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.

The disappearing knowledge of the Hyperloop passenger: schools beware! Number 6 in the series: Knowledge, traffic and arts based research.

The hyperloop has hit the news again with dreams of tubing it from San Francisco to Los Angeles in less than 10 minutes. Everyone around the world will have their equivalent journeys and will marvel at the apparent ease at which such previously long journeys have been reduced to bats of eyelashes. In the UK, we will wonder how a hyperloop journey could take us from London to Liverpool in just under 30 seconds: although given the magnetic pull London has on all things economic, political and social in the UK, it is a wonder that anything ever leaves London at all, never mind in a hyperloop tube.

But the greater significance of the hyperloop proposal is on how we understand knowledge of traffic flow and our place in the civilised world and how we engage with passengers, train spotters and irate cows on the line.

Because make no mistake, in hyperloop world there will be no room for any of these travel distractions. In a hyperloop tube, you will be strapped to your seat, asked to brace yourself and before you know it you will have been shot across the planet with the equivalent of a ton of TNT shoved under your backside. You will know nothing of the experience and your sum knowledge of the world and all its wondrous creations will not have improved a jot.

This is why we should worry – and worry hard – about the proposed hyperloop project. No longer will students be able to revise on trains before exams; no longer will commuters be able to improve their literary knowledge and no longer will we see people frowning over Sudoku puzzles and other complex numerical machinations. The nation’s literacy, numeracy and emotional intelligences will all suffer enormously.

Where arts based research can help however will be on the hyperloop platforms, both pre and post-TNT backside kick. Artist researchers will offer passengers new ways of consolidating their knowledge before they take the fatal kick up the backside. These researchers will remind commuters of their 12 times table through pretty graphics; confirm proper grammatical construction of sentences and offer new ways of reminding ourselves of our Shakespearian heritage. Whilst the journey will be over in a bat of an eye, our memories shot to pieces, the learning will continue for ever: and for that, Michael Gove will be proud.

More travel knowledge here.

Do you like my claw hand? Writers in Schools revisited

Roy, front of the class, is demonstrating through a simple walking exercise five things which are involved in writing: the children recognise these as the five senses – smelling, tasting, touching, listening, looking and Roy says you need all five in order to write a story. He elaborates by suggesting that it’s the senses that make characters and places of stories come alive and also help you get ideas and help you describe situations.

It’s a large class – the whole of KS2 and year 2 : there must be at least 50+ kids in the room together with 3 staff who are sat at the back, watching. He stands front on to the class; behind him is a data projector and 2 school benches upon which are placed, stood up, a selection of about 20 of his books. These help draw the gaze to him and give him a status: another form of disguise perhaps.

The attention of the group wanders: a small group of girls look at each others socks, a small group of boys natter quietly to each other. We’re in the afternoon, feeling a bit post lunch lethargic and we’re post serious education of the morning. He moves on to the ‘shed in the heads’ concept – ‘where all the things you’ve sensed go, you can see what’s lurking around’. He points to a red bag he’s previously planted in the hall – an example of something which is in his shed in the head…. He brings out a box of fish fingers and points to one of the books on the bench as including a box of fish fingers. “This book by Roy Apps…” he refers to himself in the third person.

He starts to read out from one of Roy Apps’ books and offers the group a chance to join by calling out ‘Cheerios’ as he reads out sentences in the book which have the ‘c’ word missing. He points to a magic word in the paragraph which suggests something is about to happen: SUDDENLY.

Suddenly, he points to another bag which he’s planted in the hall earlier. He collects stuff out of the bags – ketchup bottle, garlic, blood stained stake, capes – the competition in the book is a device to get rid of mum and dad so that lead character, Jonathon, can go and stay with granddad who’s a vampire. He reads out and splits the group so that they can listen for things that Jonathon senses. He calls out for a gold bag – kid pulls out blank piece of paper (scary! He explains the fear of the blank piece of paper to a writer) and goes onto suggest that the five senses aren’t everything…. The magic of stories needs imagination too (which he describes as a word with a silent letter c – imagi©nation…

Imagi©nation causes a shift from the ordinary to the extraordinary. How? He hands out sheets of paper to kids who line up.. which spell out ‘I wonder what would happen if’ when aligned properly. He relates his own background to the family story – his Uncle Watte, the cook in the navy who would scare people and had teeth which looked like vampire fangs: ‘Do you like my claw hand?” Uncle Watte would ask when playing with a piece of chicken tendon. Years later, Uncle Watte’s claw hand has metamorphosed into the hand of the story teller.

Resistance isn’t Futile! Telling our stories of the Labour Movement

The Aspire Trust is one of the first groups in the UK to receive a Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) All Our Stories Grant for its challenging and inspiring new project “Resistance Isn’t Futile: Combination, Mutuality, Solidarity and Aspiration”: an exploration of the history of labour movements and trade union activity in the North West between 1830 and 1950..

The project will access the collection of Keith Hackett, who has amassed a significant archive of labour related artefacts from the region. This currently private collection will be made into a public resource through a process of researching, cataloguing, digitising and a series of community-focused research and story telling events.

All Our Stories – a brand new small grant programme launched earlier this year in support of BBC Two’s The Great British Story – has been designed as an opportunity for everyone to get involved in their heritage. With HLF funding and support, community groups will carry out activities that help people explore, share and celebrate their local heritage.

The popular series presented by historian Michael Wood and supported by a programme of BBC Learning activities and events got thousands of us asking questions about our history and inspired us to look at our history in a different way through the eyes of ordinary people.

The programme and HLF All Our Stories has proved a real hit and Resistance Isn’t Futile is one of hundreds of successful projects around the UK to receive a grant. The project will begin with the digitising and cataloguing of more than 400 items from trade unions, mutual benefit societies, friendly societies etc which will be made available online. 12 key pieces will be identified for further research and each of these will provide the focus for a community-led research project. The Aspire Trust will work alongside each community group to examine the stories and histories related to each artefact.

TV presenter and historian Michael Wood, said: “We British love our history, and no wonder: few nations in the world, if any, have such riches on their doorstep, and so much of it accessible to all of us. It is really tremendous that the people of the North West have been inspired to get involved to tell their own story and to dig deeper into their own past. It’s brilliant that so many people are being given the chance to get involved through the All Our Stories grants. Having travelled the length and breadth of the British Isles this last year filming The Great British Story, I am certain that fascinating and moving stories will be uncovered which will not only bring to life the excitement of local history, but will illuminate and enrich every community’s connection with the national narrative.”

Keith Hackett said: “I have collected and kept these items safe – some for almost forty years – because for me they give testament to the efforts of extraordinary ordinary people to improve their worlds – and make them better for their own generation and for generations to come. Every items has a story to tell, and most name the people whose efforts they valour-ate. Whilst the objects themselves are in their own ways stunning, beautiful and inspiring …. behind each one lies the efforts, beliefs and achievements of real people …. and it is their stories that will truly bring these objects back to life and relevance in today’s world.”

We were delighted to be approached by Keith to play our part in telling the stories of the labour movement’s history in the North West. The notion of public service is taking a hammering in these days of cut backs and recession, and we hope that our “Resistance Isn’t Futile” project will rebalance many of the stories that are being told in Britain right now about the role the labour movement and working people can play in making this a great country to live in.

For further information please visit

Reading the Riots: who’s bringing the media to account?

I’m watching a group of young people perform a play they devised about the summer riots (or disturbances, if the R word causes you some difficulty). Some of the group were ‘involved’ directly; some were not. What does bind them though is they have all been ‘involved’ with the media’s responses to the events: they have all read the headlines, all seen the TV coverage and, to a lesser or greater extent, been witness to the twitter feed which became a twitter storm in those early days of August.

In their play, the cast act out the early hours of the riots against powerpoint slides of press images, underscored by tracks by Marvin Gaye, The Jam and The Who. There are monolithic pictures of riot police and burning cars, under which the unhooded actors slouch, their social anxiety clothing their angular visages. The images show choreographic moves which would be impossible for trained contemporary dancers: high kicks through shattering glass sheets.

There’s no doubting the power of those iconic images the press managed to conjure up during those heady hours – but quite what damage those images then managed to generate is still up for discussion.

The camera can fire up so much mischief. It inflames petroleum feelings and catalyses social itches into anaphylactic shocks. Its iconicity highlights, exaggerates and essentialises in ways that were never intended. And these days, then there’s photoshop which wreaks further havoc.

I’m reminded that you have to use the arts to play back to people other stories, other interpretations which may be messier, more inconvenient and yet which give us importent alternative insights. We need artists views to counteract the juggernaut express power of the million camera gaze. You have to show something back to audiences, somehow, because someone somewhere has to bring the media themselves to account.

For more on Reading the Riots see

Reading the Riots – hearing the real evidence

I’m working as a researcher for the Guardian LSE Reading the Riots project in which they’re trying to find the background and reasons for the summer disturbances from the point of view of the perpetrators, those who have been charged and locked up, or those who found themselves involved for one reason or another.

The research is completely anonymous and confidential. If you would be interested in being interviewed for the research – or know someone who would be, please get in touch.

It will give you or them a great chance to put their side of the story, but in a way that is not connected at all to the police or government.

Please email me on

The full research team can be seen here:

“Mr Torpey Nick Sir!” messing with identity. Writers in Schools Revisited

Tony, a professional animation artist has entered a classroom of a High School in Liverpool and greets a teacher who is about to introduce him to the class he is about to work with that afternoon. Tony is visiting a school which he used to attend as a teenager. After having not visited the school for over 25 years he has now been employed as visiting screen writer and animator on the NAWE Writing Together programme which has placed him in that school for what will be six half days of work with a group of year nine boys in order to get the ‘pleasure back into their writing, and to develop more ‘colour’ and expressiveness in their creative writing.’

Nick Torpey – a teacher of Tony’s when he was 11 – is still teaching at the school; and the first two words of Tony’s greeting – Mr. Torpey – are the words Tony was accustomed to using whilst being a pupil the school. A split second later, Tony realises that this formal approach is inappropriate for the enactment of the role Tony has now found himself in and adds to his greeting the less formal “Nick” – only to realise immediately afterwards that given this interchange is taking place in a classroom in full view of the on looking boys that Tony is about to work with, that this informality is too informal and that he must resort to another type of formal style which is used by many teachers in their communications with each other – the tendency to refer to each other as ‘sir’ or ‘miss’. Hence the birth of the rapid fire utterance, ‘Mr Torpey Nick Sir!”

Tony is introduced by his new colleague – Mr. Torpey Nick Sir – to the class as a freelance, professional animator who has come to share (as opposed to teach or instruct) his writing skills with the class in front of him. Tony doesn’t recall having anybody similar being introduced to him when he was at school and for this class, they too have not been introduced to this type of adult presence in the classroom by the current school managers before. It is clear from the start that the relationship that the pupils can expect to have with Tony will be of a different nature to the one they are accustomed to with the regular teachers in the school. They are encouraged to address him by his first name and discouraged from calling him either ‘Mr Ealey’ or ‘Sir’. Discouragement comes in the form of explicit, friendly guidance that using the artists first name when addressing him is acceptable, or the occasional joke with a pupil who stumbles over the construction “Tony Mr Ealey Tony Sir.”

They are led into a series of exercises by the writer which are different in terms of both style and content to their usual classroom exercises. They have been asked to describe ‘pitches’ of films and stories they have known (short descriptions which aim to capture the essence of the story of that film in as few words and as punchy a way as possible) and are soon developing pitches of their own for film stories they are encouraged to imagine. The class is marked by an atmosphere of attention and focus on Tony; contributions from the majority of the class to Tony’s questions and suggestions; a lively, informal and good humoured interaction between artist and pupils. The teacher who is present sits at the back of the class, scanning the room for any signs of distress, discomfort or potential trouble. Mr Torpey Nick Sir left the room some minutes after the class began.

The reassuring knowledge of the HGV driver: how schools could benefit. Number 4 in the series: Knowledge, traffic and arts based research.

There’s a lot to be certain about when you’re driving a truck. You know you’re more imposing than pretty much else on the road. You can see more, anticipate more and from the elevated position of your cab, can reflect more on the foolishness and antics of lesser road mortals. Your philosophical reach matches the miles measured on your tachograph.

You know it will take you a good half mile to stop should you decide to break: you’d be better off making an appointment with your gear box to slow down, rather than rely on acting in the instant. You know you are carrying out some vital economic, social or cultural function: moving widgets by the million or self build furniture to homes bracing themselves for the arguments that will leap out of the box the moment they slit open the cardboard with a stanley knife.

Safe in this knowledge, the HGV driver reflects many schools approach to teaching children. They know the curriculum and navigate it with confidence; they will take a long time to slow down and change direction and are secure in the belief they are undertaking vital economic tasks: training the youth of today to be the economic generators of tomorrow.

However, HGV drivers have their achilles heels too. Their inability to see very much behind them and their innate inertia means they cannot respond easily when faced with an immediate accident in front of them on the Euston Road. They can easily jack-knife and cause hours of disruption for hundreds of fellow travellers if they spill their widget load over the Queens Highway. Their security in their knowledge is fine in times of certainty and if no-one else is on the road. These days however, nothing is certain and traffic is an inevitable consequence of venturing out on the road for everyone. “Don’t blame the traffic – you are traffic” as some bright spark in the automotive industry recently wrote.

HGV drivers, like cyclists and taxi drivers, could benefit from a course in art based research: the understanding and knowledge this would generate would help them become more nimble movers, respond more effectively to the needs of other members of the traffic stream and give them a sense of humanity when it comes to carving up a motorbike on the inside lane.

More travel knowledge here.

The transgressive knowledge of the cyclist: who the f#!? do they think they are? Number 3 in an the series: Knowledge, traffic and arts based research.

Whilst the knowledge of the taxi driver is in a state of crisis, and the knowledge capacities of the bus driver under-exploited, the knowledge of the cyclist is both stable and fulfilled. Stable  in the sense that they know how to get where they want to go (ie sit on saddle and peddle like crazy) and fulfilled in that there are unlikely to be any surprise passengers on the bicycle, hiding in the pannier bags ready to spring a few narrative surprises…

The cyclist knowledge is also trangressive and reflective of some problematic identity resolutions. One minute they are a law abiding traveller on the nation’s roads, the next they have become pedestrians on wheels, oblivious to the demands made by red traffic lights or pelican crossings. This transgressive performativity (identity is not who you are, it’s what you do) may provide them with additional epidemiological insights, but it also causes wider concerns amongst fellow travellers. ‘who the f#!#do they think they are?’ being a common rhetorical question posed by car drivers, relatively ignorant of the knowledge capacities of the cyclist when witnessing their delight in swopping identities.

This is the cyclist’s dilemma.  Their transgressive capabilities, whilst providing them with new insights into contemporary travelling insights is generated at a price: existential questions of who do they fundamentally think they are.

Arts based researchers would help them resolve these questions through the suitable application of a course of graffiti, bricolage and spoke-art. The nation’s roads would become safer as a result.

More travel knowledge here.