The Story 2014
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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 ;-)
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.