Sunday, 21 June 2015

The Animals

My third writing workshop at the Banbridge Box turned into a brainstorm. We began by looking for a topic to work on. The best idea sprouted from recent events in Tiblisi where floods had destroyed part of the zoo. Many animals had escaped and run wild through the city. The notion that captured the imagination of the group was - what would happen if wild animals came to Banbridge?

We started off by reminiscing about zoos. I recalled going to Bristol Zoo as a child. I felt the animals were unhappy in their pens, they appeared so sad and subdued. Many did not seem to welcome visitors and some were openly aggressive towards them. I vividly recalled the chimpanzees that used to pee out through the bars of their cage and applaud when they happened to catch a visitor with a jet of urine. There were also the camels that spat lumps of white phlegm a remarkable distance beyond their cage towards the unwary. Of course, my brothers and I enjoyed these animals best of all.

Many of the workshop group had similar reminiscences, which led us to the next theme. What would the animals do in Banbridge and why? This quickly developed into a revenge story. The animals would be retaliating for the mistreatment and exploitation that they and their kind had suffered at human hands. They would be targeting different shops and businesses to wreak their revenge: buffalo trashing the butchers, rhinos destroying the Chinese Medical Centre, etc. This theme gave us a lot of pleasure and plenty of inventive links with local shops were made.

Then we went on to what the animals would do after they had taken over the town. Some said they would go to the cinema and we had fun selecting the films they might have chosen to see: Jurassic Park, King Kong, etc. Others thought they would seek to destroy all symbols of progress (e.g. cars, mobiles, etc) and try to restore the world to a sort of pre-lapsarian harmony. Others suggested they would go on their holidays to the seaside, eating ice-cream and getting spa treatments in the finest hotels.

This very productive journey lasted some forty five minutes and generated a lot of ideas. After this the brainstorm seemed to run out of energy. When the workshop drew to a close, I was left with pages of notes and the task of coming up with a poem. The fact that there were so many ideas made this a real challenge. I ended up writing a piece around the revenge story, deciding to park the other ideas for the time being.



They swarmed across the Bann
uphill and through the Cut
emperor penguins
perched on hippos backs
stately giraffes
pythons round their necks
leopards and tigers roaring
black vultures overhead
at the Old Town Hall
four elephants trumpeted
and a rhino jabbed his horn
into the clinic of Dr Shi
crocodiles invaded Donaghys
snapping at killer heels
buffalo demolished Quails
trampling ribs into the street
meanwhile at the Downshire
grizzlies made barmen dance
as monkeys vied for coconuts
hurling rocks at drinkers heads
another fanfare sounded
and the commotion died
folk stumbled out howling
are the creatures still around?


Monday, 15 June 2015

My workshop with the under-fives

I arrived at the Banbridge Box to do a writing workshop. The place was full of women and small children. There was an art exhibition on called ‘A Mother’s Earth’. The women were the artists and they had their children with them. I’ve come to do a writing workshop, I explained. Why don’t you do it with the children, suggested one of the women. I was a little hesitant; I’d never done a workshop with small children before. But then I thought, go on, why not.

There were five children aged between three and four. We all sat down on the floor. They watched me carefully. I brought out a linen bag in which I had placed a variety of small objects. When I did the workshop with adults I asked them to close their eyes, reach inside the bag and feel for an object. In essence it was an imagination exercise that went from holding an unfamiliar object to writing about the ideas that it had stimulated. I had no real notion of how it was going to work with the children. I knew they wouldn’t be writing something, I thought they might be able to tell me a story.

We began. I offered the linen bag to them. They had no hesitation in joining in (adults often had to be cajoled). A young boy closed his eyes and dived his hand in. Have you found something, I asked. He nodded and pulled his hand out, opening his eyes straight away. Moo-cow, he said, looking at the small plastic animal. He began to move it straight away. The cow began jumping all over the floor, leaping onto other toys. He was making growling noises and the cow was boring into a truck head down. What’s the moo-cow doing, I asked. Eating, he said, stopping growling momentarily. I was distracting him with my question. He turned back to the cow and it was off again, jumping around the room. I offered the linen bag to a young girl. She closed her eyes and put her hand in, pulling out a seashell that spiralled to a point. She beamed and began to move the shell around her in loops and dives. Then, at the behest of one of the mums, she put the shell to her ear.

Other kids pulled out different objects. They all began a game with the object pretty much straight away. They didn’t really want to verbalise. My questions about what was going on were an intrusion into the imaginative worlds that they were engaged in. The stories that they were making were being acted out.

After a while they left my objects and moved on to other toys and playthings that were in the room. In a box in the corner were wigs and hats, old stage props left by the theatre company. So the next game was dressing up, both kids and adults. I wore a top hat and blew up balloons. The kids pranced around in costume with them. When this game was waning, one of the mums suggested I read a poem. We all sat down on the floor and I read one of my poems. They listened rapt to the sounds right through to the end. Another, said one of the mums. I read again, but their attention began to wane. We finished up with cake and drinks, with several children running around shrieking.

It was a great workshop. The kids had made imaginative stories with their play. And I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I think they did too. I then sat at the table in the centre of the room and sketched out a poem. Later, one of the mums matched it with a photo she had taken.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Banbridge Box

I’ve got a new position. I’m working part-time with Big Telly Theatre on the creative shop project in Banbridge. We are based in an empty shop on the main street, just along from the Old Town Hall. Our aim is to engage with local people to make a creative space where people can experience the arts in innovative ways. This pop-up creative hub was launched on Tuesday and will be open until early July. It’s called the Banbridge Box and I’m the writer in residence.

Big Telly have already delivered this creative project in Ballycastle, Strabane and Portstewart. Alice is the co-ordinator, a dynamic young woman with a mane of auburn hair. So far the Banbridge Box has seen performances of street theatre, workshops and an art exhibition. And much more is on the way.

After the launch by the Mayor of the new Council, Alice and I began a writing project. We went out on the street and into nearby shops to invite people to participate. We explained that we were based in the creative shop and I was going to start by writing a new poem. We were out and about in the town doing some research for that and invited them to contribute.

‘What’s it about,’ they said?

‘Well,’ I replied, ‘Banbridge town, I suppose.’

‘Okay,’ they said, looking a little puzzled.

‘Well,’ I continued, ‘why have you come into town today?’

That was a good question. Most people were happy to engage in conversation about what there were in town to do. Only one of the people we approached refused to speak with us. I was reminded of the first ever research I had done as an undergraduate, asking people in a small town in North Wales what had brought them into the town that day and how far they had travelled.

We were doing a sort of poetic anthropology. I made notes after each of these conversations and in less than an hour had plenty of material. I then sat down and wrote a draft, which I revised over the next couple of days. My first poem from the Banbridge Box is published on the wall of the creative shop. Next I’ll be doing a workshop to encourage people to make their own new pieces of writing.

Bann Box One

I’m in a terrible hurry
lego for my brother
he passed an exam
just for the craic
couple of driving lessons
a big steak dinner
smoking in the car
window wound down
putting money toward
the new maisonette
her engagement present
fat balls and wild bird seed
I’ve a real sweet tooth.

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Hobs and Bats

I’ve known my mate Phil since we were eleven. We met at secondary school and have been firm friends ever since. He came to visit me this week. The first time he had been over since his wife Jean died of cancer two years ago. Talking on the phone regularly is no substitute for face-to-face. We had a great time catching up and packed a lot in to four days.

Phil is very handy. He and Jean often bought old, rundown houses and did them up whilst still living there. Then, just as the house was looking fine, they would sell it and invest in another rundown one. Plenty of times I went to visit and they were living in a couple of rooms with the rest of the house a bit like a builder’s.

Phil was the right fella to ask how to repair a kitchen hob; one of the rings on mine had just broken. ‘Don’t bother,’ he said, ‘get a new one, they’re easy to replace’. We went to B & Q and found that hob and single oven sets were being sold off (double ovens are now fashionable). So I bought a set, it was only £50 more than a hob on its own. Back at the house we set to work. I was the apprentice who handed Phil the tools and did the easier tasks. I’m very glad he was there as I would never have taken on such a DIY job on my own, especially as it involved electrical wiring. The job turned out to be mostly straightforward, but there were a few tricky bits that would have flummoxed me. Half a day later the new hob and oven were installed and working.

Phil is a park ranger in the New Forest and very knowledgeable about plants and animals. We went on a couple of good walks at Murlough and Castlewellan, then a cycle along the Newry Canal. At Murlough we saw a peregrine and a cuckoo - the first either of us had seen for many years. Like swallows scything after insects, the call of a cuckoo is a harbinger of summer, but you rarely see them.

In the evenings we went on a couple of bat hunts. T had bought me a bat receiver. You turn the dial to different frequencies and can hear the sonar that bats emit to navigate by. Different bats emit at different frequencies and you can go a good way to identifying the bat by the frequencies that they use. The sounds are very eerie, a series of clicks and longer sonic pulses. You hear the bats flying around nearby but it’s often hard to see them. There are sixteen different bats in the UK and they are all very small, none bigger than the palm of your hand. Bats fly very fast and with great agility, rather like nocturnal swallows, as they pursue insects on the wing. If you are lucky you will see them briefly silhouetted against the moonlit sky.

Going out at dusk, under a crescent moon and a gleaming sky, we saw small pipistrelle bats darting around the old graveyard near to my house. We also spotted a long-eared owl in a tree, its pointed ears swivelling from side to side as it listened for its prey. Down at Hillsborough Lake we saw Leisler’s bats flashing across the shadowy surface of the water. These bats are much larger than pipistrelles, they have distinctive hairy arms and emit very eerie long pulses of sound.

The bat receiver was an excellent present. I’ve loved going on the bat hunts; you are entering into a strange and exciting nocturnal world that is normally hidden. I’m becoming the Bat-man of Ardbrin.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Blame it on El Nino

Headache, sore throat, chest pain and aching limbs; no need for a specialist diagnosis, I was down with spring ‘flu. On Tuesday I began to feel ill. I’d probably caught the bug from T who started hers last weekend and has been off work all week with it. I rued my luck, we were booked to be away in Galway for the weekend; now paracetamol and throat pastilles were my companions.

I sat in an armchair in several extra layers of clothes with a blanket tucked around me. I drank peppermint tea, watched daytime TV and read the newspaper. One article described some new medical research that believed our immune systems to be seasonal: boosted in the winter and reduced in the summer. This seasonal variation was reckoned to be evolutionary from a time when surviving the winter was touch and go for our species. The downside for us now was that more inflammatory markers in our bodies when the immune system was cranked up could lead to other problems such as heart attacks, strokes and depression.

I thought back to the last time I had a ‘flu bug. It was October last year. And wasn’t this a normal pattern? Didn’t I always catch a virus around the start of the academic year? I’d put this down to coming into contact with students and all the new bugs they brought with them from their travels. So, after the fine early spring weather, had my immune system begun to wind itself down and I’d been caught out by the return of cold and damp conditions?

‘Isn’t the weather terrible,’ said a friend, ‘one minute you’re roasting, and the next the wind is cutting through you. I don’t know whether it’s summer or winter.’ In another part of the same paper, I read that a significant El Nino was under way this year. This major reversal of warm and cold currents in the Pacific hadn’t happened for the past five years. The article went on to explain that in years when El Nino had taken took place there was increased instability in weather around the world, including severe floods and droughts.

After a few good summers, we look to be in for a very mixed one. We should expect our immune systems to be confused. As will be deck-chair and ice cream sellers. Nothing for it, I thought, but to sit tight, keep reading and wait for better weather. I pulled the blanket closer, supped my tea and took another paracetamol.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

What's Yours Called?

I’ve just bought a new car. As I picked it up at the garage, an old Renault advert came into my mind. Not Thierry Henry and his ‘va-va-voom’, but two decades earlier when Renault had a campaign that focused on the ways that buyers personalised their cars: ‘what’s yours called?’ was the slogan. To a soundtrack of classic songs, people appeared on screen with their Renault 5 to reveal the often quirky names that they had given to their cars. Not only was this a novel attempt to make mass produced vehicles appear more customised, but it was also tapping into the notion of a community of people who were drawn together by their association with a particular brand.

Cars, like clothing and smartphones, are worn in public and provide social and cultural markers. Whether Apple, BMW or Chanel, it is unsurprising that people should be drawn to others who value the brands that they themselves choose. The Bugatti Owners Club was founded in 1929 and still holds regular meets, whilst in NI you often see dozens of ancient Massey Fergusons tootling along in file on rural roads.

Henry Ford, the pioneer of mass production, had little interest in consumer behaviour: ‘any colour you like, as long as it’s black.’ Nowadays we take it for granted that people are choosing to purchase pieces of identity and meaning through the products that they consume. Our screens are full of knowing ads that display and celebrate particular identities, with the brand itself often appearing at the end of a series of lifestyle images as an almost ironic statement. Ads for mobile devices are perhaps the most iconic of this type and people have queued up for days to be the first to buy a new Apple Iphone upon its release.

For the past decade I’ve had an old Ford Focus, manufactured in 2003. I bought it in 2005 and have driven it most days since. The car has been reliable and has done me very well for over 100,000 miles. But last week I was told by my local garage that it had just about reached the end of its days. Reluctantly, I was forced to look for another. Since then I’ve been reading reviews of cars and trying them out at different dealers. I found this a strangely dispiriting exercise. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I’ve ended up buying a new Focus, the 2012 model, a turbo-diesel this time.

I’ve no desire to join a Ford car club. And I can’t stand Top Gear in general and Jeremy Clarkson in particular. I think I plumped for a newer example of the same model because it was a car that was tried and trusted. I was also offered a good deal in part-exchange on my loyal old motor. The controls and switches are in the same places, there are just more of them, so it makes the changeover to the new car much easier. I suppose I could have chosen a Bugatti or a Massey Ferguson. But I ended up with the Focus; I’m calling him Erik, after the famous Viking explorer.

Friday, 24 April 2015


The blackbird leaps from the sill and pecks and scratches at the window pane, wings beating hard, until it falls back to the ledge exhausted. The bird gathers its breath for few moments, sucking air through its yellow beak, then leaps again attacking the window pane with all its might. I approach the window from inside and it flies off into a bush at the rear of my house. I know it will be back.

These attacks on the window pane began yesterday at dawn, and continued throughout the day. At first I was curious, then amused and finally very exasperated. ‘Stop, you stupid bird,’ I roared, but I might as well have been telling the waves to cease and desist. My irritation on the other side of the pane only served to scare it away temporarily. And from dawn today the pugilistic bird has returned.

I imagine the blackbird has a mate and a nest in the bush and is convinced its own reflection is a rival that must be humbled. Earlier this week, I read that visitors to a country house in Devon had complained that their car doors had been badly scratched. CCTV revealed the culprits: the peacocks that graced the gardens with their long, flowing tails were attacking their own reflections in the paintwork. It is of course the mating season for birds and many other animals.

I recall standing in Kings Square, Gloucester on Saturday afternoons with hordes of other teenagers to witness ritual fights between lads. These always started with jostling, then shouting, and in a flurry of fists and feet two lads would fly at each other. The girls on the steps of Debenhams howled to these jousting beaus in the square below: waving, shrieking and swearing their encouragement.

The fights were always over quickly; one rival choosing to trot away from the arena, wiping a trickle of blood from his nose or lip. The victor would raise his arms and receive accolades from the girls and his pals spectating from the steps. The teenagers would then reassemble, sitting back down on the steps of Debenhams to banter, jostle and laugh with each other again. Shortly after, the vanquished would return somewhat sheepishly to the edge of the throng.

I was fifteen, in Levis, Ben Sherman shirt and an army surplus parka, just like all the others. There was a pecking order; the lads on the steps were older or bolder. I watched the display from the sidelines, desperately wanting to join the throng on the steps but also afraid of doing so. I was a Saturday boy at Woolworths and saving up for a scooter. Next year, I told myself, I’ll join in.