Stories on W(h)alls: Erika Fuchs Haus, Museum für Comic und Sprachkunst, Schwarzenbach.

“This is a fictional country isn’t it?”
“No, it’s real – we just don’t know where it is yet.”

My mum, daughter and I had just arrived in Schwarzenbach to visit the Erika Fuchs Haus, named after my god mother and my mum’s aunt, Erika Fuchs, who used to send me ten Deutsche Marks annually for my birthday which was quite a tidy sum for a youngster back then.

In those days I was completely oblivious to her work and much more inclined to follow The Beano. But I was rapidly brought up to speed some 50 years later when being introduced to the museum by its head, Dr. Alexandra Hentschel, and private collector, Gerhard Severin.

After being introduced to a multimedia history of comic stories and graphic novels in a darkened studio, a side door opens and a bright green gallery of the country of Entenhausen and all the Disney characters greets you in a sunny, shiny green lively reveal which made us all go ‘wow’ in unison.

Gerhard showed us an interactive map of Entenhausen which looked simultaneously plausible and impossible and which prompted my question of whether or not Entenhausen was fictional. His response of “No, it’s real – we just don’t know where it is yet” struck me as the perfect riposte to those of us who struggle with whether stories are fictions, whether fictions are facts, whether facts are fictions, and all those impossible questions about what constitutes real worlds, unreal worlds, truths and falsehoods.

It’s also a great antidote to those who tell you, in these post-Brexit times of ‘There is No Alternative‘ in the UK, that there is a very real, viable and tangible alternative: we just don’t know where it is yet.

 

As well as enjoying the museum we were also fortunate to encounter the stories of the stained glass windows in the restaurant of our accommodation, the Hotel Strauss in Hof.  They provided a comic contrast to Erika’s work, simultaneously conjuring up the work of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana and playing against the religious symbolism of the Whall windows I’ve been visiting across the UK.

Many personal and family stories revealed themselves over the following days and helped place various pieces of the missing family jigsaw into the relevant slots in the bigger picture: whether they are actually truth or fiction is an ongoing question which will require a few more visits to Schwarzenbach and its homage to the work of my mysterious god mother and Great Aunt, Dr. Erika Fuchs neé Petri.

Tony Hippolyte: The Black 007 – James Blonde, Licenced to Spill

I met Tony back in 1993 when he came up to Liverpool from London to reignite his acting and directing career in the theatre. I was struck immediately by his energy and passion for his work. I hadn’t seen him in Absolute Beginners, or fully understood the iconic status he had as a result of his appearance in that film, but when I saw him on stage in front of me, there was no doubt that we had a truly original talent here which needed to find the right channels to express itself.

We worked together first on a new play I had written for part of a new theatre writing season at the Liverpool Everyman Theatre back in 1993. It was called Hunting the Dead Daughter and was a macabre story about a young girl being rejected by her father to such an extent that she was born old and regressed to the womb at her death. It was heavy duty stuff and Tony played the role of the demonic father with a frightening intensity. He showed me how good actors don’t just read text, they wrestle it off the page and scare it into physical existence: and if he had heard me say that, he would have shouted out that out-size Tony-laugh in a way only he could.  HA! he would have shouted. HA!

After that project – directed by Clare McColgan incidentally, who went on to be CEO of the Liverpool Capital of Culture – we kept in touch and toyed with many ideas about some further collaboration but it wasn’t until some friends and I had set up a new film company, Latent Productions, that Tony really came into his own.

Together, years before Idris Elba was on the scene, we proposed that the next James Bond should be a black man; and that the best black man to play him would of course be Tony Hippolyte.

There was only one problem with this proposition: none of us had a clue about how to get Tony in front of the casting agents. And even if we had, we thought it was unlikely that Tony would have got a look in.

But undeterred, we soldiered on with the idea until he hit upon the brilliant idea that the project would be a cartoon and that he would provide the voice of the new, black James Bond: or as Tony put it: “The Black 007 – James Blonde, Licenced to Spill”.

Before too long, he had invented a crazy new James Blonde world with his usual manic energy. He saw Blonde living in an International Garden Centre who would, every morning, leap off his bed with abandon and karate chop his way to breakfast, clicking his fingers every step of the way. Rather than the traditional Vodka Martini, Tony’s James Blonde was a committed Kristall drinker: which probably accounted for the crazy characters that inhabited this world.

They included Q (the sssssttutttering professor); Bloch (the bald baddy about to let forth a plague of mechanical gnats which would defoliate Europe unless his mad demands were satisfied) and of course the ‘Blonde girl’ called Honey (named not because of her blonde hair, charming personality or physical attributes – but because she tended to stick to people, like glue, often outstaying her welcome into the bargain.)

fester

Bloch: a villain from James Blonde 007: Licensed to Thrill (thanks to Tony Ealey)

And Tony being Tony, he quickly came up with some memorable ‘James Blonde’ quotes which we were convinced would soon make it into popular culture. Quotes like:

“Why do you roll a dice if you didn’t wanna bet?”

“I’ve never met an institution that never looked after itself”

“She loves me. It’s just a matter of time.”

“I taught myself to survive and don’t you forget it.”

And many, many more.

Sadly, Tony’s Black 007 never made it beyond the idea stage and a few scribbled notes on the backs of fag packets and their virtual equivalent.  Tony and I went our separate ways: him to Skelmersdale, and me eventually to Nottingham: and now it looks like he’ll be taken to rest at his final resting place in St Lucia (hence the photo at the top of this text), whilst I move onto my next chapter in Leicester.

But I’ll never forget his enthusiasm, talent and energy: it provided me with some unforgettable times in Liverpool and who knows? Perhaps some-one out there might like to breath some life into the work one of our original thinkers and actors: Tony Hippolyte, the Black 007. James Blonde, Licenced to Spill.

RIP Tony Hippolyte, 12 May 1958 – 17 May 2016

Coming Closer to Home: weeding out cultural stereotypes.

“Look what I’ve got!” Eamon triumphantly pulled out a glass sugar dispenser from the inside of his voluminous flak jacket. “It’s from the hotel!” His acquisition was met with near-universal approval in the packed minibus of 15 young trainees and not so young tutors.  Anything that could be liberated from the German hotel was fair game it seemed and if this meant the relocation of a sugar dispenser to a new home in Liverpool, then so be it. This was just one more way of settling the score,  after their national football team had beaten us at penalties in the World Cup the previous year.

The approval was not quite universal though as a few of us in the minibus thought that the liberation of a sugar bowl by a young Scouser (particularly a young Scouser who has just been on a week’s cultural programme which involved  arguing that stereotypes were terrible things, and that he, along with many others of us in the minibus, had had enough of being stereotyped as bin robbers) just reinforced the stereotyping he had been vociferously campaigning against all week.

Thankfully, the irony was not lost on anyone and the journey continued soberly through to Belgium where we found ourselves driving the wrong way around the Belgian Grand Prix Race track in Spa Francorchamps before our map reader realised he’d been holding the map upside down and soon put us back on the right track for Antwerp.

Eamon offered his immediate apologies and did the right thing when he got home by posting the sugar dispenser back to the hotel from whence it came with a profuse apology.

Stereotypes are a kind of cultural weed: easily established and infuriatingly difficult to get rid of. They not only affect our own preconceptions of how ‘the other’ behaves, but also shape how others’ preconceptions of us reinforces our own ignorance.

Our minibus trip from Liverpool to Trier may not have fully transformed those young people’s perceptions of ‘the other’, they did at least get a glimpse of how ‘the other’ looked at them.  And one hotel at least got its sugar dispenser returned.

Coming Closer to Home: after the communism…

I’ve often wondered whether EU funded adult education projects are not just about their alleged subject matter – but much more about sharing languages across our difficult and contentious continent.

A few years ago July we participated in an EU funded programme, Forests for All. As well as taking a day trip around the Mersey Forest (starting at Wirral Waters where there were no forests at all and ending up in Delamere Forest where there was plenty to look up to), many participants also massively improved their language skills, testified to best perhaps by the teacher, Alina, from Romania.

We asked her to write a short story in her own words about her experiences on the project and this is what she wrote.

This is not just a story. It is a part of my life. In high school I’ve studied the Russian language for 4 years. Our country back then was dominated by the communism and Ceausescu forced the students from most of the schools to study this language instead of English.

After the communism, the English language appeared everywhere: on TV, on the radio, in the cinema… I was fascinated by this new sound and I learned it all by myself from movies and especially from music.

For 20 years, I have never spoken English, never! I was able to understand it, but I haven’t had the courage to actually say a word. I tried to learn it from books, but I never passed the second lesson; I preferred to learn it only from what I heard.

In this project, in October 2011, it was the first time when I spoke English in public. I can’t explain where my courage came from. For me and mostly for my Romanian colleagues, it was a big surprise, one of the biggest of my life.

You, all my partners from this project, you didn’t laugh, you have encouraged me. I know I make a lot of mistakes, my accent is wrong, but you never stopped me and this means a lot to me.

Thank you for your patience, for listening to me; I’ve learned a lot from you and each one of you is important to me perhaps only for a word or for a joke or for a new expression. You’ve been my English teachers, the best I could have had.

When Nick asked me to write this story, I was terrified! I don’t know if it’s correct, but it is my real story, a story from the bottom of my heart and it could be the story of any Romanian girl who found from nowhere the trust in her own forces and mind.

There’s more of these stories to hear about in the months coming up to the UK Brexit referendum.  Please feel free to share them here.

Coming Closer to Home: The EU ‘Jolly’.

“It’s like you’ve got to get to know each other at 60mph!” Monica wryly observed as we all piled into a minibus at midnight at Vilnius Airport. We were truly a motley crew: Brits, Portuguese, Greeks all gathering for an EU funded Adult Learning Project in the Creative Arts with a couple of stray Estonian old farm ladies who looked like they’d taken the wrong bus in Tallinn and now had found themselves in an international minibus which was tentatively negotiating the ice and the slush out of the airport.

But Monica was right: by the time the minibus had driven us out of the airport and towards our destination in what felt like Outer Mongolia ( even if it was Inner Lithuania), we had all become best mates ever, swapping stories of family, football, long kept secrets we never thought we would ever tell anyone, and remarking on how beautiful Lithuania looked in the black of night when the conversation showed signs of flagging.

EU mobilities – which is what we were all examples of on that icy Vilnius night, albeit semi-comatose examples – are strange phenomena. You fly hundreds of miles, get driven to some town miles from any international airport at the wrong time of day; arrive in a hotel after the bar has shut and all the local restaurants have closed for the foreseeable future; check into a room which hasn’t been occupied in the foreseeable past; struggle to find any broadband connection and only then realise you’ve forgotten your international plug adapter. So you settle back for 20 minutes of Eastern European TV before the bling and razzamatazz of Polish sausage adverts starts to get tiresome.

You observe at 3am after two hours of no sleep that you were, in the parlance of those back in the office, ‘on a jolly’ so you may as well try and damn well jolly yourself up before the first formal session starts just after the crack of dawn (which is some 7 hours away given that we are in the northern most reaches of the northern hemisphere at this point in time).

‘Being on a jolly‘ according to those back in the office consists of dry martinis in the hotel bar at 6pm before a luxurious 3 course dinner with erudite, witty, charming, intelligent, attractive and sophisticated colleagues who were fascinated in you, fascinating to be with and whose fascinators never stopped fascinating all week long, come rain or hail, sleet or snow. In actual fact you’d be lucky to find a kindred spirit who was equally unfascinated by the porridge the hotel would serve up at breakfast – and they’d be lucky to find you dressed in anything more fascinating than what you had set off in from the UK just 24 hours earlier.

That’s another aspect of the EU mobility: time doesn’t merely stop. It stretches, shrinks and distorts in ways Einstein could never have foreseen. What happened yesterday seems like it happened a month ago; what happened just five minutes ago gives you an eery sense of deja vue; and plans for the day after tomorrow when we’re all due to go on a social trip to an obscure European forest may as well be planned for the turn of the century.

Our planning faculties desert us in those early hours of the mobility and it’s all we can do to find our bedroom after breakfast, never mind consider the challenges of getting on another minibus with our new found stranger-friends over two days into the future.  That’s 48 hours away! 2880 minutes! 172,800 seconds! A whole life time of generations! Best get my laptop switched on and look like I have some important emails to attend to before the work starts in earnest.

And we are all very earnest, our gang of stranger-friends whose new found friendships have been forged across the Byelorussian plains of Lithuania.  We had probably travelled along the same tracks that the Cossacks would have ridden hell for leather over from Russia, riding roughshod over farmers, labourers and land workers up to their knees in shit dealing with the latest manifesto from the commissar and the scientists of the Ukraine, driving on to commit various atrocities before hammering it back to St Petersburg, horses snorting, their large heavy bear coats steaming with the exertion and pulling their spoils along behind them in ramshackle sleds, desperate to get back over the borders before the Poles could catch up with them and exert their bloody  revenge. Those Europeans certainly knew how to invade and annex their neighbours property, land and chattels in fascinating ways.

Whilst bouncing along in a decrepit minibus with 12 stranger-friends didn’t quite have the romanticism that marauding Cossacks did, we were comfortable in our knowledge that our kind of European mobility is less about pillaging strangers and more about turning them into longer term friends who have one thing in common: none of us could sleep the night before and we all got bored with the adverts for Polish meatloaf.

Coming Closer to Home at the Liverpool Everyman Theatre: it’s not me, it’s EU.

“Take the fucking money! Why don’t you take the fucking money?” The Chairman of the Liverpool Everyman Theatre had me with my back to the wall in the little kitchenette attached to the theatre’s most prestigious rehearsal room, The Red Room. He was clearly irked and my unwillingness to accept some kind of pay off from him, as his role as Chairman of the Theatre, to me, in my role as Director of the Hope Street Project, was irking him even further.

I continued to decline his pay off as politely as I could but can’t remember who left the kitchenette first or what happened immediately afterwards although I knew I had to get back to our rehearsals of Carmina Burana; a multimedia production we had devised with musicians from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and video support from MITES (which was later to become FACT) and which was due to be performed in the Theatre in just a few days time.

The payment in question was a large sum of cash which the theatre had received from its backers – most notably the European Union in the form of European Social Funds – which were to be used for various training programmes which the Everyman had established through its training wing, the Hope Street Project.  Or more accurately – which the Hope St Project had established and which the Everyman Theatre occasionally looked at with various degrees of affection, bewilderment or hostility, depending on where you sat within the organisational heirarchy.

The payment being offered to me was an enticement which amounted to: “Take the fucking money, stick it in your organisation, and then take your fucking organisation off our backs so that we can run the theatre like we did in the good old days.”  

The Chairman was clearly rattled and he had good cause to be.  The Everyman had been suffering financially for many years, not least because of falling public sector involvement, falling audiences and artistic policies which weren’t cutting the mustard any longer. Then, in 1988, the City Council and the Theatre’s Administrator came up with a scheme to end all schemes.  They identified a vast pot of national regeneration money, coupled it to an equally large pot of European money and turned it into a training programme which the Everyman  – or indeed any other regional theatres – had never seen in living memory.

The programme – the Hope Street Project – was soon causing ructions both in and out of the theatre and posing lots of difficult questions to its staff, audiences, Board members, politicians and funders.  What was to be done with this funding?  How could the Everyman manage what amounted to a 100% increase in turnover literally overnight?  And most crucially – what did it now mean to be a regional producing theatre?

The last question was particularly potent and exercised many of us over many hours tortuous debate not only in the Red Room but in every nook and cranny of the building and its hidey hole of last resort – The Bistro.  To some, the concept of The Everyman was that it was a fantastic little bar (The Bistro) which had a theatre attached to it; rather than a fantastic little theatre which had a bar attached to it but that’s another story.

The questioning went on for years and left everyone exhausted by the time the theatre was close to finally falling on its knees due to yet another round of funding cuts and falling audiences.  The Chairman’s view was that the fault of this malaise was completely down to the Hope Street Project causing everyone to take their eye of the collective artistic ball which led, in his words, to a theatre ‘for social engineering’ – something he was adamant in the press that he didn’t want.

So his proposal was simple: ‘take the fucking money and get off our backs and let us get on with saving and running this theatre’.

Unfortunately for him, the proposal didn’t stack up and it wasn’t long after that the Theatre went into receivership, the Hope Street staff and trainees were all made redundant and a knight in white armour (in the form of the union, MSF) came galloping over the hill to save the Hope St. Project and rescue its EU funding from the jaws of an untimely and unpleasant liquidation.

Whether the bureaucrats had any idea of how EU funding was transforming (wrecking or saving – take your pick) regional British Theatre in the late 1980s is anyone’s guess.  But I do know that without it, Hope St would never had started; the ground work for LIPA would never have started and the cultural vibrancy of one of the UK’s great cities would have taken a severe beating.  One thing we can be certain of: without EU funding, the City’s European City of Culture would have stalled down in the Bistro years before, along with countless other plans for cultural urban regeneration in the city.

‘It’s not me, Peter,” I should have said to the Chairman when I left the Red Room to go back to the rehearsal. “It’s you.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Coming Closer to Home: the Prospect of the UK becoming a EU free zone.

So, we’re under starters orders; and we’re off.

The rumours are starting to circulate already at work. If we opt for Brexit, there’s a possibility that the very large EU contract we are about to have signed off by DCLG may be delayed until after the referendum. Meaning not only that over 350 creative and cultural businesses miss out on much needed business support to help them deal with the ravages of the public sector cuts of the last five years; but also, closer to home, a small group of staff are suddenly faced with potential cut backs and downsizing until such time that the contract is signed. The safety afforded by what looked like regular funding is suddenly looking very fragile. Childcare is reconsidered, holidays put on hold and we try to remember if we have any premium bonds locked up under the bed.

It’s at times like this that you realise the impact that the EU has had on the cultural sector in the UK. I worked in Liverpool for over 25 years and there wasn’t one day in that period that hadn’t benefited in one way or another from EU support. Whether this was at the Everyman Theatre in the late 1980s when the EU propped up that ailing theatre for a good 5 years (although you’d be hard pressed to find anybody in that organisation who would admit it); or at LIPA, when McCartney’s modest financial contribution to firing up the Mothership had the galvanising effect of attracting container loads of ERDF funding in through the gates; or at Aspire when EU funding in the shape of Comenius, Grundtvig or Youth in Action grants had a powerful impact on the working lives of teachers, students, families and everyone in between: the fact is that EU support has been a major source for economic, social and cultural good in Liverpool, across Merseyside and indeed the world as a whole.

And closer to home, it helped shape careers, livelihoods and families. Whilst many were leaving Liverpool in the 1980s to find work, me and many others were able to gravitate to the city precisely because of the job and training opportunities European funding generated.

There are so many stories that EU support has afforded the cultural and creative industries in Liverpool and beyond, I’ll never be able to capture them all here. But I’ll try to capture as many as I can because right now we are faced with the possibility that the respite that funding has provided in the last 30 years could now be sucked out of the sector irreversibly: and the opportunities it provided for the young people, its creative and cultural movers and shapers – and most importantly, it’s communities – could be lost for at least the next generation.

So: over the next few months this blog is going to try and remember the impact that EU support has had on us working in the arts and culture – not just in Liverpool but further afield.

One thing we do know is that working in the arts involves dropping a lot of stones in lots of ponds and that the resonances of our work are felt well beyond the streets, studios and workshops of struggling artists trying to come to terms with their practice in some quiet city back street. One thing we learnt is that EU support makes us citizens of the world, not just our local neighbourhood, country or continent. It makes coming ‘closer to home’ a much more expansive act than just acting out down our streets to a global, TV audience.

If you have any stories to share it would be great to hear and share them. If we don’t, come Brexit, it may well be too late to remind ourselves later on.

Carl Speare: one dropshot, dropped too early.

I only heard about Carl’s death on court third hand, after an uneventful tennis match in Warrington and after the funeral had taken place.

I drove back to Liverpool Cricket Club as fast as I could that evening – something was propelling to get there although I wasn’t sure what it was.  It was of course a sombre place and I found myself wishing I’d been to the funeral.

Tony the doorman looked in a state of shock: his hair seemed to have grown back overnight which was startling.  He let slip he had just turned  47 but he looked a lot older than I felt.

So I did what any self respecting squash player would do and climbed the stairs to go and look at Court 3 where Carl had died. I couldn’t help wonder whether he’d died in the corner trying to boast a shot, or was trying to keep it tight and put a good length on it, or was trying to drop it in the corner which is perhaps where he dropped?

I went back to the bar with the courts echoing around me.  The guys in the cricket club look younger and made a lot more noise than usual but they couldn’t eradicate the image of a ball going up and down court, into a corner, off the back wall, boasted off a side wall, lobbed and back down the side wall: a drill going around and around.

Off the back wall, a length, a drop, a length, a boast, a cross court, a length, a boast, a drop, a length, a drop: dropped.

RIP Carl Speare, 20 April 2009.

Sloppy Postmodernism: a British dining revolutionary crisis?

There’s nothing worse than sloppy post modernism in the restaurant trade.

In the good old modernist days, the days before eating in a restaurant was a fashion choice and when there was no such thing as British ‘aute Cuisine, we all bought into the fancy food that was prepared invisibly behind closed doors by chefs who sported a hat that looked like it just had risen in a very hot oven, and then whisked to your table in a flurry of activity accompanied by French adjectives and sounds of encouragement and amazement.

“Zut Alors!” the cry would go up from your guests when presented with the latest concoction of filigree pastry, icing sugar and chicken gizzards which was promptly set fire to. You would eat your meal in silence, not knowing, not needing to pretend to know anything about the vintage, the provenance of the ingredients or very much else about anything at all. You were happy to sit there in silence, happy in your modernist knowledge of your ignorance that you knew nothing and that was the way it should be.

Then came along post modernism and the world changed for the worse. Suddenly we all had to know how the food was cooked; we had to have deep intimate views of kitchens and waste chutes; we had to know where our gizzards were coming from and where they were headed after passing our lips and navigating our tortured guts: tortured mostly by the knowledge that we knew nothing and were now embarrassed by that absence.

And along with post modern catering came the obscene phenomenon of food on receptacles that had nothing to do with plates, knives, forks, condiments or anything else resembling food‘s traditional modernistic mores and fancies. No longer could we eat at tables but we had to dine on bookshelves; no longer was it enough to use knives and forks but we had to resort to curling tongs and long white sticks used for measuring tennis net heights. And to crown it all, as demonstrated by the Wewantplates movement, we had to stop using plates to eat off. We now use shovels. We devour paperback books. We imagine plates where plates once never were. We ruin our fancy clothes as a result and the only people happy in this dining revolution are the dry cleaners.

And to cap it all, we now have the unhappy but probably inevitable phenomenon of Sloppy Postmodernism: postmodernism that is so unable to take anything seriously, it can’t even take itself seriously enough to play the game any longer. In the dining world this means just one thing. Potato Wedges on Ping Pong Bats. The lack of commitment, the absence of attention to detail, the dearth of sheer pimping chutzpah is just galling.

At least it might be a sign we might be heading back to modernism and the good old new days of rude French waiters serving us some stuff we don’t understand, can’t pronounce and retch violently every time we take a mouthful.