One of the very great pleasures of my writing life occurred on Friday. Over breakfast I wrote a few stanzas, in a loose sort of metre, with half a rhyme-scheme. In late afternoon I heard them sung back to me by Boff Whalley, transformed but recognisable, raw material mined carved and polished in a few short hours. Seasoned songwriters will be yawningly familiar with this sensation but for me, a fat-fingered guitarist and toad-throated singer, it appears as nothing other than a miracle. Even more giddyingly, we then wrote another one. The pure miracle of it, though, was just one part of why I was so excited. It was also exciting because of 2p pieces. I’ll explain.
I’ve spent this week in residence at Manchester Museum with writer-composer Boff Whalley, director Sarah Punshon and theatremaker Josh Coates, exploring the extraordinary collections, preparatory to making a large-scale participatory performance there in November. We’ll be working with (hopefully) over a hundred performers, including five choirs, to create a weekend-long performance inspired by the wonders of the museum collection.
It’s not hard to be wonderstruck by that collection. During the course of this week we’ve been meeting the museum’s curators and staff, and they are as fine a collection of humans as you could encounter. It’s hard to imagine a group of people more collectively enthused by their work and their subject. To take just one example, I never thought the time would come when I’d be excited by geology, but an hour with David Gelsthorpe, the museum’s Curator of Earth Science Collections was enough to change that. Three-hundred-million year-old fossils! Specimens collected by Marie Stopes because of an encounter with a Japanese love rat! A meteorite as old as the earth and as big as a football! And a hundred and eighty million years ago, those bones were swimming in the sea!
We started with the idea of using performance and song to amplify the wonder of the museum’s collections, but we’ve quickly realised that it can go much further than that. What is wonder for? The piece has been co-commissioned by the museum and People United, an organisation whose mission is to increase the amount of pro-social behaviour in the world. We want to broaden that, on this project, to include pro-environmental behaviour. The museum, a relatively small one with an incredibly diverse collection, makes it very easy to see connections through history – and not just between us and the humans who made the fingerprints on that 30,000 year-old pot, but also between a 180-million year old fossil fish and the frogs in the vivarium. It’s not just about us.
Can a weekend of performance ever really have an impact on people’s behaviour, however brilliantly realised it might be? I think it can – but only as part of a wider culture of social and environmental awareness. Last week we were talking about those 2p machines, you know the ones they have at seaside arcades? Any given cultural stimulus is just like 2p in a machine. A really remarkable show might be as much as 6p. And unlike the machines at the seaside, which are perpetually on the brink of emptying themselves down the chute (but never quite do), most people are a long way from their tipping point. Every so often, though, your show catches someone at just that point. Then your 2p worth might tip them into a whole new way of being.
The beautiful song Boff wrote on Friday made me start to hope this piece might drop a couple of coins at least. That was why I really got excited.