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

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.

Francis Keith Aitken: A Life of Quiet and Steadfast Influence.

In February 1932 a young architect made a remarkable journey by boat and train from Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, up through Central and Eastern Europe to a large naval port, Stettin, in Pomerania, North Germany.

This journey was taken at a time prior to a period of extraordinary upheaval across the continent: the rise of National Socialism, the onset of the Second World War, the division of Europe, liberation 40 years on of Eastern Europe and the subsequent tragic conflict in the Balkans.

This architect who had, to his evident irritation and discomfort, just been made redundant by the Sudanese Government (on the orders of the British Government) travelled through places whose names and memories are inextricably linked with the tragedy and romance of our century – Constantinople, Belgrade, Budapest, Berlin.  He was armed solely with a pocket camera and passport, which he very nearly lost in Prague.

We should all give thanks to the young Czech train conductor who returned that passport and who allowed that memorable journey to continue. For what was the ultimate purpose of that journey? It was to meet and marry his fiancee, a young ‘Hortnerin’ in Stettin and so step out together on the longer and more demanding journey of a stable and happy marriage which lasted over 61 years.

The international spirit and steadfast nature of Keith and Lotti’s marriage has swept through our four generations of grandparent to great grandchild, in counterpoint to the political upheaval of the age,. And it has been Keith’s quiet and consistent ability of practising a benevolent internationalism which has created his extended family gathered here to day from across the world: from Germany, from Africa, from South America.

And it is this positive and unwavering influence that I would like us to thank him for: his influence which instilled a belief that the world belongs to all of us; that we would do well to tend and care for it; his tolerance which valued all cultures and beliefs and which accepted people as they are: and the proof that the meeting of a young architect from Cardiff with a young Hortnerin from Stettin can provide us all with a beacon of hope and aspiration.

In a world of change and chaos, you  have been constant and your love, quiet and steadfast. We thank you from all our hearts and from across the globe.

As Shakespeare said:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air.
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud capp’d rtowers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded
Leave not a wrack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded in a sleep.

Testimonial for Francis Keith Aitken, August 1993

Dave Kinnear, Raconteur, Co-member of Everton Park and Bootle Sports Centre Squash Teams

A raconteur, according to my online dictionary, is someone who tells anecdotes in a skilful and amusing way.

Dave Kinnear was not a raconteur in the usual meaning of the word.

True, he would tell stories at great length – and who knows how many weird and wonderful stories he’s related over the years – and true he had a kind of storytelling skill – if converting a straightforward story into a complex mix of diversion, cul-de-sac and red herring is a skill, and true he would be amusing – albeit in a baffling kind of ‘Help, I’ve lost the plot, Dave!’ kind of way.

But more than all this, Dave was an urban myth, a legend in his own story life time – and the legends he is part of, are legendary.

Once, there was this fella who reckoned that he had been part of all his families stories – even though he hadn’t been born when they’d taken part. ‘I know these things!’ he’d say, mystically.

Once, there was this fella who persuaded his ill brother to let him drink his medicine – to stop this brother getting into trouble.

Once, there was this fella who had such a deft little wrist shot on the squash court – that his opponents would find themselves on court red faced, high tempered and fuming at the innocence of that squash shot which always had them running the wrong way, or left them flat footed or left them just looking plain silly.

We – his squash mates from Everton and Bootle – met Dave over 10 years ago at Everton Park squash courts – quite how, we can’t quite remember although Dave would have known…

We got playing together on Wednesday nights and before too long we had been signed up to the Thursday night league, complete with so called training on Sundays – again, quite why and how is fuzzy – but Dave would have remembered.

And before we knew it there we all were, driving around Merseyside over many cold winter Thursday nights to play at clubs we had difficulty finding in the squash league schedule – Burscough, Birkdale, Xaverien – pronounced for some reason that Dave would have explained – as SFX.

Dave, with his storytelling, anecdotes and explanations provided the social glue for our team.

Once, there was this fella who told stories in such complicated and detailed fashion, that his audience frequently turned to stone, complete with puzzled expressions across their stony brows.

But what his audience didn’t know was that Dave knew stories of before he was born, and consequently had so many stories to get out to his family and friends – and had so much to say – and so little time to say it – that he couldn’t be wasting time with the craft of telling his legends – so just got on with it, talking to everyone, conversing with everyone, remembering everyone and everything – and becoming a master raconteur to us all.

Dave, you’re a bit of an urban myth in our eyes – thanks for holding us together.

Nick Owen
Bootle EP Squash team
6 March 2006

What if Robin Williams met Anna Craft? What does losing 2 big C Creatives in a week tell us about us?

We’ve lost a couple of giants in the last week, both of whom speak of and for creativity albeit in very different ways: Anna Craft with her little ‘c’ creativity and Robin William’s big black dog of Creativity.

There can’t be many people out there who’ve not encountered Williams in his various disguises but probably a whole lot more who have never come across Anna’s work on creativity and learning. Whilst Williams’ creativity was bombastic, totalising and indisputable, Craft’s was more nuanced, subtle and ambiguous: with Williams you felt a target on the wrong side of the monologue but with Craft you did at least have a sense that you were in dialogue with her, previous generations and yourself.

Between them, they encapsulate the spectrum of difficulty of what it is to define, discuss or demonstrate that most infuriating of phenomena: the ‘c’ word. Is it all about individual genius which borders on insanity and can only be understood by defaulting to understandings of mental health, childhood trauma or drug fuelled psychosis? Or is it about more subtle ways of engaging with and imagining a world of possibilities? Or both?

Let’s do an Anna and ask ourselves, ‘What If they met on their own respective stairways to heaven? What might they have said to each other as they made their way through purgatory? And what insights might they generate as they waited to find out their future destiny? And where would that leave the rest of us?

Would Robin admit to a life long secret desire to be a nursery school teacher? And Anna to a thwarted ambition to entertain millions through her latent desire to be a rock guitar hero?  We’ll never know for certain of course: but one thing they could both agree upon is that without them gracing the earth for their short days, we would all be a lot poorer in understanding what it is to be human.

But if you do have an inside track on their conversation as they made it up into the stars, it would be great to hear about it!

 

 

Tripping off the tongue: truth, reconciliation and disruptive playground politics.

My second visit to Cape Town in 2002 was the time I understood how teachers can hunt in packs and why we can never do everything on our own and have to rely, as much as we might not like it, on the ineffable.

Mandela’s colleagues had led us to schools in some of the Western Cape townships for a week and as the week wore on, my colleagues and I became increasingly inebriated with the achievements and challenges that Mandela’s colleagues were demonstrating.

One inebriation led to another and before we knew it we were walking around a Stellenbosch vineyard, knocking back the free tasters, plying ourselves with goats cheese, biscuits and fruit and one slip of a post-it note led to another and before you knew it, bang! The atmosphere was shattered, distrust washed over the group and we UK colleagues looked at each other: embarrassments were waved away, giggles were hidden, smirks stifled and post-it notes and pens hurriedly hidden in handbags. The pack was out in force and it’s ability to join forces and stand shoulder to shoulder against outsiders summonsed up. The old empire is never far away when Brits are abroad.

Mandela’s colleagues managed to patch the group back together again, well versed as they were in truth and reconciliation but the schism in our group never healed, albeit that disruption happening over 10 years ago.

If it’s hard to heal a small group of teachers out on a weekly field trip, how on earth do you go about healing a nation?

Some time later that week we visited a disability centre where disabled people were being trained in new employment related skills and tentatively being prepared for the workplace. We asked them how this was possible in the country at this time.

Jimi, one of Mandela’s colleagues pointed to a large map of South Africa hanging on the wall. There were three pieces of thin plastic tubing coloured red, blue and white, fixed into the map. The red tubing spanned the length of the country and, explained Jimi, represented the blood of the people required to make the changes necessary; the blue tubing started mid- country and ended in the Pacific Ocean and represented the water and resources required to make the changes necessary; the white tubing started mid-country and went northward up to the limits of the map, disrupting the frame in the process. This, explained Jimi, represented God as there was no way human beings were capable of making the changes necessary on their own. There was a need for something else in this process, something which couldn’t be described and passed by all of our understanding.

We all looked at each other surreptitiously not quite knowing where else to look or what else to say, the earlier events of the week still fresh in our minds. We may have shared a common blood between us, we certainly had no shortage of resources to draw on but we were distinctly impoverished when it came to being able to draw on an ineffable source of power that we could all confidently identify and draw on. We were in fact, distinctly alone in our school trip.

Perhaps the first step in our truth and reconciliation process would have been to recognise that it was loneliness we shared, not the false gang mentality of the pack that the earlier inebriation had succeeded in unmasking.

Free Nelson Mandela? A confession.

I never did like The Specials’ song, “Free Nelson Mandela” back in 1984. There, I’ve said it and a small white man’s burden has lifted.

You couldn’t dispute the lyrical intention – unless you’re of the Tebbit clan – but the jaunty ska trumpets always left me rooted to the dance floor back in Leeds University Students Union. Not that I was a natural in the student discotheque, surprising though that may seem.

I was more of a svelte glam rock poseur and could do a mean languid impression of Phil Oakey or Marc Almond. I once provided a memorable routine to Soft Cells ‘Say Hello Wave Goodbye’ at an overcrowded student party in Hyde Park, but Jerry Dammer’s anthem invariably led to me half heartedly jumping up and down out of time with my compadres until one evening I realised I just didn’t like the song at all so slinked off to the kitchen to hang out with members of the SWP (the Socialist Workers Party in those days before it had a Blairite conversion to the Socialising Workers Privileged Tendency in the late 1990s).

But now that Mandela has left our shores, I’m fully expecting the track to be re-released any day now only this time around on multiple formats of CD, I-Tunes, YouTube, DVD, and who knows, perhaps even 7″ rainbow vinyl: which lets face it, was the height of choice back in the mid ’80s.

Those days, the choice of vinyl symbolised an act of political solidarity so you had to be careful as you stepped around Jumbo Records in Leeds Merrion Centre to make sure you made the right choice for those student parties later on that day when us student geeks would earnestly look each other up and down, compare shoe size and argue whether it was plausible that the purchase of the record could play a small but important part in contributing to Mandela’s release and ultimately over throwing the apartheid regime. I hope it did, even though I couldn’t bring myself to buying a copy. Times were tough then and Human Leagues Hard Times seemed more in tune with both my personal and the wider public mood.

This time, though, I shall try harder to like the song although the chances that I shall be able to dance to it any more effectively are extremely remote.

First disruptive steps in South Africa.

I first visited South Africa in 1999 when I was working at LIPA and Lee Higgins, our community music tutor at the time, had been involved with various ISME activities and had come back enthused about what he had seen and heard and made a very persuasive case about why LIPA should be out there and how it might be a great source of potential undergraduates for our course in our august institution.

Whilst LIPA released some funding to pay for a market research trip for the two of us, we realised very quickly that asking potential students to pay what in some peoples case would have been the equivalent of a life times earnings to study for a three year degree programme was a form of optimism which bordered on the deluded. Of course, there would have been some students whose parents could have paid – but they almost certainly weren’t going to be from the black families who lived in the townships of Cape Town that we visited. And sure – we could dream about sponsorship of talented black musicians by benign white multinationals all we liked – but the fact is that going on a student recruitment drive to South Africa in the late 1990s was a potentially ridiculous mix of idealism, naïveté and market forces.

What wasn’t ridiculous though was what we did find. We went looking for students and sources of institutional income and instead found people and places and sights and sounds and colours and textures and atmospheres and politics and religions and a place on earth which was simultaneously heaven and hell and which blew apart our preconceptions of notions of community, of music, of Black and White and of good and evil.

Mandela of course infused the air we breathed, the ground we walked on, the talks we talked and the music we listened to. We saw, heard and felt Isicathamiya; we heard Xhosa and Zulu, we wondered why there had never been a civil war in South Africa and we were astounded. In fact, there wasn’t one single day when we weren’t astounded by something or another.

That first visit led to several future visits which became less about attracting the South African Rand to the coffers of LIPA, and more about wider educational and cultural exchange between artists and teachers but the astonishment we felt during that first visit continued to dance around our footsteps as we met many inspirational people whose lives were also infused by Mandela’s presence – or absence, given the amount of time he had been incarcerated on Robben Island.

I don’t really want to say RIP Nelson Mandela as there are millions more saying that right now much more authentically from places that can still astound. His death not only opens up other ways of being astounded by the stories of South Africa: but also how we live our own lives in places which may be thousands of miles from Cape Town but which may as well be on Mandela’s doorstep given the racism, bigotry, fear and ignorance which are still evident everywhere you look and tread.

So I hope his family and people find some peace once he has been laid to rest; but for the rest of us, Insha’Allah, we could do a lot worse than to allow ourselves to be constantly astounded at the world we continue to live in and infuse some of his spirit into disrupting those worlds.