So Tuesday saw me pop back down to the Studio Theatre in the Library of Birmingham for another night of lit, making use of the Literature Festival Pass I had purchased. On this occasion it was music and words - firstly from Sam Lee and Richard O’Neill with Romany Song and Story and then from Lauren Kinsella with Somewhere in Between. I came home with a head buzzing with thoughts, trying to make sense of the evening where I had very much felt both the insider and the outsider. As a result this piece is longer than a review would be and is much more of a reflection. Some of it will be descriptive of the event too because I want to distil the key things I heard.
To put my reactions to the Lee and O’Neill event in context I am not Romany but I am the child of a story teller. Over the years I have spent time at various festivals both as a child and adult listening to others chat and tell stories around campfires and tables; over morning coffee and late night whiskey and wine. Therefore this event which was chaired by Pete Lawrence who is co-founder of The Big Chill festival was one I was naturally attracted to.
Looking round it was noticeable the audience was smaller than on previous evenings and that there was a slightly different mix to it. It was more exclusively white and less clearly middle class whilst not being visibly working class. I suspect this may be in part because the evening’s events at the Library clashed with Cooked Up at the Ikon Gallery where a new short story collection was being discussed.
There was a palpably different tone to the evening. This event was not sponsored in the same way. When introducing and outlining the way the evening would work the chair didn’t seek to give their own mini-lecture rather he simply explained and then settled into the background. There was also not the shadow of the academy hanging over this event as there had been previous ones I’d been to. That is not to criticise the academic and intellectual nature of the other events, which I have really enjoyed, but it is to say this one was different. There was not that feeling of the academy and arts establishment seeking to maintain dominance either through coming in as “the experts” or using the event to seek to incorporate the activists.
During the event we were told something of the lives of Sam and Richard. Richard who is 53 talked about the changes he had witnessed within Romany life as a result of wider changes in society. As he spoke it made me think about things I had not thought about before including the impact of the 60’s building programmes on traditional ways of life.
Richard talked about the way in which stories were passed down whilst his family were making things. He also talked about the power of storytelling to bring people together. Within this section he referred to “Squegs” his word for all of those who feel like square pegs and who don’t quite fit in and how stories can help them. He then went on to tell a family story about how his great uncle had faced prejudice but not responded with the same kind of response and the impact of that. Within this he was showing how stories help pass down basic principles which do not change from age to age.
Sam then spoke about his own growing up life as a song collector and folk singer. He had grown up to a Jewish family in London and had his own story of separation as a result. He came from an green perspective talking about the relationship between story and song and the natural world.
Within his discussion of the folk collecting he said he was attracted not by the folk revival but rather by hearing the recordings of the original songs and he wanted to talk to those who had recorded them to find their stories. As part of this he has set up the Song Collectors Collective. His aim, he said, was to help a silenced community have the opportunity to be heard.
Richard then went on to paraphrase Bruce Springsteen when he said we live in a world where there are 200 channels but nothing on and stories are still relevant because they have something to speak into a society where this is real struggle for survival going on.
Pete moved the discussion on by talking about the Kerrville Festival in Texas and the power of the campfire. This led on to a really interesting discussion of the campfire and self-made entertainment. As they reflected on this I thought of the scene before me and the role of discussion as performance. It can sometimes be a competition and at other times it can be a clearly be a discussion of mutual respect. This was very much the latter and respect was extended to the audience as well. We were not considered the other in this setting.
The discussion then moved on to the passing down of tradition, which it was argued everybody has a duty to do. Richard then spoke about the way older people declutter and how in the travelling community generally people only travel with what they need. The most valuable thing in the world is your memories and they are what travel with you everywhere. They help you connect with people.
Respect for elders and for their stories was central to this event and what was being said. This related to the handing down too. The evening ended with Sam, who regards himself as an interpreter, singing The Moon Shone on My Bed Last Night which had been passed on to him. His performance of this song which he just leaned forward and sung was beautiful, haunting and wonderful.
This event hit me somewhere deep inside emotionally which art occasionally can. It also made me reflect anew on what it means to be a Methodist Local Preacher and part of a church community made up primarily of our elders. Is part of our role to gather their stories and pass them on as well as continuing to pass down the stories of the bible? It also made me reflect on my role within a faith community when Richard said, quoting somebody I didn’t catch, “tradition is tending the flame not worshipping the ashes”.
Then it was over and I was left with my enjoyment of the event. Seeing one of the people running the BLF I went over to enquire about something which had been bothering me since the night before when my ticket had been queried by somebody on the door – should I have some kind of lanyard type pass rather than my dog-eared ticket which was getting more worn by the day? The answer was yes and I discovered it was waiting for me at the box office. I realised that what I had taken to be an email advertising the festival, and so deleted without reading before the start was actually something which had been vital information. Due to deleting an email and emptying the trash so it was not retrievable I was not getting the full experience of the festival, which as a pass holder I was able to. For example I have no knowledge of extra events for pass holders which I guess related to that email.
Again this made me reflect. How much these days depends upon expecting and trusting emails? Do we dismiss too much by looking at the subject line of emails we don’t expect and making assumptions as to their use or otherwise?
Then we got to the second event Somewhere in Between with singer and composer Lauren Kinsella. First off I want to say that the quality of this was absolutely top class and the musicianship and acting was wonderful. However, art is a matter of taste and subjectivity. There is also a certain level of being able to fit in with the norms of the audience.
The evening began with a poem read by Peter Campion who had a wonderful Irish lilt and a suitably nonchalant manner in the telling of An Accommodation by Simon Armitage.
Then began the music. Now I have to say I like the more commercial end of jazz rather than the avant-garde. The first set of music was at the intersection between jazz, hippy and prog rock. This is probably as far away from my personal taste as you can get without veering into classical which I really struggle with. There were also unintelligible noises being made whilst clouds went across the back of the screen making it incredibly hippy trippy.
Now as I say the musicianship was wonderful and of the highest standard but Kinsella’s singing reminded me of the stranger bits of Bagpuss, a programme which had freaked me a bit as a child. I could imagine her as Emily.
The seriousness of the audience during a really funny poem was something I struggled with too. I wanted to laugh at this poem because it was clearly intended to be enjoyed and giggled at, but I couldn’t because I was in a very serious audience where it was clear this was not the done thing. On the basis of the above I decided to leave in the interval not because I felt as alien in this performance as I had felt at home in the first of the evening.