Robert Macfarlane’s UNESCO lecture

May 23rd, 2019

Last night’s UNESCO lecture by Robert Macfarlane at the Council House was tremendous. Thanks to everyone who made it happen, especially the University of Nottingham for hosting it. Particular credit to my vice-chair at NUCoL, Patrick Limb,who organised ‘The Lost Words’ crowdfunder for Notts libraries and got us involved with Robert. He can be seen in the video of the speech introducing a beautiful short film about the book, one which reduced Robert to tears. At the moment, the speeches start at 37.30, though we’ll edit that in due course. While this was the big public event of the Nottwich conference (where Nottingham and Norwich UNESCO cities of literature host 25 of the world’s other cities of lit) it’ll be of particular interest to Sheffield friends & family as, in the main section, Robert links the community of trees to the community created to save Sheffield’s trees. It’s a powerful, moving account of recent events in the city where I was born. I don’t post much about the City of Literature on here and with the conference going on don’t have time to write much, but here’s the speech I gave before the event and above you can see me giving Robert a thank-you bottle of Acorn gin, from Sherwood Forest, courtesy of Weavers of Nottingham, which he was very chuffed with. Thanks again, Rob.

The speech below was followed by speeches from the city council leader, David Mellen, NTU’s VC, Edward Peck & the chief executive of the Arts Council, Darren Henley. UoN’s VC, Shearer West, introduced Robert, as can be seen on the livestream linked above. I began by thanking our director, Sandeep Mahal.

Thanks to the University of Nottingham for hosting their annual UNESCO lecture here as part of our Nottwich conference. I bid a very warm welcome to every one of the delegates at the Creative Cities of Literature summit, which we’re proud to host. I met many of you in Dublin three years ago & look forward to catching up. And of course, a very warm welcome to Robert Macfarlane, our guest lecturer.

This is the building where, four and a half years ago, we announced that the city would bid to become a UNESCO City of Literature. It was an ambitious thing to do and one that many people – sometimes including me – thought we had little hope of achieving. But we were determined to bring the city together, to celebrate our heritage, yes, but also to acknowledge our diverse, thrilling writing scene. Most of all, we wanted to make things happen.

And here we are, co-hosting what I’ve been told is the city’s biggest International Conference this year, Nottwich. By the way, as a huge admirer of Graham Greene, I’m delighted we agreed to name this conference after the fictional version of Nottingham that Greene created for his novel about our city, A Gun For Sale.

Greene was only here for three months in 1926. He thought of Nottingham as a cultural desert & you know, he had a point. I’ve been here more than forty years. The changes in that time have been staggering. Though I’ll tell you what, we’ve always had good libraries. Twenty-odd years ago, Notts libraries – who’ve always been superb at supporting local writers – managed to find twenty of us from across the county for a photocall in the Victoria Shopping Centre.

That was the only time I ever saw my friends Alan Sillitoe and Stanley Middleton together. I often wonder what the two of them – working class writers from lowly origins – would make of where we are now. By the turn of the century, new writers kept popping up all over. There was a groundswell of poetry, in particular. Did you know we have more poetry publishers, per head, than any comparable city in the world? Credit must also be given to Nottingham Playhouse who fostered the birth of the hugely successful and influential Mouthy Poets, giving them space and support. Under Giles Croft and Stephanie Sirr, they put new emphasis on producing plays by Nottingham-based writers like Andy Barrett, Amanda Whittington and Mufaro Makubika.

In early 2014, one of our playwrights, Stephen Lowe, became President of Bromley House Library. At his suggestion, the library commissioned Pippa Hennessey to look into how they might celebrate Nottingham’s literary heritage. She came up with the idea of bidding to become a UNESCO City of Literature and would become our Project Manager during the bid. That summer we set up a company to manage the bid and, if successful, the designation. Our volunteer board included several writers and representatives from the Writers Studio, Writing East Midlands, the Playhouse, the City Council and, of course, both of our great universities.

We decided to become an educational charity. And we asked for help. After I was elected chair, I called Aly Bowden, director of Edinburgh City of Literature for advice. She told me we needed a shout line that summed us up in no more than six words. As every writer knows, writing short is much harder than writing long. Still, I think we managed to succinctly articulate what has always been and will always be our mission: Building a Better World With Words.

Half of the money to finance our bid came from Arts Council England, whose James Urquhart was an enormous support during this entire process. The other half came, in equal measure, from the city council and our two universities. We’re both grateful for and proud of fostering that three-way partnership, which went on to be the basis for the city’s European Capital of Culture bid – before the embarrassment that is Brexit ruled the UK out of the bidding –  despite being disqualified, we demonstrated that we are an international city, one that, tomorrow, I’ll be proud to tour with our visitors from around the world.

We submitted our UNESCO bid in summer 2015. That December, we learned we’d been successful, becoming one of what were then just fifteen cities of literature. It was and is a success that belonged to the whole city and, in particular, to every one of our writers, many of whom are in this room tonight. Six months later, thanks to our four key partners, from whom you’re about to hear, we were in position to recruit a director. Sandeep Mahal took on her new role whole-heartedly, and she’s done a fantastic job. Not only for us. Sandy now chairs the Creative Cities of Literature network. She’ll make sure that delegates have a very fruitful few days here. We hope you have a great time.

Finally, I’d like to congratulate David Mellen, our next speaker, on his election as our new Council Leader and thank him, for coming here tonight to make his first official speech in his new role.

To finish, here’s a song from the final album by Pulp, whose Jarvis Cocker is referenced in Robert’s speech. This is ‘The Trees’ from ‘We Love Life.’

Danny Baker, Good Time Charlie’s Back, Nottingham Theatre Royal 12.5.19

May 14th, 2019

Baker being doorstepped after the deleted tweet.

This is my review from today’s Nottingham Post.

‘Somebody said to me this week, “Dan, you’ve broke the internet.” I said, “I wish somebody fucking would.’

There have been better weeks to be Danny Baker. On Wednesday night, he tweeted a photo that, however intended, came over as a vile racist gag. He deleted the tweet as soon as he realised what he’d so casually done, later describing it as a ‘crass and regrettable blunder’. The worst day of his life followed.

No apology could save his BBC job. Tonight, at his first show since being sacked, the question is whether he can save his reputation. He’s had a few nights to think about it. Will he address the elephant in the room right off the bat?

He must have been tempted to cancel, but, at twenty-five to eight, he comes on and, for five minutes, apologises unreservedly for the ‘horrible’ tweet.

‘Here’s the thing. It’s all my own fault…  I’m sorry and thanks for coming.’

Then he goes off and comes back out wearing his fez.

‘It’s great to get back to one of the few jobs I still have.’

There’ll be references to his sacking throughout the show but they lessen when he hits his stride. The first hour is a recap of his previous show and first autobiography (basis of hit TV series, Cradle to the Grave). He paces the stage occasionally using a snooker cue as a pointer to photos on a screen above him.

It’s with the Sniffin’ Glue and NME years that he hits his stride. We find Danny simultaneously courting his wife, Wend, a secretary there, while going round the world with rock stars. Things fall apart, but the on-off courtship reaches a moving conclusion.

There are just two Michael Jackson stories. ‘This section used to be twenty minutes long, but…’.

He’s more than moved by his reception, saying he’d been worried about being heckled. After the interval, he tells us he’s just phoned Wend and ‘for what it’s worth you reduced her to a pile of tears.’

The Gazza and Twizzle story with which he closes is a corker. The show takes us up to 1988 and the start of his radio years. At over three hours, it’s too long, but Baker runs off our goodwill. He finishes by calling this ‘one of the greatest gigs of my career. Nottingham, I love you.’ A full standing ovation shows that the feeling is mutual.

Young Laureate: an essay on Simon Armitage

May 12th, 2019

With this weekend’s announcement of Simon Armitage’s appointment as poet laureate, many of us have been reminiscing about when we first came across him in the late 80’s. My partner, Sue Dymoke, did her first public reading with him in 1987 and our friend John Harvey published him early on in the fine Nottingham-based poetry magazine Slow Dancer (celebrating its fortieth anniversary this year – Sue was the UK poetry editor for many years). 29 years ago, enthused by Simon’s early work, I wrote an essay about him for Slow Dancer. I wanted to give him a boost, but his career was moving so quickly, he’d already taken flight.

Over on Facebook, Andrew Moorhouse asked me to dig out this first ever essay on Armitage and copy it for him. While I was it, I decided that I might as well OCR the text and put it online. I haven’t changed a word. The cover for the issue is above – a field mouse has chewed away the top corner (it was in our allotment garage and the mice like the taste of small press glue). Here’s my biog note from the back of the issue, which also featured an up and coming name, Billy Collins, and the late, great Tina Fulker.

And here’s the essay. Congratulation, Simon. I’m sure you’ll do a good job.

THE POETRY OF SIMON ARMITAGE

And to think that we once wrote poetry

about the distance between stars, and how

for small things the skin on a surface

of water is almost impregnable.

‘A Place to Love.’

The second half of the eighties has seen a new generation of small press magazines invent itself: The Wide Skirt, The Echo Room , The North and (the late) Harry’s Hand, presenting a distinctly new group of poets. They’re 25-35, mostly male, and mostly live within ten miles of Huddersfield. They go to Peter Sansom’s poetry workshops and none vote Tory,  or get  published in magazines run by the London Litcrit mafia. Instead, they’ve set up their own alternative version (with, of course, the generous assistance of Yorkshire Arts).

Despite a lot of hard work and rather more poetic talent than Faber and Faber have dug out in the last decade or two, none of the Huddersfield Mafia have managed to make any kind of national impact. Until now. Simon Armitage, at 26, the youngest of these new Northern poets, has just published his first collection (Zoom! Bloodaxe. £4.95). Despite not being feted in any of the publications that Blake Morrison’s friends get reviewed in, Zoom! was the PBS Autumn choice and even got shortlisted for the Whitbread. This kind of success is not so much rare as unheard of. Simon also won a major Gregory award in 1988, appeared last year on radios 3 and 4. If he keeps going at this rate, he should get a South Bank Show special while the 90s are still young.

What makes Simon’s evident success surprising isn’t his age or origins (born in Huddersfield, returned there after university), but that his style is so uncompromisingly original (unlike, say, Wendy Cope, the best-selling new poet of the 80’s). Which doesn’t mean inaccessible:

I can half hear you, John, half see you fumble

with a car battery, a two two air rifle

two wires and a headlamp. You and that shivering dog

going as two silhouettes above Warrington.

His style is conversational. Cars appear in a lot of the poems. There’s always a sense of humour somewhere near the surface, but it’s hard to pin down: equal measures  of irony and compassion are directed at his quirky subjects.

None of the poetry in ‘Zoom!’ could have been written by anyone else. What makes the voice so distinct is best summed up in his own words:

It’s often a narrative or yarn, a build up of images and links pebbledashed with a mix of idiom, slang and cliche… although real life is the main ingredient of these poems, they are seasoned with a generous pinch of verisimilitude.

PBS Bulletin, Autumn 1989

Some influences are apparent: like many of the new Northern poets he’s more in tune with the relaxed rhythms and wide ranging subject matter of post-war U.S. poets than their drier, more formal English counterparts. Frank O’Hara gets a namecheck and William Carlos Williams is hanging around somewhere. [an McMillan’s quirky surrealism might be a more local inspiration. Like MacMillan, Armitage’s poems work as well, or better, when read aloud. They share a love for the memorable punchline: ‘no fish: no birds: no shit.’ (‘The Peruvian Anchovy Industry’.) Or ‘My cock’s a kipper’ (‘Bus Talk’).

Armitage also acknowledges influences from rock: it’s easy to identify the tone of David Byrne’s (Talking Heads) deadpan lyrics about Urban American life in aspects of Simon’s style. Don’t Sing’ uses the title of Paddy McAloon’s meditation on Graham Greene (recorded by Prefab Sprout) to tell an absurd yet poignant war story.

Smith Doorstop published ‘Human Geography’ in 1986. It includes ‘Lamping’, quoted above, amongst other equally distinctive poems and several with a rawer approach. By the time it was reprinted two years later, the false starts had been cut — only seven of the original seventeen remain. Some of the cut poems are good, but one gets the sense that Armitage is prolific and has plenty to choose from. Youth isn’t far behind in these poems. ‘Dykes’, despite its predictable puns, somehow links dams with maybe lesbians in wry, revealing couplets:

Later I discovered

She was only pointing to an overflow culvert.

Although we were close, she knew a closer, deeper circle

Which, at seventeen, I found undetectable

And many of her stories held no water

Especially those involving Susan, Gill or Sandra

‘The Distance Between Stars’, which Wide Skirt published the following year, is the best of Simon’s three pamphlets. His style has fully arrived. Bookended with poems on astronomical themes, ‘The Distance…’ moves from the mysterious to the mundane, leaving you never quite sure which is which. Many poems take the form of monologues. These are closer to Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads than to Carol Ann Duffy’s Thrown Voices and range from the bleak, bitter Antarctic narrative “Bylot Island’ to the jokey, condescending mechanic in ‘Very Simply Topping Up the Brake Fluid’. The latter poem manages to convey the broken rhythms of a continuously interrupted monologue, while reading with verve and a rhythmic swing which may be as difficult to write as It is easy to read:

…gently does it, that’s it. Try not to spill it, it’s

corrosive: rusts, you know, and fill it till it’s

level with the notch on the clutch reservoir.

Lovely.

Yet the fact that these poems are accessible doesn’t mean that they’re light. Armitage carries emotion confidently, unafraid to confront sentiment. ‘Gone’ reminds me of Larkin’s ‘Home is so sad’,

Not the bed, empty, that’s

one thing. But her watch, still ticking

and the loop of one, blonde hair

caught in her hairbrush. Ihat’s another.

This ability to let a detail stand starkly in representation of death; the stern laconic phrase which conveys intense emotion: these are the work of a mature, and possibly major poet.

Armitage’s last pamphlet was ‘The Walking Horses (Slow Dancer 1988) which is a consistent, but more varied set than ‘..Stars’. Its major poems are his longest monologue so far, “All Beer and Skittles’ , a cynically comic account of the sacking of a sometime plumber, and ‘Screenplay’, a more speculative, tender, visual poem that could not have been written by many of his peers.

That said, there are qualities that he shares with other new Northern poets: humour, arrogance, awkward sensitivity laced with a generous measure of self doubt, also, a sometimes fussy referential habit (whether to places or people} – Armitage takes all these, but transcends them, making something more original. This was overwhelming apparent later in 1988, when a revised, extended edition of his first book introduced many of the remaining poems to be found in ‘Zoom!’

                        The bears in Yosemite Park

are swaggering home, legged up with fishing line

 and polythene and above the grind of his skidoo

a ranger curses the politics of skinny dipping.

This is life.

Armitage avoids fixed rhythms, attaining a conversational shamble of deceptive pace: walking a kind of metrical highwire. His poems can be read many times and retain their freshness. I recall the excitement of reading ‘Zoom’ for the first time, in issue four of ‘The North’: (The exclamation mark, incidentally, was added later, evidently at Bloodaxe’s insistence) the boldness of the metaphor could have been overbearingly arrogant in almost anyone else’s hands, yet it works as a magical, comic, surreal, and finally quite humble account of the creative process.

The book ‘Zoom!’ (Bloodaxe, 4.95) is a fat first volume which is worth buying even if you’ve got all the pamphlets discussed above, and indispensable if you haven’t. Many of the newest poems seem grittier, more compassionate than his earlier work. His probation worker job may partly account for this, emerging as subject matter in poems like ‘Social Inquiry Report’, ‘Eighties, Nineties’ and ‘The Stuff’. But then some of the final poems in the collection are even harder to classify than any of those I’ve tried to discuss earlier: more wilfully obscure and cynical, yet wistful in tone. And among them, reminding us of his background in Oceanography, is one of the most striking poems about ecology that I’ve read, ‘Remembering the East Coast’.

At conference

how they roared at the chairman’s address,

his much told fable

of the bald patents clerk

who resigned his post circa 1850

explaining ‘Everything we need

is now invented.’

But alone I am with him; dipping the quill,

crossing the t of his signature,

blotting the I’s

of his oddball opinion.

‘Zoom!’ is only a beginning, but a dazzling one, from a poet who’s already past words like ‘promise’ and ‘potential . Finally, it leaves you with the same impulses as all good art: it leaves you wanting more and it keeps you guessing. Give Simon Armitage a test drive.

From Slow Dancer issue 23, 1990. Copyright David Belbin.

Marc Almond, Nottingham Royal Centre, 6.5.19

May 8th, 2019

My review from today’s Nottingham Post. Photo below by their Kevin Cooper.

At 61, Marc Almond is entitled to take it easy. He has no album to promote, he tells a packed house, but wants to keep tonight ‘populist’, singing lots of favourite songs, most of them by old stars: ‘who tend to be dead stars, so they’re never going to let you down.’

He kicks off with Charles Aznavour’s I Have Lived, then it’s straight into a Scott Walker tribute, with The Big Hurt and, later, a fine Big Louise. There’s Billy Fury’s I’m Lost Without You and T.Rex’s Cosmic Dancer, which leads into a Bowie section featuring Starman, John, I’m Only Dancing and Brel’s Amsterdam. Four numbers are done nearly acapella, with his four backing singers. All great fun, featuring a six piece band and only a couple of first night missed cues.

My highlights are a fantastic rendition of Charles Aznavour’s What Makes A Man A Man and Lou Reed’s Caroline Says, performed with just cello and violin. He falsely accuses Paul McCartney of stealing a Russian folk song before giving us a rousing Those Were The Days (the villain who stole sole credit to his adaptation of the Russian song was one Gene Raskin, Macca only produced the Mary Hopkin hit).

Two hours rush by with his own hits restricted to the final section, including Stories of Johnny, a lovely, slowed down Bedsitter, a great Days of Pearly Spencer, a terrific A Lover Spurned and the closing My Hand Over My Heart, replete with comments about how forty years on high heels have played havoc with his knees.

Time is tight so he doesn’t leave the stage for the encores but launches into Tainted Love. There’s only one song he can finish with. Tonight, it’s dedicated to his Soft Cell bandmate, Dave Ball, who turned 60 this week. Say Hello, Wave Goodbye only becomes more emotionally resonant with the years. We sing, sway and wave along. A triumph.

Nish Kumar at Nottingham Playhouse 16.3.19

March 18th, 2019

Live comedy’s all about timing. With ‘The Mash Report’, the 33-year-old Kumar has positioned himself as our prime political comedian, the only satirist doing what US audiences take for granted in ‘The Daily Show’. After a somewhat shaky start, it’s established itself as the only UK topical news comedy worth watching, although, at six episodes per season, can’t compare to its US equivalent.

How to deal with an ever-changing political situation? A show written some months back might not cut it, and Kumar has a rep to maintain. The last week has been so tumultuous that I was curious about how Kumar would incorporate these farcical events into his set. I needn’t have been. He doesn’t.

After a well-received warm-up set by Rosie Jones, weaponising her cerebal palsy, Kumar does go straight into Brexit, acknowledging that half the city voted ‘leave’ while pointing out that his audience consists entirely of ‘Guardian munchers’ who didn’t. We are, he points out, a so-called ‘elite’ that consists of brown people and teachers.

But he’s off Brexit quickly. This is not the Daily Mash. The only up-to-the-minute material is about the Christchurch massacre and how the media treats white extremists very differently to Muslim ones. Generally, Kumar, points out, he has it easy, because he has a Hindu name. Which doesn’t stop him from being singled out at North American airports. Cue good anecdote.

This was a sharp, engrossing, fast-paced hour and a half, with plenty about family and a strong take on happens when your comedic heroes turn out to have feet of clay. The Simpsons, obviously. He’s very upset about Louis CK but positively savage about Ricky Gervais’s pathetic lampooning of trans people.

Many highlights include an encounter with Dominic Raab in the Question Time studio where Raab greets the first brown person he sees as ‘Nish’, despite his bearing no resemblance to the comic, and  a history of the word ‘gammon’ in relation to Piers Morgan. The sweary show gets serious towards the end, when Kumar, acutely and economically, sums up how we got the double madness of Brexit and Trump. He should have stopped there, but doubles back to a black Jesus routine for the close, holding up placards of white actors who have played Christ, including, most ironically, Liam Neeson. It falls relatively flat, but that’s live comedy for you: he’s allowed to run out of steam. Outstanding.

This review appears in today’s Nottingham Post.

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