Archive for the ‘the story’ Tag

The Story 2014

#TheStory2014

#TheStory2014

This year’s The Story annual one day conference/gathering, brainchild of my former Channel 4 colleague Matt Locke, launched during his time at C4, was the fifth. I’ve been to all but one, last year’s when I ended up being abroad on the day and passing on my ticket to a colleague, producer Jorg Tittel. The bitter-sweet hand-over took place at the Trafalgar Studios on Whitehall where Jorg and his wife’s (Alex Helfrecht) excellent production of The Sun Also Rises was playing. I can remember that because it is a conference I actually care about and missing it is bothersome.

Stella Duffy and helpers

Stella Duffy and helpers

It was interesting coming into this year’s model off the back of my story-writing sabbatical. What for me turned out to be the highlight and emotional core of The Story 2014 was a direct result of that sabbatical work. One of the chapters of my book, When Sparks Fly, is centred on Joan Littlewood. I began writing that chapter on the stage of the Theatre Royal Stratford East – it was lunchtime, no-one was about, I had my laptop on me and an hour to spare before the event I was attending resumed – it had to be done. Theatre Royal Stratford East was Joan’s theatre, this year is her centenary and the event was a big gathering to help realise a vision of Joan’s she ultimately couldn’t pull off in her lifetime, the Fun Palace. The baton of her dream has been picked up by Stella Duffy who filled The Story slot just before the midday break. Having heard about her plan back in October to realise the dream in this centenary year by catalysing local events across the nation and beyond which bring Art and Science to regular people in an entertaining, fun way, I thought Stella’s story would add to The Story in this particular year and hooked her up with Matt. She had helped me get going on my Littlewood/Theatre chapter and between that chat and the Theatre Royal Stratford East event my instinct was that she would fit right in to the proud heritage of The Story speakers just so.

As it turned out, her slot was more than I could have dreamed. She used her three decades experience of improvisational theatre to create a spontaneous and focused energy of extraordinary impact. She picked up on the contribution just before hers, Kenyatta Cheese on the history of the animated GIF and its role in digital storytelling, an account which used Disney’s Snow White as the vehicle for its narrative, and started by getting six volunteers out of the audience (rarely have I seen people move so fast to get up on stage and help, including Matt’s twin brother and his old BBC friend Tony Ageh, a subsequent speaker) and used them in place of a white board as a living graph-cum-tableau to illustrate the dynamics of a classic (Dionysian) story structure – the one underlying Snow White and, as Stella livelily demonstrated, the New Testament. You can see this coup de theatre here.

She went on to explain the background of the Fun Palace as conceived by Littlewood and architect Cedric Price. She, perhaps somewhat controversially, pulled up one of Price’s drawings and suggested it had formed an important ‘inspiration’ for Richard Rogers’ Pompidou Centre. And then she explained how we all (and you all) and everyone can get involved. Everything you need to know to make a Fun Palace in your neighbourhood on the weekend of Joan’s 100th birthday you can find here. (And by the way, they need a media sponsor so if you can help please get in touch with Stella or her partner Sarah Jane Rawlings).

What made this perfectly judged performance all the more remarkable is that Stella has been having full-on breast cancer treatment recently and this was her first post-operative outing. She had to high-tail it off the stage to go straight to the hospital to have her dressing changed. A true inspiration capping a brilliant morning of all manner of story-telling.

Meg Pickard, ex-Guardian Head of Digital Engagement, presided, geeing up the already up-for-it crowd. The house charity, Ministry of Stories, set up by Nick Hornby, Ben Payne and Lucy Macnab, was showcased by Ben, demoing in a couple of videos the impact this imaginative literacy and story-telling project is having on the children and supporting adults involved. I walked past their Monster Shop in Hoxton Street just last weekend when out in flaneur mode with Enfant Terrible No. 1 and enjoyed how the display of MoS goodies like Fang Floss, some kind of monster snot, and Bah Humbugs fitted into the Hoxton context.

Bryony Kimmings as Catherine Bennett

Bryony Kimmings as Catherine Bennett (and a monkey)

First up of this year’s featured speakers was the engaging Bryony Kimmings. She explained the genesis of her Catherine Bennett project, a fun music project based on a manufactured popstar, played by Bryony as shaped by her 9 year-old niece, Taylor. Bryony mentioned a Stamford study which centred on asking kids what type of person they wanted to be when they grew up. For years the answer “Kind” came top of the list every year until a certain point in the 90s(?) when Kind dropped to 16th and “Famous” took top spot. Catherine Bennett, pop star and paleontologist, is designed as an antidote to the fame-seeking and twerking inflicted upon children today. The Miley Cyrus debate hit half way through the process of creating CB, emphasising its timeliness, a process which led to the creation of a stage play for kids, one for adults and a touring workshop for schools which we saw video of. I was charmed.

Next up was Jane Pollard and Iain Forsyth who gave us insights into their film ‘20,000 Days on Earth’ featuring Nick Cave. The dynamic duo met at Goldsmiths in 1992 and discovered they hated the same things. Then they discovered they hated the same things as Cave and a music documentary with a difference was born. Made by Film4 and the always interesting Pulse, they set out to make the antidote to rock docs by resetting the expectations of the audience (they covered nineteen thousand, nine hundred and ninety-something days or so just in the title sequence) and embracing the myth of their subject who plays his mythologised self pretty well. Self-mythologising is the subject of Chapter 2 of my book – centred on another UK music industry stalwart, Tony Wilson. Although they slipped into art jargon easily with art-school-bingo words like “practice” and “strategy” punctuating their commentary, Jane and Iain clearly communicated the kind of truth they were after, the emotional truth. A key sequence at the heart of the film features psychoanalyst and writer Darian Leader who was in my year at uni and marked himself out by hanging out with Jacques Derrida in the holidays while I as a lowest-of-the-low runner was driving film gear around London to promo shoots for Simply Red, Duran Duran and the like. He grilled Cave for ten hours until Nick “just couldn’t be bothered to lie any more”. This interrogation brought out Cave’s greatest fear – losing his memory – and memory proved the key to the film as Iain and Jane created a Nick Cave archive in the basement of Brighton Town Hall to help get to a truth beyond the mementoes and facts. As Jane memorably said:

“the truth just doesn’t matter – we should create, imagine and lie – it’s good for us”.

Kyle Bean and the future of the book

Kyle Bean and the future of the book

Illustrator Kyle Bean really pumped my nads with a talk entitled Materials & Messages. He specialises in tactile illustration – in other words,to fulfil mainly magazine/press illustration commissions he makes things from everyday materials and photographs them to create his 2D output. These range from a mobile phone Russian doll to a jelly hand-grenade, all best grasped by having a look at his portfolio here. He often uses word-play and combining pairs of concepts to prompt his creative approach. For a recent article on NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden he combines a USB stick with a sports whistle to get the point across concisely and with impact. He has a real spareness which reminds me of a graphic artist well represented on the walls of my home. The other night I went round for dinner to the home of Naomi Games, daughter of graphic designer and poster supremo Abram Games who was a mentor for my mum when she was at London College of Printing. Abram had a ruthlessly spare style with nothing wasted in all his work, from the Festival of Britain logo to his famous ATS poster.

Kyle Bean illustration for 'hand-made' edition of Wallpaper

Kyle Bean illustration for ‘hand-made’ edition of Wallpaper

The afternoon also brought a rich mix of pleasures.

Foley Artist Barnaby Smyth illustrated his cinematic art (sound effects) with a scene from Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy movie which he worked on. He then did a live demo (for which we all closed our eyes, no peeking), memorably using tearing celery to create the sound of a corpse being ripped apart by dogs. TTSS was made at DeLane Lea which reminded me of my introduction to moving picture media as a child at DeLane Lea in Dean Street, watching Hungarian TV puppet shows for kids being dubbed into English by Louis Elman, as recalled here.

Bill Wasick (no actual corduroy jacket)

Bill Wasick (no actual corduroy jacket)

The Editor of Wired US, Bill Wasick, flew in to tell us a bit about the stuff of his recent book to do with why things go viral. He sat on the edge of the stage like a nice teacher with patches on the elbows of his proverbial corduroy jacket. He had very attractive yellow and white slides I’m going to copy. And he invented flash mobs.

So it's goodnight from me... and it's goodnight from him

So it’s goodnight from me… and it’s goodnight from him (BBC double act of Tony Ageh R and Matt Locke L)

Tony Ageh of the BBC Archive, iPlayer, City Limits et al, went a step further and brought a chair on stage to do a full-on Ronnie Corbett routine which went down a treat. He reflected on his career and the theme of Lists which seems to weave through it, all in a warm, understated way. His anecdote about how the iPlayer was thought up was a cracker. He concluded with a heart-felt plea for iPlayer to move on from being the first bit of BBC technology ever to carry BBC content only. Imagine, he conjoured up, a radio which only played BBC programes. It should never happen. It’s not what the BBC was put on Earth to do.

Meg Rossoff getting the Conscious Rider attuned to the Horse of the Unconscious

Meg Rossoff getting the Conscious Rider attuned to the Horse of the Unconscious

And, just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, novelist Meg Rossoff, who wrote her first novel aged 46, managed to wrangle a divergent shaggy horse story to illustrate the passage from the conscious mind to the unconscious in writers which develops with practice and helps bring  dream into everyday life,  thereby enabling her – and she encourages others – to “write fiercely with resonance from a really deep place”. Makes a lot of sense of William Burroughs, with whom my book opens, who spent decades consistently taking the trip into that deep, dark place…

Shaggy hat story from Gruff Rhys

Shaggy hat story from Gruff Rhys

Gruff Rhys provided a music interlude with a journey story which roved from his native North Wales across the frontiers of America in a delightfully absurd meander.

Armagh non-poet Philip Larkin brought this to my life, for which thanks. He’s a big fan of Vine and has a good sense of how to deploy those 6 moving seconds for comedy.

Lisa Salem told us a bit about her Walk LA with Me project which was interesting though felt like it could use the lightness of touch of an old school flaneur.

And the day was brought to a heavy-weight end by Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger telling us a story about a man called Edward Snowden, a character called Glen Greenwald and a big baddie called NSA which frankly was so fanciful and absurd I reckon he should try his hand at non-fiction ;-)

Alan Rusbridger tells the tale of Snowden White and the Seven Spooks

Alan Rusbridger tells the tale of Snowden White and the Seven Spooks

So, bottom line, there aren’t many better ways to spend a Friday.

Here’s an old Friday called The Story 2012 for anyone who wants a yardstick to make a comparison. Thanks to Matt Locke and the Storythings team for a top day.

I’m Feeling Lucky – The Story 3

tom watson mp on the phone hacking scandal at The Story 2012

To Thine Own Self Be True (Tom Watson)

I was in Rottingdean the other day with the Enfants Terribles when we passed a small shop called Serendipity. I asked them whether they knew what it meant and I ended up explaining it in terms of the Google ‘I’m Feeling Lucky’ button (which I have to admit I’ve never quite got and always struck me as a bit of a lack of imagination on the part of the presser – it really isn’t difficult in the era of the Web to go on your own random or serendipitous journey).

The Wikipedia entry for Serendipity (which Google freakily informs me Aleks Krotoski shared on tumblr.com on 29 Apr 2011, Aleks having appeared at The Story #1 in February 2010) is one of its more charming entries:

Serendipity means a “happy accident” or “pleasant surprise”; specifically, the accident of finding something good or useful without looking for it. The word has been voted one of the ten English words hardest to translate in June 2004 by a British translation company. [prime wikispam] However, due to its sociological use, the word has been exported into many other languages. Julius H. Comroe once described serendipity as : to look for a needle in a haystack and get out of it with the farmer’s daughter.”

Meanwhile, over on the other side of Brighton… towards Hove/Portslade my former colleague at Channel 4, Matt Locke, was busy putting the finishing touches to his The Story conference, like the programme for the day which was etched into bars of dark chocolate. When Matt started this one day gathering in 2010 it was a labour of love alongside his day job at C4. I thoroughly enjoyed that first iteration and recorded 4 things I learned from it on Simple Pleasures part 4. It’s interesting looking back at that entry today: the first thing I learnt was:

1) The best conferences (like this one) have only two outputs – Inspiration and catalysing Connections between people.

The same held good for #2 last year featuring the likes of a controversial Adam Curtis, writer Graham Linehan and photographer Martin Parr. I think I was too indolent to write up last year’s.

Connections, inspiration and creativity are the meat and two veg of this blog and what the Web is wonderful at catalysing. Straight after exiting Conway Hall yesterday I met up with Karyn Reeves who was waiting just outside, a statistician from Perth, Australia who specialises in analysing mathematical patterns around AIDS infection. Karyn is only the second person I’ve met in real life through having made contact online. The first was Sandra, a street art aficionado from Jaffa. Karyn writes a lovely blog about vintage Penguin books, which she collects and reads weekly, and I came across her in the wake of reading an old Penguin I picked up at random in my local bookshop, Black Gull, about the trial of Roger Casement. By chance Casement’s defence lawyer, I read, had his chambers at 4 Raymond Buildings from where my best friend now operates. What a tangled Web we weave. So Karyn and I headed back from The Story 3 to Black Gull where she picked up a few more P-p-p-enguins.

Meanwhile back at the start of the day… Meg Pickard of The Guardian, with whom I got into a lively online discussion at one of the earlier two The Story s about where The Guardian should gather their user-generated photos of Antony Gormley’s One and Other  (which we were discussing here and he was explaining here), kicked off the proceedings with a quick update from The Ministry of Stories, the excellent local children’s literacy project based in a Monsters Supplies shop in Hoxton and championed by the likes of Nick Hornby. Part of the ticket price for The Story goes to the now thriving, volunteer-driven project. It’s great to see such a thing burgeoning in Hoxton – when I was a teenager my step-dad would drive me past there on the way to Petticoat Lane where I worked on the market stall outside his shop, he’d point past some grim Victorian estate and say ” ‘Oxton, arse-hole of the universe, never go there, son.” How it has come on over the years…

Next up was Matt Sheret of LastFM in discussion with producer Simon Thornton of Fat Boy Slim fame about telling stories through the album form. Simon was the fella behind the brilliant remix of Brimful of Asha (way better than the original) as well as the marvelous Turn On Tune In Cop Out by Freakpower. The whole debate about the patterns of music consumption in the Web/On Demand age and the relationship between albums and single tracks is a fascinating one still, and particularly for me at the moment as I’m working on a development to do with a classic album with Bob Geldof’s gang at Ten Alps and Universal Music, very much shaped around a carefully constructed sequence of 9 great songs which may or may not now be a thing of the past (I take Simon’s side, but I would wouldn’t I).

At this point Channel 4 wove back in in the form of artist Jeremy Deller, currently setting up his one-man show at the Hayward on the South Bank and the prime mover of Artangel’s The Battle of Orgreave, commissioned and funded by C4. He sees the ’84-’85 miners’ strike as a critical moment in British history (it gets  its own room in his soon-to-open retrospective) and that programme/artistic re-enactment as a way of “exhuming a corpse to give it a proper post-mortem”. He spoke about how everyone of our generation remembers where they were when the miners took on ‘The Iron Lady’ (in spite of the fact I’d voted for her [Streep not Thatch] Meryl Streep’s apology [in the Miltonian sense of explanation/justification] for the strange politics of that movie at the BAFTAs the other night is still bugging me)  – my other half was up in Ayrshire making her graduation film about the miners’ wives with a dodgy old University of Ulster camera, while I was visiting my oldest friend at Baliol where a furious debate about how to support the strike was erupting in their common room, featuring toffs in donkey jackets as well as more grown-up, committed people than me, who was still relying on the likes of Joe Strummer and Elvis Costello to give me some political insight). Deller’s still- image only presentation was one of the highlights of the day for me, centred on one iconic photograph of a miner father and his glam rock showbiz son.

Next up, blogger Liz Henry who told the fascinating story of A Gay Girl in Damascus, a murky tale of hoaxing and fictional blogging (an area I find fascinating as an emerging writing form and which formed a substantial part of the now traditional annual Story lunch with Tim Wright and Rob Bevan, the former in particular much interested in this territory [and the person who taught me the value of the image-only presentation when I helped host the launch of his outstanding In Search of Oldton project at Channel 4 HQ a few years ago]).  I learnt a lovely new word too ‘Sockpuppeting’ – to comment on your own blog both positively and negatively as a way of stimulating interest/activity. One of the interesting facts that emerged was that The Guardian published the initial story without establishing proper (off-line) sources based on people who had actually met the Gay Girl in question in real life (shades of Karyn above and Tom/Emily below).

Late on Thursday afternoon, the eve of The Story, I met for the first time Anthony Owen, Head of Magic (arguably the best job-title in the business) at Objective TV, home of Derren Brown. We were kicking off a project to do with consumerism. Lo and behold within 18 hours he’s up on stage before me doing a magic trick and explaining the role of narrative within that art/entertainment form. Particularly interesting for me as the youngest Enfant Terrible has recently become obsessed with performing magic, daily learning tricks off of YouTube and practising them with his chums over Skype (before posting them back on YouTube and Facebook). Anthony singled out the quality of encapsulating “something we’d love to have happen” (e.g. being psychic, becoming immortal, etc.) as the defining characteristic of a great trick – so sawing a woman in half only to reunite the two still living ends is a story about immortality which also has the key quality of being sum-upable in a sentence.

Coincidence and serendipity came to the fore again in the afternoon when Emily Bell, formerly of The Guardian online and now teaching at Columbia (who I first had the pleasure of hanging out with on the panel of judges she lead at The Guardian Student Journalism Awards a few years ago, in The Ivy so clearly a former era) interviewed Tom Watson MP about the phone-hacking scandal whilst: Meanwhile across town… in Wapping Rupert Murdoch was entering the newsroom of the Currant Bun and sticking two Aussie fingers up at the British establishment and public, who momentarily humiliated him last summer, by announcing the impending launch of The Sun on Sunday. The audience was riveted by the recounting of events from both the MP and Guardian perspectives, and the interview typified the rich and perfectly balanced mix of contributions making up the day’s programme. Watson predicted that there was a massive PC/Data hacking dimension to the scandal still to break.

Vying with Deller for highlight of the day was Scott Burnham. The last time I met Scott was in the back of a Nissan Cube in which he was filming me spouting on about why I love London. At this year’s The Story he spoke vibrantly about design in the city and urban play through a classic tale of 7 Coins, the last vestiges of a beautiful public art project in Amsterdam. He told of the construction of a Stefan Sagmeister piece made up of 250,000 one cent pieces and its subsequent thoughtless destruction by dumb cops who were trying to protect the raw cash (still held as evidence in the police station). His conclusion was that we’ll always have Paris… I mean, we’ll always have Amsterdam… he means, we always have the story if not the creation itself. He took the 7 coins, painted blue on one side, out of his pocket to show me and the Royal College of Art’s Bronac Ferran as we chatted outside the hall during the tea break.

Also up in contention as a highlight was artist Ellie Harrison, author of Confessions of a Recovering Data Collector. She started her work focused on gathering everyday data on her life or ‘life tracking’ at Nottingham Trent university art school and then later at  Glasgow School of Art (where our host Matt once studied). An early such work was ‘Eat 22′ in which she recorded everything she ate for a year  in 1,560 photos. At the start of her talk she positioned herself firmly as a Thatcher’s Child (a resonant link back to Deller’s earlier session) and was sporting a Bring Back British Rail T-shirt (a campaign she champions, also resonant as my aforementioned best-friend above worked on that Kafkaesque privitisation). So food and beyond, Ellie’s obsession and the thread through her work seems to be with Consumption – she spoke about her development with great humour and insight (including into her own compulsions). From ‘Eat 22′ she went on to record all her everyday actions in a spreadsheet, in turn converted to colour-coded graphs, which is when the addiction kicked in. I was sitting in a brainstorm at an indie production company a couple of weeks ago discussing mental health and happiness when a colleague I have know a long time revealed he’s been keeping a numerical record of his mood on a precise scale of 1 to 100 every day for well over a decade, with the last five years available likewise in Excel form. So art/fiction are no stranger than life.

Preloaded I have known since they were born, as I worked with founder Paul Canty, as well as Rob Bevan and Tim Wright, on a game called MindGym way back when. Paul’s colleague,  Phil Stuart, and writer Tom Chatfield talked us through the game of self-discovery, death and philosophy they made for Channel 4 Education – The End.  This rounded off a fine day, alongside Karen Lubbock and Jeremy Leslie on mags and Karen magazine in paricular, ‘a magazine made out of the ordinary’, and a lively turn from Danny O’Brien on josticks, hacking, anarchy and the universe. And where can you go from there…

Stefan Sagmeister installation 250,000 coins

Among these 250,000 are 7 coins with a story

4 things I learnt from The Story

tim wright and rob bevan

Tim Wright tests his sense of balance

Today I spent at the excellent The Story conference at Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, organised by my fellow Commissioning Editor at Channel 4, Matt Locke (a labour of love on his part). The theme was stories and story-telling – little theory, no money talk, just narrative and tales about tales. So what I learnt…

1) The best conferences (like this one) have only two outputs – Inspiration and catalysing Connections between people.

2) The best comic books have a layer of history, a layer of mythology and a layer of contemporary relevance as evinced by Sydney Padua‘s Lovelace & Babbidge. She showed the development of  their new adventure Vs The Organist which combines Victoriana with Orpheus & Eurydice with proto-geekage. Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen has a similar combo, a bit more literary, and it’s top of the tree for me. (Talking of trees, the frames in the new story where a band of monkeys break into Babbidge’s office and drag him off to the underworld gave me a sudden flashback to a game we played as children with plastic monkeys, something I hadn’t thought of for decades- there’s so much buried in these memories and imaginations of ours, and connection, especially surprising connection, is the key to creativity.)

3) The best stories combine profound emotion and humour. My old friend and colleague Tim Wright stole the show with his Harrison Fraud story. It’s about a mad time when he tried to convince his business/creative partner, Rob Bevan, that Harrison Ford wanted to work with them. The comic story of facial hair and faked letters was punctuated with insights into Tim’s marital struggles, recounted with an unflinching honesty. That willingness to confront difficult themes head on – as demonstrated equally in Tim’s wonderful In Search of Oldton project which has its roots in his father’s tragic death – is what raises his stories to special heights. Tim and I worked together on the writing of MindGym back in 1996, a game about creativity, Rob worked on it too programming and designing  – it was a landmark project for me, drawing me into the world of non-linear story-telling and interactivity, and I learned a wealth from Tim’s methodical approach to scripting. I remember sitting with Tim in a bar in Clapham Old Town, asserting my dedication to film-making and that I’d be giving up this interactive thing before too long, not really my bag. 14 years down the line and here I still am.

4) The best fiction is less strange than truth. The day was rounded off in style by a besuited David Hepworth, he of The Word and Smash Hits, who told a lovely circular tale of the passage of wisdom from father to son to grandson via a bespoke tailor’s in the Yorkshire village he grew up in. It involved the coincidence of a suit being made for him unknowingly by the tailor who had made his father’s suits. It reminded me of my wedding ring. I wear two rings – the wedding ring my wife gave me in the top O of the OXO Tower by the Thames when the O X and O were all floor-to-ceiling windows and the tower was still a building site, and a plain silver ring I bought from a stall in Camden market several years before. To cut a long Irish story short it turned out that the posh jeweler in Gabriel’s Wharf and the Camden stall holder were one and the same person from Inishowen in Donegal (where my wedding ended, 60 miles down the road from its start point in Derry). This stranger than fiction coincidence came to light one day when I was chucking out old chequebook stubs and I found the £10 cheque I’d bought the silver ring with. Recently I’ve had another such experience where I came across the same person (Pippa Harris of Neal St Films, Sam Mendes’ business partner) through two totally different routes – one starting off in a novel I was reading, The Great Lover by Jill Dawson; the other through judging the RTS Single Drama Award for work – the true-life story weaving through all manner of themes from Rupert Brooke to Wikipedia. It’s coincidences and dynamics like those that make life worth living.

I had a quick chat with David Hepworth on the way out about the merits of The Word podcast (very good for jogging I said, great for repetitive domestic tasks he countered) – it’s the very best on the Web, a chat with friends over the kitchen table. Leaving the period lobby, it felt great to have spent the day in Conway Hall with its radical, left-wing vibe. It was here that I took my first published photograph – one of  Gerry Adams and Ken Livingstone that appeared in An Phoblacht, the Irish Republican newspaper. But that’s another story…

barrel of monkeys

Monkeys test your sense of balance

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