with Simon Nisbett's lute and Jenny Hill's voice. Devereux, Dowland, Fulke Greville and others were all featured. Here is the opening part of probably the most well-known one, by Dowland:

Flow my tears, fall from your springs,
Exil'd for ever let me mourn;
Where night's black bird her sad infamy sings,
There let me live forlorn