Ghost Lights

Theatres across the world are currently dark, in the sense that no performances are taking place. However in each them a single light will be burning. The origins of the tradition of ghost lights are widely discussed. However whether they are there purely for health and safety reasons or to appease theatre spirits, there is something comforting in the thought that these creative spaces are never truly in darkness, and that even is these unprecedented times the ghost lights will continue to burn until the curtain can again rise on more normal life.

Guildhall School’s Milton Court Theatre

Guildhall School’s studio theatre
Tyne Theatre and Opera House
Wages Wagga Civic Theatre, Australia
Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester
Cheltenham Playhouse

All images from theatre’s twitter accounts.

Remembering the value of creativity

A piece I wrote for Saffron Hall’s weekly newsletter -17th April 2020

As Learning and Participation Director, I spend much of my time working to bring people together, either at Saffron Hall, or in schools and community venues across the region. To suddenly find we live in a world where this is not possible has come as a shock to everybody. As with our concert programme, we have had to, almost overnight, reschedule, postpone or rethink every aspect of our schools and community work. It has, of course, been upsetting to have to cancel long planned events – including our Sing BIG! which was due to be attended by over 500 primary school children, our weekly Together in Sound sessions, and schools performances from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

Despite these disappointments, it has been inspiring to see how the arts sector has responded optimistically to the challenges of this new situation. Technology of course has played a key role, and online performances, collaborations and resources are becoming commonplace. At Saffron Hall we have been able to continue our work in partnership with Anglia Ruskin University to deliver Together in Sound sessions online to people living with dementia and their companions, and we are exploring ways to continue to work with schools and communities as this lockdown enters its second month.

As we all spend more time in our homes, the intrinsic value of the arts, and its impact on our health and wellbeing has become more important than ever. The idea of coping with lockdown and isolation without music, film and TV or books is hard to contemplate. For me though, living through this experience reinforces my core belief in the importance and value of creativity in our all our lives more widely. There is no template or roadmap through this crisis, and we are learning more every day. The ultimate solutions to the challenge we are facing may not yet exist, but they will only come into existence through human creativity and ingenuity. And on a personal level we are all having to be creative to find our way through these times, whether we are dealing with the challenges of home schooling, new working practices, or empty supermarket shelves.

In the arts sector we have long argued that one of the benefits of arts participation is that it develops skills which benefit us in all areas of life – collaboration, team working, resilience, and above all, creativity. Business and employers reinforce this with data regularly showing that these are the very skills they seek in their employees. Against this background though arts participation in schools is declining, along with time for extra-curricular activity and creative practice. There is no doubt that, after this crisis has passed, we will all be living in a different world. One hope I have is that it will be a world in which the value and impact of creative practice is not forgotten, and that we take the opportunity to reimagine the role the arts, and creativity can play both in schools and in communities more widely.

Still on the edge

Like many of my musical instruments and piles of sheet music, From the Edge has sat in a dusty corner for some years. Throwing it away was never a consideration. I always knew there would be a time when I would want to return to it. I always knew there would be a time when I needed it.

I would never have anticipated the sequence of events which have finally led me to blow the dust off, pick it up and gently ease mind and fingers back into long neglected but never forgotten routines. I would never have anticipated that even an unemotive, impassionate description of the world today would, mere months ago have been more at home in a Hollywood film pitch or young adult novel.

Those circumstances are well documented and I won’t attempt to summarise the global or even national situation here. On a personal level, in the last year I started a new job leading the learning and participation programme at a concert hall based in a school and community in Essex. This work is all about bringing people together to create and collaborate, and about shared experiences, normally in the same space. None of that is currently possible in the way it has been envisaged. This work is also about realising the power of the arts to bridge the gaps between people, to enable people to give voice to and share their lived experience, to learn from each other and to support each other. All of that should still be possible, and is more important than ever.

Alongside that professional angle this blog originated as place to document thoughts about living on London’s outermost border, and the interesting things that happen where one of the world’s largest cities joins forest and marshland, and where communities exist separately from but never quite escape the gravitational pull of the capital. In my community, as in so many others, these times have triggered the growth of community networks, both formal and informal, organised and loose. But also here, as elsewhere, cracks in the system and disparity between individuals circumstances have been thrown into the spotlight by the recent events.

So, just as I have recently picked up some musical instruments and dived back into the world of early and baroque music, I now return to this space to process and organise some of my thoughts about all of these issues. I don’t know where it will lead, or what will emerge, but if nothing else hope it will serve as one record among many others of these interesting times.

On The Map

Whether or not people mean it literally when they say the groundswell of community events I’ve written a lot about are ‘really putting Highams Park on the map’, Highams park is indeed about to appear on the map – the transport for London map that is. Although our train service won’t change, at least in the immediate term, when TFL take over the Liverpool Street to Chingford line in a few days, people across London will see our station (and indeed Wood Street and Chingford) on the same map as the more familiar underground lines. The area’s proximity to Walthamstow and the City will perhaps become more apparent to people who have previously given the E4 postcode very little thought. 

  

Whether this will have an impact on the area only time will tell. When TFL took other suburban services into the overground network  reports abounded of rising property prices and the sudden emergence of new hipster hotspots. This could be a double edged sword – already some attempts to create new focus for highams park have been stalled by unmanageable commercial rents for small local businesses. 

One thing which will not change is the continued growth in the community led initiatives which make the area a very special and exciting place to live. One opportunity arising directly from the change in management of the railway station takes place this week when the trackside retail unit becomes a temporary pop up shop ‘ (not quite) the end of the line ‘ run by the Highams Park Society and providing local groups and craftspeople with an opportunity to showcase what they do. This is just a prelude to another summer of events, which will include the first Highams Park Festival of Culture, the launch of two further Little Free Libraries, and the annual Highams Park Day. Anyone venturing for the first time to the newest area on the map should find more than enough to make them want to stay. 

The Unofficial Countryside

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The small wooden box has the image of a pylon burnt by hand into the top. Inside the lid a photograph of birds roosting on a telegraph pole which rises from a meadow’s unmown grass. The seven 3 inch CDs are housed inside paper sleeves featuring images so close up that it is hard to identify them. Some are plants, others man made structures – some could by either. These images immediately bring to mind Epping Forest, and the Lee Valley marshes which I know so well. But at the bottom of the box six map fragments, when pieced together turn out to be the less familiar Western edge of London- Ealing, Wembley, Twickenham, and at the top Hertfordshire – tantalisingly close to, although not quite reaching Essex. The landscape of the maps is familiar though – built up urban areas, reservoirs, and on the fringe of the city those inbetween places, where there is clearly green – but not wild – space. London has already subsumed some of it, and, on the map, is a constant threat to these delicate edge lands.

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This is ‘The Unofficial Countryside’ – a new release from Wist Rec. In this era of downloading and streaming a physical music release can become a sought after artefact – most obvious in the resurgence of vinyl, but releases like this go way beyond the LP. Packaging, artwork, and concept go hand in hand with the music – and when it works are inseparable from one another.

This release, each 20 minute disc the work of a different artist, has much of interest musically. Electronic and acoustic sounds crossing the same inbetween space as the rural/ urban artwork. It is often impossible to tell where the boundaries lie between a found sound or field recording and a synth or acoustic line, or between composed or improvised, natural or processed sound. It is the sort of release that is best to immerse yourself in, without trying to unpick the artist’s processes – and it certainly wouldn’t be the same as an iTunes download or on Spotify.

The Unofficial Countryside is inspired by Richard Mabey’s book of the same name – and the routes marked on the enclosed maps illustrate the walks he took when writing this study of the space between city and countryside as long ago as 1973. The book was pioneering in this field – an area which continues to be explored by writers, musicians and artists today, and this small box and its contents both continue that journey, encourage a reading of the text which inspired it , and bring a new perspective to past and future Urban Wandering in the edgelands of London.

Beyond TOWIE

Christmas brought a trip beyond the edge of London into Essex proper. An hours journey from Walthamstow along the A 12 took us past Chelmsford, to my in laws in Colchester for the festive season.

Despite having been visiting there for 15 years or so, I don’t know Colchester itself well – but I do know that this is a very different Essex to the land of TOWIE which borders our beloved Waltham Forest. It is also, I think a very different Essex from the places we generally do visit on these family weekends and holiday occasions.

We spent boxing day morning on the beach at Frinton on sea – a frequent haunt at all times of the year. Boasting a long, wide and sandy beach this town is a popular summer destination – it’s rows of beach huts exchange hands for prices which scare even Waltham Forest residents. It however has few of the normal trappings of tourist focuses seaside resorts – no beachside cafés or ‘fancy goods’ shops, no hot donuts or candy floss, and you even have to leave the sea front and head into the main shopping street to source an ice cream in midsummer. The town’s first pub, Shepherds Neame’s Lock and Barrel opened in the year 2000. Planning decisions for the town are clearly very protective of it’s character and this makes it feel somewhat unique, and, on balance, it is all the better for it. On a summer day on the beach, or indeed this Boxing Day, the simple pleasures of sandcastles, footballs and frisbees were enough for the most serious ipad addicts, and curiously there was no clamour for candy floss or 2p arcade machines. It is however undeniably a slightly odd place which seems to exist outside of the rest of Essex with an atmosphere captured in recent documentary ‘The curious world of Frinton on Sea’

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Appropriately I had downloaded for Christmas reading a recently published pair of essays on various aspects of Essex – ‘trying to fit a number to a name’. This short e-book is from Influx Press – an east London based independent publisher who specialise in writing about place. These pieces from Lee Rourke and Tim Burrows, especially after my journey from Walthamstow, and the morning on Frinton beach reflected and developed many of my thoughts about Essex, and contain a combination of history and cultural commentary that, rather than try to capture here I will simply heartily recommend to anyone with an interest in the area or more generally in this sort of phychogeographical writing.

Essex is many things – a retreat from london, an isolated and overlooked rural area, commuter suburbs or aspirational retirement destination. It has been reviled and revered, developed, or, like Frinton, stubbornly refused to change. It is the immediate neighbour of my part of London- both reliant on and essential to the big city, but in either Chigwell, Colchester , Clacton or Frinton can feel as foreign to London as another country.

Art, books, community (and just a little mulled wine )

The community spirit I wrote about in my recent post on the Highams Park Plan was much in evidence last weekend, as the community came together for a day of festive events which highlighted how much has been achieved in just a few short months.

First up was the launch of our three little free libraries, a project I’ve been involved in as part is the arts and culture group (ARC). Since the launch of the little free libraries project UK, with 12 installations in Walthamstow this simple but powerful idea has captured the imaginations of communities across the country, and the network of little free libraries seems to be expanding every week. These small wooden houses are each decorated by a local artist and hosted in residential, )or sometimes business locations and are available to all to leave, take, or swap a book. The combination of public art, literacy and community engagement embraced by this very simple idea shows the potential of grassroots activity. Small interventions can enhance an environment and positively impact people on a day to day basis.

Our three Highams Park little free libraries are situated across the area covered by the Highams park plan, and each artist’s design reflects a different aspect of our unique part of London.

On Abbotts crescent, the Magic Forest by Hiding Fox incorporates clay pressings of leaves collected from epping forest, with tree branches created from ceramic coated clay.

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Yvette Sargent’s Bee House on Handsworth avenue depicts book reading bees surrounded by the flowers that attract them, both reflecting the beautiful garden in which the library is situated and drawing attention to the declining Bee population and the potential impact of this.

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Sam Johnson’s Design on Selwyn Avenue reproduces the Highams park signal box – itself recently saved by community action, and now undergoing a restoration and occasionally open to the public.

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These three pieces of public art are, as local legend William Morris would have said, both useful and beautiful, and are already being used and enjoyed by people every day. We celebrated the launch of each of them with especially written poetry from local poets, and by swapping gift wrapped books as well as enjoying mince pies generously supplied by our hosts.

We followed this up with some late Christmas shopping at the Christmas craft market – where the majority of stalls were run by local artists, as well as a representation from a number of local businesses including xylonite arts, grace and albert cook shop and the recently relaunched royal oak. We finished the day with a mulled wine singing carols with people from across the area. That all of these events were organised by local residents, working entirely voluntarily made the event feel very special and a true celebration of the talent and entrepreneurial spirit in our area. As we look forward to 2015, which will amongst other things see the formal creation of our local area plan it is really exciting to think ahead and imagine how all these initiatives will develop over the coming year.