Archive | December 2011

Gateway to Pleasure

For people in Glasgow, it’s a long-standing tradition to head across the Clyde from Gourock, landing at the Cowal Peninsula’s popular seaside resort and self-styled “centre for pleasure”, Dunoon. Nowadays (in contrast with previous generations of tourists) you are more likely to make the journey by car ferry than by paddle steamer; although the latter is – believe it or not – still something of an option thanks to the celebrated PS Waverley. Anyway, for someone more used to sleek international airports, there’s a sense of old-fashioned fun in making the twenty-minute trip from McInroy’s Point to Hunters Quay. December is probably the “wrong” time of year in terms of desirability: which means that the other visitors you encounter across the water seem to form a strangely exclusive little club. Luckily, it’s one which you’re welcome to join at the nearest Inn after a cold day’s exploring. 🙂

The truth is, even if you love fish, chips, and new woolly cardigans, there isn’t really much to capture your imagination in Dunoon. Its heyday as a resort complex, which began in the Victorian era, was pretty much over by 1970. It remains a nice little place for lunch, some cold, fresh sea air and…crucially…for planning your exploration of the wider area: aka Scotland’s “tourist honeypot“. Or part of it, anyway. The Northern half of the Cowal Peninsula includes breathtaking forests, lochs and hills; many of which are now contained within Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. Formed in 2002, the park’s creation has, naturally enough, not been without political and administrative controversies. This is Scotland after all. But focus (like we did) on the Red Squirrels; the ferns; the ruined castles; and the long, proud line of Giant Redwood Trees at Benmore Botanic Gardens; parliamentary squabbles won’t cross your mind for a second.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Removed from those, and from heavy Christmas commercialism, this time of year at Cowal can be measured by the amount of snow resting on Beinn Mhòr (small by Scottish standards at 741m, but still the highest in its area); or by the colours in the woods, which you can walk through easily to look down upon boats, buoys, birds, and the watersports fans scattered around the Lochs. Somehow or other, it seems that both the Romantic Poets and the Scottish Tourist Board have captured something important about the place when they try to convey it to others.

Of course, nowhere this beautiful avoids the glare and the sparkle of the media for long. In some cases (Dunoon is a case in point) those very lights have helped define and sustain the place for generations. Argyll and Bute are popular destinations for television, film, and advertising location scouts worldwide. It’s almost a government strategy to make it so. As well as the more predictable revenue to be made from wood-pulping, tourism, and deer-stalking, filming and photography are important sources of income for this area. Similarly, nowhere is exempt from rising oil prices or from the economic downturn. Hence, the operators of the Waverley paddle steamer (mentioned above) are hoping its role in the new Sherlock Holmes movie – spot it in the trailer here – will help draw attention to its uncertain future. Hopefully they’ll raise the funds to keep bringing people over the water after 2012…

The Festive Spirit

The great thing about this time of year is that you can request endless favourite tunes from the DJ and order endless favourite cocktails up at the bar without feeling in the least bit guilty about not doing any work. Merry Christmas everyone! And thanks for the drinks…

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

See you in all in 2012! 🙂

Winter Trees

Winter Trees

by William Carlos Williams

All the complicated details
of the attiring and
the disattiring are completed!
A liquid moon
moves gently among
the long branches.
Thus having prepared their buds
against a sure winter
the wise trees
stand sleeping in the cold.

Up on the hill, beyond my flat, a little park called “Angel Meadow” looks down over assorted red brick buildings: private accommodation; railway bridges; a former institution for the poor called “Charter St. Ragged School”. The park seems quietly proud of its wrought iron and its rolling green grass. Maybe the “Angel” was a prediction, foreshadowing the over-crowded graveyard that was located here. This area used to be a large Irish district and a notoriously bad Victorian slum full of cholera and other deprivations. Friedrich Engels (aptly named) once called it “hell upon earth” – and an “indignation of the industrial epoch”. Very reassuring! Happily, times have changed since then, with heavy regeneration. Industrial forces have found ways to combine with social, civic, and humane ones.

Charter St. Ragged School, in the distance.

Trees prepare for the Winter

Bare winter trees fill the park and look beautiful through misty rain.

Girl Trying to Read

The scents of Christmas are hard to resist.

I wish I could describe to you the scents that permeate St. Anne’s Square right now. Going shopping for the last of my Christmas gifts, I walked through its busy festive market, the rain drizzling and natural light giving way to a constellation of LEDs. There, you are surrounded by fragrant, insistent aromas of vanilla, waffles, chocolate, cinnamon, coffee…as heavenly as any of the expensive perfumes I had tested out at Boots just half an hour before. Now, I say this as someone who loves a good perfume – but I do probably love food more!

Anyway, the reason I headed down that way today was to go and visit the café at Waterstone’s Bookshop. My plan was to retreat into that cosy little hideaway among 3 floors of books; to forget all about hunting for the right presents and order a delicious espresso. I had a book along in my bag, ready to draw me in to its company with an engagingly written and plainly laid out analysis of the future of narrative in cyberspace. Sadly, it seemed like everyone else had the same idea about where to go. I was just too late to get a seat. 😦 The sign outside may say that 2nd View is the city’s “best kept secret”. Well, if that was ever the case, it’s certainly not anymore. Too bad because their soup is gorgeous and they serve it with really generous chunks of fresh-baked bread. Sigh. But hey, at least I ended up buying yet another book to threaten the bookcase with! Girl Reading by Katie Ward. Ironic, don’tcha think?

Not exactly accurate...

On that theme: I am not sure if Katie Ward explores the relationship of her female portrait-sitters to the books themselves, as well as to the artists who paint them, but I can’t help thinking about how books – physical, smellable, wonderful books – have been the one constant source of fascination, discovery, challenge, comfort, escape, and countless other nouns/emotions/properties, ever since I was in my pram and couldn’t even read them. I must have had some inkling of that, because (ask my Mum) I clutched them tightly anyway. Being taught how to read and soon after how to interpret is equivalent to being armed with magic. The fact that so many people in Manchester chose to go to the bookshop today to relax is really something special. Even with ebooks and computer games and new forms of narrative gaining popularity and signalling (perhaps) a natural progression, some people will always love leafing through the “old-fashioned” paper kind. I hope so anyway, since at least a few books are among those Christmas presents…

Fun and Games

Larkin’ About“, a special event running at Contact Manchester last night, really made me want to find out more about “Pervasive and Social Games”, a fascinating area all about participation and interactivity that isn’t natural territory for me. I don’t think the friends who I was there with will mind too much if I tell you we were all slightly shy for the first wee while, given that running around (or Larkin’ About) inside a building full of strangers isn’t necessarily the easiest thing for a rainy Saturday night. Once you get into the spirit of feeling pretty much like a big kid on an adventure playground, it’s a really great way for you – and your inner puzzle solver – to break from taking things too seriously. There’s also the advantage that not actually being a kid, you can get a few drinks up at the bar to help you on your way. 😉

For “Mixtape”, we had to hunt around the building for 9 hidden cassette tapes, each one of which contained a different tune with an original monologue – on various aspects of being in and out of love – spoken over the top. We then had to decide what our own Track 10 would be and why. This was great; not just because the monologues (by Vee Uye, one of the “Larkin Agents”) were impressive, but also because pressing chunky big buttons and (im)patiently waiting for your tape to rewind while hoping you’ve not confused it about SidesA&B takes you back nostalgically to far less convenient technological days. Aah. As the game’s designer more eloquently writes:

Mixtape is a retro-audio treasure hunt with a soundtrack that takes you around the Contact building and into the puzzle of our hearts. Players navigate the space with analogue personal stereos and augment the narrative with their own memories. For 3 players at a time.

I don’t want to imply that “Larkin’ About” was entirely about silliness and feeling retro though! There were plenty of physically active games with intriguing names and educational as well as dramatic aspects, like “Histronauts” (designed by UniverCity Culture at Manchester University), and “Spy School”. These made use of ultra-modern technology – smart phones, geo-tags, and QR codes for instance – but maybe those are the ones I’ll gear myself up for next time!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

If you’re wondering what’s going on in some of my pictures, Mortal Kombat was repurposed and projected onto a huge screen to become “Moral Kombat”. In this game, people who had committed such cardinal sins as “getting on the bus without paying” and “forgetting my mum’s birthday” could seek forgiveness by pitching a stand-in ninja warrior against the judgemental audience – who were also represented by another would-be assassin. Cue a fight to the entirely simulated and amusingly coded death.

All of Larkin’ About’s work is based on the talents of Manchester theatre practitioners, digital artists,  live artists and, naturally, the game players who all this is for. It’ll be interesting to discover what they have on offer in future.

Arts and Humanities Incorporated?

Organised by “artsmethods@manchester” – a newly formed group for academics and practitioners in the Arts and Humanities – tonight’s event for this emerging network took place in the modest but historic “Engine House” of Chorlton Mill which is now the home of the International Anthony Burgess Foundation.

Café Arts

(Why) do the Arts matter to society?

This was the provocative question posed by the “Arts Ambassadors” who set up artsmethods. Their intention is to bring together an informal cross-institution and (potentially) cross-sector community of academics and others interested in the future and value of A&H research and practise. Value means the kind made tangible both inside and – perhaps more importantly – outside the walls of Manchester’s Universities. Staff and researchers at the event came from Manchester Metropolitan University, the Royal Northern College of Music, the University of Manchester, and Salford University. At least one part-time documentary maker was in attendance, as well as the manager of a local radio station optimistic that she would find more exciting programming ideas here than the ubiquitous “antiques and cookery shows”.

Arts & Humanities have always had “impact”.

After everyone introduced themselves, the discussion centred mostly on modes of public “engagement”, communication, and what might be called “community outreach”. One woman pointed out that this really shouldn’t be construed as a one-way process. At the same time as thinking about how academia and scholarship “impact upon” the public, we should listen to what the public have to say to us: establishing a dialogue or a conversation with them and allowing for a flow of ideas which isn’t in thrall to outmoded boundaries and hierarchies. In other words: equality of access and participation.

It’s strange – perplexing even – that we should have to worry about what exactly Arts, Histories, Languages, Linguistics, Humanities, and Cultural Studies bring to society that is valuable enough to justify their continued funding. Would even the most “rational” minded and stereotypical “hard” Scientist ask if the Arts have relevance? My best guess is a resounding no! In many ways these disciplinary lines are increasingly showing themselves to be somewhat artificial. An idea which Professor Sharon Ruston, who I met at the event, could tell us something about in relation to literature and medicine. The trouble is, of course, that many people in a position to influence government policy don’t want to acknowledge this right now. Arts are considered an easy target – they can be sidelined then revived in happier times. A cactus, in the desert, that will always flower, proudly. Maybe this tells us about a (rightly) perceived resistance and durability – and one of the true strengths of the Arts and Humanities within society and culture? A positive property becomes, sadly, the justification for deprivation.

Visual anthropologist and filmmaker Dr Amanda Ravetz pointed out that it can be hard to articulate exactly how A&H makes a contribution to the greater good when so much of these subjects’ understandings are based on legacy, intuition, and a tacit (but no less real) knowledge, rather than on simple demonstrable facts. Regardless of whatever new goals, targets, and systems of assessment are put in place, A&H has always and will always make an “impact” on and enrich society. But how do we measure that? Can we? Is the right response to these pressures to demonstrate the value of the academic an identification of and reliance on memorable “personalities” popular with mainstream broadcast and print media? Is there a risk that complex arguments and theories not suitable for a general audience will become “invisible” – or will be repackaged, simplified, and categorised under some basic label like “grand ideas”? A&H may need to reach a “wider audience” but it shouldn’t have to compromise its values or its methods. Isn’t knowledge any longer an end in itself?

Helen and Clare at the Arts Café

Across the board there is a tension between the uninspired presentation of “dry” facts in opposition to the glamour, subliminality, and inter-textuality of other (perhaps digital) forms of communication. There were some very interesting (though not uncontroversial) presentations about how to address that. As well as continuing to explore how learning, technology, entertainment, and play can combine, is there a way to take A&H research out onto the streets? To locate it in engaging ways within public spaces? Maintaining visibility is easier (in theory) for those whose subjects have a place on the floors, walls and screens of the cultural heritage sector. What about philosophers, or linguists? Is there some way they can position their work within the wider environment to say “Look! This is why we’re relevant! Come and take part” ? Somebody pointed out that a certain amount of opportunism might be involved in doing that – as well as clever and timely strategising – but it could also encourage A&H scholars to explore innovative and engaging approaches.

Art, creativity, metaphor, imagination and expression – these will survive regardless of conditions of government. The reason for Café Arts posing its questions right now may in part be a backdrop of worry, frustration and fear; still, people with a passion for ideas and the exploration of truth are generally galvanised by a challenge. Something I was reminded of on my way to the IABF “Water Closet” – before which sits a modest little display case housing a collection of Anthony Burgess’s old typewriters.