Category Archives: And another thing…

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

“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.

Nuclear and linguistic fusion on the Energy Coast

I’ve never been too happy to wander lonely as a cloud up hill and down dale but recent visits to Cumbria and Lancashire are providing me with the chance to explore some of Britain’s most beautiful coasts in the North West: although my early moments have already complicated that stereotype. There’s the huge ship building sheds of Barrow with its history celebrated in Japan; the bleak but impressive outlines of Sunderland Point and it’s sharp reminder of the British slave trade with Africa and the Caribbean of the 18th century; and the nearby nuclear demonology at Heysham Nuclear Power Station conjures up memories of Chernobyl and Fukushima.

For all its claim to being a rural idyll separated from the hurly and burly of city and corporate life, this part of the coast line has powerful international economic significance. Some say that were it not for Barrow’s nuclear submarine building capability, that Britain would find itself cast out of NATO and the G8 power block. The region is known as the energy coast and the preponderance of fission technology on those coast lines is one reason why and also a cause of intrigue and curiosity: why are nuclear power stations built in pairs? How many atoms are split every hour?

The moment you slip off the beaten tracks which connect fission technology to the nation’s defence policy and enter more isolated communities – which have themselves been subject to more than their fair share of societal fission in recent decades – the everyday language for the citizens of those communities shines as startling forms of linguistic flora and fauna.

Whammeling, Haff Netting and the Wynt are not only just great scrabble words but everyday expressions of fishermen and women whose families have lived in the region for over 5 generations. You double take as Nordic surfaces in the conversation and stories of fluorescent plankton disrupting a fathers fishing night spill out into the cold December air.

‘Did you catch anything dad?’ A son asked his father 70 years ago as he set about his nightly task of salmon fishing. ‘No, the nets were on fire’ was the disgusted reply from his dad when talking about the plankton that had coated his fishing net.

Nothing to do with nuclear spillage but the wonders of the industrial and linguistic terrain open up the possibility of some extra-terrestrial apparitions in the not too distant future. I’m still trying to figure out how many atoms were split over the course of the hour that I visited Heysham. Whatever the figure, it will be unimaginably large and no doubt involve several hundred zeroes in it somewhere: more than all the grains of the sand in the world someone says; more than all the Scousers in the world retorts someone else. Impossible, I answer back, but one thing is sure: the mysteries of atomic and linguistic fission won’t be easily solved by a few hours visiting the visitors centre of Heysham Nuclear Power Station.

How would you design the perfect hand grenade?

It’s not a question you might ask of yourself every day but for the students exploring the air field and gun ranges of Fort Walney in Barrow, it’s something that has exercised their imagination for the last 48 hours.

Clearly, you have to be able to hold it comfortably, get a firm grip and be able to pull the pin and not have it explode in your hand which would be completely counterproductive. It should also, to be a truly effective hand grenade, cause the maximum amount of damage to whomever you throw it at: again, it would be a pretty pointless hand grenade should it just fizzle out. That’s why the surface has all those groove marks in it: when it explodes, the grooves provide natural fault lines for the explosive to detonate meaning that it fragments into thousands of pieces of shrapnel which will guarantee the maximum amount of damage possible for a weapon of its size and weight.

Apparently, the guys who designed the original hand grenade also designed a grenade to fit into rifle barrels. They would be shot out of your rifle and travel a great deal further than the ordinary hand grenade would be able to. Also, distinguished by deep grooves in their surfaces, these rifle grenades were the progenitors to latter day mortar weapons, the kind you see being used in Syria, Afghanistan and all those other theatres of modern day warfare we are accustomed to seeing.

So, our art and design students learn that the weapons of choice of the early 20th century were designed in much the same way as the sewing machine or horse drawn cart: paying full attention to form, function and effectiveness. There may even have been aesthetic considerations at play when it came to designing the hand grenade although it’s hard to see what they were.

It’s also hard to imagine a thought process in which earnest young men and women would sit down at a table and engage in some blue sky thinking about what it would take to design the most effective hand grenade. Did they talk about body parts? Mortality rates? Bang for your buck? Or did they do it with one hand over their eyes, pretending not to know what they were doing and perhaps imagining a use for the hand grenade which didn’t involve blowing people to bits? Is there somewhere, in the Ministry of Defence, a portfolio of uses of hand grenades which weren’t deemed appropriate and so have been confined to the dustbins of history?

We shall probably never know that but one thing we do know is that the military industrial complex that is the far North West of England asks some pretty hard questions of its inhabitants and even harder ones of those who live far removed from its difficult debates about warfare, industry, education, design and jobs. Robert Wyatt’s ‘Ship Building’ has never been far from my mind recently: and like Robert, I have the advantage of living a long way away from the centre of these challenging and difficult questions.

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.

The Bog Standard Advisor: The Town Hall, Barrow in Furness

It’s said that Barrow Upon Furness is built the wrong way round; the front of things are at the back and the back of things are on the front.  This is as true of Barrow Town Hall as it of much of its wider urban landscape: so a visitor who has been caught short and is looking for some quick relief will have a problem if they think they are going to find the toilets quickly through the front door.  Because the front door – the one through which would naturally walk – is actually the back door, and what you want to be doing if you’re really desperate, is use the back passage.IMG_1504

Barrow in Furness is also disparaged for being on the end of the railway line; at the outer edge of English civilisation and having the highest concentration of neurotics in the whole of the UK.  Whilst all of this is unfair and none of it true, what is true is that the toilets in Barrow Town Hall are hard to find: but once you’ve found them, they are quite a delightful experience.

The first thing the rushed visitor finds when coming in the back passage is a PRIVATE sign: which hardly encourages you to go any further.  But the hardy, desperate visitor ignores these signs and heads up the stairs and eventually sees the signs they are wanting to see and heads off in that direction with one sole intent in mind.

IMG_1500Once in the cloakroom (and the good burgers of Barrow have called it a cloakroom as opposed to resorting to a cruder nomenclature), the visitor can be delighted by the architecture and the efficiency of the water systems.

Relief is quick and efficient and on the way out, one gains a bit more understanding about Britain’s industrial past at the same time by being able to study and marvel at the history of UK submarine construction for which the town is rightly famous.

The Bog Standard Advisor: St George’s Hall, Liverpool.

An OfSTED inspector once confided in me: if you really want to know a school, go and visit its toilets. And she was not wrong: for all the froth and razzmatazz that a school could muster when government inspectors came to visit,there would be many times they would forget to look after the basics of their children’s needs. Teaching and learning strategies? Tick. Attendance records? Tick tick. Behaviour modification programmes? Oh yes, tick tick tick tick tick. But the school toilets?

2015-03-24 10.46.10In many a shiny school I visited, the toilets were still left in a disgraceful state. Cubicle doors kicked in, toilet paper hanging off the light bulbs and the stench of urine never far away and always beckoning you to look for the next urination hot spot.

Things were made worse by some bizarre school policies which instructed children not to go to the toilet at all between the hours of 9.30 and 10.17 precisely: or only on a Tuesday: or only if accompanied by a gazelle. No wonder the poor dear’s little bladders went into convulsion the moment they joined big school.

So since then I have been alert to the promise of shiny schools and the reality of their crap houses. And the same thing applies to many civic monuments up and down the country and around the globe: the magnificence of the Taj Mahal, the promise of liberation at The Statue of Liberty or the spiritual communing at The Vatican promise so much but deliver so little in the way of public amenities. It’s like they all want to celebrate the nobility of human endeavour without acknowledging that every King, President or Pope also needs a crap once in a while.

2015-03-24 10.47.01Happily, this is not the case with St George’s Hall in Liverpool. That it is a major public monument of historical significance is indisputable; that it offers a thousand and one ways for the occasional visitor to engage with the City’s past is without question: but the real icing on the cake are the gents toilets which are modestly upholstered and a welcoming relief to the bombast in the Big Hall along the corridor.

Decorated with some fetching light blue, grey and cream coloured tiles which make the urinals feel like a glorified beach hut as opposed to the nearest pharmacist’s clinic, the space enables you to go about your business with a spring in your step and song in your heart.

Liverpool may well have won the European City of Culture Award in 2008 and spent millions upon millions of pounds upon its local artists such as Royal De Luxe and their splendid puppets, but what will linger longer in the memory at a fraction of the price are the toilet facilities of St George’s Hall,  for those of you who have got caught short at Lime Street Station and can’t pay? won’t pay! the 30p the station will charge you.

The Bog Standard Advisor: Nottingham Town Hall.

IMG_1445Nottingham Town Hall is a highly salubrious venue when it comes to visiting the city’s glorious past and the many artefacts that reflect its long industrial history. It sits in the pride of place of Market Square and naturally attracts a lot of street vendors, mobile tea and coffee units and neighbouring restaurants.

What is less known about Nottingham Town Hall is that it is home to some very comfortable gentlemen’s toilets.

You can sit down in comfort, wash your hands at ease knowing full well that there is clean hand towel nearby and there are even baby changing facilities in the same room as the urinals.

IMG_1446Some might baulk at the idea of this kind of adjacency but there’s no getting away from it: if you’re half inclined to be taken short whilst you’re in the middle of Market Square in Nottingham, heading over to the Town Hall will provide you with quick, reliable and comfortable relief in a way that the local McDonalds Fast Food outlet will never be able to.