The Art Party Conference 2013

The Art Party Conference was always going to be a lot of fun, not least because of the delightfully irreverent call for attendees to create portraits of Michael Gove. These were the best-looking protest banners I’ve ever seen, a colourful exercise in the democratic right to say what you think humorously, and often very beautifully. Most were funny, some were a bit mean, but they all conveyed artists and art practitioners’ righteous anger at the downgrading of the arts in education – and the impact this will have ongoing.

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The day-long event at the Spa Centre, Scarborough was organised by artist Bob and Roberta Smith, whose outsized flags you might have seen on the Southbank over the summer. He was so outraged by the impact of Michael Gove’s educational reforms on the arts that he made a painting called Letter To Michael Gove. This became a singularity which, when expanded, became The Art Party Conference: a gathering of art teachers, kids, curious locals and artists including Jeremy Deller, Cornelia Parker and Richard Wentworth for a day of curious actions on the north eastern coast of England.

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In a room looking onto the steel-grey sea there was an impromptu opportunity to do life drawing of surfers with easels and paper already in place. Around the corner, there was a Michael Gove lookalike in a bad suit, pushing his way irritatedly through the crowds at the Goveshy where crowds lined up to chuck stuff at the (beautiful, hand-crafted) plaster busts of the Secretary Of State For Education. Up the stairs, nestled in a corner was a nail bar where you could have images of iconic female artists applied to your nails and where the real art was in the conversation that the artist was curating between nail technician and recipient. There were all kinds of transactions going on and very few involved handing over cash. You paid your fiver entrance and everything was free, bar the normal commercial transactions of tea and bowls of chips that reminded you that we were indeed at a conference centre. Plates of home-made chewy cookies and lollipops were freely available on artists stands, alongside beautifully-printer A2 posters from Pavel Büchler, Ian Bourne and Bobby Baker. We were citizens in the free state of the Art Party and it felt like a participatory version of Carry On Up The Situationists.

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It was also neatly democratic. We went up to see what was happening with Roger Clarke’s Record Player Orchestra and ended up doing our own performance which involved choosing a tone on a record and playing it whenever you wanted along with nine other people doing the same thing. It was strangely comforting, the hum of electricity and the drone sending us all into somnambulance. This also led to another discovery: spending an hour playing pure frequency makes your eyeballs buzz.

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And finally, we stumbled upon curator Lynda Morris’s talk, titled Drinking With Gilbert and George. This was a real highlight and could be compressed into ‘we got drunk/ we made art’. She finished her talk with a hearty ‘cheers!’ and played out the pair’s singing sculpture, which became our theme tune as we wended a happy way back the Travelodge, which like everything else, now looked like a piece of art.

James Blake, The Mercury and the future

Yesterday I heard a pundit talking about who might win the Mercury Prize. He mentioned James Blake in passing, not as a ‘proper’ contender like Bowie, but he said something interesting. Blake’s music could only have been made now, he observed. If you’d heard this music twenty years ago, he said, it’d have sounded like the future.

And that’s the thing. There’s great music all over the place -  Kwes or Goat or the riotous gloaming released by Blackest Ever Black to mention three off the top of my head. Naturally, there’s also a tonne of music that is just repeating what’s been done before, like a legal high with a molecule or two moved around. But something has changed.

I remember Martyn Ware talking about artists looking backwards instead of forwards. Imagine, he said, if Human League had made music that sounded like it came from two decades before – music from the 1950s? They’d have been laughed out of Sheffield. Everyone was looking ahead, using new technology and making sounds that propelled them out of their reality into something more adult, something further ahead: the future. The future was shiny, bleepy, better.

But is anyone making futuristic electronic music now?

No. Because there’s no point. There’s an understanding, even if we haven’t clocked it overtly, that the future is going to be worse than the past, or at least more complicated and probably more difficult and that’s not the easiest thing to turn into a tune. Futurism was about transportation and a belief in eternal growth, not reality. Derrick May and Juan Atkins made electronic music as a spaceship, a transporter, a time-machine that could move them forwards and outwards.

Congratulations to James Blake on his Mercury, and to everyone making music that doesn’t sound like the past or like the an outdated version of future. Forward the Now-ists!

Deptford Creek

The Creekside Centre in Deptford sits next to an industrial centre, off a brutal main road that links Greenwich to the Rotherhithe Tunnel. Inside, a tiny corridor is lined with shelves. This is the Centre’s collection of specialist detritus brought up from the Ravensbourne: ancient mobile phones, driving licences, bones, cans, a pair of Javan faces smoothed out from a broken statue. It looks like a conversationist’s version of the Mutoid Waste Company peopled not by dystopian desert punks but by folk in muddy red coats and waders, holding the big sticks that will keep them upright during the imminent low tide walk.

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Nick Bertrand is a conservationist with a seafaring laugh. He hoists himself onto the edge of a raised bed of wild flowers and gathers us round. What starts as a piece of incidental context – pointing out the Rue-leaved saxifrage behind him –  turns into a intriguing sermon on planting and self-seeding and the commodification of the wild. So-called wild cornflowers bought in your average garden centre, he says, actually come from Austria. “You’re being conned left right and centre,” he says, thrillingly, tossing facts about wildflowers inability to thrive away from their home like so many poppy seeds in the air. The flowers here at the Centre were translocated from a few miles away, which was lucky, he says, because the original site has been destroyed. Wild, it seems, is actually another way of saying ‘local’.

I’m here with my friend Kate Ling who wrote about this south London waterway in her award-winning poem Deptford Creek and we start the short walk to the river one in front of the other. This small incline, maybe a hundred meters, is a liminal zone. We’re already somewhere else – stepping out of normal life towards the water, dropping learned adult personas and adopting something receptive and natural. Land becomes specific: the slanted strip to our left comprises three distinct areas of marsh which changes by degrees before the transition into mudflat and water. These are distinct zones, with different needs and different communities. At the top, there’s round-headed Nordic native Angelica, down in lower marsh, there’s highly lethal water hemlock. So far, so exotic.

The creek is located at the tidal reach of the Ravensbourne, which meets our other local waterway, the Quaggy, behind Lewisham bus station before flowing into and out of the Thames. There’s the roller coaster rumble of the DLR above our heads, and we walk upstream towards a man-made bend. There are high bare walls and mud flats on either side of the slow green flow. We are in the deep ford that gave Deptford it’s name, a place that has been colonised by people since at least the 11th Century when the Domesday book notes eleven corn mills on the river, and where the original Golden Hind rested until it rotted and broke up.

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I learn a new word: ‘syzrygy’, which describes the lunar configuration of earth, sun and moon lining up at full moon and no moon, a configuration which explains why the shelves in the centre are so laden with lost and discarded items. The tide here lifts mud and objects in the water, carries them along, and then drops them down, relocated, at static high tide.

It feels good in the creek. I feel like I’m rowing the boat of myself, navigating through the water with the momentum of my big stick. Sadly I am a boat with a leak as one of my waders has a slow puncture and gradually I experience a tidal increase of water up my leg. When I eventually return and take my waders off I have a high tide mark, mid calf, where Ravensbourne dregs met not the exterior of rubber, but skin.

The creatures of the creek are all around us. Like the Asian Clam. It’s an invasive species that was first found eight years ago in Richmond, and is now everywhere. Experts have no idea what impact they’ll have. Then there are two swans, lurking in the stairwell of the creek bend. In the altered narrative of the low tide walk, the swans have become lemon-faced geezers outside a dodgy pub. They are to be respected and avoided. We purposefully avoid eye contact and pretend they’re not there.

Some creek life you have to really look for, like the baby flounder who dart around the creek bed like transparent shadows, or the algae that populates the ‘rot zone’  on the creek walls where alternate damp and sun provide perfect conditions for micro-organisms. Later in the summer the algae goes fluorescent green, then in winter it goes black, and the whole creek becomes monochrome.

Nick reaches underneath a brick and picks up two leeches. They are terrible, inky punctuation marks that wriggle across and inbetween his fingers. They are a black silky comma followed by a fat slash of the pen and I find myself wriggling backwards through the crowd when they’re shoved towards me. I do not like leeches, even if they do look as if they’ve come straight out of a Studio Ghibli film.

Safer are the Japanese Mitten crabs who live under a bit of chucked-away carpet. The crab is green, but that’s because it’s actually just a shell. Crab moved out when space got too tight. Nick opens up the flip-top mechanism of the shell, and to really does open like a hinged box. Then we find two big ones under a metal sheet. One gets away and the other is held above the water, arms and legs dancing in air until he’s gently returned to the rusting comfort of home.

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And that’s the thing. Rubbish is good for the river. When the Creekside Centre opened in 1999 they removed 14 shopping trolleys from the creek and fish stocks decreased by 50%. Our discarded debris replaces the natural habitats that used to hog the sides of the creek, like the reed beds. The trolleys are particularly good, because their metal grids become clogged with other bits of rubbish, which provide excellent hiding places for flounder, away from the bigger, badder guppy. We clear the river for people, Nick says, because of their perception of how the river should look.

It’s deep, this ford.

Originally posted on Caught By The River

Eine Kleine Musik

My friends at RBMA Radio have been locked away in a Berlin back room for over three weeks now, serving up ten hours of radio every day. I’ve come for the last two weeks of the pop-up radio station, which has turned a Kreuzberg Italian cafe into a musical magnet of sorts.

Berlin has become the central location for a  generation of artists who sit broadly within the descriptive realm of electronic music – which means a lot of local treasure. Even if it’s a lot of highly internationalised local treasure.

First day I was here I met Morphosis, aka Rabih Beaini who runs a label called Morphine. He is reissuing the work of a musician called Charles Cohen, who was one of the few people who used very early synthesisers, particularly those made by eccentric innovator Don Buchla. This was music made for experimental dance or theatre performances, but it sounds an awful lot like the music that Detroit musicians like Mad Mike, Jeff Mills and Derrick May would make some years later. Even the titles resonate with those of classic Motor City techno. Dance Of The Spirit Catchers is a Charles Cohen piece, but is interchangeable with UR titles like Hi-Tech Jazz or Journey Of The Dragons. The music is gorgeous.

Young Turks did a takeover of the station for the last two hours of the day, and included an interview with FKA Twigs. The music has a quality that marks her out as an innovator: it doesn’t sound like anyone else. Much is made of her distinct visual flair, which like the music, is confident, beguiling and seriously original. This is well worth a listen.

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A couple of days later we had a two hour special from the Hotflush label, who brought along one of their artists, Recondite. He’s a seriously serious man, both sartorially – all blacks and greys and minimalist glasses – and sonically. We played some of his music and talked about it, on air, in-between plays. On one, he described the music as coming from the perspective of a hawk, circling high up, seeing everything. He makes lovely music but should also be writing hard-edged, brutalist nature novels, like a Berlin-drenched Knut Hamson or Cormac McCarthy.

Leisure System, or more specifically Ned Beckett, came in yesterday. They run parties here in Berlin and have morphed over eight or nine releases into a record label, too. The thing they do really well is breadth, bringing together musicians as superficially distinct as Objekt and Gold Panda, and picking up brand new artists like Hubie Davison, like musical Manta Ray, scanning the ocean floor for buried treasure.

The final entry is for some music of the mouth. Yes, I got myself some classic Berlin fast food in the shape of gemuse kebap from Kottiwood, just down the road from where I’m staying at Kottbusser Tor. Yes boss!

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Back to school

It’s back to school week for thousands of British children and young people, as well as all the teachers and support staff who work in our 24,000 schools and colleges. Uniforms are being pulled out of bedroom corners. Folders are being dusted off.  The first hints of autumn are being carried in the air, even if we’re still being embraced by the longest, sunniest summer in a decade.

All of which makes it the right time to post this video of Ken Robinson speaking at the RSA earlier in the summer. I squeezed in right before they closed the doors. It was a delight to hear him saying that creativity should be embedded into every school – especially as that’s at the heart of Thomas Tallis School in Greenwich, where I’m proud to be a (relatively new) school governor.

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It’s worth watching the whole video, but here’s a taster of what he said.

Why, he asked, do we ‘do’ education? His answer came in four parts: economic, cultural, social and personal.

Education, he said, has powerful economic purpose, contributing to health, vitality and sustainability. We want to make our children economically independent – so what does industry want? An IBM report from 2011 of 1,800 leaders in 80 countries said they wanted adaptability and creativity.

The world is complicated and increasingly conflicted. Value systems are knocking against each other head on.  We need forms of education that respond to and reflect culture  - that allows you to see your own identity and to understand others’.

He points to evidence of political disengagement. It’s important we take part in civil engagement. You do this by having a culture of participation – and schools are a vital part of this.

And finally, it’s about people.  “Anything not nuanced to diversity will increase alienation.”

His belief is that change needs to come from the ground up. “We need policy makers to think differently. They appear to believe that you improve things by issuing directives. It’s a false consciousness of how education actually works. If we do something different, government will respond.”

“You cannot improve education,” he said, “by vilifying teachers.”

Too right!

 

End Of The Road review 2013

Mostly, festival reviews are a bit pointless for those who didn’t attend. So I thought I’d try and do a bit of a round-up that makes sense, even for people who didn’t make it down to Larmer Tree Gardens for the loveliest weekend of the year.

It’s a good time for girls in bands

From Deap Vally to Warpaint to Rachel Dadd, female musicians were everywhere – and not just playing bass or singing. It seems that finally, it’s normal for women to play drums, or indeed whatever they want.

I had an interesting conversation earlier in the year with electronic music producer Patrick Pulsinger on this subject. He thinks that it’s the best time ever for girls to make music, and that this shift will be great for music too. His take is that the fact girls can just buy kit online, and can work it out for themselves without having to be embarrassed or intimidated by blokes in kit shops or music shops, is revolutionary. I think I agree.

Here are Warpaint playing a new song at EOTR on Saturday night.

Talking Heads songs sound great with a brass ensemble behind them

David Byrne did a headline set with St Vincent, playing the gorgeous songs they released on Love This Giant interspersed with some Talking Heads classics. The show was equally gorgeous, with the songs set to charming doll-dance choreography which saw Byrne and Annie Clarke flanked by a line of brass players. Even the Euphonium player was dancing, which must have been some feat. Naive Melody, aka the greatest love song ever written, sounded particularly beautiful in a Wiltshire field.

I couldn’t find any YouTube clips of this show, probably because the crowd heeded Byrne’s show opening exhortation to put down the devices and dance. But here’s one from elsewhere on the tour.

The food was almost as good as the music

I ate a blackcurrent and honey frozen yoghurt from the Hedgerow Deli that was like Bo Ningen on my tastebuds. Honestly, I know what John and Greg are on about now. Then there was the maple-smoked pulled pork and beans, and the two types of paella. I could actually do a whole festival review just on the food. Mmmmmmmmm.

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You can tell how amazing they were because no-one filmed them on their phones and put it on YouTube. OK, so that might be an exaggeration and no doubt untrue but that’s how it felt. The 15 year olds at the front lapped it up, as did the 50-something couple standing in front of me who declared it ‘completely awesome’. A very cool-looking middle-aged lady went up to the lighting guy afterwards and congratulated him on how he lit up the stage. She was right. When Yuki descended into the crowd and played his guitar upside down, or when Taigen swirled his guitar around like a hawk-handler might swirl meat, lighting guy was right there, picking out the best bits. They’re playing again soon. I advise you to go.

Here they are earlier this year at the 100 Club.

People who go to End Of The Road are proper music fans

EOTR is populated by proper music fans, whether they’re teenage kids or a fifty-something lady in a Patti Smith T-shirt, or festival regular Big Jeff who everyone seemed to know from bands on stage to kids wandering past the Rough Trade store. They’re all equal because they’re all into it. It’s surprising how surprising this is.

I’ve already got my ticket for next year.

Farewell for now, Live Magazine

Yesterday was my last day as Senior Editorial Mentor at Live Magazine in Brixton, which is run by social enterprise Livity. Here’s some of the team past and present.

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Live is a brilliant, morphing series of platforms where young people make content with the support of a professional mentor. It was a magazine, then a website and soon it’ll be two new YouTube channels. I worked at Live on and off, and in various capacities, for seven years, which is as long as I was at secondary school. It’s a long time.

I can’t convey all of the funny, brilliant, profound things I witnessed – we’d be here all day (or for the next seven years) but I can tell you that I’ve seen a lot of transition and transformation of individuals, of myself and my co-mentors, and of ourselves as an entity. We’ve been secret agents of change, a journalism project with an agenda to empower and enthuse the young people who’ve passed through our doors. Without sounding too soppy, it’s family. It’s about love.

Most transitions take time and I’m lucky enough to have a long view. I know individuals as they are now, working at Westfield or doing well at college, or working for national news media, and I remember where they were when we first met them. Often, this was very far away from the future they subsequently invented for themselves. Some of the biggest successes appear minuscule by mainstream standards but are epic given the challenges facing the individuals concerned. I’m thinking about the person who managed to get herself back into education after being kicked out and ended up with a brace of GCSEs. Or the 16 year old  who was out of school for years but harnessed a natural talent for social media – and who’s now applying to college.

It’s not just individuals who have changed. Live itself has changed, too. When I joined to run journalism workshops in 2006 it was very local and often very frontline. We were working with young people who were light years away from the mainstream. These were economic boom times elsewhere in society but not behind the steel shutters of Tunstall Road. We were youth workers who didn’t think we were youth workers, doing things we weren’t qualified to do, but doing them anyway. Take this film that Livity co-founder Sam Conniff made over four Saturdays with a group of young people. It’s a deceivingly raw satire on the trend for wearing gang-affiliated bandanas dominant at the time.

Warning: this clip is very sweary.

 

Our videos have evolved. This is future star Eve-Yasmin interviewing MC Mic Righteous. Our new channels that we’ll be launching in the autumn are even more ambitious.

 

 

Live’s now a place where almost everyone is a highly impressive young creative. In the picture at the top of the piece you’ve got writers, film-makers, artists, activists, musicians and a Forex trader. The landscape has changed, and so have we.

Some observations:

Live’s done a great job of trusting young people to make interesting decisions, and to create a fun and safe place in which you can make mistakes. Mistakes are good. But they’re costly if you make them in the real workplace, especially with youth unemployment running at 20%.

Mentoring isn’t about helping anyone. If we’re being honest, no-one can help anyone. Not really. But we can create the space in which people can succeed in a way that’s real and organic, on their own terms. The benefit is entirely two-way. I have got at least as much out of mentoring at Live as anyone has got from me.

I believe there’s something radical at the heart of Live – and of any organisation that genuinely creates opportunities for young people. That might be a youth club, or an arts college, or in our case, a business. We’ve opened up privileged opportunities to people who don’t have them in their family network and supported them in making the most of the door we’re jamming open. Equally importantly, we’ve created a space where broadly privileged people can work in alliance with young people who from a different class background. It’s healthy to test your assumptions. Where else can you do that?

I’m suddenly reminded of a moment from around 2009 where myself and a young man from Live went up to 10 Downing St to attend a reception. The young man was as impressive as he always is and gave a speech to the great and the good and their crystal decanters. A wealthy-looking lady came up afterwards. “Oh that was wonderful!” she said. “Are there more like you?”

The answer, lady, is yes. There are.

Up The Woods #3

I’ve been writing each month about learning about trees. This third column first appeared on Caught By The River, as will each of the monthly posts. Illustration Matt Sewell.

I am now on first name terms with a whole swathe of common and everyday trees and a number of not-so-common ones growing in my part of south east London. I’m on nodding terms with the copper beech on the road to Lewisham; with the ubiquitous rabbit-eared horse chestnut; and even the frog-footed (distinctly non-native) ginkgo that sits on the hill that takes you out of Blackheath and back down to Lee Green. I’m now at the tree-language equivalent of being able to say please, thank you and ‘two bottles of beer’.

In my notebook, I’ve been keeping a list of trees I now recognise and the list is growing. I’m pretty confident with ash, and can almost tell an oak from a distance. It’s something about the slightly diffuse shape of the leaves that makes it look hazy against the horizon, unlike a beech, whose rounded leaves cup and curve the light more softly.

This week I grasped an important technical point: tree people describe leaves as ‘pinnate’ or ‘palmate’. It took me a while but I get it now: palmate just means that the leaf is shaped like your hand, with five fat fingers radiating out from a palm, like horse chestnut, or sycamore. Pinnate describes leaves that grow with their own little stalks off a long pin-like stalk, like ash or rowan.

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It really helps to understand this, because it’s a way of sorting and seeing families of tree types. Imagine for a minute you’re standing under a tree and it’s got palmate leaves that look a bit like a sycamore. It could be a sycamore or maybe a London plane, or perhaps a maple. Once you’re in the right general area (big tree, palmate leaves) you can start to find the detail. If you can see round, brown spheres hanging from the branches like woodland baubles, then it’s a plane. If it’s got seeds shaped like dolls-house coat hangers then it’s a sycamore, and if it’s got neither, and slightly smallish leaves then it’s a maple. I gave myself major bonus points when I stuffed a sycamore-ish leaf with a red stalk into my bag and worked out that it was probably a red maple. They’re all over the place in Lewisham! Who knew that the blue borough was a hotspot for Canada’s national treasure? If I’d have known earlier in the year, I’d have been up Mountsfield Park, fighting off the Staffie owners who hoist their dogs onto trees to strengthen their jaws, to do a bit of sap-tapping for my Saturday pancakes. I am told, also, that early birch leaves are good for a nibble, but that particular experiment will have to wait until next spring.

I’ve taken a scatter-fire approach to learning what the trees are called, using different resources including badgering people I know. I haven’t yet found a British tree book I really like, although I did get an excellent guide to New York’s wooded inhabitants when I was in that city last month. The trip included a feverish, flu-dosed afternoon lying on the grass in Central Park underneath a tree with paper-round seed pods which I eventually discovered was an elm. This felt like a bittersweet win: not only did I solve the puzzle of this particular tree, but it was an English tree in New York, and one that’s almost gone from our landscape, bar the 15,000 trees saved by Brighton Council during the Dutch Elm Disease epidemic of the 1970s.

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My New York book has been surprisingly useful, along with my trusty, basic Woodland Trust swatch of obvious trees, and a bit of internet, despite the fact that most tree ID websites are crap. There’s also my newly-developed habit of borrowing leaves to take home. I have a growing collection of faded leaves in small piles around the house, like chlorophyll cairns.

The problem with tree books is that the specimen they photograph is just one tree on one day and it’ll look different in June than it will in January. Young trees look different from old trees. No two trees look exactly the same so it’s hard to identify a tree from one single picture. I’m sure there are good apps but I left my iPhone in Rwanda (it’s a long story) and have been using a second-hand blackberry in the interim – a phone whose crappiness is perversely attractive in a world where the internet is everywhere all the time, hence still using it a month down the line even though it drives me mad.

One tree that’s hard to miss in south London is the sycamore. In fact, so many of these have self-seeded that they’re mostly considered a weed. Consequently, I had no qualms uprooting the skinny specimen on the builders hardcore and inch of soil on the side of my ’60s maisonette, where weeds fight (and win) a battle against the random plants I’ve chucked at the ground.

I have to make a confession here: I am no stranger to arborcide. When I moved in, I cut down three massive leyandii that were growing in my tiny yard because they provided so much shade that not even ivy grew. It was my own personal Scandi forest that turned my sunny and optimistic abode into permanent gothic gloaming, and they had to go. The trees had the last laugh, though. A year after they were felled, I got a man called Andy to come round with his stump grinder. One of the tree-shards flew up like a wooden Cruise missile and struck the middle of the patio doors, transforming the pane into a spiders web of shattered glass.

Learning about trees has made me notice more than just the species. I am suddenly aware of bad pollarding, like the leylandii in front of my house – yes, another one – where my neighbour hacked the top third off, leaving a jig-jag of brutalised trunk exposed on one side. On the other hand, I find myself noticing a particularly beautiful crown, like the tree on the corner of my friend’s road. I don’t what it is, but it’s in flower now and reminds me of a pretty child’s head after she’s had curlers and ribbons put into her hair. I’m not sure I’d have even noticed it before.

I remember now that I had the same experience of clarity increasing with knowledge when I decided to learn about clouds a few years ago. I had no handle on them apart from in the broadest sense (that one looks like a dog; those ones are orange and well emotional) and then after a few months they took on their individual beauty. Look how that Lenticularis sits in the sky, just there by itself like a gorgeous, soft UFO! Or, see that pretty piece of Vellum lounging next to a bunch of puffy Cumulus! Naming allows you to engage, and to like things more. It’s probably the same with people. I remember talking to a community worker on an East London estate who’d dealt with tensions simply by introducing residents to each other. The renegade kids became people with names, and the shouty, aggressive adults became people with names and everyone got on a whole lot better.

One final thing: I just read Jay Griffiths’s book, Kith. Some of her prose is a touch too pixie for me, but she has some wonderful things to say about childhood, the woods, and the roots and routes of words. The words tree, endure, tryst, trust and truth, she says, are all related to the common Indo-European, doru or dreu.

Trees, you see. They’re at the root of everything.

Creat_ED ‘unconference’ at The Barbican

Some things I learned from the Creat_ED ‘unconference’ at The Barbican.

1. Creat_ED exists because of an absence, that of Learning Without Frontiers. When the latter was cancelled, Creat_ED popped into existence in a foundational example of doing. You can read more about the genesis of the event here.

2. An ‘unconference’ is quite like a conference, but more democratic. In the case of Creat_ED, this meant a room up on the fourth floor of the Barbican, looking out into the jungly centre of the conservatory, where we were encouraged by host Eylan Ezekiel to comment, share and do.

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3. The opening speaker Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino made an interesting point that learning. It is, she said, ‘a community’ and spoke about some of the people who’d schooled her. It made me wonder: is it possible to curate your own teachers outside of the people you encountered at school? If I think about the people who really taught me something I’d include my dad, my Primary School teacher Mrs Skinner who got us dissecting lambs eyes (it was the ’80s, you could do stuff like that), and the music editor at Select Magazine who took to me to one side and explained exactly why my album reviews weren’t really working.

4. Deschamps-Sonsino also introduced us to her lovely Good Night Lamps. These are internet connected lamps that comprise a big lamp and little lamps. When the big lamp is turned on, the little lamps turn on, too. They’re designed to allow families, particularly those that live in different countries, to keep in touch, and it’s a very cute idea. Harpist and music educator Stephanie, who was sitting next to me, pointed out that the lamps would equally be useful to people who collaborate remotely. Musicians, for example.

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5. She rocketed through a number of other very cool items that could be described as part of the internet of things. These include the Little Printer which dispenses you cute receipt-sized, personalised printed content from your friends or through the apps you’ve selected on your phone and Molly, which gives you a gumball every time you get a retweet.

 

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6. Fred Garnett was one of the people who spoke up after Alexandra’s talk. He said we needed to move away from pedagogy – the act of teaching – and into heutagogy and andragogy. This involved some furtive googling on my part. The former means ‘self-determined learning’, the latter is about how to engage with adult learners. Follow Fred @fredgarnett to find out more.

7. Second speaker was Simon Raymonde, founder of Bella Union records and one-time bassist with Cocteau Twins. Frou Frou Foxes In Midsummer Fires remains one of my favourite records ever, but that’s beside the point. Raymonde started his talk with a tune by Bella Union’s John Grant, ‘GMF’. It’s safe to say that the average conference doesn’t involve playing songs which have a prominent use of the word ‘motherfucker’.

He told the story of how Midlake nursed John Grant back into physical and musical health through the making of his album Queen of Denmark and went on to cover the digital transformation of the music industry, and why people should be asking themselves ‘did I do something today to help a creative person?’. Then he ended on John Grant’s ‘Glacier’ which played all the way through to the final resonant note.

8. Stevyn Colgan was the third ‘provocateur’ or speaker. He joined the Met police after drunkenly signing a bet with his dad that he couldn’t last six months and ended up staying 30 years, eventually as part of the Met’s Problem Solving Unit. He told a though-provoking story about an estate in Scotland which had two football pitches for the kids, on either side of a dual carriageway – one of which wasn’t being used, and one of which had become a magnet for problems. He and his colleagues realised that there were actually three sets of kids – small kids who just wanted to kick a ball about, medium-aged kids who didn’t want to play with the small kids, and older kids who wanted to do their own thing. They solved the problems by spending £25 on white paint and creating two smaller pitches. Crime went down accordingly. The police, he said, are always focused on solving crime, when they should be focusing on the prevention of crime. “The people who know why a problem happens are the people who are causing the problem but no-one will talk to them because they’re the ‘bad guys”

 

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9. The Wall of Do was a space to share thoughts and requests, and had some good ideas on it. These included taking students out to Fab Labs and MakerSpaces, asking how to inculcate learning habits and loads more that escape me, but that fed into the afternoon’s workshop sessions.

 

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10. Creat_ED was all about risk, agility and making connections. There should be more like it.

Gove and why schools are a ‘dragnet for lost feeling’

In the topsy-turvy, highly politicised world of British education, there are a dizzying array of contradictory accusations. Today, it’s Michael Wilshaw’s assertion that schools ‘fail’ two-thirds of the brightest pupils, which hovers awkwardly over his organisation’s own assertion that two thirds of schools in the UK are good or outstanding.

Ah well, so it goes as Kurt Vonnegut once said.

The detail of the current round of contradictory unpleasantness coming from the DfE and Ofsted is less interesting than the underlying idea revealed in the exchange between Gove and Dianne Abbott during the GCSE debate.

“No-one needs academic rigour more than working-class children,” said Abbott, writing the next day in The Guardian. “I owe everything in life to my string of A Grades and O- and A-Level and my Cambridge degree.”

The important word in that sentence is ‘I’.

Politicians seem incapable of seeing beyond their own individual experiences at school. They regularly confuse what worked for them with what might work for thousands of young people from an entirely different generation. “It worked for me” appears to be the basis of policy and responses to policy and it’s just not good enough.

I once heard an Assistant Head turned leadership coach explain this phenomenon. “Whenever any adult goes into schools, they bring their school bag with them. And their school bag is full of shit.”

For politicians, the shit is usually good shit. Most of them will have been successful at school, and will have felt the halo glow of achievement. Parents who don’t turn up to parents evening, or who kick off when they do come into school, are also responding to their school experiences, which were probably poor. And it’s the same for the rest of us. We can only put our own experiences into their rightful historic place by either spending a lot of time in schools (like teachers do) or by recognising the tidal emotional pull of our own school days.

School is intense and time-specific. The five years or so we all spent as pupils at secondary school will have contained a lifetimes-worth of friendships, fallings out, stress, comedy, drama and occasionally, the kind of teaching you remember for ever. Schools are huge, complex, emotional machines with many different moving parts that exert a lasting effect.

It’s powerful stuff. Michael Gove, for example, had a wonderful time at school. I once read a piece in which his mother described a teacher giving up and just letting him lead class. Gove himself even wrote an open letter of apology to his French teacher, saying that he cringes when he thinks of his ‘clever-dick questions’ and ‘pathetic showing-off’. The precocious schoolboy lingers in Gove’s pronouncements, and he needs to be replaced with a wiser adult who can survey the landscape without always allowing himself to be psychologically pinged back to his own experience at school.

To paraphrase Carson McCullers, schools are a ‘dragnet for lost feeling’. Politicians, however, should be able to get beyond that.

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