Sunday, 29 September 2013

The Man in the Sand Box

This is artist Matthew Walmsley up to his neck in sand. He staged this scene today as an art installation cum protest on the pavement outside the studio of fellow artist Simon Harwood.

My last post was about the fact that Berwick film festival has now developed a 'fringe'. The open studios being held by several artists over this weekend could be considered to be part of this fringe, but as Berwick has had a thriving artistic community since well before the film festival got going, this might be getting things the wrong way round.

There is no secret about the fact that Matthew is extremely unhappy about the way he was treated by the new regime at Berwick Visual Arts. He lost his job as part of the transition to new funding arrangements and organisational structures, and did not, to put it mildly, take it well. I am not in a position to comment on the rights and wrongs of his non-employment, but most regular attenders at local art events would agree that the new Berwick Visual Arts seems to be generating a lot less art with a lot more money. As to the rumour that a 'Gateshead Mafia' is taking over the arts scene in Berwick, I could not possibly presume to speculate.

I had a bizarre conversation with Matthew while he stood in his giant sand-box. He had originally intended to remain silent throughout but the urge to explain the symbolism proved too strong. There was a reference to people 'burying their heads in the sand' about what is going on in the arts scene locally. He feels that he, his family and his career have been buried. Making people stand up to their necks in sand was used as a form of punishment or torture in some cultures and is familiar from the movies about the French Foreign Legion, and in staging this version of the practice he is expressing his sense of being tortured by the way he's been treated.

This is all good stuff and I really wish that more people had got to see Matthew's statement. I hope that this blog post  helps to spread the news to those who didn't make it over the bridge to Tweedmouth this weekend.

Berwick Film Festival - The Fringe

My last post was about Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival 2013, now in full swing. The festival is in its ninth year and is going from strength to strength. So much so that I am delighted to be able to report it has now developed its own Fringe.

I followed a fly-posted arrow through a car park to a disused basement in Quay Walls, and found a group of enterprising young locals had responded to the rejection of their submission by the festival selection committee in the best 'let's do the show right here' style. They were showing a short film about this character on the left. The highlight is when he is seen climbing from the inside of Berwick's famous town hall clock out onto the front elevation of the building, a scene they assured me was not computer generated but staged in dangerous physical reality. I asked if they were referencing the line in Orwell's 1984 about the clocks striking thirteen. They said No, but now I'd mentioned it, that was quite a good idea.

The other two rooms of the basement had been decorated as a cross between Churchill's underground war rooms and a noir version of one of the many vintage shops in the neighbouring street. I have no idea what any of it was trying to say, but I loved the vibe. It's a great antidote to the overdose of the heritage industry version of Berwick that we all suffer from. The film also featured a masked man writhing in the fetters of the 18th century prison cells. I think it's good to be reminded sometimes that a lot of this heritage was pretty unpleasant and we're well rid of it.

A number of more established local artists have seized the opportunity offered by the film festival's visitor traffic to hold 'open studio' days. There are many fine artists in Berwick. I have to admit that the great beauty of the town and its coastal setting is also a magnet to second-rate artists, but not as much so as some other picturesque parts of Northumberland.

Over the last couple of years there has been a change of funding regime in the visual arts scene in Berwick that has left a lot of bad feeling in its wake. So much so that one of the sights of the festival Fringe was an artist staging a dramatic protest about it. Look at my next blog post to find out more!

Friday, 27 September 2013

Berwick Film Festival 2013

Once again I am in the middle of volunteering at Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival. Yesterday a chap from the local paper came and stuck a camera in my face while I was shivering outside one of the video installations in unusual historic buildings which are what makes this festival so special. If I end up featuring on the paper's website, I'll let you know.

I made a point of saying on camera that 'what the festival does for the town' is bring in a lot of upmarket tourists. We are constantly being told that this is what we need here, more visitors with deep pockets and discerning tastes, and the film festival delivers these in spades, but that doesn't stop a lot of the locals moaning about the amount of funding it gets. In actual fact, it is getting increasing amounts of commercial sponsorship, and if the local whingers put more effort into doing likewise and less into blaming everything that's wrong with the town on a supposedly uncaring county council, we'd all be better off. Anyway.

I am delighted that the theme of this year's festival is the cultural links between this area and the Nordic countries. The title chosen is North by Northeast, which in my view does not convey the subject matter very well, not least because we locals are always careful to describe the region as 'north-east England and south-east Scotland'. To me the real theme seems to be the idea that the peoples of the North Sea and North Atlantic Ocean form a kind of community, that the residents of northern Britain, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands are a distinctive cultural zone.

I have written about this theme myself on this blog (here) so I am finding the festival programming a joy. The main publicity image (here) is taken from the video work shown in this photo. The Norwegian artist Sidsel Christensen filmed herself hanging on a hoop in a coastal landscape of Norway and then again in the estuary here in Berwick, each tine looking out across the North Sea towards the other location. This reminded me of once being told by a Danish woman that I was her next-door-neighbour, because she lives right on the coast of Denmark and I live right on the coast here in Berwick. I love this idea.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

On a Promise, On the Tweed

The great excitement of this summer in  Berwick was the beginning of boat trips on the river Tweed. Here is the boat moored at the specially constructed landing stage. It's called On a Promise. I always thought that phrase had a slightly risque meaning, but maybe that's just me. Anyway, the owner has been lured away for two days a week from his more lucrative regular business of taking well-heeled city types on angling breaks, and the bookings for this year's season were apparently very encouraging. Previous attempts to run boat trips were scuppered by the cost of insurance, which I would imagine is quite high when you are transporting members of the general public around on a river with a steep tidal range. This year the council finally coughed up to cover it, and away we went.

These photos were taken on the first day the service ran, a beautiful day in July. I followed the official photographer from the local paper along the quayside and got the benefit of the skipper obligingly slowing down to let her take some front-page-friendly shots. I didn't actually get around to going on a trip myself until yesterday, when I suddenly realised that it was the last week of the season and I had to go now or not until next year. Sadly the weather yesterday was very dull and overcast and the photos I took onboard were absolutely rubbish. Here is the best of them, showing the railway bridge from underneath. It was worth going though for the unfamiliar views of the old fishing shiels on the banks and the talk by David the skipper, who took the opportunity to inform visitors about the way he feels the traditional salmon fishermen were stitched up by the company that bought the fishing rights from them. Well done him.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

By Bus Round the Borders

I've been wanting for some time to do a post about our local bus services, but how could I make a photo of a bus look interesting? Then I spotted this bus a few days ago waiting at the nearest thing Berwick has to a bus station. Which isn't very near. They knocked down the bus station years ago and filled in the gap with a couple of new shops, one of which is now empty and adding to the air of dereliction in the high street about which there is so much local hand-wringing. You see, in the long run it would have been better to put your trust in the public sector. Anyway.

This bus has been extravagantly decorated by Perrymans, a small independent bus company that runs many services in the Borders, to advertise the fact that it is possible to travel to Holy Island and back with them. I said possible, I didn't say easy. The Northumbrian island of Lindisfarne, always referred to locally as Holy Island, is connected to the mainland by a causeway which is covered by the sea at high tide, so it can only be reached by road for about half the day. The tides, of course, shift around the clock by about an hour a day. So imagine trying to organise a bus service around that. The timetable of the bus from Berwick to Holy Island is of mind-bending complexity. There are, in fact, seven timetables, lettered A to G. This is combined with a schedule of dates which tells you which of these timetables will be operational on any particular day. Having established the date on which you wish to travel and the tide-dictated time that the bus will leave, you then have to work out how long you will be on the island before the return service shows up, as this varies from day to day, and how best to pace yourself to fill the time. On some days you will have seen all the attractions of this very small island in great detail and still have time to consume a large pile of crab sandwiches (a local speciality) to stave off the hunger pangs while you wait.

The other special problem for the bus operators round here is, of course, the fact that many of their services cross the border. We are all trying not to think about what might happen if an independent Scotland ever decided to impose passport controls at the border. For the time being the biggest problem is created by the fact that the passes for free bus travel granted to English folk of pensionable age are only valid within England. Strictly speaking their holders become liable to pay the full fare the moment the bus passes the 'Welcome to Scotland' sign at Lamberton. However, Scottish Borders Council generously pays a subsidy to the bus operators to cover the difference, permitting retired shoppers, tourists and even a few older workers to travel all the way to Eyemouth, a whole five miles or so north of the border, for free. There are also, thanks to some agitation by the local MP, special arrangements in place to permit retired people to travel free to medical appointments at Scottish hospitals.

But that's where it stops. I once saw an older English gentleman have a serious strop on a Perrymans bus when it was explained to him that his free pass was not valid all the way to Edinburgh. If he wished to travel by bus to the Scottish capital he would have to pay the full fare of £10 each way. He announced that in that case it would be cheaper to use his senior citizen's discount on the rail fare, turned on his heel and stomped off in the direction of the train station.

And don't even get me started on those bus services that are subsidised by the local education authorities either side of the border to transport children to and from school. Most of them allow the general public on board as well but they only run on school days. The problem is that the dates of school terms differ by several weeks between England and Scotland. So the weary would-be traveller, having established with the aid of bifocals and flashlight that those cryptic abbreviations on the timetable mean 'Only runs during Scottish school terms' or 'Does not run during Northumberland school holidays', is left in a whimpering heap trying to decide whether a bus is likely to turn up at this particular stop any time today.  And fervently wishing she'd tried harder during her driving lessons.

Monday, 16 September 2013

The Church of Scotland in England

This is the interior of St Andrew's Church in Berwick. I visited it last weekend as part of the Heritage Open Doors event, an annual national event in England when buildings that are usually not open to the public let anybody come in for a couple of days. I have already written a post about the Anglican church in Berwick (here) so I thought I'd redress the denominational balance a little and write about the Presbyterian church. It is not nearly as old as the Anglican one, it is a 19th century building, which is quite modern by the standards of British churches, but it is much more attractive inside than most of the Anglican churches that mushroomed in the 19th century. It has a spacious and airy feel, some elegant wooden beams and some lovely stained glass windows. The picture below shows a modern window of St Cuthbert.

In England the Presbyterian church combined with the Congregationalist church in 1971 to form the United Reformed Church. St Andrew's in Berwick however was so opposed to this that it withdrew from union with the Presbyterian Church in England at that time and joined up with the Church of Scotland. The national church of Scotland is Presbyterian. This choice by St Andrew's was not a special arrangement just because it's on the border, there are apparently Church of Scotland churches all over the world. But in Berwick it does rather come across as making a point. It is very noticeable that Berwick residents of English ancestry and/or loyalties attend the Church of England, while those of Scottish ancestry and/or loyalties attend the Church of Scotland. Since these two churches are right next to each other, the impression is even more marked.

The (Scottish) man who showed me around St Andrew's remarked with a mischievous gleam in his eye that they do get English people attending their services, of course, but usually by mistake. This is probably because the Scottish church is accessible directly from the town's main car park, while to reach the English church one has to negotiate a gate and a path through the graveyard. The thing that unites all worshippers in Berwick is outrage at the over-zealous enforcement of the rules of the said car park. Both Anglicans and Presbyterians regularly emerge from services to have their prayerful mood shattered by finding a fine for parking without payment outside permitted hours slapped on their windscreens. Letters to the local press have denounced this as part of the persecution of Christians in modern Britain.

The different religious traditions of England and Scotland are one more aspect of the cultural differences between the two nations. The Church of Scotland has no bishops and local congregations elect their own 'elders' to run their affairs. This creates a culture of participation and egalitarianism which feeds into other aspects of the national life. The Church of England has the Queen at the top, followed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and then down through a layer of bishops and then a layer of parish priests to the ordinary person in the pew, who does what they're told by higher authority. Not, of course, that a very high proportion of the population of either England or Scotland go to church at all these days, but centuries of religious culture leave their mark. And the fact that religious affiliation still expresses some deep sense of national identity is surely something to ponder when considering the future of the Borders.

Friday, 6 September 2013

All Flodden-ed Out

I love the title of this show taking place at the Berwick Maltings tonight. Not quite enough to actually go to see it, because I'm hard-up just now, but enough to borrow it for this blog post. 'Soddin' Flodden' just about sums up how I feel about the massively OTT celebrations of the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Flodden, which falls some time this month (don't know the exact date, don't care). I am going to come right out and confess that I find everything about this battle and its commemoration a crashing bore. If you want to learn about this battle, one of the most significant ever fought between England and Scotland, then two other excellent bloggers have written posts that will explain it all to you  - Berwick Time Lines and Northumberland's Past, both linked to in my sidebar.

I might be more interested in the 500th anniversary of Flodden if I had't been exhorted to get excited about it for what seems like years. I might also be more enthusiastic if I weren't so disgusted by the amount of money awarded by the Heritage Lottery Fund to 'Flodden 500'.  The current official figure is £877,000. I call that the thick end of a million quid. My determination never to buy a lottery ticket has been powerfully reinforced by this. As far as I know nobody has ever done any kind of cost-benefit analysis on whether the directly attributable increase in tourism will bring in, say, £878,000 to the local economy.

Despite my almost total lack of interest in Flodden, I am dutifully doing a regular stint stewarding the summer exhibition by Berwick Civic Society, which this year is about, guess what. Here it is. You can still see it every afternoon except Wednesdays until the end of September, in the old guardhouse on the Walls. But you may not have time after you've visited all of the places that together comprise the Flodden Eco Museum.

The term 'eco' here has no relation to environmental matters, it means it is a conceptual museum, consisting of already existing buildings and locations which all have a connection with a common theme, in this case the Battle of Flodden. It's an interesting idea as far as it goes, although in some cases the connection with the battle seems to have been a little forced by eager proprietors. It may also be a little too conceptual for some visitors. I've just had a conversation with one visitor to our exhibition in the Main Guard who had just come from touring the battlefield. He said that it was very interesting but it would be nice if there were a museum or somewhere to get a cup of tea. I tried to explain about the Eco Museum and his dominant reaction appeared to be that this didn't help him to get a cup of tea. Memo to all residents of Branxton (the village closest to the battlefield): where is your entrepreneurial spirit? Get that kettle on quick! Memo to the 'Flodden 500' folk: what have you spent all that money on?

The official publicity for Flodden 500 takes an almost painfully even-handed approach to the two combatant nations. The poster refers to a battle which 'shaped our nations', plural. The death of King James of Scotland and a great swathe of the country's elite seriously weakened Scotland as a nation and in this sense had long-term effects on the power balance between Scotland and England. One of the reasons Alex Salmond avoided holding the referendum on independence in 2013 is because of this anniversary of a battle Scotland lost disastrously. It's being held in 2014 soon after the anniversary of a battle Scotland won triumphantly, Bannockburn. I am not trying to score cheap political points here. Nobody in the English Borders takes a triumphalist pro-English line about these things. Rather, the epic human tragedy of Flodden has become part of Borders consciousness. Farmers in the area of the battle used to regularly plough up human bones, and there is no way of telling whether the bones are English or Scottish.

I have only once visited the battlefield, as a teenager. That was when it was just a field and had not  yet been invaded by 'interpretation boards'. I do recall it having a rather eery atmosphere. But back in the 1970s nobody made so much fuss about it all.