Sunday, 19 June 2016

The Magic Three // David Hartley

I wait at Java, David arrives, conversation starts.  Flash fiction, performance, collaboration.  David flies high, his sentences left in the air like trails from a small bird defecating joyfully in the clear sky.  He’s eager and easy-going and free.  He’s brought me a copy of his Dad’s novel Ice and Lemon, which he calls “curious”, although I suspect he means he’s curious about its reception.

“Dad’s been writing forever.  He’s a sixth form teacher, and during the Easter holidays he’d lock himself away and we’d know.  He wrote, put on plays for students and ex-students.  And he’d write little stories for me and my brother and sister, it was part of family life.”  But while he always received encouragement, he wasn’t specifically encouraged to write, there’s no sense of anything other than his own path.  “We were supported in whatever we wanted to do.  I was aware I was doing what Dad was doing.  When I started writing properly, at University, I was naturally drawn to it, I liked it, and I had a skill for it.”  It occurs to him it “leached naturally from Dad.”

David was evidently very involved with his Dad’s creative work early on, seeing the productions or being involved in the rehearsals; “Oedipus, Shakespeare, his own plays.  It was magical.”  Writing didn’t come as a challenge, however.  “We’re different enough.  Dad was always a playwright, and I did drama, acting, I enjoy that side of things, but I’m not as interested in...” and David struggles for the word.  That side of the process seems outwith how he generally thinks about the work he does.  He settles on “stagecraft”.  The logistics of production don’t interest him.  “I’m happy to be background, led rather than the leader, I find the pleasure for myself in writing.”  There’s not necessarily even a comparison, although David suggests they share a sense of humour; instead there is a clear distinction; “my Dad’s work is aimed towards performance.”

So it’s incumbent on me to point out that David’s work is underpinned by performance; he laughs like he’s been caught out.  “That’s what’s been interesting.”  It was after university when he started to explore the spoken word scene of Manchester “I very quickly thought I need to get up on stage.  I was incredibly nervous at first, but I enjoyed it and in the background my writing started to transform.”  David writes what he calls Flash Fiction, which is not [necessarily] to do with the speed at which it is written, but while he’s toyed with other terms like short-short-story and microfiction, it’s Flash Fiction that’s struck a chord with audiences; “it’s a very sculpted story, boiled down to its bare essentials, an interesting medium.  One of the things I found challenging was fitting neatly into the time allotted on the spoken word stage, I had a lot more success with the shorter, snappier short stories.”  This has developed his practices; “I’m increasingly conscious whether I’m writing for the page or for the stage.”  One of the Spiderseed stories Trust The Tiles becomes a performance, involving the use of the Scrabble set ‘and audiences like it, it’s like a magic trick, I use a bit of sleight of hand, how I take the tiles out of the bag, it’s sweet, there’s a magic moment.”  Or like Most Haunted, as micro as microfiction comes, “I really take my time over it, and while it’s not just about laughs I can get maybe three laughs in a performance.  But the longer ones work better on the page.”

So I ponder on the distinction between Flash Fiction and certain forms of poetry.  “I never call myself a poet, but there is a poetic feel.  I’m very conscious of the rhythms of a sentence, always geared towards telling a story.”  He thinks back to some of the Christmas stories in his collection Merry Gentlemen, which he feels get quite poetic due to the carols and seasonal songs going round his head when they were being written.  He remembers one performance when he was approached afterward to be told “stick a few line breaks in, you’ve got a poem there.”  It’s about how the work sounds.

David always writes at home and he starts by just writing until he reaches a natural break when he’ll go back and read it out loud.  He’s found it’s a good way to editing himself and he’ll make a point of doing it, and if he’s writing for performance he’ll do it a lot.  He’s glad that the sense of the rhythmic comes through the performance, powered by the meter under it.  “I wonder if that comes from my Dad,” he reminisces.  “I used to act quite a lot, drama, A-levels was Macbeth.  There was a period of time late high school and A-levels when I was doing a lot of line-learning, reading, scripts, acting.  There’s a logical link.”

“My writing flows quite naturally.  It’s sometimes a curse, overwriting.  I have a three-line beat, I’ll say one thing, then say it again slightly differently with an extra metaphor, then say it again with an extra simile.  I know I do it, I’m very conscious of it.”  His writing group ensure he’s aware of when it happens too often.

His writing starts with a concept, an idea that he wants to write about linked to some unusual angle.  He grabs at the copy of Spiderseed on the table and looks up Trails.  “I wanted to write about my least favourite animal.  I think it’s a slug.  How can I write about a slug that makes me change my mind?  I wanted a way in.”  I suggest that his work has the feeling often of an extended metaphor, and he agrees, there’s something behind the story that’s never made explicit while David gets to present only what he wants.  Or occasionally “sometimes a story will come together, and I don’t even know how.”  The title story of Spiderseed came from the image provided by an internet submission, the image of a tree breeding spiders which came to be about a father-son relationship utterly unlike his own with his Dad, and using “that weird idea of spiders growing out of trees.”

The way David’s stories end seem to reinforce their metaphorical nature, but of course the endings of stories wholly depends, and sometimes he has what he calls the “bad habit” of abandoning stories when he can’t get it to the ending that satisfied him, if he’s trying to hit out, create an effect for an audience.  Spiderseed didn’t have the ending until he reached it and he says he’s learnt to write out until the story forms itself.  It’s become evident that David doesn’t always start knowing the length of the piece, although there’s often parameters, and often it’s to do with stage time.  But with longer fiction he won’t know.  Many of his animal stories reached two to three-thousand words, one about five thousand, while a couple in Spiderseed wouldn’t get to that length.  “Rather than abandon them, I turned them into Flash Fiction.  Don’t let people think about it too long.”  On the other hand, “I’m getting better when I sit down, I’m writing longer.”

I take the plunge and ask about the Novel.  First draft done, couple of friend’s have had a read, it’s been tucked away for nine months.  He says it’s been an arduous process, that there’s a lot he needs to change, and that he’s finally keen to get back to it.  End of the summer, perhaps.  It emerged from a project for his creative writing module that he hung on to and which involved epic fantasy, world building.  “Quite a big thing to take on.  But I know my writing has vastly improved, I’ll go back with fresh ideas, fresh concepts, and see where its flaws are.  I feel like it’s slightly held me back, I had to get it out of my head, it’s been nice not to look at it for nine months.”

The Fourteen Stations of Blasphemy was written for performance, “sort-of”, when David knew he’d have a ten-minute slot to fill, so needed something hefty.  He’s written non-fiction in the form of regular blogging for some time, but this idea was something different; “it’s real life in a way that feels like fiction is written.  I’d been thinking about it, and wondering what are the stories I would tell, and this was one of them.”  Yet this was a very different proposition to anything else David has worked on, as if there was a danger, a threat that the piece could pose that required mitigation.  “I had to find a safety blanket, and I came up with the structure.”

Structure in an explicit sense is rarely present in David’s work.  “I don’t give myself a fixed structure.  It goes back to the rhythm, and I trust my instinct and use the natural breath points.”  He has on occasion played with structure, rules or restrictions, such as writing a story exactly 150 words long.  In one project fifty ghost stories started with fifty words, and reduced by one for each subsequent story.  “In performance it becomes quite exciting as it got faster and faster.”  Usually, however, his experiments with structure came about when underconfident or struggling, “and then it becomes like a brace.”  With The Fourteen Stations of Blasphemy the piece had been started and there were anxieties around how accurate it was, what were the facts.  “When I thought of the stations of the cross, it fell in naturally.  Then,” as he decided to up the ante, “I tried to match them up to each station, taking the structure to extreme, trying too much to shoe-horn it in.  But you’ve got a natural guide, and the crucifixion imagery, it’s like anchors, those things climbers put into walls.”

I am not, in this interview, going to be able to illuminate any more than any other piece of writing in the history of mankind, the notion of how an author finds their voice, when there is so much about a writer’s practice that is about taking what they feel has worked previously and experimenting with things they’ve never tried.  For some it may be the grammar they use, or the length of the sentences; for others it could be the types of characters they create and the worlds they inhabit.  For all the time I’ve known David and followed his work, animals have created the trail that leads him through.  Yet David thinks of this as a phase.  “Yes, I do.  When I came out of uni and I decided I wanted to give writing a go, I had ideas for lots of wacky stories, grand themes.  Then some things changed.  I volunteered for the RSPCA, I still do it, not as much as I did, and the influence of my partner, we got pets, and I became vegetarian, then earlier this year vegan.  All this time I’m still writing, having these experiences, trying to find my own voice.  I wanted to find something I really cared about, that I could write with anger, write with venom.”  His experiences with the RSPCA, dog-walking and at community events, taught him much about the way the British public treat animals, the myths they hold to, and how they can care but in quite misplaced ways.  This lead to Tyson/Dog, which was accepted by The Alarmist magazine, “and I knew I was writing something I was passionate about.”  It’s occurred to me that all the stories I know are of quite small animals.  David laughs with recognition.  “British and domestic, animals you come across.  More recently I’ve written about an elephant, and that came about through a conscious effort, I wanted to write about the exotic.”  He repeats the word to capture it.  “Something I didn’t know.”  He wanted to write about hunting, and apart from fox-hunting that would take him abroad to big-game hunting.  To his evident pride, perhaps even relief, it has been published by Ambit; his most high-profile to date.  “And, interestingly, talking about structure, that has a very clear three-act structure; things happen, things happen again worse, things happen again and it’s catastrophic.  The magic three.  That one just gelled, I wish they were all like that.”

When I ask David about his relationship with narrative, it would be wrong to say he hesitates; I don’t think David hesitated at any point in the interview as the thoughts flowed out of him steady but at times unstoppable.  He doesn’t speak quickly, he doesn’t use esoteric vocabulary or sentence structures that are difficult to follow.  There is a seeming inevitable purpose to David’s delivery, so that even when he’s speaking to something he’s not thought through before or over which he’s not got a clear sense one way, what he says rarely breaks up to reflect that.  “With narrative fiction I guess I am less interested.  If you’re trying to convey a whole narrative into three hundred words, it feels false, doesn’t feel quite right.  I prefer to drop in on a moment, let the weirdness of that set up point towards other things.”  I don’t think it’s quite about pulling the rug out from under the reader but maybe tugging at it a little.  “Yes.  The whispering in the ear.  The uncanny, the unknown, the strange, surreal.  What you never quite see.  Film studies was a big part of what I did at uni, that’s often about what the camera sees, what the camera suggests, what you cut away from.”

There is not a lot of description in David’s work.  “This is something I struggled with writing the novel, it’s a big world building thing.  To describe the world there were descriptive passages and they were beautiful and flowing, but the writing group said there was too much of it.  I needed to be getting the fucking story moving.  There’s definitely a place for it but Flash Fiction allows you to get rid of it unless you use it.  I do avoid description.”  He doesn’t like to force a complete picture on the reader, and it can be incorporated into the mechanics of the story, being clever with it, doing it through the dialogue, or in how the characters interact with their environment.  He likes to take advantage of the baggage that his readers will come with, so that the concepts, landscapes, creatures are pre-loaded.  He has written stories based on Metamorphosis and Animal Farm, “and then a lot of the work is done for you.  Even just saying Scrabble.”

It’s time for David to head for his train, and while there’s more I want to delve in to I try to wrap things up with the last ten minutes.  But David is now in his element, there’ll be another train, and honestly just doesn’t look as if he can be bothered to move.  We’ve been talking of performance and how David has never had his work read out by anyone else – rumours of a new spoken-word night in town that might mix this up a bit – so I wonder about the Speak Easy.  He was asked by Annika of the Sip Club in Stretford if he’d be interested in running a night, simple, stripped-down, spoken word.  No microphone, twelve to fifteen performers a night, five minutes each.  It’s become about discovering, uncovering creative people in the area.  He talks about the Sip Club being very community based, knitting Stretford together, and he wanted to tap in to that; so small-scale, no headliners.  One guy came to an early night, very nervous but performed and has performed every show since and David can see how he’s grown in confidence.  “It has a very loyal local contingent.  It kicked off nicely, it’s flowing nicely.”  It has a sense of scale that comes from the space itself, and because it’s a bit out of the way.  That can be a bit of a problem when people have difficulty finding the place, but David sees that as part of the attraction.  “There’s always a few intrigued faces in the audience, people who just come along because they’re intrigued.  Some people have mis-fired.  A couple of musicians, musicians can go on too long.”  I’m always reluctant to perform the first time I attend an open-mic, preferring to visit simply as audience first, and I think David understands that urge.  “I have a lot of respect for people who come along to watch, and then come back.”

My first experience of David’s work was a collaboration with his musical brother Rick, which I loved and which struck me as different from a lot of work I’d seen locally.  “Rick’s very talented, very hardworking, he’s available, and he does what I say.”  The twinkle in his eye reveals this isn’t the whole story.  There’s a creative energy that David acquires from his collaborations with Rick that’s pretty unique, and that informs both his enthusiasm for making work and the texture of the work itself.  “We did Tether together, it was good fun, there was a lot of energy particularly in performance.  He sent music over, his music influenced my writing, a couple of times we flipped that around.”  There was the challenge of filling a half-hour set for the launch of Spiderseed in what David was anxious to be a creative way, so he thought to do it with Rick, experimenting on stage.  Especially reminiscing one story that Rick accompanied with the snare drum, David excited performs a little air-drumming and appears slightly in awe of what his brother did during that performance.  “It all ties back with poetry and rhythms.  I listen to Rick’s music a lot when I’m writing.  I listen to music when I write, people say that’s unusual.”  He shrugs, I don’t comment because I also often write to music.  “I have a specific set of albums that will help me get into a frame of mind.  But it’s a lot of Rick’s music.  And the beats and rhythms enter the piece that I’m writing.  Tether was wordy at first, performing it to Rick’s music helped get rid of a lot of that stuff.  He’s not very good at self-publicity, part of the reason why I wanted to collaborate with him, like at First Draft.  He’s got a new band now, as well as productive at the moment, four or five track EP a month of his own solo electronica project Rickerly.  But he’s a constant source.”

It seems apt, somehow, that we finish with David focussed on a collaborator, a creative force, and a family member who has had such an influence on the way he writes, the words that he chooses.  I’m not sure what’s next, but as David wraps his bag around him and strides off for the train, I’m putting Speak Easy into my diary for the first Thursday of each month.

conversation with David Hartley took place at Java Oxford Road on Thursday 9 June 2016 from 5:30pm // @DHartleyWriter  //  Spiderseed is currently available from Sleepy House Press @ZzzHousePress  //  Speak Easy is hosted by Stretford's Sip Club on the first Thursday of the month

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Salmon and Cream Cheese // Helen Parry

It was over an hour after arriving at Helen’s cottage-like retreat before we sat down on the sofas for the formal interview, while I’m full of apologies, explanations, caveats for the process and Helen takes it all in her stride. Helen Perry is hospitality personified and so first of all I have to eat all of the salmon and bagels – because they’re going away for a theatre jaunt to Stoke and it can’t be left – and we have to catch up, share our thoughts on the shows we’ve seen recently and our bucket-list of theatres we want to visit – Minack, Georgian Theatre Royal, Chichester – and this is as close to small-talk as we get. I try not to talk about work. Helen updates me on family news.

Although we don’t do this often [enough], there is a sort-of routine. It was Helen that gave me my first break in the Manchester fringe scene. This was when the only fringe work in Manchester was 24:7 and occasional work at the Kings Arms through Studio Salford and supporting spaces like Taurus. Somewhere Trevor Suthers was thinking up JB Shorts, Not Part Of was in the offing a few years down the line. The Library Theatre hosted Replay, and as part of that was the annual Replay Debate. I have no doubt many people said many interesting things, and I very clearly remember David Slack railing against the use of the term ‘fringe’. All I could think was – how do I get to join in on this conversation, where’s the network to connect with between annual debates. So of course I ask and no one has an answer except to keep trying, and I exit the theatre vaguely despondent as I feel a hand touch my elbow and Helen is there insisting I send her some of my writing.

Years later we’ve not been able to make the production happen, but the people who have been attached to it over the years are some of the stalwarts of the local independent theatre scene and have become the figures I’m most often excited to see work. Helen has through her longevity and attitude brought under her wing a huge and immensely diverse range of theatrical talent. She’s currently teaching at ALRA North, and was a teacher at Arden from its founding by Wyllie Longmore, whose integrity and vision she says was never surpassed, until her retirement in 2007. You feel it’s her work with students that invigorates her most, or practitioners who have the attitude of students, and she talks with great affection of many productions that would have only been seen by friends and family.

“When I taught in East Ham, it was a time when the Ugandan Asians were being expelled, and I was working with a diverse cast, so we had the idea of different colour t-shirts for the Sharks and the Jets, which worked perfectly. We had the help of the PE department, but not the music department, so the music was on a cassette. And they all had to go and collect their brothers and sisters, or their pets, which they were supposed to be looking after, so the rehearsals were utterly chaotic.” It’s clear although this manic production of West Side Story may have been a baptism of fire, Helen feels this is exactly how it should have been. The joy and energy, the rehearsals with all the families jostling, are so far from the rarefied atmosphere usually associated with the rehearsal room it seems to undermine everything that’s said about how to prepare a production. “The dancing was fantastic, because we has the co-operation of the PE department, and the families were involved. It’s about the story-telling, I am who I say I am.”

I’d hoped to tease out of Helen her approach to the rehearsal process and the text, but I suspect I already know the answer to this. As she outlines her role at ALRA, and the modules she’s teaching, I ask her how she works with students; whether it’s about training them up with skills or exploring the possibilities with each individual. “You’re picking a year group, a range of skills, types, diversity. Some come with lots of experience, drama at school, while others have a passion.” She gives me an answer that feels definitive, text book. “For each student you’re looking at the potential of each student within their limits, or realising they don’t have any limits.” I’m not sure I grasp this as an any more concrete idea, however. “For first and second year there is no public work, as you work through different areas – comedy, Shakespeare – so you’re putting actors out of their comfort zone, in roles they wouldn’t be cast in, wouldn’t be right for.” There are three projects a year, one a term, placing the students in different groups, replicating what it might be like after graduating, and learning something else that she learned from Wyllie; “How can you still work with integrity when not everything is great.”

So she works with her students in the same collaborative way she works in her freelance directorial role; “you show me and I will shape it. I discard the things that don’t work.” Her hand gesture here I find quite telling; in truth it doesn’t feel as if those things are discarded as much as placed away to one side. She places an imaginary box off her lap as if nothing is useless although it may not fit, and should be kept in decent shape in case it’s needed in future. Privately, I start to worry that this discussion isn’t combative or incisive enough; this approach to working is not unusual but it could be slightly unfashionable, and I may end up with an article that is opaque about process. So we take a case study.

Blackhand’s production of Look Back In Anger in September 2011 was, I felt at the time, a perfect example of a Helen Parry show. It was unusual to the extent that it wasn’t a piece of new writing, which speaks more to the Manchester scene than Helen’s own interests. The production had all the hallmarks I had come to expect; authentic production values; simple but not abstract; a strong ensemble performance; an honesty to the words. “I always start with a day or two sitting round the table reading through the text. Often I’ll have an actor who wants to get up on their feet, and I say we don’t understand it yet.” The word ‘understand’ is given a plaintive quality that makes it clear she appreciates the desire to move but in some sense regrets that inevitably a chance to engage with the words more deeply is then lost. Later she tells me, “I say to actors, you have to serve the play. The writer has taken a lot of time over each word, it’s your duty to speak the play as it is written, and for the company to tell the story of the play.” Initially working on my own play with Helen was the first time I’d ever worked with trained actors, and I’d presented them with what I worried was a challenging text. Expressing my concerns, Pete Carruthers looked non-plussed at the idea and just said “text with a capital T.”

“I like to have some basic props; tea; smoking for example, some approximate costume. We’ll be inhabiting the world of the play.” She tells me with a laugh that she has recently been given the iron sourced as a prop for the play by Java, who played Alison in the Look Back In Anger production. “I don’t work chronologically through a play; sometimes I’ll pull out key scenes and go back to other scenes. I’ll sometimes improvise scenes to get at the core emotion. Java’s disintegration at the end we did like that, it was very powerful.” This strikes her as a strange dichotomy. “The rehearsal room, it’s got to be safe, a safe space, but also a place where anything can happen. It’s up to the director to create that, and the other actors to some extent.” This seems something commonly accepted but not thought about enough, and so the danger that can be allowed into the space is not allowed for and performances are simply safe, the productions bland.

You have to go there in the rehearsal room, Helen insists. In a production tackling male rape, she spoke to an actor who she didn’t feel was getting close enough in rehearsals, and sure enough he broke down in one of the performances. “I was in the audience, I couldn’t get to him,” as if one of her own children was out of reach; “he got through it, but it was shaky.” So, anything goes in the rehearsal room? “Nothing physical,” meaning arguments should never get violent, “no personal shit. But I’ve never been a fan of confrontation; I don’t see the need for it.”

“I’m against an imposition of a theory on a play. I don’t mind updating Shakespeare, for example, but not when a director you know comes with an agenda. I go into a lot of detail. Why are you doing that? I don’t formally block a play, it’s an organic process, I ask actors to move where they feel natural and you find patterns emerge. Actors find their own routes.” I’m interested in how she feels about moves being different performance to performance. “I’m not a stickler. Things change and things grow. I warn actors not to be too wacky or too wild, it can throw someone else off. Sometimes you find the ego of the actor becomes bigger than the piece. But if an actor comes to me before a show and say, Helen, I’d like to try whatever, I make a judgement. In one show an actor came on in one scene and, without checking with me first, threw glitter everywhere, and regardless of whether it worked in that scene. It ruined the rest of the play, there was glitter everywhere sticking to everything. I was livid.”

The idea of producing the classic angry young man text had been discussed during an earlier production Adam Davies had been behind, his outing Working Title with co-conspirator Adam Jowett. They had been talking about Look Back In Anger, and how it was a favourite play of Helen’s, and she loves the film. It needed a good venue; hence the Martin Harris centre, and they all agreed to put in £100. They were allowed to run their own bar, which resulted in them making back their investment and paying their bills. The project was kickstarted with a phonecall from Adam and Java who were at Kim By The Sea, no doubt lubricated by alcohol, but Adam and Helen felt the play needed editing “so Adam came round here and we spend two days going through the text, sitting at that table. One of the
reviews, I was so pleased with this, said that it felt like a play for today, which was fabulous, a testament to the editing skills.” Helen says they were lucky to get cheap rehearsal space at White Circle; “They had some furniture already there,” a stage manager in Ellie Whitfield that makes Helen visible vibrant; “God she was good,” and three weeks full-time rehearsal; “four would have been good,” and when it came to the production she was happy with it, the tech-dress was comfortable “but I hardly watch the play; I watch the audience.”

The majority of Helen’s freelance work, especially on the Manchester scene, has been with new writing. Do you have the writer in the rehearsal room? “You discuss what are the groundrules. The writer and actor should have as much freedom as possible,” except the writer shouldn’t disagree with the director in the rehearsal room in front of the company. “We should discuss it separately, go for coffee. It’s always a collaborative relationship.” Working on new writing is “so exciting. It’s a huge responsibility. You’re taking a writer’s work to make it better than they could hope.” It might not always be fruitful, sometimes they want you to do things that you believe don’t work, and then it can depend who’s employing you. Ultimately, however “having the writer in the rehearsal room, I enjoy that. It’s useful.”

Earlier, Helen has explained that she had been surprised to be asked to direct Working Title, which seemed to her a very male project, and because she felt the two Adams were closer in admiration to another of their tutors to the extent she thought they might be entrenched in his methods. This puzzled away at me for a bit, because from the work of Helen’s that I’d seen, and from the conversations we’d had, this didn’t seem the sort of issue to concern her. She started in theatre as a champion of Black work, she’s a strong advocate of women’s work, and is currently a force in local LGBT drama. But it’s not her decidedly left-of-centre politics that have driven this so much as her ability to grasp an opportunity and almost accidentally fall into a gap in the market.

After teaching in East Ham and her West Side Story experience, she became drama consultant at Abraham Moss, in the late-seventies to an ethnically diverse student group. “It happened out of necessity, and it becomes second nature, through common experience.” She was hired to direct A Raisin In The Sun, and a subsequent play in which one of the actors had been particularly abrasive in the first rehearsal “and I thought, this isn’t going to work. Then, at the break, he came up to me, put his hand around my waist, and said ‘are we going for lunch then?’ I’d been put under the grill, and then lunch.” Her production of Black Love at the Green Room transferred to the Library Theatre. “Chris Honer could see the queues round the block. No one else was doing it at the time, there was a black audience.” She also reminisces, “We put on gay plays at Dukes ’92, with Trevor Suthers and Michael Harvey. They were areas of work that straight white people weren’t doing.”

Helen gets more impassioned as she diverts from her theatrical history to the personal stories that have driven her, and of course we’re now running out of time for me to reach my train. “I was turned down for a TV, in those days you could hire a TV but I needed your husband or father to sign the form so I had to take it to work the next day, which was humiliating. I remember being sat with someone on the phone and him saying ‘I’m sat with the lovely Helen Parry,’ those little condescensions.” One of her current teaching modules is on politics, for which she has invested in more books, and she finds that it’s the male speeches that are chosen even by the female students, “and I tell them, look at this, there are lots of male speeches, so few female – three. How little are female words heard; why not speak them?”

She has a warm-up exercise using letters cut from The Guardian [other letters pages are also available], and having the actors pick them at random, read them out loud, in different ways. “You know, you get them signed by a group of doctors, or whoever. It leads to discussion. You don’t have to agree, but you need to empathise.” As I pack up and worry about whether the phone has captured the recording, Helen sums up. “I love working, I love working with young actors. I’m in a unique position.” And I stride away up the crooked lane past the bluebells.

conversation with Helen Parry took place in her living room on Friday 13 May 2016 from 11:00am // @ParryMargaret

Thursday, 2 June 2016

Meandering Mersey // Natalie Bradbury

We’re both slightly late when we meet on the approach to East Didsbury station and Natalie looks slightly puzzled as she tries to work out how to reach the footpath to the Mersey that is the thread we will follow. We both of us thought about bringing maps but neither of us actually have. While Natalie tries to work out the most practical way across the A34 in what I think must be one of the ugliest areas of south Manchester, I worry about whether the rain will hold off, and how I’ll make notes while on the hoof and carrying a coffee cup. We haven’t agreed a route, or a destination, or anything really. I suspect Natalie isn’t even sure what expectations I have, whether she’ll meet them.
I can’t remember for certain how I first met Natalie, but it’s quite likely to have been an outing to have a guided tour of Preston bus station, Ingham and Wilson’s stunning late 60s building, the sad neglect of which created a space redolent of history and mystery, intensely visual and tangible and which Natalie reminds me would have been one of the first ever Manchester Modernist Society field trips back in 2011. It seems likely this would have been an early encounter; this is the sort of space Natalie likes to inhabit, not in a deliberate intention to take the road less travelled, but as she says later, “when I see a river or canal I just have to follow it; when I’m on a road I want to know where it goes.” This isn’t about deliberately seeking out the urban underside, but being more indiscriminate about where your route takes you, and more thoughtful in response to wherever you end up.

My approach to Natalie to request an interview coincided with a
Manchester Left Writers’ show at Castlefield Gallery inspired by and creatively exploring the notion of the Northern Powerhouse. MLW is a group with a particular political and aesthetic approach, and this show seems to have given them opportunity to flex new creative muscles. A previous event had been a showing of reworked films from the North West Film Archive as part of the Manchester Literature Festival in October 2015. Natalie calls refers to the Archive as “amazing” with a special quality of enthusiasm. Manchester Left Writers read some of their own Precarious Passages writings over minor, esoteric and amateur films, from Stockport carnival in the 1930s to CND demonstrations, enabling them to find serendipitous combinations of city images and imagery, past and present. For Castlefield Gallery, by contrast, they made their own films and created the soundtracks as collages from sounds found when making the work using iPhones and a basic digital camera, along with some violin played by Natalie. This was accompanied by two nights of newly created spoken word and musical performances by MLW and Vocal Harum. It didn’t feel like a progression between the works, but simply two different types of project, a development through being able to make their own films. “The archive is a great starting point, a great resource, but the Castlefield show was riskier, challenging. The North West show was about historical and contemporary juxtapositions, the Castlefield Gallery about the now, about being in the now.” In the light of that, I wondered that happened to that material now that the show is over, but there doesn’t seem to be a plan. “The Cacophany performance, the piece with all four of us reading at the same time, those texts are in the Thin Vale publication that we produced for the exhibition. That’s a theme of the Manchester Left Writers, Precarious Passages, how you experience the city, how we interact with places. Mobility is a key theme, Oh, look at the ducklings, can you see,” pointing at the opposite riverbank; “ so well disguised.”

The four that Natalie refers to are the current makeup of the Manchester Left Writers. Some of the work in the show came out of a particular dynamic between David, who grew up in Stockport, and Natalie who lives there now. “It was nice to show each other around,” and this is a really theme of Natalie’s practice to which we constantly return. “Travelling though is a big part of it, connected to the Northern Powerhouse, which is all to do with connecting places, both literally with infrastructure, and metaphorically. Stockport is about home and belonging/not belonging, identity, how you feel about it.” Natalie likes Stockport a lot. “It’s suffered from its proximity to Manchester, the town centre particularly. People don’t go.” Exploring the town “you find yourself high up unexpectedly, it surprises me, topographically it changes very quickly, and in terms of town planning Edwardian/Victorian villas and rows of terrace housing, then lots of suburban infill, and the open spaces, common, recreation parks, fields, horses, it’s easy to go from city to country, and I wanted to explore it.”

Natalie has already told me by this point that she believes it’s important to explore the place you live. This belies the project, however, and I’ve spotted a heron. This isn’t a duty requiring a steely determination and a call on reserves of motivation. “It’s a compulsion to explore, I feel it like a responsibility, I need to know what’s around the bend, to know the lay of the land, I want to know where it goes, where I’ll get to. I’m interested in finding out how places are connected up.”

There’s a sense of a gentle evangelical urge to Natalie’s feelings about her relationship with her environment. She tells me that “I see Manchester as being my countryside; instead of getting a train out I look for the green places around me.” It’s a vision, or a way of experiencing, that she wants others to have for themselves. “I don’t know when I started getting interested in sharing,” a sentiment I suspect every creative person in history can identify with and ‘sharing’ is the operative word Natalie returns to again and again as she thinks through what it is she does with the material she gathers through wandering. It’s not simply about a simple sharing of places or routes, however. With her zine, the
Shrieking Violet, “I want to challenge people’s perceptions. You might be saying it’s not a green city, but I’ve had these experiences,” as we walk a vibrant green corridor cutting the suburban sprawl of south Manchester. “I’ve tried to bring people’s attention to things. I like to be a guide- not so much;” as there’s a retraction from the notion of a person to take you round, point at things and tell you facts; instead “to give people the idea, and they go off and do it. Like the Manchester Left Writers’ films, they’re not setting out to create a particular aesthetic or result. We hoped people would think they could go away and do it too.” You want to inspire rather than instruct, I ask. “Sharing, this is a starting point.” There we are again.

For someone whose most recent practice has been primarily writing and publication, the Castlefield Gallery offered “an opportunity to try something new. It was terrifying and exciting.” When younger, Natalie really wanted to be an artist “but I decided against it after A-levels, I had a crisis of confidence.” She picks at the branches as we pass. “I concentrated on writing which I felt I was better at and could develop more. Recently, I’ve thought, actually, I shouldn’t make that distinction. I can just be creative. It all comes from the creative drive and practice. I’ve gone back into singing recently and leant to embrace it, to not worry about it not being my main practice. Embrace the fear of failure, enjoy the process.”

We are making our way closer to the A6. Natalie sees writing about this road as a turning point. Initially joining MLW she was “really terrified of their analytical, academic, politicised writing, against my journalistic work about place.” But she enjoyed having people to talk to, and taking some of their writing home, dipping in and out of it, “I didn’t know what to do with it, but I enjoyed it.” One particular piece was about the 192 bus route Stockport to Manchester, a journey that Natalie cycles regularly. “Cycling is a defining part of my life, disproportionate perhaps.” She later describes it in a torrent as a “full-on experience, the sound of it, the constant fear of death, the heightened awareness.” The piece took a long time to write but in the end she was much more comfortable and confident with her abilities.

We’re talking about some of Natalie’s more recent inspirations, from the
Diary of a Bluestocking blog and her encounters with the Manchester Modernist Society through which she met a lot of people who inspired her. As I’m just starting my interview project I ask about her experiences; interviews have been something Natalie has done since school, interviewing bands, through work experience on the Sale and Altrincham Messenger, to her blog and zine where the advantages of having no word count result in greater depth. So she can choose people she admires like the post-war industrial artist and designer William Mitchell, or a series interviewing buskers in Manchester, motivated by her time in Manchester School of Samba, a Manchester busking institution until banned, despite the exuberance they brought to the city streets. “I think that series is one of the best things I’ve done for the Shrieking Violet.”

The zine is ‘kind-of’ ongoing, with the imminent publication of the Shrieking Violet Guide to the Public Art of Central Salford: Chapel Street and Salford Crescent, which emerged from a tour Natalie put together for UCLAN undergrads on public art and how Salford is changing. Projects emerge for Natalie from the ways she engages with her landscape. When she moved from the Salford side of Manchester, where she regularly walked along the Manchester Ship Canal and River Irwell, to the northern suburbs of Stockport, it was natural, she says, to ask “which river am I going to walk along” and it feels like a metaphor for her creative projects. There’s even a sense that her exploratory life is one of her creative projects. It could remain a private act of creation if it wasn’t bolstered, as she says; “I have a compulsion to create, and I love to meet people, that’s what I thrive on. I do find, as you know, group situations difficult, I don’t relate well to group dynamics, but one-to-one, that’s a luxury, there’s space for me and them. It’s an in-depth conversation about who you are, what you do. It’s important to have that dialogue.” Then suddenly we’re under the Co-op pyramid, which has caught me utterly by surprise and feels completely alien in this context.

“The idea of repeating myself worried me, doing things just because I could and not challenging myself. Then I thought to make it about process.” It’s the word ‘about’ that is given the weight here, as if a change in emphasis here symbolises a movement in the way she thinks about her life as much as about the work she creates. Natalie’s life as a work of practice which threads itself round the streets and bridleways in a web from her home, rewalking and relearning and reorientating, and “I don’t actually know where the Mersey goes from here,” as we try and find our way under the Stockport viaduct which she says must be listed while I wonder how it hasn’t been replaced by something larger and blander. “I recognise what I’m good at, not spread myself too thin. People ask, can I knit or garden, and I’m happy to admit they aren’t where my skills are.” That said, “I’d like to be much better at Spanish, that’s something I tell myself I’d like to pursue one day when I’m retired, or go to the Cervantes Institute. I’ve tried but it doesn’t come naturally, it seems like a disproportionate amount of work.”

We’ve taken the A6 north towards Heaton Chapel, and as we talk about the smells of a walk, or in Natalie’s case her cycling into town, and how they’re not seriously considered, we pass a field. With horses. “There you go. I told you. I love how you suddenly come across fields of horses. There, we’re just walking through the city, and there’s a field.” It’s not a triumphant vindication, it’s a joyful confirmation. Natalie knows the city and it continues to unfold surprises to her. In Heaton Chapel, it’s the McVities factory, then through the grease and grime disguised with incense to the traffic lights where it’s the smell of fried chicken, the tarmacy smells, and before us the towers of the city rise up and we fold our way between them.

conversation with Natalie Bradbury took place along the Mersey between the A34 and A6 on Friday 20 May 2016 from 5pm // @Natalieviolet

Natalie recommended Clara Casian.