Art for people, people for art

Farewell messages at the I Love West Leeds Arts Festival
Farewell messages at the I Love West Leeds Arts Festival

“What yer doing?” Hoodie Boy asked as he swaggered into the shop-cum-artists’ workshop in Armley town centre. He and his mate, who had been enjoying a ciggy outside had been intrigued by the happy chatter of other youngsters having fun. I think they thought there might be something more exciting on offer than making Christmas cards and gifts. Possibly beer and cigarettes, or at least some X-Box-related activity.

I was there in the I Love West Leeds Arts Festival‘s shop, taking photos and being generally enthusiastic about all the creativity bouncing around a run-down town which has had a reputation for being anything other than arty. The next time I looked, Hoodie Boy and his mate had pulled up chairs, taken the top of the glitter and were making their own cards, their hard faces cracked into smiles. I was almost moved to tears.

This part of West Leeds is well-loved, though not well-heeled, there’s not much money around, business is not booming and jobs are hard to come by. Educational attainment is not stellar and with high rates of smoking and low rates of exercise and fruit and vegetable consumption, there are health issues. So the annual arts festival and assorted other creative activities come as light relief, inspiration and an opportunity to celebrate the heritage of a proud part of the city. Except that there’s not going to be any more arts festival. There’s no more funding.

Now I don’t want to get political, actually I do, like hell I do. Like bloody hell I do. Let’s say Hoodie Boy’s path was taking him to a bad place, he skipped school, smoked a few fags, maybe something a bit stronger, no job prospects, etc etc etc. Now let’s say one day he walked into a converted shop, made a few Christmas cards, found he could be creative, thought it might help to go back to school and show that nice but rather wacky art teacher the cards and a few other ideas, before he knows it, he’s the next Damien Hirst, that other contemporary Leeds artist. An exaggeration of  course, but one of the reasons for funding such a festival in an area of need is to make chances for those who find them hard to come by. The payback is huge, the possibilities are enormous, for the sake of a few thousand pounds a year, it makes economic sense in the long term to encourage Hoodie Boy and his mates, prevention is better than cure. Art is creative, it’s liberating, it’s fun, it makes you feel good about yourself and if you feel good about yourself, you’re more likely to look after yourself and care about what you do. Isn’t that worth ratepayers’ money?

In its decade of life, the I Love West Leeds Arts Festival has brought joy, fun, laughter, entertainment and community spirit to so many people. From washing-line sculptures across the streets to Handel’s Water Music in the swimming baths, it’s been a blast. I also believe it’s changed people’s lives for the better and that includes mine. But that’s another story.

So Saturday was the farewell to the Festival, what will Hoodie Boy do now?

Sticky willy, dandelion and burdock and a rubber duck

Nice weather for ducks

For a moment, just a brief moment, the rains stopped, the floods receded and the sun remembered where it was in the sky, dissolving the clouds, bringing people out from behind closed doors who blinked in the light of The Great Dry Outside.

The Finns have 40 words for snow, we must have as many for rain and this year I think we’ve come up with a few more, none of them printable here. Event after event has been cancelled because pitches have been waterlogged or transformed into mud lakes by non-stop rain. Umbrella sales have hit an all-time high and there’s talk of a welly shortage and rationing us to one pair between two.

But the respite allowed the I Love West Leeds Arts Festival’s own watery event to go ahead. All Hands on Deck, promised a day of daftness, with bath toy boat races and general silliness, alongside some rather good singing from local ladies under the mirror ball in a narrow boat and an informative walk along the canal side. This was led by the enthusiastic and erudite Jonathan Hart-Woods of the Canal and River Trust (the new name for British Waterways) who pointed out sticky willy, (goosegrass or galium aparine) sticky buds (burdock or arctium pubens) and two damsel flies who were sticking together, and in front of the children too.

Two narrowboats from the Safe Anchor Trust had chugged along from Mirfield, offering landlubbers a trip along the canal, there were plenty of takers.

No July afternoon would be complete without a downpour and the heavens opened just as the toy boat race was about to start. But being next to the canal, surrounded by folk having fun, we couldn’t really grumble, what’s a bit of rain with all that water around anyway, eh?

Live recording is no trouble at t’mill

Barbara Taylor Bradford and Alan Bennett sat down on a bench overlooking their childhood town of Armley, sharing memories of their old school and thanking their lucky stars that their writing talents had done them very nicely, thank you.

They didn’t really. There’s no evidence that they’ve ever met up or shared a bench in Armley or anywhere else, except maybe when they were both in the same class at Christ Church C of E School. But if they had, their conversation could have gone something like the play performed yesterday in an old mill just down the road.

Barbara and Alan was one of six 15-minute radio plays recorded live at Sunny Bank Mills, Farsley in a return visit from the I Love West Leeds Arts Festival. Festival Director Jane Earnshaw had commissioned Objects and Curious Tales, a series of images and and performances about treasured objects belonging to local people, setting it in an old part of the mill. Wow, said Jane, how atmospheric. Wouldn’t it be great to come back here and record radio plays? Yes, we all agreed it would. And so it turned out to be.

Barbara and Alan was written by Boff Whalley, lead guitarist with the band Chumbawumba who was also there as part of the house band for the other five plays.

In front of a sold out – er – house, or rather mill floor surrounded by decades of dust and debris, punctuated with creaky floors and wobbly chairs, the Slung Low theatre company performed the specially-commissioned plays, all with the West Leeds connection.

For a mere £5 a head we were treated to an afternoon of quality writing, excellent acting, fascinating sound effects and great cake. Noel, who isn’t one to emote, in fact his email signature is ‘I don’t emote’, felt the need to tell the caterers that the carrot cake was the best he had ever tasted. Praise indeed, I suggested to them they had a plaque made, the Noel Mark of Approval.

The plays, once edited, will be transferred to CD and given to local communities and added to the I Love West Leeds website for everyone to enjoy, free.

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Handel’s Splashy Music

The orchestra plays an encore

Staging a concert doesn’t usually involve splash guards to protect the orchestra from boisterous swimmers, or a retractable bridge to maroon players, but the I Love West Leeds Arts Festival doesn’t stage usual concerts.

A fitting finale to 24 days of fun, and activities to bring art to the men, women, children and dogs of West Leeds, Handel’s Water Music was performed at Bramley Baths, or rather in the baths.

The West Yorkshire Symphony Orchestra, founded in 2003 with the aim of bringing classical music to wider communities by playing in wacky places, tuned up, then tuned up again as the humidity played havoc with strings and reeds. The orchestra was already seated on the staging in the middle of the pool when the audience and swimmers entered, leaving us all to ask – how did they get there and why weren’t they wet? It was a mystery.

The swimmers splashed as the orchestra played a selection from Handel and Vivaldi. The audience watched from the balcony, or just wandered round eating cake. This was not your usual concert. The acoustics in the 100-year-old building were fabulous, the Water Music never sounded so good, or appropriate.

My tattoo.

Short stories in an old mill

Buttons galore

A sweet tin, a tarnished medal, a video tape, a faded old photograph, an old firestone and buttons galore. Sounds like junk, maybe, but to their owners, they are little treasures, part of the story of their lives.

Musical memory

These everyday objects and their stories were collected by artists Jane Morland and Phil Moody for the I Love West Leeds Arts Festival’s Objects and Curious Tales installation in a disused part of Sunny Bank Mill, Farsley.

There were stories within stories as Jane and Phil spoke to local people, visited local schools and interviewed the mill owners, William and John Gaunt, who told how the former 19th century textile mill went from boom to bust to boom to bust to rebirth as a 21st century business centre.

The voices were recorded and objects or their photographs placed in an upstairs room at the mill, displayed side by side with artifacts from the mill itself, including the old boardroom table, which had witnessed many dramas over the years.

Hang on, lads. I've got a great idea!

The objects and their stories made a script for Jane and Phil to perform, watched by many of the local people who had told their tales including the Gaunts who heard their own words tell the story of the mill and its former glory.

It was a very moving experience, hearing ordinary and extraordinary snippets from people’s lives. The setting of the mill made it somehow all the more touching, maybe it was the old stone walls maybe it was the creaky old wooden floor, or the flaking paint on the window frames, of the light crisscrossing the room. Whatever it was, everyone felt it and went away feeling somehow richer and wondering what story we would tell and which object we would bring.

 

Spotty button

It’s us heritage, in’t it, luv?

Arty washing across Claremont Place, Armley

Monday was always wash day, Grandma wheeled the Hoover non-automatic out from the scullery, filled it from the hot tap with the help of a rubber hose and pressed the ‘on’ switch. After a few minutes of globberdy flobberdy splisherty splasherty noises and a poke with a blunt stick, the washing, that is, not me, not unless I was being really naughty that day, it was pushed through the mangle and carried out to the washing line, zig-zagged across the street. There the sheets and my grandad’s long johns would billow like sails in the wind, slapping people in the face as they walked past. Ah, them were t’days.

I used to love running down the lines and bashing the washing with my tennis racket, I got into a bit of trouble for that, but it was worth it. The wet clothes made a great thwacking noise as I hit them, unlike the cracking sound as the wet dishcloth hit me on the back of my legs – I think my grandma could have flicked dishcloths for her country, she had a mean aim and always got me.

The Hoover and mangle may have gone, so too has grandma, bless her, but there are still places where the washing is pegged out in zig zag lines across the streets. And in one of our Yorkshire towns this week, they’ve made an art form of it.

The wonderful I Love West Leeds Arts Festival has commissioned artists to produce work to be pegged out on lines in Armley. Fancy clothes, decorated pants, banners, a couple of birds and a sparkly fish flap in the breeze next to residents’ real washing.

I turned up with my camera and chatted to a few folk who were sitting on the doorsteps steps of their back-to-back houses, passing the time of day. We shared stories of what it was like to live in a house with one door, attached to three neighbours and no garden. It was fun, neighbours were friends and no-one was ever lonely. My experience, many many years ago included an outside toilet, shared with one neighbour. Yes, they said, their houses were like that but had thankfully been modernised, the toilet blocks were now bin stores.

They were thrilled with the arty washing, and were slightly disappointed that more people hadn’t turned up to see them. One said she’d ask at the local shops and schools if they wanted to send folk round.

“These are great,”  one of them said to me. “We’re right proud they came to our street. I mean, it’s us heritage, in’t it, luv?” Yes it is, it’s our heritage.

The washing will be up until Friday 15 July at Claremont Place and Cedar Road.

Pants! Cedar Road, Armley