A painful edge to oral history

The Light Ships is proving to be a revelation. An exploration of the church’s place in a community’s artistic life, it focuses on 14 villages in the Lincolnshire fenland. I’ve been meeting people involved in every aspect of church and chapel (and learning about the myriad differences between them). The buildings are often of great beauty, reconciling the styles of different centuries because all the art serves a common purpose, while the diverse creative work that happens now – from concerts to children’s art activities – is accommodated for the same reason.

At the same time, I’m astonished by the diversity that exists even in these 14 places, so close and apparently so similar in culture. The project has its own website because there is so much to look and think about that it would overwhelm this one. But if you’re interested in sculpture, poetry, art, flowers, stained glass, music, architecture, history, travellers, needlework and so on, do take a look.

Underneath these riches are some complex and difficult questions: belief, community, the use of resources and many more. Small, ageing congregations feel the burden of their responsibilities and ask themselves whether different styles of service would attract young people or might alienate those who already attend. Yesterday, I felt the sadness of a group who fear that their chapel might finally end with them, closing its doors and being turned, like so many others, into a stylish home for incomers.

Oral history can shade into nostalgia or even sentimentality. In this case, deeply held beliefs mean that, even when people are speaking of the past, there is an urgency to a debate about what it is to be a community and to live well.

Rosie Redzia

Words last time: pictures today. Rosie Redzia, the wonderful artist with whom I’m working on ‘A Wider Horizon’, has been drawing rural theatre performances, among other things. Here are some images from Stuff of Dreams theatre company’s current production, The Bricks of Burston, before and during a performance at Swaffham Assembly Hall. They catch the unique intimacy of small scale touring in a way that no photographs I’ve seen have done. This is work that really is done for the love of it, on both sides of the invisible line dividing performer and audience. No one goes to a not specially comfortable village hall on a windy Wednesday night to make or watch theatre for glory.

Over the rest of the summer Rosie and I will be seeing shows and meeting the people involved as we draw together the strands of our book about rural touring. We might see you there, but if you live in Norfolk or Suffolk, support rural touring and would like to be involved, do get in touch – either through this site or via Karen Kidman at Creative Arts East.  In the meantime, more words and pictures will be shared here.

Speaking in tongues

Albert-Letchford-Aladdin-GenieWords captivated me first: then stories. As a small child, I didn’t always follow the story or care if I didn’t understand a word. The incantatory sounds were enough to feed my imagination: Rumplestilskin, Rastapopoulos, Gorgonzola, Ali Baba, Craven A, Kia-Ora, Greengage, Long John Silver, Julius Caesar – endless spells composed of syllables.

Later, words brought me to music, through the lyrics of rock and folk songs. By then, I was committed to my adolescent quest for understanding. The (adult) world was a text to be decoded. Cohen’s lyrics meant something. They were a roman à clef or a medieval allegory where everything stood for something else. It took me a long time to grow out of that misconception.

Art exists to express things that cannot otherwise be expressed. At its strongest, that expression can create new realities. It speaks things into existence. One way of reading the story of Aladdin is to see him as an artist, polishing everyday materials to produce a powerful genie. (But if that were the only way of hearing that story, it would have died long ago.)

George Szirtes has written a fine short piece about why poetry is not always understandable in response to a challenge from Jeremy Paxman, chair of this year’s Forward Prize panel. He points out that:

Words are not stable entities you can slam down like dominoes. They carry a baggage of music, context, allusion, attachment and history. It is the baggage that produces the poetry.

Art exists to express things that cannot otherwise be expressed. It’s not that difficult to follow, expect to those who still believe that human beings are rational, that the world is controllable and that existence is understandable. Now there are some fine myths.