Last month, I took part in a creative writing workshop hosted by Newstead Abbey’s poet in residence, Becky Cullen. It invited us to draw inspiration from the Now for Tomorrow 2 exhibition at Nottingham Castle. So, in a break from tradition (as if this blog has any kind of rhyme or reason to it whatsoever!) I thought I’d share some of the creative work here.After an initial warm-up exercise that encouraged us to creatively chart our journey to the castle, we moved on to our first task. We were given titles (drawn at random) of various items in the exhibition, which we had not yet seen. Writing blind with only a title to go on, this is what I came up with:
A woman, her hair in curlers, covered over with a headscarf. Formidable. A half-smoked-cigarette drooping from her bulldog lips. Her eyes dark and challenging. Hands on hips, a functional tabard over a floral dress, nylon so cheap it’d go up with a whomp if one speck of burning ash from her cigarette fell onto it. She wouldn’t even try to cover herself if that happened, just coolly pat the flames out with hard hands. Hard hands that have seen hard work, bleach-reddened and rough, rough in other ways too, more accustomed to grab and shove than stroke and caress. Better suited to slapping out fires than sheltering a flickering flame.
She’s waiting for something, and whoever or whatever it is is going to get a rollicking when they finally turn up.
Next we were permitted to go and visit our piece and write a new piece now that we’d seen it. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Irene, 1953 was a sketch of a woman, but there were various characteristics that weren’t so different from my own imagined Irene. Since my writing usually has a science fiction flavour, that got me thinking…
Irene, 1953 Revisited
Your Irene and my Irene, they’re not so different. The hard stare is there, the iron-backbone with a will to match. The soft curls are there, although my Irene’s are not (will likely never be) ready and your Irene’s are perfection.
All it comes down to, as it so often does, is a matter of opportunity.
Your Irene looks like she’s waiting for a suitor in a smart suit, or a tutor who’ll impart knowledge, or a fellow party guest. Whoever it is, they’re not one hundred per cent welcome, but they’ll be tricked out in similar finery and their imminent approach is tolerable.
My Irene waits for a drunk husband, or a workshy son, or a daughter throwing her life away on a good for nothing man, or a dog that’s smelled a bitch in heat and run away nose to the ground, following her scent, deaf to Irene’s calls for him to come back. Whichever it is, when they finally get back here, to this doorstep, in this neighbourhood of terraced houses and yards filled with washing, they’ll get an earful. Your Irene’s guest will just get a hard stare that will make them pluck at the lilac bush by the summer house rather than meet her gaze.
Your Irene’s hands are soft, unaccustomed to any work other than needlework, and not the kind of needlework my Irene does, which she calls ‘darnin’’. My Irene’s hands are hard, knuckles swollen. She massages the joints for relief that never comes.
And maybe, in another time, and with other opportunities, or lack of, they’d switch places, and your Irene would be my Irene, and my Irene would be your Irene and no matter how often they may tell us that these things are down to hard work and not what you were born into, we both know that to be a lie and so do our Irenes.
Finally, we were given time to roam around the exhibition in its entirety and select a piece to write about. While the piece below is primarily about Permindar Kaur’s Independence (below)
it’s filtered through the lens of Craig Fisher’s Rioters.
To me, both pieces had a similar mixture of innocence with a sinister undertone, but Fisher’s spoke more obviously of the juxtaposition of the bright simplicity of childhood and the ominous presence of adult themes and prejudices. It was that line of thinking that gave rise to…
“Let’s go to a puppet show,” he said.
“It’ll be fun, he said.
I should’ve known. Puppets are sinister. Look at Punch and Judy’s casual take on domestic violence. Look at Igglepiggle, with his staring eyes and misshapen head. A friend’s child said he hated Igglepiggle because he was the soul of a dead boy. I think he’s right.
Even the Tweenies have a Jimmy Savile impression in their past they’ve tried to erase.
My sense of unease grow when the priests take the stage. They carry long copper poles each stuffed with a puppet instead of a candle, dangling legs stopped with bright copper boots. An altar boy comes in with a taper and lights them just the same. They smell of burning cinnamon. As the flames catch, their fuzzy felt bodies crinkle and blacken and each lets out a thin, high-pitched scream. Higher and higher and thinner and thinner, until it’s an edge-of-hearing whine and nothing is left but their little copper boots. A moment’s silence, then each pair pings to the ground like tiny bells tolling.
As the altar boys return to sweep away the ash and the boots with bundles of birch twigs, and the crowd whoops and applauds, I tell him: “I’ll stick with the Muppets, thanks.”
Overall, it was great to engage with the art in this way, and develop work that’s in many ways very different to what I’d usually produce. (It’s still dark and weird, but in a different way!)
Becky will be back at Nottingham Castle on 9th April leading us in reading our pieces. (although I’ll probably be reading Irene Revisted rather than Puppets!) Please come along and see us and/or Now for Tomorrow 2 – what I’ve included here is just a tiny sample of what they have on display (and obviously, if you come, you can see the whole of Irene, and let’s face it, you’re dying to now!)