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Guest interview: Steve Toase on Haunt

24 Jun

Steve Toase, author of unsettling fiction and one of the lead writers of the Haunt project, takes time out of his busy schedule to talk about homelessness, collaboration, and a ghost walk with a difference…

Steve Haunt picture for blog

You can find out more about Steve, his published work, and the Haunt project at http://www.stevetoase.wordpress.com, http://www.harrogatehaunt.wordpress.com or on Facebook @stevetoase1.   

Hi Steve. For anyone who hasn’t come across Haunt yet, please could you explain what it is?

Haunt is a project which explores how the lives of people experiencing homelessness or vulnerable housing are haunted by the identity of Harrogate. It is about bringing the stories of people experiencing homelessness or vulnerable housing to the fore, and including them within the voice of town.

How did the project start?

I’ve been carrying around the seed for Haunt since at least 2009. Then, in 2014, Tessa Gordziejko from Imove Arts contacted me to ask if I had any project ideas. I suggested that if we could get a bit of funding I’d put together an anthology of stories based on my own experiences. If we could get a bit more then I wanted to bring Becky Cherriman on board and run writing workshops for people experiencing homelessness. What I really wanted was to create a performance and installation inspired by these experiences, and the idea of people being haunted by the identity of the town. Imove liked the idea and agreed to produce the project.

Who else is involved in Haunt?

Many, many people! I’ve been working with Tessa and Becky pretty much since day one. We’ve worked with Harrogate Homeless Project and Foundation UK (who help people aged 16-25 threatened by homelessness in Harrogate). Throughout Haunt we’ve worked with a vast number of participants. Some only came to one session, others to every one.

We’ve also been working with Paul Floyd Blake, who has taken photos for the project. Bean & Bud hosted an exhibition of Paul’s photos, alongside writing from the workshops, which can now be seen at Harrogate Theatre. Harrogate Royal Pump Room Museum included work from Haunt in their Harrogate Stories exhibition and we’ve held pop up readings at Corrina’s Community Café, and Bean & Bud.

For the latest stage we’ve been joined by physical performers Zoe Parker and Tom Hunt, Kwah, who is responsible for sound design, Al Orange working on the projections, and Steph Jones who is assisting with production. Harrogate Theatre have included Haunt in their 2’s Company Festival, and have been fantastic during the development of the performance.

Why was the focus on homelessness so important to you? And why in Harrogate?

The main reason for Harrogate is because it ties in to my own experience. I was thrown out of home when I was 16, just before my GCSEs. I found myself living in tiny bedsits inside large townhouses, where I felt haunted by the physical presence of Harrogate’s identity within the physical structure of the building.

Harrogate is perceived as a rich place to live and has a history of opulence, yet there is a high level of homelessness. Up to twenty people a month are referred to the local homeless hostel but in a recent survey over 60% of people thought there was little or no homelessness in Harrogate.

In addition, the bedsit type of accommodation isn’t really separated as it is in some places. A street may have a five bedroom family home, a house of flats, and a house of bedsits. Often these can only be identified by the multiple doorbells. This creates a very distinct experience that I felt needed to be brought to a wider audience.

Were you surprised by the quality of work produced by workshop participants?

I was surprised by the range of stories and experiences. We had people coming to the workshops who wrote regularly and at least one who hadn’t written anything beyond a shopping list since school. Every participant wrote work of a high enough quality to be included in the anthology.

What were your aims in setting the project up?

There were a number. One was to show that homelessness is present everywhere, not just in urban centres. That anyone can end up homeless: it just needs family breakdown, or a run of not covering bills, and then the floor falls away. Another aim was to show that each person who is homeless has their own story. They are not an amorphous whole, but individuals with aspirations and hopes. We only see people at one moment in life. If you’d met me in March 1992 the perception of who I was/where I was going would have been very different!

Hand on heart I can say we’ve achieved far more than I ever hoped. Changing perceptions of homelessness is a long process, but if people who read the anthology or come to the performances maybe take a moment to think about the person sat begging who they pass every morning, take a moment to pass the time of day, then we will have succeeded.

Congratulations on your Saboteur Awards shortlisting! Why do you think Haunt has struck a chord with so many people?

Getting onto the Saboteur Awards’ shortlist was amazing! I was a bit overwhelmed when I found out, but so pleased we were shortlisted for Best Collaborative Project. Collaboration is at the heart of everything we’ve been doing.

I think Haunt has struck a chord for several reasons. Firstly, I think that hearing people speak about their own experiences of homelessness is very powerful. It’s a subject that is discussed a lot (particularly in light of recent attempts to impose Public Space Protection Orders, which would have criminalised rough sleepers in specific areas), but normally by people outside looking in.

Secondly, that challenging of perceptions carries over into confronting how Harrogate is seen. Even if people are not personally familiar with the town they will know its reputation. I’ve had several conversations about towns such as Oxford or Bath which are perceived to be wealthy, but also have a lot of people experiencing homelessness.

Having already published a Haunt anthology (which is excellent, by the way), you’re now in the process of creating a public performance of the work. What made you decide to do that?

Thank you! We put a lot of thought into the anthology. The book is small enough to fit into a pocket, so someone experiencing street homelessness can keep their copy with them. The font is Windsor, used in a 1920s brochure for Harrogate, and of course the back cover is one of Paul Floyd Blake’s excellent photos.

I wanted to put on a performance as a piece of site specific theatre to take the stories to a different audience, and to make it a full sensory experience. I don’t want to give too much away, but it will be a ghost walk with a difference…

The performances will take place on June 30th, July 1st and 2nd at 2pm, 5pm and 8pm. The 2pm performance will be slightly different and family friendly. Tickets can be purchased here: http://www.harrogatetheatre.co.uk/whats-on/Haunt

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Panic and pushy dads: how not to treat your imagination.

9 Aug

angry man 2

I don’t always get on with my imagination. That might surprise you, what with me being a writer in training and all, but it’s true.

What happens is this: I’m sitting at my laptop, happily typing away, thinking that my imagination is a wonderful thing and all is well with the world, when suddenly my fingers stop and I find that I’m muttering crossly to myself. This is because I’m stuck. I need to work something out; maybe how a particular aspect of a fantastical world is going to function, or how my characters can find out certain information in a way that doesn’t feel clunky to the reader. Or maybe I’ve got my protagonist into a tricky situation and I need to help them get out of it, but I’m not sure how to do it.

Now, you might be thinking, “Well, why don’t you just plan better before you start writing?” and yes, smarty-pants, that is a good point (and please see my previous post on the delight of plotting), but sometimes things just crop up when you’re mid-story, okay?

Where was I? Oh yes, stuck. Whatever the reason, when I get stuck like this I have a tendency to panic, and a very odd thing happens in my head. I turn into a pushy dad.

There’s my imagination, daydreaming happily in a corner of my mind, quite secure in the knowledge that it will come up with the writerly goods in its own time. But I go barging over to it in ‘pushy dad’ mode, demanding to know what it’s going to do about the problem I’ve come up against. My imagination shrugs, prompting the pushy dad part of myself to sit down next to it for a serious chat.
“Look,” pushy dad says. “I’m sure we can come up with a solution if we just think about this rationally for five minutes. Let’s do a flowchart.”
At this point my imagination rolls its eyes and gets up to leave.
Pushy dad shouts: “Where are you going?”
My imagination responds: “Out!” and slams the door.
Pushy dad retreats in a sulk, leaving me with a headache and a short temper, still stuck.

I know this is the wrong way to treat my imagination, that it hates pressure just as much as I do. I know that what it really needs is the time and freedom for it to do its stuff and magically present me with the answer when I’m least expecting it. My imagination likes long walks and poetry readings and watching random history programmes. It likes cake and snoozes and conversations about things that are totally unrelated to what I’m writing.

I think the pushy dad is the part of me that worries I’ll never get my book finished, that if I let myself be stuck and relax about it, the end of the world will be nigh. That part doesn’t want to wait for the imagination to ruminate on problems, it wants answers now. But actually, trying to force my imagination to perform (dance, monkey, dance!) doesn’t get me anywhere. I’ve tried writing on in spite of being stuck. What tends to happen is that a few days later I work out the best solution and have to re-write everything I’ve written.

So from now on, I’m going to be kinder to my much maligned creative brain and give it as many long walks as it likes. I’ll just have to distract my pushy dad. Maybe I’ll lock it in a cupboard with a book of Sudoku puzzles, that should work…

Emergency writing biscuits.

28 Jun

 

Chocolates

I’ve always had an ambivalent relationship with food. No, that’s not true. I’ve always loved food. Food has always been my ‘go to’ thing when I’m feeling down or bored or anxious. Food has always been there for me, when I really needed it. And when I really needed it, I generally wanted chocolate.

That hasn’t changed much over the years, although I don’t eat anywhere near as much chocolate as I used to (Honestly. I used to eat tubs of chocolate spread mixed with packets of M and M’s. In one go, with a spoon.). The main occasions now when treats call me are when I’m writing. Not every time I sit down at the laptop, but when I’m stuck or trying to edit something tricky. I think I ate my own body weight in biscuits the time my creative writing tutor asked for a chapter by chapter breakdown of my entire book; what happened to whom, where and why.

I learnt two things from that experience. One: writing a chapter by chapter breakdown when I’m only a fifth of the way through a book is – for me anyway – about as much fun as repeatedly poking myself in the eye with a breadstick.  Two: eating that many biscuits makes my head ache and my teeth feel like I’ve been chewing glue. Not good.

So now I’m looking for other ways to soothe my writing worries, rather than resorting to emergency biscuits. I’m also on my guard for ‘helpful’ writing advice which sends me scuttling to the goody cupboard. I’ve realised that, when you’re writing, if a particular technique or strategy doesn’t feel right to you, then perhaps it isn’t.

Have an apple and think about it.

Nicobobinus, the boy who can do anything

25 Feb

Jofre Alsina, Lloyd Gorman and Eilidh Debonnaire in Nicobobinus c. Ellie Kurttz                  Terry Jones_Red Ladder-1244

Please click here to read my review of ‘Nicobobinus’ which was written to celebrate Red Ladder Theatre’s 2015 production based on the book by Terry Jones. This post was published on the Leeds Big Bookend Literature Festival Website 25/02/2015.

Goosebumps and papercuts: curating the Krampus Crackers project.

3 Dec

Terry Whidborne

Please click here to read my post reflecting on the experience of curating the Krampus Crackers project. This was published on the Leeds Big Bookend literature festival website 03/12/14.

So you want to run a children’s literature festival?

9 Aug

Perhaps you’re an aspiring children’s writer, or maybe you have kids of your own and think there should be more readings and literary events in your area. Whatever the reason, you want to put on a kids lit fest. But there are a few pitfalls to avoid…

1) Aaargh! I don’t know what I’m doing!

Be organised. Very organised. Before you do anything else, draw up a schedule of tasks. It might be helpful to start with the date of your festival and work backwards. What deadlines do you have? Once you’ve got your schedule, try to stick to it.

2) Anyone got a time machine?

Be realistic. You can only do so much. It might be your dream to run a week long children’s programme, but if there’s only you to organise it and you’re only free one evening a week to do the work, then it’s not going to happen! Why not start small and build up your programme year on year?

3) Where are the children?

If you want to engage children and young people, get schools and libraries in your local area onside. If you can arrange some school visits, that will give your festival a big boost. If you can’t, a mailout of your printed programme of events would certainly help.

Libraries are a good place to promote your festival, so try to have a presence there in the weeks leading up to your events, either physically or via a plethora of leaflets.

4) What do you mean you’re in a field?

Make sure everyone knows where your events are. Authors will appreciate a map of the venue, and so will any parents / carers trying to get their children to it. Include maps and directions in your programme, and put up plenty of signage around your venue to point the way for anyone who’s unfamiliar with the area.

5) Is this venue 26?

Having one central location for your festival may be the best bet, as keeping everything in the same building allows parents to easily move from one event to another. You may want to use one room for on-going activities like dressing up or face painting, which children and parents can take part in between the main events.

6) I’m not very good with blood…

If you’ve got under 18s attending your events, you’ll need to think about child protection. Your stewards will require some basic training, and there should be a children protection representative and a first aider on site at all times. Think about photography too – some parents/carers may need to keep their children out of photographs.

7) It’s all over – what now?

Without the generosity of volunteers and the brilliance of authors, there would be no literature festivals, so don’t forget to say thank you to everyone involved. That way, they might agree to work with you again next year!

 

In the run up to the 2014 Leeds Big Bookend literature festival, I was on the team of volunteers who organised the events. I worked closely with the lovely Fiona Gell and Dan Ingram-Brown to put together a programme of activities specifically for children and young adults. The events we organised – which ran across the 7th and 8th of June – went pretty well, even if we say so ourselves. There was, of course, room for improvement in how we’d done things, but I learnt a huge amount from the experience, which I thought it might be helpful to share.

These are a few of the fabulous authors I worked with:

Children’s poet David Harmer reads from ‘It Came From Outer Space!’

Emma Barnes tells an entertaining tale about ‘Wild Thing’.

Martyn Bedford fills us in on ‘Flip’, the first of his two young adult novels.

***

 

This post was also published on the Leeds Big Bookend literature festival website here.

I’m not that keen on Iain Duncan Smith.

18 Apr

I have a friend with ME, or Myalgic Encephalomyelitis. She’s had it since her daughter was small, when she spent months exhausted and in pain, crawling around the floor because standing up was too hard. Eventually she got a diagnosis.

If you met her at home, you might not guess that anything was wrong. She’s cheerful and coherent, and she tries to keep things neat and tidy. In fact, she’s pretty good at hiding her symptoms. She sleeps a lot, and a cold will knock her out for a week, but otherwise she seems normal. It’s only because I’ve known her for so long that I understand what her condition is like.

She asked me once what I would count as ‘severe pain’. I said that any pain not even touched by strong painkillers was severe. She just looked at me, and that’s when I realised she’s in pain like that every day.

Some people dismiss ME as an excuse for people to be lazy. My friend was training to be a bricklayer when she got ill. Even after that, she worked for two mornings a week until new government legislation stopped her. Now she volunteers for a few hours in a charity shop, because she likes to feel useful and it makes her leave the house. If she was well, I know she’d be working full-time. I know she can’t do more than she does now, and it’s because her body doesn’t work like it’s meant to. 1
I’ve seen her try to walk on Ilkley Moor during a period when she felt well, and after half an hour her muscles just gave up. She stumbled forwards as if she was drunk, and every step was excruciating.

Of course, she’s been declared fit for full-time work.

You only have to read blogs like this 3 to see that the current work capability assessment is deeply flawed. When the company in charge of carrying out these assessments starts harassing people in comas and the impact of failing the assessment is 10,600 people dying or committing suicide, surely it’s obvious that something is wrong. 4

Not to Iain Duncan Smith, who allegedly sent a memo stating that it would be ‘business as usual’ in terms of work capability assessments, even after a court ruled that his fitness for work test “discriminated against many disabled people”. 5

This is, after all, the man who referred to those on certain benefits as ‘stock’ 6, which frankly makes my blood run cold.

Yeah, I’m not that keen on Iain Duncan Smith.

 

 

To read more about ME, please visit this website: http://www.meassociation.org.uk/