Saturday, 5 December 2015

Save Lancashire Museums: To Lose Them is to Lose Perspective

Can you remember the first time you felt utterly in awe of something? It’s an incredible sensation. Perhaps it was when you were a child, looking up at something so much bigger? It’s size and scale may have seemed thrilling, or it may have been the exciting element of the unknown, and the inspiration to find out more? Your toes may have tingled with the excitement, your face fizzing with a smile and the want to tell others about it. For me, this awe was inspired by a visit to Whitaker Park Museum in Rawtenstall, Lancashire, looking up at the absurd structure of a ‘Penny Farthing’.  The huge front wheel and spindly structure I had never seen before and was suddenly so keen to know. It also summarises an essential point; museums inspire us not only with awe, but inspire us to learn beyond ourselves, beyond what we first thought possible. They open new worlds. Thus to close them is a great tragedy.
Whitaker Park gardens and museum

The museums of Lancashire made my childhood, as well as my sources of inspiration and information. It’s almost ironic (and horribly so) that the government cuts are seeking to make history of them instead.

Five of the county’s museums are set to close from the 1st April next year, due to proposed local authority savings of £65m over the next two years for Lancashire County Council. The five museums are Fleetwood Museum, Queen Street Mill in Burnley, Helmshore Textile Museum, the Museum of Lancashire and the Judges Lodgings Museum. These are places which share our rich heritage, history and most importantly, knowledge.  To close them is to send the message that the past is disposable and skews the notion of society. We aren’t built online, on social media. We are built in human effort, and hardship, brick and business; something museums regularly remind us through the buildings they inhabit, the exhibitions they offer, the work they do.  Museums give us a real sense of perspective and that this could be lost is an awful concept.

Realise your role as a citizen

And Museums don’t just offer a sense of perspective, but multiple perspectives too. They make you feel included. Rather than a single source, they provide information in many different formats; allowing you to see for yourself as part of a bigger past and in turn, a citizen.  In most of Lancashire’s museums you can currently enjoy free entry and the opportunity to browse as you like, in your own time.
Helmshore Textile Museum
 So in that way, a museum values your individuality too. The freedom to explore knowledge physically is a lot more valuable than you may first think – it allows you to much more actively consider yourself in relation to the artefacts on display, and to appreciate difference. For example, it is hard to have proper awareness of how confined working mill conditions were until you have seen  the intricacy of turning cotton into thread at Helmshore Textile Museum! It is only when you’ve heard the machines in motion at Queen St Mill that you can really consider the impact upon working people, day-in, day out. Museums are mind opening.

Yet  the government cuts seem determined to open peoples wallets instead, including young people. What has been an important aspect about Lancashire’s museums for a long time is that they are largely free (or at least vitally free for children); emphasizing that you cannot put a price on interactive knowledge.  They have long provided an opportunity for immersive learning, opened up to families from all income backgrounds. Of course, financially supporting museums important, but having the opportunity to choose whether you do this has been long-term important to museums’ open-minded ethos. Plus a museum would rather than take an inquisitive mind – a child ready to learn – rather than a closed collection of coins. Yet the factor of finances has led the council to raise the prospect of binging compulsory  raised visitor charges into a number of museums, as well as  uncertainty regarding their future.

Freedom for children - it matters

The Museum of Lancashire, Preston
Turning a free museum into a fee-charging one I believe can become a problem. When a museum is  no longer free, it is no longer ‘free’ by any sense of the word; as by ascribing monetary value to its experience, this can be seen as an attempt to determine the worth of its artefacts, of its experience. When museums are charged for this leads families considering the value for money rather than the actual contents. Things quickly become evaluated by investment (i.e. ‘was it worth the  cost/time/effort?’) rather than the level of interest engaged; and this taints the openness of perspective which museums originally inspire. If a museum charges already and is attracting visitors, then this is less of an issue. But to introduce charges to those which have long been free is a hard task.

Museums are not just capable of opening up perspectives either; it is important to consider the numerous roles they play in Lancashire.  Firstly, their role in conservation. It is through preserving the past that museums are providing educational opportunities for future generations, highlighting  their continued importance in society. And they don’t just teach society,  but take lessons from it too; as the  exhibitions in museums are often shaped by the attitudes of audiences and people who visit. Curators have the role not only then of preservation but presentation; assembling the past to make sense for the present and inspire the future. When you consider such processes, it shows that museums are creating positive relationships and structures at every level.

Museums make communities

Structure is an important point in itself too. Museums provide important local infrastructure as well
Mills in Helmshore
as connecting beyond the county. Take Helmshore Textile Museum, for example; an original Lancashire textile mill.  To add to the roles already listed in this piece, it plays a key community role; with the frequent school trips it facilitates just being one example. The cafe also provides a welcome meeting place for regulars, including some local elderly residents who find great comfort in the place. It certainly goes beyond what you may assume a single museum is capable of; with recent events hosted therefore including a Christmas craft fair and market.  Plus the research carried out by those working there also connects the little village of Helmshore with interest from all over the country; including enthusiasts, academics, writers and journalists.  This kind of networking is important to and is facilitated by museums across the country; they create communities of their own as well as keeping the history of others. As emphasized before, museums provide a place where multiple perspectives can come together in a receiving the gift of knowledge. To close them is to deny the present - both metaphorically and in reality! 

So now it’s time to give something back.

I think that one of the biggest things we can give to museums, is our support.  This doesn’t have to be financial if you cannot manage it – because after all, museums endorse open awareness, and it’s this openness you can use in your favour. Perhaps you could pay a visit, volunteer, donate, or even sign a petition. There is clear support for Lancashire’s museums out there and action already being taken which emphasizes how important these places there for the modern day. People can still walk through the doors and be awe-inspired. And that’s a thing worth saving. 

Friday, 4 December 2015

Tom Martin’s music photography launch at Sandinista: Personalities, performances and INTERVIEW!

Manchester’s bustling bar Sandinista has just launched an exhibition of photography by Tom Martin – a photographer (often known for his work with NME and Kerrang!) whose latest project has been securing shots of our favourite live music artists.  Tom was born in West Yorkshire, but over the last ten years has crossed continents in the quest to capture the stunning live music photographs and portrait-work he is known for. 2015 sees him bring the best to Manchester, with a selection of snaps set to include Jay Z, Metallica and lots of Leeds Fest features as just some options.

Therefore you can really get into a musical mood at Sandinista this December. The non-conformist, cool-feeling bar will provide all you need to enjoy Tom’s photographs – which show contemporary music photography at its finest. Expect energy, enthusiasm and experience a-plenty: here is a photographer who emphasizes that the visuals of music matter, not just the sound.

And it matters that it is taking place in our great city! Tom himself was keen to reflect on why he wanted to make the most of a chance to showcase his skills in Manchester in particular:
Your photographs (especially on your website) show your range of encounters and experiences throughout the world!  Why are you bringing them to Manchester?

I grew up near Sowerby Bridge, which is right in the middle of Leeds and Manchester and I’ve lived around here all my life. Both cities hold significance to me, I endlessly get asked if I’m going to move to London for my career but I’m happy here in the North, it’s where I want to be. When I had the opportunity to show this work across both cities I jumped at the change. I also really wanted to put these photographs up in good lively bars. These are shots from loud messy shows, I want people to be able to have a drink and a chat and see them, rather than being in a quiet, cringy gallery!
The upcoming exhibition is set to showcase live music photography. Why did you decide on this focus in particular?

I’ve done a few exhibitions over the last couple of years with pictures of people, fashion and reportage but I’ve never done a show of my live music images, which is ridiculous really because it’s such a big part of what I do. I realised that it’s been 10 years since I started shooting live and that I’ve built up this big archive of shots that just sit on hard drives. There are lots of photos in this show of pretty huge name bands that no one has ever seen before.

When we think of music, we often think of sound. Why is photography important here too?

Ooh good question! I’m not ever sure that it is really that important?! I think there is a place and a demand for quality images of live music because people want a record of that gig or event. The right image can tell the story of a performance and capture the atmosphere so it can be remembered and seen by people who weren’t there.

Who/what was your favourite musician/act to photograph? Why was this?

I don’t think I could choose just one band but I did love shooting the Live from Jodrell Bank shows. It’s a very special venue for live music, The Flaming Lips, Elbow, New Order and loads more bands played there whilst there were projections onto the satellite dish and lasers and all sorts. There was so much going on at those shows that I didn’t know where to look and what to shoot.

 If you could photograph any musical artist, dead or alive, who would it be?

Maybe Notorious BIG when he was younger rapping on street corners in Brooklyn, I always thought that would have been so cool to photograph.

What are your future photography plans? Do you have any other projects?

I guess just to try and keep evolving what I’m shooting really. I get bored I want my work to be interesting, especially to me, so I just keep trying to say yes to shooting new things and going to new places. Nope no projects at the moment, although I’ve always got a wish list of schemes on the go and I’m quite spur of the moment with it so who knows what’s around the corner!

So get yourself down to Sandinista for Tom’s fine photography, as well as their tempting cocktail and dining offers. You are sure to leave with so much more than just food for thought. There are photographs fit for every course. Sandinista, 2 Old Bank St, City Centre, Manchester M2 7PF

You can also visit Tom’s website for more information and photographs:

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Primary school play equipment is failing our children… and what we can do to address it

Primary schools are still getting the sums wrong when it comes to children's play. How so?  A key issue is that Playtimes are often subject to too many restrictions, cuts and compromises, typically judged as little more than ‘cooling off’ periods between lessons. This equates to sending children the message that their playtime is neither valued or valuable. Yet numerous studies (and common sense) show that outdoor play is an essential part of productive, positive learning. But as long as the message sent by schools is that playtime still lacks value, the more a slippery slope builds. The restricted nature of playtime leads children to feel frustrated, even misbehaving. This misbehaviour becomes falsely associated with playtime, and so the negativity continues. What clearly needs to be re-evaluated is the value placed on play in primary schools. Already at the forefront of helping  with this is OPAL (Outdoor Play and Learning), a programme which seeks to  work with schools to show that investment in play can lead to greater positivity, reduced misbehaviour and does not have to be expensive. 

The value of outdoor play is getting more attention in mainstream media (like my last article), and this is good, but the reaction of schools can be the opposite – acting as quickly as they can by impulsively choosing play equipment they assume ‘looks good’.  Equipment can facilitate, but it does not create good play. Plus, this equipment is often expensive, seemingly bought under the assumption that a greater cost will bring bigger value to children. To assume this is to misjudge the free, exploratory nature of play itself.  Another sad thing is that many companies appear to be capitalising on unsuspecting schools, selling equipment which has very limited play value and only very short term benefits – at big prices. It looks valuable, but does not bring value : and this needs to be addressed. This is where programmes such as OPAL come in. OPAL supports a much more carefully considered approach to schools investment in play by helping them avoid spending money on expensive capital items which have very little long term play value.  It reinforces positivity. Plus it
works to make schools consider what ‘value’ is in relation to play really is, as Director Michael Follett reflects:

“Children play with difference of any sort, so even a hole in the ground will provide play value. Schools should be able to make much better informed judgements about why they are spending so much when their money could provide much greater value if spent differently.”

Properly selected play equipment can bring out the best play opportunities for children, can help with behaviour problems and is not necessarily expensive.  Schools need to stop looking to high prices and fancy appearances for reassurance.

Stop being tricked by Trim Trails

A particular issue lies in outdoor play equipment which ‘looks fun’ for the first few days; but beyond the illusion of its ‘bright’ appearance it is often bland and lacks actual sustained benefits.  The most guilty culprit is the ‘Trim Trail’. These trails are typically low-level wooden or metal obstacle courses, like those you usually see in a public playground. This type of equipment expects children to complete a ‘circuit’ of obstacles, moving on from one piece to the next piece in line like items that move steadily along a conveyor belt. Inevitably, children don’t opt for this approach – and instead use the trail at various points when they feel like it – often blocking it or interrupting it for others.  The second problem is the Trim Trail is designed to be physically challenging play equipment, yet actually comes with very little risk or challenge. In order to assure complete safety the physical challenge has been minimised meaning that children master it within days, hours or often minutes! 

This raises the key issue: surely play should be constructive, rather than reductive: not reducing a child’s task to going round in minimally challenging circles? The beauty of good play is that it can lift children out of the pressure of routines and offers freedom of expression and self-direction.
It’s an interesting thought then that the play equipment assumed to be ‘fun’ by schools could be actually limiting to children. Why? Because the play offer is both limited and fixed, there is no opportunity to alter, change or be creative or imaginative. It could even be the case that children are coming home feeling frustrated because their play equipment, and the way adults manage it, has  again been a source of obstruction rather than construction.

Because school play equipment like this is often present in school playgrounds but not serving the needs of children, this can lead teachers and parents alike to draw the unhelpful assumption that outdoor play is disruptive. Surely if outdoor play was a benefit to children then they would be enjoying such equipment to its full extent? There is an importance here, however, of looking beyond the Trim Trail  and at the detail. Outdoor play is well documented as being is highly advantageous to children of all ages. This is supported by  the national organisation Learning Outside the Class Room (LOtC)  which argues that ‘Children need an outdoor environment that can provide them with space, both upwards and outwards, and places to explore, experiment, discover, be active and healthy, and to develop their physical capabilities’ –  with play a part of this. Now consider equipment like the Trim Trail. With its typically very low level structures and set circular course, it is hardly a structure which supports development ‘upwards and outwards’.

Skeletons in the playground

Action research by OPAL shows that when trim Trim Trail equipment is introduced to schools, there is an initial flurry of children using it (after all, children will be excited to play on anything new) but after the first six weeks, usage falls to levels as low as 5-10% of playtime involving the equipment, used only by 5-8% of the school population. This suggests such equipment is not bringing big benefits to children and under-usage again causes unhelpful assumptions to be drawn – teachers and parents conclude that play equipment is not a worthwhile investment.

OPAL however is working to highlight  that investment in play can be worthwhile and manageable. It does not equate expense with success.  Instead it works with schools to adopt a clear set of principles and policies  so all involved can understand how good play is resourced, staffed and evaluated. Schools create their own unique improvement plans and with OPAL offering ongoing support over the 12-24 month period it takes for a primary school to completely change its culture and behaviour, transforming playtimes into a highly beneficial part of the school day.  Already running programmes in over 120 primaries across the country, it is well endorsed by headteachers and in October 2015 was cited four times asgood innovative practice in the All Party Parliamentary Report called 'PLAY'.

Rather than dwelling over play practice of the past, OPAL provides a bright promise for the future. And this does not involve enormous expenses and investments in technology as some might assume. Instead OPAL promotes changes which support children's natural playfulness. For example, in Slimbridge School, where an OPAL programme has been running, children have been offered a range of activities including role playing games, climbing in the bushes, digging and den building, an outdoor office space and even a ‘Messy Kitchen’. The range of scenarios this play provides is sure to put a smile on anyone’s face; so imagine the impact on the children themselves! Rather than the expense of one big item like a Trim Trail, OPAL’s resources prove that play opportunities can be provided inexpensively across a number of areas.

OPAL aims not just to change the equipment available for play, but attitudes too. For more information you can visit their website: . They re-inforce the vital value of freedom in play which goes far beyond monetary value or a piece of equipment. Play, when well-supported, upholds that it is children themselves who are truly valuable. 

Monday, 30 November 2015

To Cut Lancashire's Libraries will Crush Communities

Where’s a place where adults can let children escape without fear?  Somewhere you can go to visit faraway places and need no ticket? Open your mind and not your wallet? The answer; libraries. The opportunities  they offer for people of all ages should not be underestimated. And that is why the government pressure to close them down is a blow people should not have to suffer. For example, pressure on Lancashire County council to save £65million over the next two years is expected to  see the county's 74 libraries cut to just 34. You can take action to show that this not acceptable – support your local library and the opportunities it upholds.

Libraries are saviors in themselves, not a vehicle for ‘savings’. Yet It appears that local authorities in are turning to libraries as one the first places to cut costs. This is almost ironic considering libraries are the places so many other people in society turn to, but for good reason– not just for borrowing books, but as a safe public space, a place of solace, an opportunity to interact, to be inquisitive and to learn. Councils and the government often refer to the importance of ‘community cohesion’ especially at times of difficulty, but to  close libraries is actually to destroy a dear community in itself. But will attention be paid to this?

Rawtenstall Library 

The potential of portable worlds

Lancashire County Council has announced that it is set to go ahead with library closures in order to save money, saying that statutory obligations would be met if in every district council area 1 library was kept open; the rest could be potentially up for closure. Cutting back on the library network in this drastic way could be seen to actually evade obligation - obligation to the people.  The potential loss of these libraries is a terrible thing to us all. Firstly, think of the resources they offer. Our libraries not only provide books, but  a wide range of interactive material including CD’s, DVD’s, archives and even sheet music. This is the first kind of opportunity the library offers; the opportunity you can take home. You have the potential of portable worlds; novels which will take you to America, films which reveal a whole new side to life. Discovery even within the domestic space is made possible by a library; people unlock new skills they can use in their lives, access self-help books and make a real difference. And because many of these materials are free or of much lower cost than in the shops, this makes it more accessible. Open to all.  

Therefore, not only can you take opportunity home, but the second kind of opportunity a library offers, is the opportunity of home. What is meant by this? A library is a place for people, certainly not just for print! A second home, so to speak! It is one of the few buildings in society through which all people can enter, regardless of income, and be provided with positivity. It’s a hospital for hope (Plus you can even get ‘books on prescription!’). Old and young alike are given the chance to interact in a safe, secure environment – learning about others, as well as new things. And if books are not your interest, then there are likely to be community groups, parent-and-toddler meetings, interest societies and so-on that you can get involved in, all at your local library.

The maths - Banishing books in order to balance the books does not add up

Bacup Library 
But council cuts are threatening an end to the ‘local’ library. It’s easy for the authority to think of the ‘savings’ but what about the people’s lives which libraries, in their own way, have been saving? For many elderly residents in Lancashire towns like Bacup for example, the library provides an easily- accessible place; and these people would be severely deprived if the nearest available library was instead 5 or so miles away and may not go altogether. Banishing books in order to balance the books does not add up and it certainly brings no balance to people’s lives.

 Another place where it doesn’t add up is in terms of how it affects children. 2015 has drawn attention to the shocking statistics that more than 62,000 primary pupils across the country  failed to reach the expected Level 4 in reading tests, suggesting that many young people are struggling with – and are likely disengaged – from reading.  To cut libraries is only set to disengage children further. The library, as I said earlier, is in effect a hospital for hope. It provides a safe, non-pressuring environment which could be highly constructive at addressing the issue of child reading.  Yet cutting libraries is at risk of sending young people the message that reading and knowledge is disposable – a terrible concept.

And libraries do play an important financial role too. They provide an open, non-judgmental place where people  have opportunities to engage with skills and employment. For example there are sessions helping people with job applications hosted at Burnley library (one of many), and the computers there  pay a big role in helping people engage with the modern application systems – especially if they do not have such technology at home. It’s often under-discussed, but libraries can stimulate local economies.  For example, they often provide resources too which people can use to find out more about public transport and travel passes; encouraging interaction with local services.

Let’s not forget the history either

Our local have their own fascinating histories too –  but should not be confined to it! For example, my local area of Lancashire is Rossendale, and I have become well-acquainted over the years with Rawtenstall library and its Victorian community history room. This place really does uphold the concept that preserving the past can inspire the future. Not only have I met and enjoyed the company of many people in this area, but seen posters advertising family activities, community drop ins, the list goes on. Yes, the role of the library in Britain certainly has a past to it, but is not in the past. Most libraries contain numerous computers for public use; so people can get to grips with technology too. Multiple windows to the world are opened; so the thought that instead multiple libraries could be at risk in Lancashire(with those serving the Rossendale council district; Rawtenstall, Crawshawbooth, Haslingden, Whitworth and Bacup all at potential risk) is like putting a shutter against shared discovery.

And even more shutters seem to be up around Lancashire County Council – certainly undergoing  a dark time. Between 2011 and 2020 it is estimatedthat the council is required  to make savingsof £685 million –  with the risk so much of culture being crushed  as part of that. For these are times where places, even community spaces, can seem just like percentage to councils wanting to balance the books. That’s why it’s essential that we express our personal pride and for the great Lancashire  libraries. They have figures standing for them; are not just figures on a cost sheet. By showing our support, using  the service and  even getting involved in volunteering, let’s keep the life going.  The Library Campaign helps support users of libraries, whilst many local newspapers, such as The Rossendale Free Press have set up petitions to save these important places.  There is also a petition on

Get involved in any way you can. The loss of libraries is a loss to us all. 

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Children Steal the Streets of Manchester

Manchester is painting its own picture
The artists enter evening
From grey-cold afternoons
Of ticketing, leaflets
-          The paper Mache
Piling up under the shoes
 - Advertising night-life
Emphasizing truth.

My mother said stay away
From wet paint, smell of glue
Tib Street, Lever Street, Edge then Shudehill
I just a kid, and the ‘wet surface’ sign
Came to her like a fear.
Here nothing dries
Not even tears, lines

Are being drawn freehand
Outside bars, the stitch
The seam
They keep spinning
The turn of the discs.
Mum’s ‘mind’ like a warning
Paint on the railings
This dream
Opened my eyes
I unknotted my fist
Cold and living,

I remember her wailing
On Oldham Street, Piccadilly, Whitworth Street West
At the paint on my fingers
The smell of success
Under my nails

I was not too young then
To feel art, the point without sale
The puddle-stained depth.
The breath of parent
You should be
My girl,
Ashamed of yourself

But the sunset
Was watercolour.
Look, mother, look
As the orange opened to ochre
My hand stained, flexing

Not into a phone
But to Sackville, Spinningfields,
Oxford rail Road
But she was angry
The shops shut
 The gallery closed.
We’ve missed it she said
 No reason to stay

Not leaving
But I took
The railings


Tuesday, 17 November 2015

First thoughts – poetry we want to hate: Kim Kardashian’s Marriage by Sam Riviere

The title of it makes it a collection we want to hate: ‘Kim Kardashian’s Marriage’, and that’s why Sam Riviere’s collection, published by Faber and Faber is so important. These are poems which push us into questioning our prejudices. Often clipped and cool in tone, they explore a culture focused on titles and titillation: making us question what is actual and what is invented, what is ‘personal’ and what is ‘performed’. Celebrity is a metaphor  for the ‘empty’ born out of the digital age.

Welcome to a world where reality is a show, rather than shown.  And you might not want to admit it, but it’s our world. Many may recognise Kim Kardashian after all as a symbol of digital celebrity culture: where personalities are the subject of performance. Her 2011 marriage to Kris Humphries lasted a reputed 77 days, hence the 77 poems in this collection; quickly unfolding as the exploration not of personal events but pictures of events, images. The click, click, click of quickly turning pages over these brisk poems is like the inevitable camera shutter.  This is not a collection about Kim Kardashian. It’s a collection which about our increasingly digital culture, dependent on appearances rather than reality. The work is split into sections based on the structure of a make-up routine, from ‘primer’ to ‘gloss’; highlighting a focus on inventions and images, rather than individuals.

Perhaps the ultimate sign that the collection is an exploration of ‘invention’ is that Riviere created each of the poems not out of natural compulsion, but using search engine results.   In other words, the poems are visual results of the internet’s visual results.

"Uncovering abnormality in what we are served up as standard"

Sam Riviere, born in 1981, is an English poet, now living in Belfast, who communicates contemporary issues in a clever way; uncovering the abnormality in what modern life serves us as standard . His 2012 collection ’81 Austerities’ in response to the governmental spending cuts won the Forward Prize for Best First collection. His skill is especially shown through the array of voices in Kim Kardashian’s Marriage: a mixture of intense and impersonal; communicating a society close to chaos.  As in the poem ‘thirty-three dust’:

‘The inventor of rock and roll, amongst others
Allowed to dry in a gentle stream of clean air
Then stored in a dust-proof container’

Perhaps this is showing the culture of ‘celebrity’, not as sordid and scandalous, but what I felt powerfully, on reading this collection - saddened.    Here we see ‘the inventor of rock and roll’ just as empty as the ‘others’ set to be ‘stored in a dust-proof container’. Perhaps what the word ‘others’ highlights that at its most base, not even individual personalities are preserved by celebrity culture, just presence. It reduces people to presence: after all, we’ve all heard the term media ‘presence’.  To be part of that is to be officially modern. That is why this is a collection not focusing on Kim Kardashian specifically, but the society which underpins her just as any ‘other’. After all, few of the Kardashian’s names are actually mentioned; instead we see a combination of impersonality along with everyone from Roosevelt to ‘cousin ricky’. They are all reduced to the same: a presence rather than personalities. We don’t ‘know’ them, only see them as a title. Colder still, we are given no opportunity to know them.

Sam Riviere’s collection gives the impression of a culture which runs on presence and impression, rather than personalities and realities: digital culture. The poems form the tracing paper above it. This is reflected at the close of the poem ‘infinity weather’:

'Give me one minute
I’ll give you cosmic’

Here the matter-of-fact tone clashes with the usually loaded terms of ‘minute’ and ‘cosmic’: words typically filled with expectation and excitement – now shown as trivial, meaningless. It is so often that we say what we don’t mean, use words that don’t give meaning, but indicate it, like ‘cosmic’ – especially online. In this light, Kim Kardashian's Marriage, both the collection and the real thing, reflects the emptiness of a culture that constructs a layer between itself and reality. The layer is digital: just like the ‘reality shows’, where what we are given is perhaps not a ‘show’ of ‘reality’ at all, but an invention to hide the truth.

We are constructing a culture at the expense of reality.

Another part of this layer between culture and reality, and again, digital, is indicated through the symbol of ‘images’. In the poem ‘beautiful pool’, the speaker’s tone is imperative, demanding  to ‘view images as ‘river of photos’. The blunt phrasing of this, shows how a traditional symbol of nature like a ‘river’, has been pulled into this ever-hungry human culture of invention. As the dubiously titled poem ‘infinity hardcore’ reflects:

 ‘This has been a huge trend
But it ain’t enough’

Think of Instagram, Pinterest. Forces of nature, like rivers, don’t seem to even phase us anymore – instead society is focused on forces it has invented itself, digital ones, like the force of ‘trends’. It’s almost sad to think that we are  a species who once followed rivers, water as a source of life, now committed to following trends. Why? It is clear consumer culture is never full. The casual tone of ‘ain’t enough’ shows how easily, perhaps appallingly, we seem to have accepted that.

"This is a culture of recycling and replicas which is perhaps closer to our own lives"

And how do we attempt to feed the consumer appetite? Riviere suggests that the first method is through words, like advertising – turning the same terms and phrases over and over, in different contexts.  We come to realise the emptiness of words in a society which treats them this way, especially online. The poems use language interchangeably, often revolving on the same symbols and terms within the different sections – especially considering ‘berries’ ‘dust’  heaven’ and ‘infinity’. These terms can be applied positively or negatively, fashionably or unfashionably as desired. On one page ‘infinity berries’ on another page ‘infinity hardcore’. This is a culture of recycling and replicas which is perhaps closer to our own lives than we first think. After all, we are just part of a culture of commodification and invention like Kim Kardashian is; and we’re all guilty of indulging from time to time.

Riviere uses poetry as part of this culture, perhaps in order to uncover how awful it can be.  A voice in the poem ‘Spooky Sincerity’ considers a video which ‘might be the funniest yet/ left a spread of blood on the bedspread’.  Typically if we see the word’ funniest’ and ‘blood’ close together when reading, we think them somehow disparate, nonsensical. Yet because ‘video’ is mentioned, so many of us can quickly recognise the concept of ‘blood’ being something funny; we expect the feature in a screen prank or a gory film. This digital culture we invent has changed not only our relationship with language, but our relationship with our feelings.  Blood can be funny in the digital age. This is powerful and cause for refection.

"A process of invention"

Reflection is theme which builds and builds throughout, as we see through the whole structure of the collection based on not just Kim Kardashian’s reported ‘make-up routine’ – but  how society adds to this layer of culture at the expense of reality. How Riviere works with this structure is interesting too, often at a grave contrast to the language within it.  We would typically expect the section ‘Blend’ to be bringing consistency, but instead the poems within are filled with ominous and jarring images, a repetition of ‘grave’. Then in the section we would expect to be dark, ‘Shadow’, we are instead hit with apparent optimism, especially the repeated exclamations such as ‘hi guys!’ and ‘I will confirm this tomorrow!’ in ‘thirty-three pool’. The poems present an absurd structure in themselves by taking on the language and  layers of Kardashian culture, which is ultimately what we incorporate as ‘culture’ in society.  Riviere serves up the changing rhythms within this, ‘from soft serve in California to scooping in Washington’, suggesting that it is a process of invention occurring at different rates, in different places, different flavours even. But it is still happening.

"Warning about how we are constructing a society of insecurity"

Just by description the collection likely sounds tiring, and it is: revealing digital culture’s role in draining our energy. It is in making this realisation we can perhaps make moves to address it/ or not. It seems appropriate that the collection ends with the section titled  ‘gloss’, the final layer of fakery over all the recycled language and characters emptied of personality but full of ‘presence’. This isn’t poetry warning against Kim Kardashian. It is warning about how we are inventing a culture of insecurity. In one of the final poems ‘the new heaven’, the ‘bible’ could be seen as a symbol of invention at its biggest. Whether positive or negative we don’t know, for all the lines seem pre-occupied by is its ‘new’-ness, that of ‘new heaven/ and a new earth’ repeated. This is society which writes ‘reality’ not on the basis of religion or family: but on the digital need for something ‘new’, something different to consume.  Just like reality television – but in every vision.

Riviere’s unsettling collection makes us question whether the inventions of a digital consumer culture have created a doctrine more of us are coupled with then we would like to think. It’s far beyond the question of Kim and Kris’ coupledom, that media presence most of us were aware of . It’s a question of ourselves.  

Kim Kardashian's Marriage by Sam Riviere. Faber & Faber; Main edition (5 Feb. 2015) 

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Why I gave up success so I could see the sea

The old woman told me
Age assumed, for her mouth pressed
The words together like embrace.

Today people keep them typed
-         And spaced
She would speak, then smile, then speak again
I look for eyes as if they’re dead.

Then curled her legs and slowly sighed
And took cold tea on the broken train
Still going of course, as everything does
But the morning was sold, and nobody spoke.
Forcing looking up into something held
Scrolling strangers rather than life in the next seat
Where the old woman turned and said
Why I gave up success so I could see the sea…

A screen flickered in the aisle (a reminder of what was to come)
It was corporate, we lived for time, she said
And now I’m seen as its end, and a sloping mind
You know why a clock has hands; they are sticks for the drum.

There was no question, stopping in London at 5 am
Though ‘stopping’ only expression, as everyone swamped
Through that single aisle and into the station
Everyone busy, nobody spoke.
Beside the old times she addressed like a caution
The streets were still darkened, I offered my coat
In the form of an arm which is she took like a service
Hearing the opening of darkness on Portobello Road
No voices, but the coughs and the ticking
Of unfolding tables, those cold wooden chests
Thrusts forwards, too early to be ‘market’, they saw us
Presumed, bound by blood, or a trouble, a threat.

Yet holding the arm, in the street once called a stranger
I saw her to the door of the corner shop
The metal cold in my pocket but the story beyond it

To see the sea, was to see – to be looking up. 

Friday, 13 November 2015


Written for a friend. 
You took tears and sewed them up                                
Each thread you felt and knew
In the conversation, looking over
To the words I spilled
In a foreign pub
Your eyes were gentle.

You sewed understanding like a quilt
I watched you midst a clash of folk
Music for the heart I kept
- Then you sent poetry you’d wrote.

In your words the quilt was thick
Warm, ran through like speech
You opened thought
I remember in the following weeks
We met, took tea. You spoke of hope.

Those hands, following the quilt
You wrapped round many – shivering, cold
Giving experience as a patch each time
As quick as breath - the quilt would grow.
In the library, up the steps, you carried
Even when the material dragged
For you’d mapped the year like a picnic blanket
Where we sat, day-drenched ... and laughed.

The warmth of it unending now
The stitching of your words, your speech
In a quilt shared with your every friend
And gave them each a patch, your peace.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

First thoughts - Jane Clarke: The River

Poetry where human hands meet nature's hand

Jane Clarke’s first collection ‘The River’ is already making waves, thus bursting the boundaries of what we may assume a poet’s early work to be. Clarke lives in Wicklow, Ireland, but only started writing 10 years ago, significantly inspired by the landscape around her.  Yet rather than the sweeping, even overwhelming aspects of nature we may associate with pastoral poetry, rather than pouring out about nature, Clarke pours into it – steering her poetic brilliance through every nook and cranny. This is where we see natures hand, the river, alongside human hands, a powerful force running alongside the everyday: a tin basin, a blue Bible, a drystone wall.

‘The River’ is a collection which celebrates human as well as natural geographies, which made me think -  this is what a river does; flowing through life, bringing positive and negative to both human and animal. Poetry which makes us reconsider nature in such a way certainly is powerful.  In some poems we see these contrasts at their most stark, like the opening ‘Honey’, a sheepdog who sits obediently whilst the children ‘offer her a cup of tea’. This domestic scene is contrasted bluntly at the poems’ closure ‘he drags her by the scruff/leaves her at their feet’, with the dog sent to nature’s inevitable process – we assume death.

'That ever-flowing river beside and inside us' 

Clarke appreciates these layers to life like a river stirs its levels of sediment. Growing up on a farm in Roscommon, Ireland seems to have given her an awareness of how human and nature infuse. We see this in the profound simile ‘Blue veins lie like the rivers on the map of her hands’, lingering in my mind long after I had finished the collection, from the poem ‘Daily Bread’. To me, this served as a profound reminder of our relationship to nature; it flows through us, something we shouldn’t forget even when we are wrapped up in the ‘daily’ human routine.

Because realising our relationship to nature, that ever-flowing river beside and inside us, can be empowering.  You can feel the power in Clarke’s poetry, just like the rhythm she mixes into ‘Daily Bread’ - those hands, complete with their rivers, bringing about energy. It is here we see how human works with bread like hands with water: ‘with the rhythm, of a rower she kneads’, and are invited to consider the new dimensions Clarke lends to such a basic task. It is through concise, accessible language that she creates situations we can quickly relate to, even if we haven’t had direct experience. In this way, the collection offers a real exploration of empathy: questioning how and why we relate to things. Nature knows us, a river is our relation. So it is not just situations, but whole settings Clarke uses to consider this. For example, in the ‘Harness Room’ the speaker questions the source of the love she feels for this place:

‘Is it the swallows’ nest/
In the rafters among cobwebbed haystacks
Bridle and saddle, slane and sickle.’

In this setting, natures nest meets human habitation, bound by the apparent reflection of the speaker and the bold sibilance.  Clarke often uses beauty of language to create a mood of reflection; after all, we remember, a river offers us a reflective surface. And never far from this surface is the emphasis of natures flow alongside us, the reassuring ‘company of the current’ as from the poem ‘The Suck’.  This is an apparent allusion to The River Suck, which flows through the Shannon Basin in Ireland. Clarke is currently proving highly popular in her native country, and it’s no wonder, as her poetry pays homage to its landscapes and ways of life. She has been accredited for her poetry work there on a wide-scale, with prizes such as the Trocaire/Poetry Ireland Competition (2014), Poems for Patience (2013) and iYeats (2010). There is homage to place clearly flowing through pieces such as ‘Sorrell Hill’ and ‘Cows at Duggort’.

'It shapes the present and future rather than circling in sentimentality' 

Yet she pays homage without hurt or regret. Instead, this is poetry which reflects on the present of places and their potentials; rather than them being exclusively part of a speaker’s past. That is again an emphasis of our relationship with the natural world, it shapes the present and future rather than circling in sentimentality – as the isolated human mind can tend to.  At the beginning of the collection, Clarke quotes Heraclitus of Ephesus and his famous statement ‘we cannot step twice into the same river’. For the river symbolises a course, like the course of life, but also a continuity of change.

‘’I’d give it all up in a minute
Every last rock
Stream and sod of it.

They can have the price of sheep
The grant for the cattle shed
And the bills from the vet’

These lines, from the poem ‘Inheritance’ express energy as aforementioned, which keeps the tone fresh and engaging – never stagnant. Throughout the poems, Clarke creates feeling with powerful concision, tending to use couplets and triplets to pack a punch, rather than lingering lines. We feel the reality of her poems, their directness, rather than a drawn-out aftermath. With ‘inheritance’ the subject, we typically expect dwelling upon the past, but here Clarke throws in the future tense and shows a reflection on the harsh realities of life, the decisions which have to be made.

'Looks at human and nature in an unapologetic, unflinching way' 

After all, ‘The River’ both as a collection and as a force of nature, does not avoid the difficult terrains – it passes through a variety.  This includes a course of human histories; beginning with the childhood perspective in ‘Honey’ and closing around poems which focus on aging and death. It is expressed directly, naturally, a fathers hands as he ‘lifts them again, crashes them/to the bed’ – as part of a collection which looks at human and nature in an unapologetic, unflinching way.

This is a collection in which we see a number of repeated symbols, clear repetition - not only the river, but hands and cows, to name a few – yet the emphasis is upon change. Like in life, we are repeatedly subject to the same mind, the same hands, but we can use them differently every day – to potentially create something brilliant, feel different.  It’s time we took inspiration from ‘The River’ and embraced the nature of change; the great changes nature brings which we can be part of.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

London sells you success, Manchester makes you hope

I am often asked questions such as ‘why aren’t you studying in London?’  and ‘Would you move there after you graduate?’ as well as ‘Surely London where it’s at?’. There is no doubt, London is an enthralling city. There is the thrill of going seeing ‘the sights’, being a ‘tourist’ or perhaps even the promise of ‘business’:  all in apostrophes, the enclosed package the city serves up. In fact, to be in London invites the sensation of being a spectator – watching something significant happening without really being part of it. Conversely, in Manchester, you aren’t spectator, but creator.

'Make history, rather than being an onlooker'

I am proud of Manchester. Proud of its unpackaged, unapologetic nature. It’s a Beta World city, in the global rankings as a major economic system, yet rather than voicing it, it is a place which prefers to hear your voice.  This is the city where you can be part of the projects – whether they are artistic, academic or other – which make history, rather than being an onlooker. It was easy to see this taking place recently in the form of ‘The Stone Roses’ posters flying up all over the city (every poster-putter creating their own kind of art) at the beginning of November, to celebrate the bands’ announcement of tour dates for next year. The iconic ‘lemon slices’ from their first album were slapped across shops and signs – the lemon itself inspired by lead singer Ian Brown’s reputed experience with a French rights rioter, who had told him that lemons were an antidote to tear gas.

Lemons are also a fitting symbol for Manchester I think.  It’s a zingy, bright place to be on so many levels.  It’s got pith to it, layers of interest. Yet many people judge it with bitterness.
 I often hear arguments against it, such as it being a ‘dump’ and ‘grotty’, references to the cramped carriages of ‘Northern Rail’ trains and of course, rain. Yet it is the city’s resilience – under-funded transport and all – which makes it relatable. Rather than changing its skin like the snake of the south, reappearing every few months with a whole new avenue of glass, Manchester maintains its dark underbelly, its nervous energy and secret spaces.  Largely a product of the industrial revolution, rising as well as falling with it, businesses had little other choice than to cram themselves into already-existing industrial units. Because this is a place which just gets on with it.

'Visual hope'

 And it doesn’t just have ‘it’, but ‘grit’ too.   Every day you can see people working, and filing, and chiseling away at their craft until it finally shines. It is visual hope. For example, The Kitchens project on the Left bank at Spinningfields – what seem like trendy, yet also gutsy street-food venues to grab some grub – is the outcome of sheer hard work and enthusiasm.  Unlike the corporate kudos of London, Manchester offers businesses you can relate to, coming along in their various stages.  This city offers the interest of shoots and saplings (with central pop-up shops and great street markets) whilst in London you are looking at big growth: shiny and often silent.

And Manchester certainly doesn’t keep quiet. The ‘Madchester’; scene of the 80s and 90s pushed music, and boundaries – perhaps why the ‘mad’ of the title. The city has served as the catalyst which commanded to the masses: even if you are struggling, you can still make something of yourself.  There wasn’t any hierarchy as such – people meshed together, the roadie for the Inspiral Carpets went on to become the songwriter in Oasis, as just one example. Boys from surrounding towns became bands thrown together in improvised studios – Joy Division, Buzzcocks, The Smiths, The Fall, just to name a few. There was hope for all then and it carries on. Still now,  you can throw yourself into open mic events, pub nights and the rest, without the need to feel like a ‘local’ or ‘legitimate’; You are welcomed, and that is what matters. This is the city where you really can feel living, without having to live here.  If one event doesn’t work for you, or you mince your words? You’ll be welcomed with opened arms at another.

'In Manchester everyone is thrown together'

Compare this to London, where there are the ‘in crowds’, the (often extortionate) art schools, the assumption that students have their own area, tourists another. In the quest for ‘success’ people have their designated areas, there is competition.  In Manchester everyone is thrown together. Take this; I recently went to the opening of an art exhibition at Common, a bar in The Northern Quarter. It clearly wasn’t just the opening of an exhibition, but expression too, for everyone was encouraged to get involved in floor-to ceiling, moving artwork and wailing protest music.    In London, as much choice as there is, there seems a pressure to have to ‘fit’ a place in order to ‘participate’ in it.

It is relatability which puts the ‘man’ in Manchester. It is a human city, a friend, a pal. There are the quiet spaces you can easily escape to – whether it be through the corridors of The John Rylands Library, a walk into Castlefield or a cup of something in the Earth cafĂ© before the lunchtime rush; there is something for everyone. Whilst the ‘quiet’ or ‘secretive’ spaces in London seem marketed as so, therefore developing their own kind of pretence, in Manchester, these spaces find you. It is this sense of belonging which seems central to the results of the ‘Global Liveability Ranking 2015’ – which showed Manchester in the top 50 of ‘most liveable’ cities, and the only one in the UK to be so high up.  Whilst Manchester was at 46th in the world, London trailed at 53rd.

'The city is in your face'

Manchester offers ‘home’ to a number of initiatives too, so it not only offers a place to rest heads, but is a place that gets them thinking too. For example, is  just one case of a social enterprise and website which is making progress from a strong Manchester base. An online resource which is there to take the anonymous stories and worries of others, it communicates again this theme of ‘living ‘and therefore, hope. This is a place which celebrates life in its many shades all in one place – rather than a segregated city of zones and professionals. Magazines  and publications including Nous Magazine, I Love Manchester and The Skinny  all work here to capture a consciousness composed of various people, shapes and sizes – yet all joined by one thing  - Manchester.

The thing about Manchester is that you feel, you are living it, whether you actually ‘live’ there or not. With venues such as Home, ideal for culture and cinema, which opened in 2015, and also the performance venue Contact, on Oxford Road – even the place names speak of comfort and closeness. This is seldom felt in London, especially not in the central areas. There venues are ‘sites’ and ‘spectacles’, but in Manchester the city is in your face. And that’s where it should be – not in the mind’s eye or imagination.

Manchester is close, personal and hopeful. And isn’t that refreshing?