Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Our Weekend Away

It all started out so well. I had a Concern meeting in Dublin on the Saturday so we decided to travel down early that morning. T would meet friends and do some shopping whilst I was in the meeting. We would get together during the afternoon and then travel out to Westmeath to stay at a farmhouse near the village of Fore. On the Sunday T would visit the ruined monastery complex that the village adjoined and I would go cycling in search of new historic sites.

The weather forecast was good for both days with rain happening overnight. Because of the early start we packed the car and secured my bike on the rear carrier on Friday evening. The next morning in bright sunshine I reversed the car down the drive and swung back towards the bank at the side of the lane. T got out, closed the gate and we were away. The journey to Dublin went smoothly and we chatted enthusiastically about what we were going to do.

I dropped T on Camden St and joined the Board meeting. It was warm and very humid when we met up in the afternoon. Driving out on the road to Sligo, we visited some inscribed wayside crosses at Killucan, a fortified mediaeval church with battlements and firing slits at Taghmon and a restored Franciscan Friary at Multyfarnham. After stopping at Hotel Castlepollard for a fine meal, we drove to the farmhouse at Fore very pleased with how the day had gone.

We were the only guests and were given a very comfortable room with large brass bed. After unpacking our bags we went out for some fresh air. The breeze was getting up and the rain was starting to come in. Something strange about the back of the car made me look down. The rear wheel of my bike was twisted at an odd angle. Anxiously I unclamped the bike from the carrier. The wheel rim was bent and cracked. I threw my head back and howled in frustration. With a broken wheel, my bike was completely useless.

Our hosts came out to see what was happening. I showed them the wheel and explained that when reversing into the lane that morning, I must have damaged it by bending the bike on the carrier against the bank. They sympathised and invited us in for a cup of tea. We learnt that they were both pretty active. John did marathons and Grainne did show-jumping. There were plenty of photos of them in action on the wall of the lounge.

This was T’s first time in Fore. I’d visited the site three times already and had been looking forward to going somewhere different, cycling across north Westmeath into Longford to see the motte at Granard and the ruins at Abbeylaragh. Oh well, it would have to be another time. I only had myself to blame.

Then Grainne said - would you like to borrow my bike tomorrow? I looked up and beamed at her. It’s not a bad bike, she said, I’ve done a couple of triathlons. Thank you, I said, that would be fantastic.

After a great breakfast, which included our hosts free-range eggs and homemade bread and jam, we got ready in bright sunshine. T packed her little rucksack with several guides to the monastery complex that John had lent her and headed off towards the village. I adjusted the saddle on Grainne’s bike and pedalled away through the leafy lanes of Westmeath, the wind in my hair.

We both had great days out thanks to our very friendly and most generous hosts at Hounslow House, Fore, Co Westmeath. It’s a 200 year old farmhouse overlooking the verdant Fore valley. A fantastic place to stay run by kind-hearted people: www.hounslow house.com. We couldn’t recommend it more highly; we will definitely be back.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

The Animals

My third writing workshop at the Banbridge Box turned into a brainstorm. We began by looking for a topic to work on. The best idea sprouted from recent events in Tiblisi where floods had destroyed part of the zoo. Many animals had escaped and run wild through the city. The notion that captured the imagination of the group was - what would happen if wild animals came to Banbridge?

We started off by reminiscing about zoos. I recalled going to Bristol Zoo as a child. I felt the animals were unhappy in their pens, they appeared so sad and subdued. Many did not seem to welcome visitors and some were openly aggressive towards them. I vividly recalled the chimpanzees that used to pee out through the bars of their cage and applaud when they happened to catch a visitor with a jet of urine. There were also the camels that spat lumps of white phlegm a remarkable distance beyond their cage towards the unwary. Of course, my brothers and I enjoyed these animals best of all.

Many of the workshop group had similar reminiscences, which led us to the next theme. What would the animals do in Banbridge and why? This quickly developed into a revenge story. The animals would be retaliating for the mistreatment and exploitation that they and their kind had suffered at human hands. They would be targeting different shops and businesses to wreak their revenge: buffalo trashing the butchers, rhinos destroying the Chinese Medical Centre, etc. This theme gave us a lot of pleasure and plenty of inventive links with local shops were made.

Then we went on to what the animals would do after they had taken over the town. Some said they would go to the cinema and we had fun selecting the films they might have chosen to see: Jurassic Park, King Kong, etc. Others thought they would seek to destroy all symbols of progress (e.g. cars, mobiles, etc) and try to restore the world to a sort of pre-lapsarian harmony. Others suggested they would go on their holidays to the seaside, eating ice-cream and getting spa treatments in the finest hotels.

This very productive journey lasted some forty five minutes and generated a lot of ideas. After this the brainstorm seemed to run out of energy. When the workshop drew to a close, I was left with pages of notes and the task of coming up with a poem. The fact that there were so many ideas made this a real challenge. I ended up writing a piece around the revenge story, deciding to park the other ideas for the time being.



They swarmed across the Bann
uphill and through the Cut
emperor penguins
perched on hippos backs
stately giraffes
pythons round their necks
leopards and tigers roaring
black vultures overhead
at the Old Town Hall
four elephants trumpeted
and a rhino jabbed his horn
into the clinic of Dr Shi
crocodiles invaded Donaghys
snapping at killer heels
buffalo demolished Quails
trampling ribs into the street
meanwhile at the Downshire
grizzlies made barmen dance
as monkeys vied for coconuts
hurling rocks at drinkers heads
another fanfare sounded
and the commotion died
folk stumbled out howling
are the creatures still around?


Monday, 15 June 2015

My workshop with the under-fives

I arrived at the Banbridge Box to do a writing workshop. The place was full of women and small children. There was an art exhibition on called ‘A Mother’s Earth’. The women were the artists and they had their children with them. I’ve come to do a writing workshop, I explained. Why don’t you do it with the children, suggested one of the women. I was a little hesitant; I’d never done a workshop with small children before. But then I thought, go on, why not.

There were five children aged between three and four. We all sat down on the floor. They watched me carefully. I brought out a linen bag in which I had placed a variety of small objects. When I did the workshop with adults I asked them to close their eyes, reach inside the bag and feel for an object. In essence it was an imagination exercise that went from holding an unfamiliar object to writing about the ideas that it had stimulated. I had no real notion of how it was going to work with the children. I knew they wouldn’t be writing something, I thought they might be able to tell me a story.

We began. I offered the linen bag to them. They had no hesitation in joining in (adults often had to be cajoled). A young boy closed his eyes and dived his hand in. Have you found something, I asked. He nodded and pulled his hand out, opening his eyes straight away. Moo-cow, he said, looking at the small plastic animal. He began to move it straight away. The cow began jumping all over the floor, leaping onto other toys. He was making growling noises and the cow was boring into a truck head down. What’s the moo-cow doing, I asked. Eating, he said, stopping growling momentarily. I was distracting him with my question. He turned back to the cow and it was off again, jumping around the room. I offered the linen bag to a young girl. She closed her eyes and put her hand in, pulling out a seashell that spiralled to a point. She beamed and began to move the shell around her in loops and dives. Then, at the behest of one of the mums, she put the shell to her ear.

Other kids pulled out different objects. They all began a game with the object pretty much straight away. They didn’t really want to verbalise. My questions about what was going on were an intrusion into the imaginative worlds that they were engaged in. The stories that they were making were being acted out.

After a while they left my objects and moved on to other toys and playthings that were in the room. In a box in the corner were wigs and hats, old stage props left by the theatre company. So the next game was dressing up, both kids and adults. I wore a top hat and blew up balloons. The kids pranced around in costume with them. When this game was waning, one of the mums suggested I read a poem. We all sat down on the floor and I read one of my poems. They listened rapt to the sounds right through to the end. Another, said one of the mums. I read again, but their attention began to wane. We finished up with cake and drinks, with several children running around shrieking.

It was a great workshop. The kids had made imaginative stories with their play. And I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I think they did too. I then sat at the table in the centre of the room and sketched out a poem. Later, one of the mums matched it with a photo she had taken.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Banbridge Box

I’ve got a new position. I’m working part-time with Big Telly Theatre on the creative shop project in Banbridge. We are based in an empty shop on the main street, just along from the Old Town Hall. Our aim is to engage with local people to make a creative space where people can experience the arts in innovative ways. This pop-up creative hub was launched on Tuesday and will be open until early July. It’s called the Banbridge Box and I’m the writer in residence.

Big Telly have already delivered this creative project in Ballycastle, Strabane and Portstewart. Alice is the co-ordinator, a dynamic young woman with a mane of auburn hair. So far the Banbridge Box has seen performances of street theatre, workshops and an art exhibition. And much more is on the way.

After the launch by the Mayor of the new Council, Alice and I began a writing project. We went out on the street and into nearby shops to invite people to participate. We explained that we were based in the creative shop and I was going to start by writing a new poem. We were out and about in the town doing some research for that and invited them to contribute.

‘What’s it about,’ they said?

‘Well,’ I replied, ‘Banbridge town, I suppose.’

‘Okay,’ they said, looking a little puzzled.

‘Well,’ I continued, ‘why have you come into town today?’

That was a good question. Most people were happy to engage in conversation about what there were in town to do. Only one of the people we approached refused to speak with us. I was reminded of the first ever research I had done as an undergraduate, asking people in a small town in North Wales what had brought them into the town that day and how far they had travelled.

We were doing a sort of poetic anthropology. I made notes after each of these conversations and in less than an hour had plenty of material. I then sat down and wrote a draft, which I revised over the next couple of days. My first poem from the Banbridge Box is published on the wall of the creative shop. Next I’ll be doing a workshop to encourage people to make their own new pieces of writing.

Bann Box One

I’m in a terrible hurry
lego for my brother
he passed an exam
just for the craic
couple of driving lessons
a big steak dinner
smoking in the car
window wound down
putting money toward
the new maisonette
her engagement present
fat balls and wild bird seed
I’ve a real sweet tooth.