Archive | September, 2013

Goose Fair and Nottingham on Film

30 Sep

Goose Fair is the setting for one of the most iconic scenes in Alan Sillitoe’s great Angry Young Man novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958), where anti-hero Arthur Seaton gets his comeuppance for messing around with another man’s wife and is beaten up by a group of squaddies. Ironically, given that it’s set in Nottingham, aka the Queen of the Midlands, Sillitoe’s classic novel – along with Czech director Karel Reisz’s no-less-classic film adaptation (1960) – helped to launch the phrase ‘It’s grim up North’.

Lots of people get the story’s setting wrong, some unwittingly – for instance, in his Hope and Glory: Britain 1900–1990 (2004), the distinguished Cambridge historian Peter Clarke describes the novel as a ‘class-conscious account of the industrial north’. Others, however, do it quite deliberately. A notable representative of the latter tendency is Stuart Maconie in his popular paean to the North, Pies and Prejudice, where he discusses the late Fifties/early Sixties British cinematic New Wave, describing it as that ‘glorious swathe of films about the experience of love, sex, work and struggle among the working classes of the industrial north’. In this category he includes the film of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning starring Albert Finney. ‘I know Sillitoe’s book… is set in Nottingham,’ opines Maconie, a Northern exile who actually admits to living in the Midlands, for god’s sake, ‘but Finney and his film are indisputably northern.’ Given that all the key scenes in both book and film take place at Nottingham landmarks, this is a distinctly odd thing to say. Maconie apparently feels he has the right to claim Seaton for the North merely because, as he argues, he has ‘provided me [i.e. Maconie] with some of my favourite catch-phrases… That’s the truth, as Albert Finney as Arthur Seaton would say. The rest is propaganda.’ The problem is, to anyone with ears attuned to the speech patterns of Nottingham and its environs, anti-establishment rebel Seaton sounds exactly like what he is: a Midlander, not a Northerner. Now that’s the truth, and what Maconie writes is classic cocky Northern propaganda. (The Arctic Monkeys, those musical darlings of the North, adapted another of Seaton’s most resonant phrases for the title of their debut album: Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not.)

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Goose Fair in 1959: photograph by Jack Leeson 

We shouldn’t be too surprised by Maconie’s act of cultural appropriation: after all, Northerners have been nicking bits of Midland heritage and claiming them as their own for centuries – since the Northumbrian monk the Venerable Bede, the so-called ‘father of English history’, set the pattern with his Ecclesiastical History of the English People in about 731 ad, in fact. And as the instance cited above suggests, it’s more than just a matter of poor geography – Maconie knows Nottingham isn’t in the North; he actually says as much. It’s actually part of a conspiracy to strip the Midlands of its identity and claim the most distinctive elements for the North instead. As Maconie says, he likes the way Seaton talks and feels a kinship with him, which means – in the wonderful logic of Northern appropriationism – that Seaton must therefore be a Northerner like him.

Midlanders have traditionally been slow to react to such acts of daylight robbery. I once asked Alan Sillitoe about the wavering accents in the film version of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, for which he wrote the screenplay, and he explained that the problem was that they simply hadn’t been able to find ‘a clutch of actors who all came from Nottingham’. As a result, it ended up ‘a kind of mish-mash of South Yorkshire and Scouse and this, that and the other’. Didn’t it worry Sillitoe – the late twentieth-century Bard of Nottingham – that his works could so easily be claimed for the North? ‘That’s other people’s problem. Who cares about the North, or indeed about the South?’ he told me. For him, the Midlands was a place of ‘illimitable frontiers’. Then, after a pause, he added, ‘Bugger the North!’ and excused himself as his tea was waiting for him in the other room. Where uppity Northerners rage and bluster for attention, stoical Midlanders just shrug and concentrate on more important matters – buttered toast, for instance.

The cinema has never been particularly helpful where Midland identity is concerned. Take the more recent example of Shane Meadows’s Once Upon a Time in the Midlands (2002). With a title like that, you’d think that Meadows’s starrily cast modern spaghetti western would deliver a firmer, more differentiating picture of life as it is lived between North and South. Indeed, with a title like that, you might even think that that was one of its principal raisons d’être – especially as Meadows is himself a Midlander. So it’s curious that there’s no attempt to make the setting of the film identifiably Midland – the locations are all anonymous, unromanticised suburbs of the kind that can be found anywhere in the UK ­– or even to make the characters sound like Midlanders. Rhys Ifans speaks with a Welsh accent, Ricky Tomlinson – who plays ‘the Midlands cowboy’ – is audibly Scouse, while Kathy Burke, though she does use the very North Notts term of endearment ‘mi duck’ when talking to her brother (a very Scottish-sounding Robert Carlyle), is her usual salt-of-the-earth, Norf Lunnon self. So there you have it: a drama that announces boldly that it’s about the Midlands, but that then goes on to look and sound anything and everything but. Go figure.

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Theatre Review: The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui

27 Sep

Theatre Review: The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui

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Music Review: HAIM, Days Are Gone

27 Sep

Music Review: HAIM, Days Are Gone

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Theatre Review: Scenes from a Marriage (Metro)

26 Sep

Theatre Review: Scenes from a Marriage (Metro)

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Interview with Roddy Doyle

26 Sep

Interview with Roddy Doyle

Goose Fair, Nottingham

25 Sep

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‘Who wants to barf?’ A couple of dozen thrill-seekers, encased behind an ominous-looking grille, gamely raise their hands in response to the MC’s taunting question, and the ride – one of those terrifying lurching contraptions designed to toss you around like an old pair of jeans in a tumble dryer – suddenly comes to life, whipping its human cargo screaming into the air.

You can hear the low rumble of Goose Fair as you walk towards it from Nottingham city centre and cross Forest Road, home to my alma mater, Nottingham High School, and the city’s red-light district. (My mother told me a joke when I first came to school here: One day Thor is walking along Forest Road when he bumps into a young woman in torn stockings with a big smile on her face. ‘I am Thor, god of thunder!’ the Norse deity booms. ‘Well, I’m thor too but I’m thatithfied,’ lisps back the young woman. Eleven years of age and not exactly worldly, I had no idea at the time why it was supposed to be funny. Mother, what were you thinking?) The fair’s current home, the Forest Recreation Ground, lies about fifteen miles south of Edwinstowe and the Major Oak, but it too used to be part of Sherwood Forest. In the nineteenth century, as urbanisation gripped, this particular stretch was known as the ‘Wastes’, and there was a grandstand to accommodate spectators who gathered to watch horse racing and the other entertainments held here. Today, for the fifty-one-and-a-half weeks a year when the fair isn’t in town, the Rec is used for sports and as a car park for Park-and-Riders.

The origins of Goose Fair’s name are lost in the mists of time. The annual gathering, for a long period the largest in Europe, was first held around 1284. Geese obviously played a part – it’s been suggested that they were brought over from Lincolnshire and even Norfolk in their thousands, their feet coated with tar and sand to help them survive the journey, to be sold in Nottingham at the onset of autumn. The fair may have begun with fowl – it’s always been held at the beginning of October around Michaelmas, when geese are a traditional treat – but by the eighteenth century it was most renowned for its cheese. There was even a cheese riot in Nottingham in the 1760s, with discontented locals bowling the overpriced produce, conveniently supplied in wheel-like units, down the hills leading out of the Market Place, where the fair was held until 1928. The mayor, protesting against the rioters, is said to have been knocked off his feet by one of the cheesy missiles and to have landed, with severe consequences for his dignity, in the mud of Wheeler Gate.

There’s not much in the way of cheese or geese on view nowadays – apart, that is, from the large plastic goose that sits proudly on the Gregory Boulevard roundabout for the fair’s duration every year. The character of the gathering definitively changed with the advent of the railways. Improved transportation made the year-round supply of food more dependable and reduced the need to stock up on provisions before the coming of winter. As such, Goose Fair began to be viewed simply as an opportunity to have a good time – not that all that cheese rolling hadn’t been entertainment of a sort – and there was a sudden invasion of five-footed sheep and men on stilts, not to mention a big hand-turned roundabout, Twigdon’s Riding Machine. Madame Tussaud was so impressed by the fair’s drawing power that she was twice tempted to bring her collection of life-size wax figures, in 1819 and 1829.

Since then, of course, it’s all got a big more high-tech. Some of the food – hog roast, hot peas, candyfloss – has its roots in tradition, but flashing lights, blaring music (‘We will – we will – ROCK YOU!’) and sulphurous smoke bathe proceedings in a deep sensory smog of modernity. A rodent-themed rollercoaster shakes punters up and down, then, for good measure, whirls them round and round as well, to make doubly sure they achieve that freshly eviscerated/post-sickbag look just in time for their free souvenir exit portrait. Over at another ride two lone teenage girls are being strapped into their seats, ready for lift-off. A crowd of onlookers has gathered to watch the torture as a voice on the seemingly never-ending warm-up tape intones, in exaggeratedly precise Euro-English: ‘Are you ready? Are you R-R-READY?!?’ A safety cage descends over the youngsters, one of whom is busy flicking her middle finger at a laughing woman – her mother? Her sister? – who stands filming them on her phone; her mate meanwhile is making hot eyes at the ride attendant. ‘In the interests of safety,’ the voice on the tape continues, growing shriller for the killer punchline, ‘… HOLD ON TO YOUR PANTS!!’ And then the music starts – the inevitable ‘O Fortuna’ from Nazi favourite Carmina Burana, heard everywhere these days from Old Spice ads to The X Factor pre-title sequence – and the girls are whipped up into the stratosphere. The crowd cheers as a garland of vomit loops its way back down to earth and the cage continues its vertiginous ascent.

Martina Bacigalupo: Gulu Real Art Studio

20 Sep

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Found imagery isn’t traditionally the domain of the photojournalist. But when prize-winning Italian photographer Martina Bacigalupo was working on an assignment for Human Rights Watch in war-torn northern Uganda, she made an unusual – and entirely unlooked-for – discovery that made her think afresh about her approach to her chosen subject matter.

While waiting for some prints to be made in a small studio in Gulu, ‘I noticed an unusual object on the desk – an ordinary 10 x 15 cm photograph of someone posing for a studio portrait, but with the face strangely missing, leaving a square hole where the head had been,’ she recounts. ‘I asked what this was, and the woman at the counter said she had forgotten it there and proceeded to discard it. When I told her I would like to see her trash bin, people around us laughed, but a man [named Obal] who was part of that crowd, amused like the others and yet, I think, more curious, told me that if I was interested he would be happy to show me more.’

What she discovered was an extraordinary cache of headless portraits. ‘The portraits were well composed, with subjects seated on a chair or on a bench, with a blue, white, or red curtain behind them, in various poses and modes of dress. Obal, who was running the oldest photography studio in town with his father, told me the secret behind those pictures: he only had a machine that would make four ID photos at a time, and since most of his clients didn’t need four pictures, he therefore preferred to take an ordinary photograph and cut an ID photo out of it. This was common practice in most of the studios in Gulu. Captivated by the eerie result, I asked Obal if he wouldn’t mind putting aside all the leftovers he was going to produce that day. When I went back in the evening he gave me a little box.’

The contents of that box provided the seeds for Bacigalupo’s new book, Gulu Real Art Studio (Steidl), and an exhibition of the same name at the Walther Collection Project Space in New York. The images present a cross section of Gulu society – children, soldiers, farmers – at a moment of transition. The ravages of war are evident, not least in the fact that the portraits are mutilated leftovers, but they nonetheless manage to tell a bigger, more rounded story of lives lived.

‘I love these pictures because they’re not mine. I’m an editor basically,’ says Bacigalupo, who has been resident in the region for several years now. ‘You see journalists coming in and out, looking for tragic news. But by reporting events in Africa in that way, we are perpetrating a way of looking at it as a continent of misery. This project has been a way of talking about things – including the war in northern Uganda – in a more everyday way. The child who is sleeping on the lap of his mother while the picture is taken – it’s something we can all relate to. It’s lighter. The pictures are funny at times.’

‘During the editing process I went over hundreds of leftovers, where small details – a hidden sign, a comic posture, a bitter aspect – were revealing different stories,’ writes Bacigalupo in the introduction to the Steidl book. ‘I remember the clumsy pose of the man wearing a too-large jacket – a jacket lent by the studio to those sitters who didn’t have one (I would find a whole series afterward): he was holding the jacket closed with his hands while still wearing his muddy boots… I was always struck by the ravishing traditional robes of the Acholi women, who would wear their best clothes even though their dresses would not show in the final print. I knew these photographs carried burdensome stories, and yet those details were portraying something else, something about the daily life we all share, besides time and space, with its common worries and hopes.’

The images transcend the merely documentary too, taking on a more surreal or symbolic aspect. ‘There’s a descriptive part in the portraits, which ties them into journalism, but then there’s the hole, which calls the viewer in and makes them fill in what’s missing,’ says Bacigalupo. ‘That’s an essential quality in all photography.’

She adds: ‘Photojournalists are looking for a new way of talking about Africa especially, but the global south in general.’ The images in Gulu Real Art Studio – surreal survivors of a society undergoing swift and sometimes violent change – offer one such new way of talking.

Gulu Real Art Studio is at the Walther Collection Project Space, 508–526 West 26th Street, Suite 718, until 8 February 2014 and is open to the public Wednesday through Saturday from 12pm to 6pm