Lucy Neal: Of Yeast, Seeds, Fire and Dancing.
By rob hopkins 30th April 2015
It’s been a month since Lucy Neal’s Playing for Time was published. Here she shares what it feels like to get a book you’ve published into your hand for the first time, how it’s being received, and what ‘Flip the Kipper’ is:
“A handwritten letter came through my door this week. It was from one of Playing for Time’s contributors, clay alchemist, Julia Rowntree. She’d been propping the book up on her breakfast table each morning, and had read every one of its 400 plus pages, ‘even the index’. It is brilliant to be part of a book which also has pictures in it of snails, a wolf and a crocus, yeast, seeds, fire and dancing she wrote.
The evidence people are reading a book you’ve written is enough to make you swoon. Like a dish you’ve spent time cooking that proves to be edible and delicious – times about a million.
Her letter named something else many have communicated to me in different ways, since the book’s theatrical launch on March 26th. As one of the individuals woven into the book, she relished seeing the ‘whole cloth’, recognising how the book placed so many people, herself included, into ‘a picture bigger than the one they thought they might be contributing to.’
My delight that the bigger picture of ‘making art as if the world mattered’ has revealed itself and been seen in this way is great. Given the trust contributors placed in the book’s ‘weaving’, the fact they’ve also expressed pride in being part of that bigger picture, completes the first circle of the book’s achievements. Phew. Collaboratively written with over 64 people, and almost as many photographers, illustrators and designers, the overall context, purpose and evolving possibilities of Playing for Time had been stored away for a year or more in googledrive docs and in my head – and that of Charlotte Du Cann, my collaborator and editor. It is a sweet relief that it’s now bound between the covers of a large book: chunkily gorgeous and very beautiful.
Drawing together the ways in which the arts re-imagine a more viable future on the planet has been an intense life journey. Months of coralling, commissioning and writing, culminated last July when Charlotte and I handed over a nearly finished manuscript to Oberon, our adventurous publishers. In September, I met senior editor Andrew Walby in a Vauxhall café to hear his first impressions, sitting bolt upright when he scooped out of his bag a massive block of paper (alias the book) which he’d been reading and enjoying. From its first pages, he felt Playing for Time required something from him in terms of action and change. It was the first inkling I had that a readership might feel the same and a good sign.
The time between finishing the writing of a book and holding it in your hands becomes fraught in unexpected ways. Working to print deadlines with Oberon’s brilliant designer, James Illman, there were higher resolution images to source, images lost on floppy discs in Australia or buried in archive boxes at the Bishopsgate Institute; photo credits to double check along with close work on proofing, footnotes and yes, indexing to make one pass out with detail fatigue. ‘We’ll get there’ said Andrew, assuredly.
Once at the printers, attention turned to launching the blessed thing; a full-on evening at the Free Word Centre in Faringdon, hosted by Arvon, Oberon and Free Word, to include food, drink, speeches, games, music, a performance, an extract, the blowing of a conch, the playing of a fiddle, the cutting of a big cake and the selling of the books. Nearly all the books contributors would assemble for the first time, a drama in itself, although the main player was still missing! Cutting it fine, like all good prima donnas, the book appeared within hours of our first guests.
On the morning of the launch, a text from Andrew arrived saying ‘it’s here’ along with a picture of it in his hands and of the Somerset van unloading book boxes. I stepped off the train at Faringdon station, stood quietly and wept.
Moments later it was in my hands and was beautiful in a weighty, (it’s quite large!) significant way; richly visual, like, well, like something that matters. I wrapped it to give to the 15 ‘core contributors’ meeting that afternoon at Free Word Centre. After some rustling and unwrapping, there was a perfect silence as everyone stared and stroked and held their books. We looked like some strange bible class. The group, meeting to catch up on their recent work for the afternoon, then presented Charlotte and I in turn with two Playing for Time apple trees. One now planted in Charlotte’s garden at Warren Cottage, Reydon in Suffolk; the other in my Tooting garden, close to the orange blossom. Talk about responsibility…..
The Launch gloriously enacted much of what the book is about: participatory, collaborative, celebratory making within a context of looking planetary challenges in the eye. Fabio Santos marshalled proceedings expertly; Oberon arrived with 100 books (which they sold); Community Diner brought food and drink; Free Word staff turned a gallery into a party venue; Anne-Marie Culhane and Ruth Ben-Tovim went into overdrive preparing two areas of installation – a fish drawing corner and a beautiful tree like arrangement pinned with an ‘invitation to join in’ and blackboards with questions, ‘What makes you smile? What do you fear? What do you want future generations to thankyou for?’
Speeches from Rose Fenton (Free Word), Becky Swain (Arvon), Andrew (Oberon) welcomed the book’s arrival. I explained how writing was important, thanked everyone I could think of and read a statement from Rob. Ansuman Biswas summoned all with a large conch before Charlotte ‘revealed’ the drawn Blueprint dropped dramatically over the gallery balcony to talk people through the shape of the book: first section – Drivers of Change; second section – the Practice; third section – Recipes for Action.
Elements of these were animated before we served a wholesome supper, (including Josiah Meldrum’s Hodemedod’s Essex grown quinoa). Paul Allen mapped the human relationship to energy in a spellbinding 5 minutes; a greeting from Waiata Telfer and Sue Rider filmed in Australia brought them into the room; Cedoux Kadima read an extract about Home and Belonging; Rose Music, from Grow Heathrow spoke about activist life in a transition community; Anne-Marie talked about sustainable fish stocks and invited everyone to draw a fish. We’d play a game with them after supper.
The eldest in the room (my dad, 88) and the youngest, Buddy (8) cut the cake. Fern Smith spoke of Land Journeying; plant activist, Mark Watson made a refreshing Playing for Time tea with herbs from his garden; Ruth Ben-Tovim and members of youth theatre Phakama brought answers people had written on the blackboards to life: a magic moment, created directly from people in the room. THEN THE MOMENT WE HAD ALL BEEN WAITING FOR (well I had) we played FLIP THE KIPPER, the length of the gallery. Mayhem, joy and a burst of energy with Laurel Swift on fiddle as people wafted (Transition Free Press) newspapers to flip their fish, shrieking and shouting: exactly the kind of playing energy I’d hoped the book could inspire. Andrew Walby excelled himself, as did my husband Simon, probably from the sheer energy of palpable relief.
I enjoyed the evening’s generous sense of engagement, whilst failing to master the art of book signing, chatting, meeting, eating and connecting people. Nic Jeune, emailed the next day: ‘I was overwhelmed by the power of Yes in the room. A great big singing Yes almost as loud as the conch!’ Oberon: ‘a cracking night.’
I saw what I wanted to see. The book had an energy all its own. It could make space for a new kind of engagement, a new art, a new playing.
Responses to Playing for Time in the days that followed were immediate – and positive:
‘a manifesto, a work of art, a beautiful and invaluable book’ ‘a total delight’ ‘a hand-book for life’ ‘a remarkable achievement’ ‘beautiful from the first sentence’ ‘deeply nourishing’ ‘a beauty of a book’. Second Phew. We await critical responses from reviewers but for the moment, readers appear to be responding to the sense the book hails a movement for making art ‘as if the world mattered’, that they want to be a part of. It’s arrived with contributors and buyers in the US, Latvia and Australia and many tweet its physical arrival in the post with a photo taken on their kitchen table, desk or workshop top.
One person took it into hospital ‘as a talisman as much as anything else’; Mike Grenville read it on a train journey to Austria (and back), others sent messages they were reading it on the bus (on the move it can be challenging to carry around…). Contributors Anna Ledgard, Teo Greenstreet bought boxes to sell immediately at their own events; others handing out flyers and promoting on their websites. The Head of Arts at Paul Hamlyn Foundation, bought and sent to a number of his colleagues committed to the participatory arts.
The actively independent publisher Oberon have thrown themselves into promoting it and in a series on Art and Social Change, Rob has interviewed people on Transition Network including Sarah Corbett, Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey, Anne Marie Culhane, Ruth Ben-Tovim, John Jordan and Isabelle Frémeaux, Fern Smith and Sarah Woods, and others.
A text runs through these interviews – making art is a way of life and an experimental one at that. ‘Creativity should be almost welded into our beings..’ says Dan Harvey, ‘As artists, you work with things that interest you and intrigue you, and sometimes maybe things that you don’t understand as well.’
Each has their own way of welding creativity into their being, doing, describing, defining art. As John Jordan and Isa Frémeaux say ‘activists do not have a monopoly on social change, nor artists a monopoly on creativity’. Making the participatory arts more visible, says Ruth Ben-Tovim, is ‘a line in the sand..like something that has been there suddenly being brought into technicolour’.
Art is ‘about magic, it’s about transformation, it’s about a moment of recognition or wonder. It’s about change’, says Anne-Marie. ‘That’s either within me or about a collective sense of change or exploration.’ She quotes Dougald Hine from the Dark Mountain Project: ‘if someone were to ask me what kind of cause is sufficient to live for in dark times, the best answer I could give would be to take responsibility. Not an impossible, meaningless responsibility for the world in general, but one that is specific and practical and maybe different for each of us’.
I trust Playing for Time makes this purpose for art plain: creating connection to our communities, the wider natural world and our ecological responsibilities; to another way of being human on Earth. ‘Creating a culture’ as Charlotte has said ‘in which every voice, every story, matters’. Working on Playing for Time made her realise ‘‘it is not so much about creating an art department, but about framing and supporting what the artist does..I like to imagine that all its macro and micro attentions, its intelligence, beauty and integrity, will inspire people to look forward, take action, and be generous and inclusive in the way so many artists and writers have been with their knowledge and experience’.
Paul Allen pointed out after the launch, that thoughts and ideas people have responding to the book ‘are ‘living creatures’ that just inhabit the neurosystems of our human minds, they then replicate, multiply and cross fertilise, they know what they are doing, we are their support systems’
Friday April 24th
Last week Charlotte and I cooked lunch for the Oberon team in the house of the publisher James Hogan, to thank them for their heroic collective effort getting the book ‘over the line’. It’d been 10 months since we’d met them one hot day in July in the Oberon courtyard. Publisher James Hogan made an imprompu and sincere speech (over the new potatoes, wild garlic pesto, violet vinegar and primrose and pomegranate pavlova) about how he’d started to read the book, how it allowed him to see a different role for art; connected with the planet, rather than an art revolving around political beliefs and tastes. ‘I will not be alive to see all the changes this book proposes, but others will and I am inspired today by the sense of possibility it communicates’, he said. For him, it connected to the depth of things, a spiritual matter.
I’m pleased if the book opens up a way for people to think differently about the arts, extending their sense of what they can expect from themselves and of art. For transitioners, I hope it helps them see being creative is at the heart of the Transition process: imagining the future differently, being open to serendipity and possibility, bringing people together. This was where Playing for Time was seeded for me. The arts can hold all this and move us on.
I’m glad I didn’t succumb to the drowning feeling I had on some days of the enormity of the task. I miss Reydon in Suffolk, where I shared daily life with Mark Watson and Charlotte Du Cann and their black cat. There will be blue bells in the woods there now, blue tits hopping, owls hooting, and the blackbird in the greengage tree. I learnt so very much from them, for which I’m thankful for, as I did from all the contributors. Charlotte helped put the yeast, the seeds, the fire and the dancing into my writing and has written of her own Playing for Time experiences here . She gave a talk on April 27th in Southwold Library. We’ve been invited to run a course on The Art of Writing Collaboratively with Arvon next January to continue a great collaboration.
I’m booked into the Hay-on-Wye Festival (they’ve ordered 50 books); Two Degrees in Whitechapel; the Latitude Festival and will lead a workshop with Ruth Ben-Tovim on The Art of Invitation and transitional arts practice at the Transition Conference in September, and possibly also Transition Camp in October, which all feels a little rock and roll.
But inside, I know there’s deeper, harder work to do. I’ve been changed utterly by the experience of creating and writing Playing for Time: line blurs between my making of it and its making of me. I must get with my own ‘transitional arts practice’ – experimenting each day with what that might be. I call myself a theatre-maker, and in a conventional sense once upon a time, I was one, creating an international theatre festival for 25 years. I redefine this term for myself now, as dramaturg, creating stories in a form that can be acted, holding spaces in which live storymaking can take place, making warm celebratory, social spaces in which change feels and is possible; galvanising the spirit and creativity to make change.
As a ‘transitional arts practice’ comes into view, others will test and add to its narratives and practice, making more visible the deep, essential role the arts and culture play in conjuring a liveable world. I’m thankful to Transition for creating this opportunity of learning for me.
So a new cycle of Playing for Time begins. I suspect much of what will emerge, lurks beneath the surface, in the grain, in the spaces inbetween, bubbling up in allotments, halls, homes, playgrounds, high streets, hospitals and in our hearts. Providence will intervene from unknown, invisible places. The universe will respond to our letting it act on and through us. Magic will happen.
Meanwhile, I know people consulting the Land Journeying section written by Fern Smith in Recipes for Action and I heard from TTT’s Co-Chair Jenny Teasdale yesterday she’ll use Fabio Santos and Phakama’s Give and Gain in the creation of a Tooting garden with young aslyum seekers and refugees. The book is already being used and proving useful.
A way must be found to gather these responses and ripples: new actions and engagements. Following the permaculture principle of observing before digging up and sowing anew, I look forward to watching this aesthetics of care emerge.
‘Between the boundary of what is possible and what it is not there is a field: a space of transformation the universe only releases in the dusty arena of action…The threshold between what is and what could be is rich in potential for change’.
Along with snails, a crocus, a wolf, dancing, yeast and seeds and more.