April 28, 2014

work_hard_poster.jpg.opt252x335o0,0s252x335I was standing in the drizzle outside The Quad in Derby when Dan Bye rang. Dan was on University Challenge once, many years ago. Dan said he was thinking about putting in a proposal for a project that would happen, if it happened, sometime in the future in the Manchester Museum. “It’s about the idea of wonder,” he said, before asking if I’d be up for sticking a musical oar into the mix of his proposal.  (You don’t stick an oar into a mix. You stick a spoon into a mix. But a spoon sounds weedy and tentative, and I thought it sounded like a great idea, so I used an oar).

I’d recently read a book called The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes, a book I’d recommend to everyone. A history of a time when scientists, artists, poets, philosophers and political thinkers gathered around dinner tables and wondered, out loud. The kind of wonder that made them get up and do something, the wonder that forged new inventions and scientific breakthroughs. The wonder I was interested in wasn’t the simple wonder of ‘Oh, look at that, how interesting’, but the wonder that chimes with curiosity, which says, ‘Oh, look at that, how does it do that, what does it mean, what can I learn from that, how will that affect the way I think about the world tomorrow morning when I leave the house and walk down the street?’ So in short, I love that word; wonder. I constantly wonder. I love to wonder.

Dan’s partner Sarah Punshon – who, owing to their hectic and disparate work schedules, he has only met four times, once being at their wedding – is a theatre director and producer, and was also drawn into Dan’s proposal.

But proposals come and proposals go, and this one had the disadvantage of being put together one day before the closing date. Not that this would matter to Dan Bye. He’s been on University Challenge, you know.

We were summoned to an interview at the museum. Manchester Museum is a weird and (aptly) wonder-ful place, seemingly built around various bequeathed collections over the years and thus a glorious hotch-potch of ideas and marvels. I’d been there before and had loved how it seemed to break out of its straitjacket, being neither a natural history museum nor a local museum nor any type of just-one-thing museum. And before the interview, looking around with our interview heads on, all three of us were shocked (I don’t think that’s too strong a word) by the way the museum challenges your expectation of what a museum is – information on exhibits are scrawled by hand, glass cases are named in neon tube lighting, paper cranes escape an exhibition and appear to fly off toward the room’s ceiling.

I was cycling in the rain out towards Swinsty Reservoir a few weeks after the interview when Dan rang and left a message that we’d got the commission. He sounded a little shocked.

Now, none of the above has much to do with what I wanted to write about – so if you can consider the last six paragraphs as a succinct one-line pre-amble I’d be grateful. The commission, to produce a piece of drama/music/art to complement both the Museum’s collection and to illuminate and celebrate the sense of ‘wonder’ that a good museum can provoke, was co-sponsored by the museum and by an organisation called People United (right, I finally got to the point).

Look up People United if you like. But here’s my version – a charity that co-ordinates, produces, partners, funds, inspires and guides artists who want to make work that engenders kindness. And so here’s another word, after ‘wonder’, that I love: kindness. There’s a poster on the hallway wall in our house that reads ‘Work Hard and Be Nice to People.’ I love that poster, but various people have derided the idea of ‘being nice’. It’s too wet, that’s what they think. It’s wishy-washy liberal and uncombative language that allows us to be walked over. It’s the word your English teachers told you never to write, isn’t it? It’s hard to say it without inflecting it with tilt-of-the-head sarcasm.

But one of the things I got from my parents that sticks with me is that sense of common decency, being nice, valuing kindness. Caring. It doesn’t mean I shy away from sometimes being hateful and angry sometimes – anger’s important, too. It doesn’t mean I don’t wish I had a secret button that instantly and anonymously executed people like David Cameron and Jeremy Clarkson (mine’s underneath the kitchen table, but I shouldn’t tell you that, you’ll all be round wanting a go).

Kindness. Or as People United researcher Jo Broadwood calls it, when we meet up in Canterbury for a two-day briefing about the aims of the museum project, ‘pro-social activity’. This two-day meet-up did what it presumably set out to do, which was fill up my head with ideas and questions, with shifts and adjustments, sometimes with arguments. And all of it coming back to that principle of ‘kindness’, of making work (in our case, theatre and music) that creates change.

There’s an old photograph that turned up recently on Facebook, of Chumbawamba playing a free outdoor concert under a makeshift canvas awning at Menwith Hill listening station in North Yorkshire, basically a US spy base that sits awkwardly among the rolling greenness of the Dales. The photograph has us playing in front of two banners we’d painted, one reading ‘Music is not a threat’, the other, ‘Action that music inspires can be threat’. And when I saw it, I realised that the intervening 30 years since that photograph was taken haven’t changed that simple idea for me – art, as Brecht puts it, as not just a mirror but as a hammer with which to smash that mirror. Art that provokes and questions, that changes the way we think. Rod Dixon of Red Ladder is apt to walk out of theatre productions full of praise for the piece he’s just seen – beautifully acted, compelling, funny, clever, whatever – but unable to get past the simple question, ‘what was it for? What did it say?’ It’s no good just making nice art. The trick is to make nice art that provokes a kinder world.

Defining kindness as something that goes beyond individual acts of generosity and thoughtfulness, we examine the potential of the arts to be at the heart of strengthening our capacity for empathy, friendship, social bonds and concern for others, including future generations.

(People United)

I know it’s more or less what I’ve always thought, but it’s still worth reminding myself every now and then just what it is that I do, what’s important – taking art and shaking it, asking questions of it, giving it a reason, a point, a duty, even. As with many things in life, I blame punk. It took a love of creativity and ideas and gave it a kick up the arse. It didn’t run away from the pro-social values I already knew, it expanded them, gave them meaning – it took punk to tell me that bigotry and racism didn’t fit with anyone’s idea of pro-social values – fired me up enough so that thirty-odd years later I could be still be charging towards ideas, ready to dive headfirst into Manchester Museum with Dan and Sarah and all those people in Canterbury whose heads buzzed with the challenge of making something worthwhile, effective, important. Making something for a reason. Making something that contributes towards ‘a sense of people being connected by force of our common humanity’. Something that encompasses notions of compassion, social justice, neighbourliness and respect for others.

People United’s manifesto, ‘Arts & Kindness’ is available as a free download here.

This blog was first published on Boff’s Whalley’s website.

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