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Funky Morrissing in London – meet Syd Pochin


4 Minute Read

‘The one thing that gets me is, you just get six guys and a musician, and you’ve got a show. It all comes together ‘

Syd Pochin and I are having a pint in a Battersea pub where House music is playing in the background. It doesn’t seem as far away from the sound world of Cornish Billy or The Worcester Hornpipe as you might think.

‘When I’m dancing, I’m thinking this is tradition, this goes way back to a bygone age when there were no electronics. And no boxed sets on the couch.’ Whereupon Syd deftly traces the Rabelasian history of Morris Dancing as the resident musician of the Westminster Chapter. The stipendiary gig, he tells me, goes back to Henry VII bringing in an artisanal take on things to lively up the Galliards and Lavoltas in the court cloister. A bit later, Will Kemp was doing Morris moves instantly recognisable to country people all the way from London to Norwich.

Dance was a bush telegraph of allusion and social mobility like folk song tweaked visually and musically cross-country and quite possibly across continents. ’This is how we do it’ as youngers chant at Raves. If you’ve ever shaken a leg at a wedding reception or a corporate do, or indeed ventured out with a bit of A of A–style Flamboyance, it seems we’ve actually being Morrissing without noticing it. Syd got me wondering, as the house soundtrack ran on, about Ceroc, Capoeira and The Four Tops among other things.

These days Westminster Morris is itself the host of a Day of Dance in Trafalgar Square and radial hostelries in W1 which this year falls on May 12th. For reasons best known to itself, Westminster Council has just given them the morning, around noon, thus far. Although the Morris tradition is maintained and respected in the new world of dance diversity – Bhangra, Lindyhop, you name it – by the likes of Cecil Sharpe House for instance, the repository of many of the tunes in Syd’s cheery repertoire – you hopefully will be lucky enough to come across him on one of TFL’s busking pitches up West as I was recently.

Syd’s fascination with Morris began when he left the Wirral for a ten-year stint in Systems Consultancy with KPMG in Hong Kong. ‘I got involved with the Round Table and we used to put on an Ox Roast every year – we came across the Honk Kong Morris, about 15 guys from Ove Arup and other Anglo- Chinese outfits.’  One wonders how the present administration in Hong Kong would respond – given the Chinese urban habit of Tai-Chi in the morning.

Morris, as a team game, appears the soul of joshing democracy.  The ‘corners 1 and 6, 2 and 5 dance together, corners and middles rotate as does the leader, then the middles 3 and 4. Then everyone dances together’. Tempo is moderated democratically over a swift half.  Westminsters’ bush telegraph moderates to the Cotswolds’, while across the country, according to your locality, you might find ‘swords’ (actually used, Syd explains, to brush down pit ponies while the miners danced in lieu of showering facilities), handkerchiefs (fluttering Moorishly to waft away evil spirits) or clogs (factory girls square bashing to the looms’ groove to keep warm). Even, in Syd’s Liverpool days Pom-Poms, where female troupes with melting-pot influences from Tiller Girling to The Nolans and Cheerleading – practised enthusiastically under the handed-down Morrissian aegis. These days, Open Morris welcomes women and all the colours of the terpsichorean rainbow.

Syd’s first encounter with the musical kinship of Morrissing harks back to the Scouseward pub residency of The Spinners, whom you might remember as beacons of Scouse diversity on night-time TV in the seventies – you had to arrive early to get a seat. He has in turn gravitated to a Wednesday night residency at the Brewhouse in Islington, near Highbury Tube, which hosts all manner of guests and where taking the floor is a distinct possibility post-hot-desking or mid-prandial. Taking things a step further, Syd says newcomers are very welcome to give Morrissing a go when the Westminster team practices on Wednesday nights at St John’s Hall, Hyde Park Crescent, Tyburnia – not far from the wonderfully communitarian Funky Nuns of that ilk in fact. Your school day memory of folk dancing might be a tad stiff and curricular, but happens upon Syd busking, and his colleagues shaking a leg as the weather warms and I challenge you not to feel a spring in your step. I do. And find yourself warmly encouraged – nay instinctively emboldened to join the dance.

More information at www.westminstermorris.org

The Westminster Morris Men on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCY6ns2hnyfM-iHjXVz2QmWA

www.islingtonfolkclub.co.uk   at The Brewhouse on 21st April then every Thursday from May

Andy’s radio conversation with Syd is at

https://www.mixcloud.com/andy-bungay/saturday-4th-april-ft-syd-pochin-westminster-morris/

The Culture Interview – singer/songwriter Luz Elena Caicedo


8 Minute Read

Luz Elena Caicedo, in her 50s, is the brilliant Colombian singer/bandleader with Conjunto Sabroso, a world-class Latin band who has performed everywhere from the UK to China. Luz has just released her FIRST VIDEO and it’s of the beautiful Yo Soy Mujer Con Tantas Mujeres Dentro (I Am A Woman with So Many Women Inside) which celebrates women and also highlights their global struggles. It coincides with International Women’s Day today. It also comes out at a time when Colombia has just made abortion legal. You can watch it here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hJk3Q7G5dqU

Tell me something about the connection between this song and International Women’s Day?

I would say that because the song focuses on sorority and the idea that we are in essence a collage of the many other women in our lives, and because it both celebrates women’s achievements and highlights our universal struggles, it is directly connected to this special date.

Some would argue that Women’s Day should be every day but I believe that having a specific date to mark International Women’s  Day – is an acknowledgement of our struggle, and of the fact that we have only gotten this far because of the courage, battles, alliances, support, and sacrifices made by so many other women before us. As I say in the song: ‘…we are standing on the remains of many others sacrificed…’

And also about the making of this video? The director is a woman too?

Yes, the video director is Alejandra Jimenez a Colombian film-maker. It really was an organic process, I happened to sing the song (which I was in the process of recording), in her husband’s Zoom birthday party during the lockdown, and she really liked  it, she said ‘that is an amazing song, it really touched me, Luz Elena we have to do a video of it…’, I didn’t think she was serious, but the next time we met, she brought it up again, and I was so flattered, I said of course that I would be honoured.

She explained her vision and what she wanted to do, which was to include shots/images from the women in my family, as well as other close friends. I said I would also like to include some of the Latin American songstresses who have influenced me musically, such as La Lupe from Cuba, Toña La Negra from Mexico, and Mercedes Sosa from Argentina who all appear in the video, intertwined with images of women in marches, social leaders, indigenous women, as well as images alluding to mother earth ‘La Pachamama’ to which I dedicate a verse to in the song.

As Alejandra says, there are many layers to the video. Another important aspect of the creation of the video was the various women coming together contributing their time and expertise, namely my niece Lina Maria Caicedo also a filmmaker and archive producer, who provided all the archive footage, and supported me throughout the process, and Elena Rodriguez who assisted Alejandra with technical issues. This video truly was an example of sorority at its best!

Do you relate to particular women’s struggles in the world?

I don’t consider myself a feminist, although you could argue that I may have perhaps rewritten the narrative of what was expected of me as a Colombian woman from a conservative family, given that I chose not to have any children, and that I am a bandleader and lead singer of a band in a male-dominated genre, in that sense I would say that perhaps I’m more of a feminist by action than by personal perception.

I don’t belong to any active group combating gender inequalities, but of course, I relate to the many issues and struggles that as women we all face, for instance, less pay, less credibility as an artist, fewer opportunities in professional settings, the fight against domestic violence, the legalisation of abortion etc.

Tell me how Conjunto Sabroso started?

I never intended to be a Salsa singer, I was a Colombian and Latín folk dancer for many years, I actually saw myself as a dancer who sang a bit and played a bit of guitar. However, when I came back from my year abroad in Mexico in 1992 the Latin/Salsa scene had exploded in the UK. I was told there was a Salsa band auditioning female backing singers, and I went to audition and got the gig.

It was a 7 piece band, all men plus me. I didn’t really like their repertoire, but it was an opportunity to sing professionally which I had never done before! My harmonies were not very strong and after 8 months they told me I was going to be on a three-month trial, and that I would have to go if I didn’t improve because they were ‘…going up in the world, and I wasn’t moving with them…’ I felt very hurt naturally, but I decided to leave soon after that conversation, and form my own band, where I wouldn’t be told what to sing by a man.

I realised I was more of a lead singer, as I felt like I was in the straightjacket of singing backing vocals with a bunch of men and just looking pretty. I formed a band where I had the freedom to do what I wanted, specially choosing my own repertoire, which was very liberating. It was a great lesson, it gave me the courage to start something that has stood the test of time. Today I am proud to say, we are one of the most popular and longest-running Salsa bands in the UK, and are blessed to have some of the most outstanding, talented and experienced musicians on the Latin scene playing with us!

And your history as a singer? Did everyone in your family sing?

There are no other musicians in my family but my maternal grandmother (I am told I look very much like her) and her sisters sang in family reunions when they were young, they apparently had very beautiful voices. My grandmother lived with us, and I have beautiful memories of her singing all day, and singing to us, she would have a different song for each one of us.

How important is it for you that you are Colombian?

Being Colombian is very important to me, I love my culture and our music. Being a Colombian folk dancer as a teenager gave me a sense of belonging, and that was very important in my formative years, as I understood my place in this society. I am part of an immigrant family, and have the benefit of enjoying the best of two different cultures, as I love London and the amazing multicultural aspect of this amazing city!

How do you choose the songs that you sing which come from all over South America?

In terms of the Salsa band Conjunto Sabroso, I choose them with Wilmer Sifontes, who is co-leader of the band with me. One of us will suggest a song we like. If it makes us both want to dance, we have it written out and for sure it goes in the set. I have written a few of them, and the audience really like our original tunes, so we must be doing something right…! 😉

For Matices Latinos which is kind of a contemporary folkloric Quartet, I choose most of the songs, and it’s an opportunity to play many different genres from the Latin American songbook. We have the benefit of sharing the same language in most of the Latin American countries and therefore we listen to each other’s music, which is what makes it so interesting. I am now singing more of my own songs in this band.

And are some of them passed down through your family?

The songs are not necessarily passed down through our families, but we have been definitely influenced by the music our mothers and fathers have listened to. Dancing and festivities and celebrations are Intergenerational in our culture, so we get to share much of the same music!

How is it being Colombian in London?

It’s great, as I said before it feels fantastic living in one of the most iconic cities in the world. I feel very privileged to be here, I love London for its openness and respect for people’s individualism. I love that there is space and audiences for all types of music, including mine, and that because there is so much appreciation for the arts here, it’s an amazing place to thrive if you put your mind and effort into it.

We think of salsa when we think of Colombia but tell us something about La Cumbia?

Cumbia is an Afro Colombian rhythm from the Caribbean Coast, and it is also Colombia’s national rhythm. It is traditionally played with drums, Gaita which is an Amerindian and ancestral flute, and voice. You also have orchestrated Cumbias, and this music is danced throughout Colombia, Latin America, and has also taken Europe by storm in the last ten years.

What have been some of your favourite gigs?

Some of my favourite gigs have been playing in China in The Beijing International Festival, at The Poly Theatre in Beijing in 2001, playing in Kenya at The Kijani Festival in 2007, playing at The Jazz Café after coming out of lockdown last year was pretty special, playing two open-air gigs in Carnaby Street also last year was amazing, and two weeks ago playing at Tomek Zaleski’s life celebration event, who was a renowned Salsa DJ and collector who did so much to promote Salsa music in the UK and sadly passed away this January! He did the liner notes for our first Conjunto Sabroso album!

Look out for @conjuntosabroso on Insta.

 

 

How Lockdown Led Me To Photography


1 Minute Read

Until the lockdown and the worldwide pandemic struck back in March 2020, I spent my life racing here, there and everywhere, barely stopping to study my surroundings. I have had a busy life with various jobs and two children, and I didn’t realise it, but a hole needed filling. Photography did that.

I found it challenging to remain locked in during the lockdown and soon realised that the allocated exercise time plus the great advantage of owning a dog allowed me to walk around London and explore.  

It was eerily quiet with empty streets, and I began by taking photographs with my i-phone of the deserted roads. I will never forget standing at the top of The Mall at about 9 o’clock one weekday morning during what would have been a rush hour, and there wasn’t a single car in sight. The parks were equally empty at the very beginning of the first lockdown. It was then that I started studying my surroundings in close detail, from flora and fauna in the parks to the detail of buildings and structures that I had known all my life but never truly looked at before. So many people have said to me that although they knew a building, bridge or structure exceptionally well, they had never seen it from that angle or noticed details that I could point out through my photographs. 

Since I was a child, photography has been part of my life, but I never saw myself as a photographer. My mother was a keen photographer and a very good amateur watercolourist. Until lockdown and Covid 19 struck, my photographs mainly consisted of happy snaps of my friends and children. 

Then, last August, I won the Evening Standard Life in Lockdown Competition 2021. Not only first place but also fourth and ninth out of twenty. The first prize was for a photograph I took of Albert Bridge in Chelsea, and I can only say that after I had taken the shot, I jumped for joy with excitement. I had this instant feeling it was the one. And I’ve had that feeling a few times. The photograph that came fourth was taken early one morning in Hyde Park of two people walking near the Serpentine. They were silhouettes against a very crisp light on a chilly November morning in 2020. The ninth prize winner was a view of Buckingham Palace taken through two pillars of a balustrade at one of the entrances to St James Park. The pillars gave the impression of looking through a keyhole, and I chose it to be the cover of my book LONDON SILENCED.

Winning that competition gave me the confidence to do more photography, and in-between lockdowns, I was venturing further afield, discovering parts of London that I hadn’t known before. I was fascinated to learn the history of various areas such as Clerkenwell and Spitalfields. Clerkenwell has one of the oldest domestic buildings in London, dating back to the 15th century. The oldest is part of the Tower of London. Not many houses survived before the Great Fire of London in 1666.

I am drawn to the river. One day is never the same as the next, and photographs from the same spot look different in changing weather and light. I hadn’t realised how busy the river is for transporting building materials, waste and goods, and the Uber Riverboats transporting people, some of whom commute daily on these boats. Smaller companies rent out ribs and various types of boats, including a Venetian taxi boat, the first one to be licensed by Port of London. 

Not to mention the many houseboats, some of which are permanent residences and feel rather village-like on the river.

I can genuinely say that creating the book resulted from social media. I received an enormous amount of positive feedback and encouragement.

Publishing a book is like being on a roller coaster. There were many times when I was filled with doubt that anyone would be interested in what I had to show them. This contrasted with the huge thrill when I realized that people did appreciate my work and bought the book. 

I have been approached to have an exhibition of my photographs in the new year. I have had some of my images blown up to 3ft square and larger, and I am delighted with how good they look as it is a far cry from seeing an Instagram post on a smartphone. 

The moral of this story, as far as I am concerned, is that every cloud does have a silver lining, and one never knows what is around the next corner, but you have to be open to all possibilities, seize the moment and be ready to take some chances in life. Had it not been for the lockdown, I very much doubt I would have slowed down enough to realise what must have been lurking inside me all along – an eye for composition.

My book is for sale via www.claretollemachephotography.com and through four independent bookshops, John Sandoe, in Blacklands Terrace. SW3, Belgravia Books, Eccleston Street. SW1, Heywood Hill in Curzon Street, W1 and Mayhews in Motcomb Street. I am currently trying to get broader distribution for the book. (Any ideas gratefully received!)

 

©2021 Clare Tollemache Photography @claretollemachephotography

Who are Older Women Rock?


6 Minute Read

Leah Thorn explains who OWR are. She started this inspiring group when she was 65.

blood memory

I am an old age, all age woman,

no way past my use-by date.

Walking in ancestral sisters’ footsteps,

I am an archive on legs,

a time traveller, alive to life,

I embody time, provide testimony,

a radical, lyrical, womanist legacy

 

Women’s blood memory speaks in me

 

 a found poem by Leah Thorn, created after reading ‘Out of Time’ by Lynne Segal

                                                                                                and ‘How to Age’ by Anne Karpf

 

Using poetry, personal stories, ‘fashion’ and film, ’Older Women Rock!’ creates pop-up art spaces in which to raise awareness and explore issues facing early-old-age women in our 60s and 70s. It challenges our invisibility by placing us centre stage on our own terms; strengthens our resilience and our networks as we move into older age; and importantly, subverts society’s assumptions and prejudices about us.

How it started

I started ‘Older Women Rock!’ when I was 65. My generation of women made decisive change. I hope we never give up our vision of the world we want and our intention to have it.

In my 70s now, I am inundated daily with messages that as an older woman I am inconsequential and my thinking outmoded and no longer needed. This attempt to invalidate us builds on decades of oppression, where our existence has been diminished and erased.

I wanted to ‘hang out’ with older women to stop my growing sense of isolation and struggle. I was keen to see what their experiences were and to find a creative way to share what I was learning.

I set up opportunities for conversation with different kinds of women in their late 50s to mid 70s. I led workshops for women in a Zumba Gold class; women in prison; a deaf women’s group; women at a MIND Day Centre; lesbians in an Age UK Older LGBTQ project; daughters of Holocaust survivors; Women’s Institute members; unpaid carers; women who identify as feminist and those who definitely do not.

We addressed issues such as –

  • the lack of older women in the media or the misrepresentation of us as a stereotype or a joke
  • the fortune the beauty industry makes from the insecurity we feel that is manufactured by sexism and intensified by old age oppression
  • poverty and the fact that many women have small state pensions because of low-paid work and/or breaks in employment to raise children or to care for ageing parents
  • body image and the need to conceal or be ‘discreet’ about physical changes, like greying hair, facial hair or incontinence
  • sexuality
  • being a carer

Poetic clothing

Based on our conversations, I created poetry and then collaborated with older women artists to embroider, burn, print, bead, engrave and spray-paint words and images onto retro clothes sourced from local charity shops. Here are a few examples –

1

You speak of me in metaphors

of catastrophe. Soon I will be

an agequake, a grey tsunami.

My age is your nightmare.

A numerical fanfare

to fan your fear

 

Sculptor Nicholette Goff interpreted this poem by customising a 1940s jacket with skeins of grey hair and a beautifully constructed bar of ‘medals’,

2

Only men grow old on screen.

Women disappear from film and TV by fifty,

hit dread and disgust in early middle age

and suddenly we’re no longer fit for public display,

unless we’re flogging stair lifts, baths or wills

or we have a frozen face

or we’re de-aged by digital alteration.

It’s a kind of symbolic annihilation

 

Fashion designer and stylist Claire Angel burnt words from this poem onto a leather jacket.

 

3

         The beauty counter screams ‘Buy This Cream’.

Got taut, tight skin? You’re in.

Got ticking clocks? Botox. Detox.

Resist signs of ageing at all cost.

Stop. Reverse. Hide. Slo mo.

Smooth your skin ego.

Feel the urge for a youth surge?

Want a victory of science over time?

Want to reignite your youthful light?

Deny age. Defy age.

You’re in control with phenoxyethanol.

Replump with sodium phytate.

No. Retaliate. Fight age hate.

It’s a diabolical conspiracy

for women to age agelessly,

line-, scar-, crease-free

 

I refuse to let the forever-young drug erase

the handwriting of life across my face

 

Allie Lee of the Profanity Embroidery Group embroidered an image onto a 1980s jumpsuit in response to my poem –

 

4

         Vulva lost its youthful lustre?

Want a quick fix?

Try My New Pink Button,

rouge for labial lips

 

Annie Taylor of the Profanity Embroidery Group interpreted this poem onto a vintage negligee

5

         I’ll never have

a designer vagina

that vajazzle dazzles

and permanently dilates

 

Allie Lee of the Profanity Embroidery Group embroidered and beaded this poem onto a 1970s swimsuit.

 

6

         In my day, stockings came in black, bronze and American Tan,

opening a bank account needed the signature of a man,

girdles held in sexual urges, touching below the waist was no-go

and Dusty passed as hetero

There was no such thing as pubic hair wax and you daren’t use Tampax

or have a sexual climax for fear of being thought nymphomaniacs

 

A collaboration between members of the Profanity Embroidery Group, sculptor Nicholette Goff and myself, an extract of this poem was emblazoned onto a vintage wedding dress.

 

Pop up shops, a flashmob and films

 

There have been –

  • three pop-up exhibitions of the poetry clothing in shops in Folkestone, Stoke-on-Trent and Newcastle-under Lyme and one extended exhibition in the art gallery of Keele University
  • several ‘Older Women Rock!’ programmes of talks, performance, film screenings and workshops creatively celebrating ‘early old age’ women
  • Subversive Catwalks of older women ‘modelling’ the clothing while I read the poems
  • a wild Zumba Gold flashmob in Folkestone Shopping Centre

And three films have been made during the project –

  • ‘Older Women Rock!: The Documentary’ by filmmaker Clare Unsworth, a creative record of the pilot project in Folkestone showing poetry-emblazoned retro clothes, nineteen older models strutting a subversive catwalk and the Zumba Gold flashmob
  • ‘Love Your Lines’, a Public Service Announcement film shown on performance artist Tammy WhyNot’s YouTube channel

What next?

Fashion designer and stylist Claire Angel and I are responding to requests to buy ‘Older Women Rock!’ jackets by creating pieces for sale, which will be featured in our up-coming pop-up shop in Folkestone, Kent 17th-23rd December and in an online shop in the New Year.  

There will be ‘Older Women Rock!’ workshops in the New Year, including ‘Customise Your Clothes With Pearls’ and ‘Try Out Skateboarding’ and an intergenerational workshop, ‘Tattoo Stories’. 

For more information follow us on Instagram @loveolderwomenrock or contact us at loveolderwomenrock@gmail.com

The Culture Interview – Daphne Lander and Anne Jones who have written a musical.


12 Minute Read

Daphne Lander and Anne Jones are both in their mid-70s and they’ve just written a musical Artaban which is about to be shown in the West End.

How old are you both?

Daphne: Anne and I are both 75 – Anne is just older than me by a few days – she is 24th December and I am 29th.

Anne: We were both born under the star sign Capricorn and have always had similar interests and outlooks on life. I understand that a trait of the Capricorn is we will always achieve what we set out to do! Certainly, this trait has helped us both through the exciting but, at times, challenging journey we have travelled with our project to create Artaban, the musical.

How do you know each other?

Daphne Lander

Daphne: We met at secondary school at age 11 and so have been friends for many years.

Anne: From the day I met Daph, at our first year at Mayfield School, Putney, which was one of the first comprehensive schools of the fifties, I was attracted to her vitality and – sorry Daph – slightly crazy ways! She was a natural actor even then and entertained the class with her antics and impersonations. We competed for the best marks in English each year and both enjoyed writing and drama. In the fourth year we were involved in the annual Drama Competition; our class put on an extract of King Lear and it was a natural that Daph played King Lear and I was the director. We became close friends then and have stayed close since with the form of friendship that can revitalize itself even when we don’t see each other for months on end.

Daph went on to shine in the amateur dramatic arena and I went on to write books; I have seven self-help books published to date.

Why a musical at this point in your lives?

Daphne: I don’t think I set out originally to write a musical – it was more in my mind to write a play which in fact I did, but then when Anne read the story, she saw it as a musical and found Rick Radley who was able to write the music inspired by Anne’s lyrics. So, through many amendments the musical was born.

Anne Jones

Anne: The idea of the musical came once Daph passed me the book The Other Wise Man. I had never considered writing for the stage before then.

How did it come about?

Daphne: I was Chair of a drama group and in the choir at my Church and had written two plays already – one celebrating the centenary of the Church and the other adapting a radio play for the stage. A member of the congregation approached me one day with a book in his hand and said that he thought I would be able to do something with it. Meaning I guess, he thought I would adapt it for a play which the drama group could perform – I read the story and was enthralled by it and sent it to Anne who was similarly moved.

Anne: Daphne passed me the book The Other Wise Man written by American Henry van Dyke, a philosopher, clergyman, and short story writer of the early twentieth century. As I read it, I could see it being performed in vivid colour and vibrancy on the stage as a musical. I could see a full cast dancing, singing, and performing on a major stage – I could even see some of the dance sequences! Which is odd as I cannot write or play music and I cannot even sign in tune! And I don’t dance either! But I felt compelled to work with Daph to create a musical and as I enjoy writing and have written some poetry, I thought I would enjoy writing the songs. Daph had stage experience, so the stage play was a natural for her.

Why are you fascinated by this book The Other Wise Man ?

Daphne: The story is very strong on many levels – if you are a Churchgoer then it resonates with the story of Christ and his message to the world and if you are not, then a story of compassion to your fellow man and making sacrifices means something to everybody. The story came out of Henry van Dyke’s head – he said and I quote ‘I do not know where it came from – out of the air perhaps. One thing is certain, it is not written in any other book, nor is it to be found among the ancient lore of the East. It was a gift. It was sent to me.’ How could you not be fascinated by this story?

Anne: Although I am not religious, I was brought up with the story of the birth of Jesus and the message he brought. I am a spiritual healer and teacher and the story of Artaban the Fourth Wise Man resonated so well with me. Artaban missed his opportunity of giving gifts to Jesus in Bethlehem because he was delayed by his need to help a sick man he saw on the side of the road. Despite his overwhelming desire to join the other Three Magi he felt compelled to help the man and missed the family who had moved on to Egypt by the time he arrived. He then spent the next thirty odd years of his life looking for Jesus but also stopping off to help those in need. Like so many of us he was faced with a dilemma and pulled in two directions. To do the right thing, to be compassionate and help others (including our families) and to follow our personal dream and seek our own fulfilment – to follow our hearts calling. It’s only a small book but the message is strong and as timely now as it was when Henry first wrote it. It is also a tale of good and evil. The story tells of the corruption and greed in the world at that time making the lives of ordinary folk miserable and the cruelty and oppression of the despotic Roman leader Herod. Similarly, we don’t have to look far in today’s world to see the two sides of humanity. The wonderful acts of kindness on the one side and on the other the scamming of the innocent and the misuse of power of many world leaders.

Was writing it at your ages, an advantage of age?

Daphne: I guess the main advantage was in being retired which gave the time and space to write it. I don’t think if I had still been working full time it would have been easy given the time that it has required to polish it to its present state.

Anne: As Daph says, I have more time now than I had when working full time. But I think age has brought a certain level of WHY NOT philosophy to me. I don’t feel scared to try something new because if it doesn’t work it just doesn’t matter – I won’t lose my self-esteem if I do something that is rejected, whereas when I was younger success mattered. Now I am prepared to give anything I feel good about a try, give it a chance and to stretch myself, to push out boundaries and not be intimidated by anxieties about what other people may think about me or my work. Once you take the fear of failure from a project you have a far higher chance of success.

Is it religious?

Daphne: The basic premise is religious because the story is undoubtedly linked to the birth, life and death of Christ. We cannot deny that this is the backdrop, but we strove to broaden the story so that Artaban could be every man or woman who has a quest or goal in life, who has to battle to fulfil that goal and has to make sacrifices along the way. This has had particular resonances recently with the COVID pandemic when so many people worked so hard to help others often at great danger to themselves. The carers of this world got the recognition that they deserved but at what cost? So the story reflects all and none of the religions I guess.

Anne: It is based on a religious story but the message is spiritual and of human kindness. Also the battle everyone has at times to feel good about themselves. Araban felt happy to help others but unhappy that he wasn’t reaching his goal, fulfilling his quest to meet Jesus. It’s a very happy and uplifting story and the music reflects this mood of hope and the power of loving kindness.

Can you tell us something about the songs?

Daphne: Over to Anne on this one as I didn’t have any input into the songs at all – apart to stand in awe as the lyrics just kept coming into my inbox – each one better than the last!

Anne: As Daphne shared earlier, Henry was inspired to write this story from a source beyond his understanding and I experienced a similar sense otherworldliness of where the words came from! I would read Henry’s words from his book and then think how to put them into a song. And the words just came! I also held in mind the mood and the feelings I wanted to share with each song. I looked back into my own life’s experiences to find inspiration; especially relating to the love story that winds its way through Artaban’s journey, with the inevitable highs and lows, close times and separations. The words we write will always have greater resonance and authenticity when they come from our personal experiences. The most exciting time was to hear the music created by Rick that brought my songs to life – such a thrilling experience!

What was the process of writing like?

Daphne: Sometimes very easy and the words just flowed and at other times very difficult to get just the right “tone” – I have always enjoyed crafting words and I had a superb story to base my words on – although Henry did write in the vernacular of his times – lots of thees and thous which had to go. Also, the story changed along the way so there was always something new to think about and put a new twist into the story. My words reflect the Artaban that Henry wrote about, and I hope he would approve of what we have done with his hero.

How did the staging develop?

Daphne: Through many processes! We have been helped along the way by lots of people all of whom have contributed in different ways. A neighbour of mine introduced us to a musician who in turn led us to our musical Director Kipper Eldridge. Through that contact we staged a workshop in Pimlico which taught us a great deal and which has stood us in good stead for the forthcoming Showcase in St Paul’s Church – sometimes you have to fail and pick yourself up again and learn from your mistakes – just like Artaban! Another friend mentioned the Actor’s Church and we were so pleased that the Church was interested in staging it. We were introduced to a casting agency who have sourced us a great cast and a lovely Musical Theatre Director – so all of these elements have led us to this point.

Anne: As Daphne says we have been down some dead ends, fallen into some bear traps but, fortunately, we have managed to keep our sense of humour and sustained our friendship with all the members of the production team. Not only have I loved the creative times with Daph and Rick Radley, the amazing guitarist and singer who composed the music, but also our partners have been a vital component in the creation and production of Artaban and made it fun.

Do you want to write more?

Daphne: Not for the time being – I have spent so many hours with this that I think now it’s time to let Artaban find his way into the world and I will watch him hopefully entertaining and inspiring many people in the future. That would be a wonderful end to the story.

Anne: I would love the opportunity to write more songs – I found the experience of writing the words and hearing them transformed by great music one of my life’s greatest thrills! Yes, I think, I will write more songs once this production is over and we pass Artaban into the hands of professionals to take him on the next stage of his journey.

About Artaban – the story

We meet ARTABAN, magi and astrologer, in despair of a world filled with corruption, oppression and greed. But all hope is not lost; he and his fellow magi have discovered from their studies of ancient prophecies that there will be a new leader; a king who will bring light back to the world.

This uplifting story follows the adventures of ARTABAN the fourth Wise Man on his lifelong quest to deliver his gift of gemstones to Jesus. Will he succeed? Will his sacrifices reveal the true light and purpose of his life? As the story unfolds, we are introduced to the assortment of colourful characters ARTABAN meets on his journey.

With breath-taking performances by a West End cast, we witness his struggles and achievements. The story is brought to life by the vibrant music and songs which tap into all emotions.

A rock vibe is interweaved throughout, taking you on a mesmerising journey, as the songs morph from the soulful tracks “Sacrifices of the Heart”, “Love goes on Forever” and “Journey’s End” to the gritty, impactful guitar riffs of “Herod” and “Artaban”. The rousing finale of “I Now Understand” will have you bubbling over with hand-clapping, foot-tapping joy.

For more information (and to listen to some of the original music) see: https://artabanthemusical.co.uk/

To book tickets: https://actorschurch.ticketsolve.com/shows/873618294

AofA People: Lorraine Bowen – Performer, Singer, Crumble Lady


7 Minute Read

Now known as The Crumble Lady, Lorraine Bowen won David Walliams’ Golden Buzzer on Britain’s Got Talent and has attracted tens of thousands of new fans of all ages; children are singing the Crumble Song at school, as are grown men in factories.

Lorraine Bowen is a unique performer! Quirky costumes, original idiosyncratic songs, vintage Casio keyboard played on an ironing board. She adores the fashion sensibility of the 1960s and has one of the largest polyester wardrobes in the UK.

Lorraine began her career playing the piano with Billy Bragg in massive venues in the UK and stadiums in Europe as well as both sides of the Berlin wall. Since then she has produced 6 albums, 100 videos on her Youtube TV Channel and regularly performs nationally and internationally.

How old are you?

59 (60 on 31st October)

Where do you live?

East Sussex, England

What do you do?

Musician, performer, composer, BGT Golden buzzer winner, crumble lady….. bonkers lady!

I write songs, put on shows, wear polyester fashions, think of new ideas, write lyrics, make videos on TikTok and YouTube, sing, dance and muck around on stage.  Others call it performing!

What do you have now that you didn’t at 25?

At 59 you start to see the world in a more landscaped view.  Women of my age should be in charge of the whole world cos we’ve seen a lot, been through a lot and can see the problems and could work through the answers in a more levelled state than a lot of leaders!  It will happen…. It will!

I have stability now that I didn’t have at 25.  Mind you I’ve had to work for it!

What about sex?

Sex?  I’ve got to do the washing up first!

And relationships?

Relationship – 36 years old relationship now.  Met in a pub in Deptford in 1986.  We were punky in nature – still are at heart.  It’s good to keep the grunge at heart.  Privilege isn’t a good thing really – it’s much better to have risen from the dirt and grime – makes you appreciate everything.  If you’ve been through the rough and tumble in life it keeps you centred and focused.  Nothing is a nightmare.  Well, another tornado in Haiti is a nightmare but the dishwasher blowing up isn’t a nightmare.  Keep it real!

How do you feel at this age?

I feel free and fanciful…. But like others, I do often worry about the world, climate change, right-wing terrorism, stupid people and what’s going to happen when I’ve got dementia and am dribbling down my own chin…

What are you proud of?

I’m very proud of my daring creativity over the years.  I’ve written lots of songs and haven’t cared what fashion they fit in, what lyrical strain they fit in – I’ve just done what I fancied and largely it’s turned out well!  My YouTube/Spotify stats tell me my biggest listening age group is 18-25s – how hilarious is that!

I’m proud that I never had kids and am part of a growing group of women who relish being free from all that.  I’m proud that I feel as a woman I’m at the forefront of a new frontier, a new age of thought.  We don’t have to conform.  We are new! We are pushing the boundaries and the boundaries are ever dissolving.

Mind you, I realise no one sees me in the street.  I’m 59 and therefore invisible… except when I’m proudly wearing my bright 1970s polyester jackets and you can see people squirm and smile at my fashion sense!  Ha ha!

What inspires you?

What keeps me inspired is that the world is quite a boring place really. Really boring. It’s up to us to brighten up things, look forward to a new day of being here, keeping it positive, keep the energy gushing out doing good things whether that being creative or working towards goals that are good. I love a new project and if there isn’t one there I’ll make one happen.  I’ve got a big show – my Greatest Hits show – in London on 10th October at ‘Above the Stag’ cabaret lounge and so am working towards that.  Also have been given a tremendous night in Brighton on November 20th to put on my Polyester Fiesta show.  Lots of my models can’t make the date …. so I’ll get some new ones!  Lots of work but a great challenge – HURRAH!

When are you the happiest?

I’m happiest when working on music…. Lyrics that make me laugh out loud, lyrics that won’t work and I wake at 5 am in the morning to scribble something down on a notepad by my bed!  Honestly lying on a beach in the sun doesn’t make me happy at all!  Being happy comes from achievement.  Working hard towards something than seeing how the hard work has made others laugh or brought about some catalyst in life.

Where does your creativity go?

My creativity goes towards my music/lyrics/songwriting/composing.  I’ve just finished writing a musical during lockdown – that took ten months – it was commissioned by a lovely young chap in Germany.  Sheer delight!

Then I recently wrote three environmental songs for piano and voice: ‘Down to Earth’ … and now I’m working on my live shows and wait for it.. a classical piece for mezzo-soprano, piano, cello and timpani!  Why not?  I’m 59 and can do what I like!

Do you have a philosophy of living?

Life is short – make the most of each day. Try to say to yourself – I’ve achieved this or that today… it might only be saving a bee from dying at the side of the road but that’s very important too!  (Without bees we as humans are dead in 9 years. My grandfather was a famous beekeeper in his day and warned of the destruction of the natural world). I think humans have got about 20 years left to sort themselves out…. Else it’s BOOM!  And unfortunately, everything else comes with us.

And dying?

My song ‘Would you like to be Buried of Cremated’ sums up everything!

Audiences love it as it puts life into perspective and you get them dancing on the table!  Total joy!

Would you like to be

Buried or cremated,

Mourned or celebrated?

I’d like to know,

Before you go

 

Would you like a coffin

Or any ‘ol thing to go off in?

Do let me know

Before you go

 

Cos

Life is such a day to day affair and often quite surreal

One minute you’re waiting for the bus

And the next you’re underneath the wheel, So!

 

Would you like your funeral

With all your favourite tunes and all

Can we dance

If we get the chance?

 

Cos

Life is such a day to day affair and often very weird

One minute you’re a little baby girl

And the next you’ve got a really long beard, So!

 

Buried or cremated?

Mourned or celebrated?

Can you face the music? cos

It’s up to you to choose it

 

Buried or cremated

Mourned or celebrated

I’d like to know for certain

Before you draw the curtain!

Are you still dreaming?

Of course, I’m still dreaming! I’m just about human and only humans have dreams and beliefs… no other animal or mammal would be stupid enough to have them! Why do we have them? It’s crazy!  They are a yearning, a make-belief that there is another way that could be better out there/something better that we could do… so dreams have to be fun. Dreams can lead to you doing crazy things so keep having them!  As a geeky spotty teenager, I used to dream of being a fashion model… now I am in my own Polyester Fiesta fashion show… I didn’t fit in with other people’s reality so made my own dream come true!   Have a go at your own!  Go-Girrl!

LORRAINE BOWEN’S GREATEST HITS TOUR DATES

https://abovethestag.org.uk/cabaret-lounge/lorraine-bowens-greatest-hits

Lorraine Bowen’s Greatest Hits

SUN, 10th OCT

15:30 – 17:30

Above The Stag Theatre & Bar (map)

72 Albert Embankment, LONDON SE1 7TP

Lorraine Bowen performs her Greatest Hits from her many original albums and of course the BGT famous Crumble Song!

 

SAT 20th NOV

Lorraine Bowen’s POLYESTER FIESTA

At the Ironworks Studio, Brighton, BN1

Lorraine and friends strut their stuff on the catwalk on polyester’s 80th birthday!  Nylon, Crimpelene, Terelene and more – come dressed up in your best flowery dress and join in the audience catwalk competition!  Fun night guaranteed!

Dancing Queen – from a Mitcham living room to Kensal Green cemetery


11 Minute Read

Movement has the capacity to take us to the home of the soul, the world within for which, we have no name.  Anna Halprin, a legendary dancer, innovator, choreographer who died last week at 100.

The carpet would be rolled back in my Auntie Win and Uncle Len’s living room in Mitcham, Chubby Checker was on the turntable – my dad and I, often known to my friends as George Henry, would be twisting and twisting again. It was a family do. It was the closest I got to wildness at 13. Well, if you don’t count the discos at Butlin’s.

George Henry was a bit of a showman. I’m so grateful. He passed it on to me. He gifted me his dancing spirit. Sometimes it was a bit much. On the Costa Brava – Arenys de Mar, actually – when I was a bit older, 17, I recall our upstairs neighbours doling out the sangria as if it were lemonade. Well, it was partially lemonade but not enough for my mum. My poor mother who didn’t drink inadvertently got drunk and was laid out on the bed. Meanwhile, dad decided to come to the disco with me. No, dad, sorry, that really was cramping my style. Not to mention transgressing the daughter/father boundaries. Yes, that word.

Pan’s People on Top of The Pops. Fuck Latin and German, I just wanted to be a go-go dancer. This was the 60s, and I was the proud owner of white PVC boots – I worked in a shoe shop in Ilkley at the weekends – they looked hideous but I thought I was a Bond girl. Oh and white lipstick as well, my family were horrified.

Our place of deification at the time was the Cow and Calf disco. Up on the moors, you went downstairs – it was like a cave with ultraviolet lights and endless Tamla. It was heaven when you could get in. When I could get in. My friends all looked older, I barely looked my age. The security guys often wouldn’t let me in. It was a subject of constant humiliation. To top it all, my parents banned me from going, it was an uphill struggle but of course, all of that didn’t stop me from trying.

Once inside this den of iniquity, the Supremes would start up and the transporting would begin. To another universe. Unspoken and free. Marvin, Ike, Tina – they were alluring dancing partners. Little did I know what was actually going on. We hung out with those young men with sports cars, already at work and therefore in the money. Who wanted schoolboys when you could frug with semi-grown ups?

Much later, post-son, in my 40s, I started 5 Rhythms dancing – New Yorker Gabrielle Roth created this urban shamanism, this limb prayer, this way of connecting, no really connecting, not drunken connecting – because my friend, Carol Lee was one of her first students in the UK. My son often came with me and played amongst us while we danced our bones and blood. These were special times in a church hall in Shepherd’s Bush where our friend Miguel would turn up with his didge and offer its healing growl to our hungry bodies, we would sing the rhythms, we would stop and do spontaneous tarot writings. These were not traditional classes and that’s why they were so inspiring. When we danced with partners, we’d stop and tune into each other, there was a closeness, a tenderness and I loved it.

In my mid-50s, the dance camp arrived. The Field of Love. Ten days on a field first in Norfolk, then in Suffolk and finally in Dorset. With live musicians. We danced ‘til we dropped. We dropped as we danced. It was a crazy love fest where we would bundle together, see into each other without social masks, dance like dervishes, cook over open fires, and roar with laughter in the hot tub made from an old orange juice container with a Heath Robinson fire to heat it. There was even a caravan sauna.

I was single and I went to those camps for nine years. Just as I was disappearing from view in some ways in society, I re-appeared on the Field of Love. It was a space where age did not matter.  Where I felt totally met in the dance. And emotionally. I was able to be vulnerable and there were people to hug me. We were a community – in a loose way, we still are – and we looked after each other. A men’s and a women’s group came out of it, both still exist.

Profound friendships were made. And we’d dance in the morning when we got up when we were chopping vegetables when we were tired and should have gone to bed. We were raw with each other and open to love. Our hearts were on fire.

I got the chance to practice – performing poems, presenting the cabaret, leading runway flamboyance across the green green grass, instigating a hat parade, taking the group on a late-night labyrinth meditative walk, creating a pleasure bazaar based on one I’d experienced at a Tantra Festival in Catalonia. There was no end to our creations.

The camps emboldened me and I made a couple of dance films – well I say I made, my son is a film-maker, he did the practicals – Dance Willesden Junction (https://vimeo.com/34487064) and Dance Harlesden (https://vimeo.com/66771510s) as part of my Harlesden book project. Oh I so loved those dancing days. I felt as though I had my very own nomadic dancing tribe. We danced to Al Green in a piss-stench tunnel, we rolled on the paving slabs in the heart of Harlesden. People stared and smiled and were sometimes entranced. Others rubbished us. We laughed at ourselves. I didn’t want those days to end.

So much of what happened on the Field of Love has seeded what I’m doing now. Both in poetry – I just finished a year’s Willesden Junction Poets’ project with nine poets and BeWILDering, a book of our poems about the station, which was funded by the Brent2020 Culture Fund. And now with Dance Me To Death, an Arts Council England-funded performance, film and exhibition with ten Over 60s non-professional dancers, of which I am one!!! This is the perfect Advantages of Age Project.

Really this is my dream come true. To create a dance piece with choreographers Rhys Dennis and Waddah Sinada from FUBUNATION. I met them in 2020 at the Brent Artist Network – set up by Brent2020, it was such a good idea and meant that artists and performers in the borough got to meet each other. Rhys and Waddah were doing a presentation. I chatted to Rhys afterwards. I had it already in my mind that it would be great to do an intergenerational project.

I got even more excited when I saw the dance that they do. They explore black masculinity through dance and challenge stereotypes around what that is. Their pieces are all about trust and gentleness. They take risks with intimacy and touch. They are two young black men who are not afraid of diving into unknown male territory.

They perform contemporary dance but there are many crossovers with 5 Rhythms. This willingness to explore and take risks relationally in the dance. is what I’m passionate about. Next, I had to persuade them to do this project with me. I met Rhys for a cup of tea in Harlesden, he actually seemed keen. I felt into the potential richness. I felt my body smile.

And then the long Arts Council application slog started. It was relentless. Seventy-three pages of budgets, marketing, management and explanations. I nearly gave up the will to live during this time. It seemed endless. And I was scared that I would fail. Finally, it went off.

When the answer came a few weeks later in December, I didn’t open it for a few weeks. Not wise. I hadn’t got the money. I guess around this time, Rhys and Waddah thought that we wouldn’t get it. I had to gather myself, get through my fear of failing and respond to the ACE feedback. I was in N Wales for this winter lockdown and I just had to hunker down and get on with it. I did.

Two weeks before the Dance Me To Death start date, I found out that I’d been offered the grant. It took me weeks to actually believe it.  Now we just had to create the performance, a short film and an exhibition. There was just one hitch. A condition of the offer was that Kensal Green Cemetery – the chosen location because it is gloriously one of the Victorian Magnificent Seven in London – agreed to be the location for the performance.

This was a stressful period. I was looking for a hall for rehearsals, putting a call out for non-professional dancers while I didn’t know if we had the cemetery to dance in. A lovely Operations Manager at Kensal Green Cemetery, Peter Humphries – he’s Australian, very laid back and has been so supportive of the project – pushed it along for us. And it happened.

Now six weeks later, we’re about to start our fourth workshop and the performance is starting to come together. There have been all sorts of uncomfortable zones to pass through – like counting, like actual choreography. Many of the dancers come from a 5 Rhythms’ background, which is great for me because we get to dance together in a way that I understand.

At the first workshop, Waddah and Rhys taught us ‘flocking’, a term in contemporary dance which means one person starts a movement and the others follow, and when you’re in a group, the change of the person leading becomes almost imperceptible. The group is moving as one. It was terrifying – you have to step out and lead – but thrilling.

This was a way of building content. In fact, Waddah and Rhys gave us exercises so that we created the movements, and then they chose which ones to use in the performance and started breaking them down with breath and counting. This was scary as well. I went home the first week feeling intimidated by the idea of this choreography.

However, by end of the second workshop, I loved it. It was stretching us. And I could feel us moving together as a collective and that was very satisfying. We felt like a dance company. I must say my admiration for all the other dancers is immense, everyone without fail has been giving the workshops their all. It’s moving to witness and be part of.

And the musicians, Fran Loze on haunting cello and Mark Fisher on tight percussion and guitar hold us in the dance and the beat. The performance has started to feel like a wake already. Funnily enough, Fran and Mark are musicians that I met on the Field of Love and I relish that continuum.

In the mornings, I facilitate emotional work around death and dying. We are making layers of trust between us. The first week, I asked everyone – Rhys and Waddah are included – to bring objects to put on the altar (this is a sacred place created every week) that honoured their dead. I brought a photo of Jayne, a close friend who decided to take her own life because she couldn’t stand to be here any longer. I talk about her kindness and how important she had been to me. And the way she’d made a gentle place for herself in the woods as a way to go.

Neither Rhys nor Waddah has had anyone close to them die yet but Rhys brought in one of his grandma’s bracelets and talked about finding his place among his ancestors. I was touched that he was already thinking about the ancestors.

In the second week, I invited them to get in pairs and create an International Grief Ritual for people who had died worldwide from Covid. I don’t think they expected that but they had some great ideas. I think we’ll come back to those rituals. One was a festival like Live Aid, another was a ritual, that was repeated all over the world.

The morning’s work feeds into the dance. Dance Me To Death. One of the dancers, Anthony, mentioned early on that when he’s dancing for three hours at 5 Rhythms classes, he can imagine dying in that space. In that bliss and peace.

Yes, Anthony, yes.

Anna Halprin – whose quote I use at the top – died at 100 last week. She was a dancer and choreographer until the very end of her life. She believed in the healing power of dance and indeed used cathartic movement as part of her healing voyage with cancer in the 1970s.

This is all tangling up and finding its way into our performance. I can’t wait.

Dance Me to Death is happening on June 26th at 3pm in Kensal Green Cemetery. You can buy tickets here https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/…/dance-me-to-death.

The price includes a glass of wine or sparkling water afterwards.

There is an after-party, an exhibition, a Q & A plus vegan tagines are available to pre-order. There will also be a short film that will be screened later in the year.

We’re on Insta #dancemetodeath

A Warm Coat in April – honing the art of the virtual live show


1 Minute Read

It’s one year on and there is every reason to be optimistic. Thirty-one million people have been vaccinated in the UK, over five million have had their second shot. Last week there were no reported COVID deaths in London. Next week, things will begin to open up again, to a level we last had in November 2020. The very last time I met with my friends for a sit-down after-work drink in Soho, braving the winter outdoors just for the pure pleasure of each other’s company, knowing we would be missing, not one, but two of their birthdays.

Five months on, Easter Sunday has just passed. On Monday, we met friends in Hastings for a ‘Scandi’ picnic. Outdoor lunch in their garden. Typical April weather, we went through all four seasons, visited mid-way with a tiny sprinkling of snowflakes.  At first, we thought it was blossom petals, but the tiny flakes on pristine black linen napkins confirmed: snow. It passed swiftly and we made the best of the day and of each other’s company by moving the lunch table around the garden, following the sun.

I had arrived in a lightweight spring coat, knowing that our host, Colette, had promised blankets, food and alcohol-laced coffee. Luckily for me, Colette had decided a much-loved 1950s wool swing coat needed a “longer body” than hers. Colette found me a furry hat and a pair of dark glasses. In an instant, I had been transformed from grump to glam. I pranced around a bit, mad as March hare (as they say) singing, ‘Dr. Zhivago! Go! Go! Go!’

These are the kinds of things that can’t happen on Zoom, no matter how sophisticated your background screen is. Though I shudder to imagine how much more difficult these lockdowns would have been without technology, virtual space is no substitute for live interactions. There is no virtual equivalent of being given a warm coat in April or resolving the mystery of whether a flake is a blossom or snow.

Like many performers, I have missed live space in ways I have found unexpected. There is lots of talk about ‘skin hunger, more so for people who live alone and have had to endure months of no contact with anyone other than those in their ‘bubble’. Air kissing has morphed to air hugging and it is to the air that we have all brought our attention to; the air that we breathe, the air that gives us life and is also now our greatest threat. I can’t be the only one who has inadvertently held my breathe under my mask while passing a particularly heavy breathing jogger, can I? In November, I was beyond relieved to be put back on part-furlough and told I could work from home. I dreaded going back to full furlough, to be so cut-off from my workmates, but I think HR was worried that I might actually accost a non-mask wearer. I’m not saying that their fears were misplaced. Commuting from my new flat in Hastings to Tottenham had begun to feel like running the gauntlet. Impossibly stressful, full of perceived threats.

Since the first lockdown, I had, like everyone else spent many hours online; many celebrations, socials, writing workshops, book launches, open mics, performances. One highlight was gifting my mother a new mobile phone so we could face-time each other between South Africa and the UK. What a pleasure to see her beautiful face. To check in a few times a week and see how she was doing, even though I was short of scintillating anecdotes and exciting opportunities, just touching base was comforting for us both.

I actually took part in an online panto ‘Snow White’ with some friends. Many people got pressganged into it but the night itself was wonderful. My friend Alexander Blair, upped the ante by posting pictures of the corset he was handmaking for his turn as the Panto Dame. My flatmate turned his bedroom into a green screen studio and created an entire backdrop scene with a hilarious turn with a graphic bear that popped up behind him so that we could all shout, ‘It’s behind you!’ in our separate rooms. I was laughing so much the tears running down my cheeks moistened the glue on my mustache. Prince Charming, under-estimating her time between lines, went out for a fag and had us shouting into the void for him to come back, hilariously trying to stay ‘in character’ at the same time, as we were recording the performance. Mad Pirvan who was playing Snow White amid a projected wood forest, kept valiantly trudging on. It was beautiful, wonderful, chaotic fun; but we all vowed to do this in person as soon as we possibly could. I don’t think there has been a single virtual event that has not left us hoping and longing for a live-live, though equally, I think we would all happily forego traveling for meetings while slowly building up the courage to keep our cameras off.

I have been playing around with different ways of performing (other than being sat in front of the camera). My bedroom is also an office and is large enough for me to create studio space in it. I have got a small kit of ‘stuff’ together, some bought, some begged, some borrowed: a good webcam, a stand to hang different backdrops, access to a good mic (when needed), a light kit. Virtual performances, like other performances, still need to look visually good. For the Poets for the Planet FRESH: Eco-poetry open mic, which we started last summer, we ask readers to check that they have good light and good sound. It makes the world of difference having illumination from either the front or the side. Often this is as simple as moving a sidelight or changing the position of your camera/laptop. I was advised that if I had a mobile phone, using the camera on that for Zoom would be better than using the default camera on my laptop. It is still good advice. It took me ages to work out that you can buy a relatively inexpensive cam card  (£15-£20) to transform your DSLR camera into a webcam. I have done this for live feeds when I have needed to use a better low-light camera and it works a treat. High-end cam cards cost about £110 and are probably well worth it, but you can definitely get away with cheaper ones, though they may be less reliable in the long run.

One of the great advantages of virtual live performance has been the de-territorialising of events. Most events now will attract participants from across the UK and across time zones and have access to events streamed from other places. It has been wonderful to connect with The Poetry Brothel New York, even if that has meant staying up till 3 am so that I could. Virtual relationships are just as meaningful as those in the flesh and I can’t imagine doing another event that does not make some provision for people (both audience and performers) who cannot be there physically, to have some virtual access. It may also work for performers to increase their income streams at a time when social distancing means limiting the numbers of in-the-flesh audience members.

My most creative performance online was for ‘Maiden / Mother /Crone’ – a project by ‘women of words’. The organisers were very open about how the performance could take place: either pre-recorded or live. After a slow start, I became really excited about the performance, choosing a mixture of pre-recorded and live performance, but sod’s law, despite having a great idea and structure, a ‘little match that could’ refused to blow out, resulting in a tussle in what Henni Saarela, who had designed the music for the piece described as ‘Woman vs Fire’. This small delay effectively put the live actions out of sync with the pre-recorded poem, music, and projected imagery. When it ended (all the excruciating six minutes of it!) I collapsed in a ball of tears. So much work and not at all the result I wanted! The organisers and friends who saw it assured me that it was not as bad as I imagined, but when I saw the footage played back, it was so much worse! I berated myself for not just releasing a pre-recorded set, but really, I love live shows, as it does mean that every time you do it, there is some variation. Any performer who does a long run will confirm this. It doesn’t matter if you have performed a piece hundreds of times, every performance is unique.

I am so looking forward to venues opening up again, but I still have a sense of unease. Some internal warning against being too optimistic. A reluctant realisation that it may still be some time before things will return to normal again or indeed that we may have to contend with a ‘new normal’ for some time. My interest in performing multi-sensory, close-quarter readings still looks like another world away. How do we even begin to transfer the world of the senses over digital media?  How would I even begin to translate this into live space in a socially distanced, COVID-friendly way? What is the relationship between the senses and intimacy? For the moment I will have to content myself with being happy just to be able to do any live-live (not virtual-live) performances, even socially distanced ones – but I hope as we return to normal, we don’t lose our capacity or will for de-territorialising events and making access possible for those unable to join us in live space. To extend the offer of a warm coat in April across digital means.

You can subscribe to my YouTube channel where I will post new videos of performances.

https://youtu.be/ajvpv-yK2uA

PREMIERE OF HEKATE – a filmed live performance

Tues 27/04/202:  8pm

https://youtu.be/ylPQFKflt5Y

Payment by donation.  The recommended price is either the price of a  coffee or a cocktail.

https://www.paypal.com/pools/c/8yU0vnz8TW (till June 21) or https://paypal.me/debrawatson

The Culture Interview – Isa L Levy, artist and psychotherapist


6 Minute Read

Isa L Levy, 72, is a London-based artist and psychotherapist who has just published her memoir, Conversations with a Blank Canvas: From Nowhere to Somewhere Decades of Change and Transformation. You can buy it here.

What prompted this memoir?

Two clairvoyants told me I had to write my life story: one 40 years ago and one more recently a few years ago and so I decided to write it.

What is your aim in writing it?

Sharing my life story so that others can see how it’s possible to overcome your demons and with courage keep listening to your authentic voice to fulfill a sense of belonging to your ‘true self’; so often hidden by a ‘false self’ adapting to an outer superficial world. This is very much a sign of our times within our social media screens of ‘selfie’ curated false images and how that can emphasise feelings of low self-worth leading to depression, anxiety, addiction, and in the worst case of scenarios self-harm, suicide, and high crime rates

You mention ‘invites the reader to enquire more consciously about their own personal journey’?

In writing about my own journey of self-discovery I reveal how the ‘blank canvas’ was the beginning of my true connection to myself. I only discovered painting when I was 40 and some 450 paintings emerged – I say from nowhere but in fact from an unknown place of mystery and that was tremendously meaningful for me and life-changing. What I learned about myself through painting was very much what I facilitate in my clients which is the safe space within which to explore their own ‘blank canvasses’ within and if they can face their fears and pain they will find the richness that is there hiding in their ‘true self’. 

Tell us something about your own Jewish background growing up in Cardiff and how it has influenced you?

I believe my Jewish background is within every gene of my body; however, I did not identify as a religious Jew and have found my spiritual connections as a Quaker and Buddhist. I also realised that I did not conform to family and cultural expectations, which created a deal of painful confusion for me. If I didn’t conform – who was I? The Cardiff Jewish community was tight-knit and my parents were very committed to the local community. However, the pain was my motivation to find out more about myself.

Your family knew Dylan Thomas?

Yes. My father was born in Swansea, as was Dylan Thomas and Dylan lived in Chelsea with my uncle, art critic, and author, Mervyn Levy. My father, at that time, in those Chelsea days, was a poet and had exchanged poetry with Dylan and joined them when he ran away from home. I had the privilege of sitting on Dylan Thomas’s knee as a 2-year-old, although I can’t say I remember the experience. 

You describe yourself as ‘the black sheep of the family’, how did that manifest itself?

I now realise that I am a non-conformist but it’s taken me 72 years and the writing of my memoir to accept that label. It’s hard to fit into a traditional family as a non-conformist as individuality threatens the status quo.

What have been the most challenging areas of your own personal journey psychologically?

Well, I believed I was a failure in everything because I didn’t fit in; Failed in education, the pressure to marry, not wanting to marry, weight issues, and poor body image that created a lack of confidence which led to low self-esteem.

Tell us a bit about ‘questioning your sexuality’ as a teenager and the confusion of that?

Basically, I did not feel comfortable discussing my sexuality as a teenager in the 1950s and coming from a traditional family where we didn’t discuss anything that didn’t fit in socially. I discussed with a few friends but mainly kept things secret.

You performed a one-woman show at Wormwood Scrubs which changed the direction of your life?

Yes. I made a conscious decision to move from performance into the caring profession as I was more interested in the lives of the prisoners than my own performance.

You mention depression and loneliness?

I think depression and loneliness are part of the human condition and I think these problems can be masked by a manic defense against facing our most vulnerable side by compulsive addictions that are socially acceptable – like work, money, drink, narcissistic power distortions. We just have to look at our present demise with politicians and leadership. I think depression and loneliness is what we all face within our own ‘blank canvasses’ and we have been forced to look deeper into ourselves during this pandemic as everything familiar has been taken away from us and left us with time for a re-think.

And then, finding a more meaningful life?

Buddhism as a philosophy for life gave me permission to engage with my suffering as I realized there was nothing wrong with me other than that I was just human. My painting was the beginning of this journey of letting go and just allowing everything to flow out of me – it was liberating. And then 15 years later I had nothing more to say and closed the door on my studio without knowing what next. In the fullness of time I found myself embarking on a Masters degree in Arts and Psychotherapy in my mid- 50s without an A Level to my name and graduated at the ripe old age of 61 with a whole new career as an Arts Psychotherapist.

How has painting, poetry and other writing supported your evolution?

I could not have survived without creative expression as an actor, singer, songwriter, poet, playwright, artist, author and back to actor now for I had no other way to express myself.

You’re now involved in a musical production of ‘Fat is a Feminist Issue’?

That was 2 years ago but I am involved with that director, Clair Chapwell and we’re performing a weekly soap opera at Jacksons Lane community centre, North London for a Pensioners Lunch Club; on zoom at the moment. I was invited by my local MP to sing a song I wrote about Climate Change, some 50 years, ago in parliament, when I had no idea at the time about the crisis that we have got ourselves into.

Tell us about your painting The Female Resurrection?

The Female Resurrection was painted after the death of my mother and four other important females in my life. I inherited a 7 foot blank canvas and decided to paint a female crucifixion scene putting the female figure on the cross as I wrestled with the question; how can you celebrate life whilst going through so much suffering? As there was no room for the central figure’s head as if by magic, I could see that there had been a resurrection, completely spontaneous, and therein lay the answer to my question.

How has lockdown been for you?

A very creative time linking me to like-minded international souls on zoom, publishing and promoting the book, seeing my therapy clients, albeit on zoom, seeing friends in a café when tiers permitted, facing myself and my core human loneliness and finding more transcendence, kindness, and compassion towards myself and others with more of a connection to my heart.

Where are you now on this journey and how has writing the book been?

I go with the flow now and enjoy what I have to deal with each day with the resolve to make it the best that I can, opening to new possibilities and expansion in every which way possible.

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