I was born in Durham. I like that. It’s a city which I enjoy living in. When my wife and I got married, when we started our family, it’s the place we decided to move. But Durham, like the North East, like the country as a whole, finds itself let down by its political class.
Just as a Tory hegemony at Westminster continues to serve the region poorly, so the supremacy of Labour in the North East does little to further our interests. As with anywhere that finds itself dominated by one political party, at times political discourse in the North East threatens to slip to the level of almost total irrelevance, Labour’s certainty of victory against all comers rendering their capacity for compromise charmlessly unnecessary in all but the rarest of cases.
Last year’s failure of Durham County Council’s County Durham Plan is emblematic of all that is failing about local government in the North East. Called “unrealistic and flawed” by a senior inspector in early 2015, it was swiftly withdrawn by the Council who have, since then, been scrambling to put together a new version which will pass muster.
It is in this context that the County Durham Green Party’s Durham Future City Plan represents an interesting addition to the conversation. As a gauntlet, thrown down. What could a regenerated, revitalised Durham City look like? Can it be somewhere which works for all of its citizens, which offers progressive answers to questions about the economy, housing, transport, the environment, food and social wellbeing? Are we content as a dormitory town for students, many of whom have no interest in or connection to the city other than as members of the university? How do we make Durham somewhere that those talented people want to stay after they’ve finished their years of study? How do we balance those demands against the needs of people for whom this city is their home? How are we going to make Durham more than it currently is?
They’re fascinating problems, important ones. 2016 has been a year which has seen the political establishment challenged, but all too often those challenges have been little more than primal screams of rage. This anger understandable but, like a runaway train, it has the capacity to take us to places we do not necessarily want to be. What is needed now is direction, intellectual engagement, an acceptance that things can’t carry on like this married to a vision for where we’d like them to go.
The idea of a Durham Future City Plan, not just as a rejection of the Council’s ideas but as an expression of a viable alternative, marks one attempt to ensure that the necessary challenging of the political class forms part of a positive contribution to the conversation. Even if you reject the conclusions, any attempt to encourage reasoned debate is valuable. In times like these, with all that is at stake, it is essential.
Richard Callaghan is a member of the County Durham Green Party.
RICHARD CALLAGHAN is captivated by Durham-based Martha, one of the most exciting bands to emerge from the North East in recent years
This Saturday’s concert in Newcastle was the third time I’ve had the privilege of watching Martha live, my sole regret upon leaving Live Theatre being that it was only the third. Where their 2014 debut Courting Strong confirmed them as the most exciting band to have emerged from the North East for years, this year’s thrilling follow up, Blisters In The Pit Of My Heart, surpassed its predecessor in every department. Yet, such recorded brilliance threatens to raise expectations to a level that many bands simply cannot meet. All too often the product of a tightly controlled recording studio, however exemplary, can prove impossible to match on the stage. It takes a very good band to be as good live as they are on a record. Fortunately for all concerned, Martha are indeed a very good band.
Matching music with an uncommonly muscular grace to lyrics betraying an acute and gentle wit, the Durham four piece know exactly what is required, the ferocious charm of their live performance grabbing the audience by the scruff of the neck and dragging us along. It helps, of course, that they possess such a strong collection of songs, but as previously stated having great tunes is only an asset if you can carry them off in person. This Martha do with aplomb.
The ability to produce a set entirely free of filler is a rarity in a band with only two full length albums behind them, yet the eleven songs Martha raced through on Saturday evening constituted just that. Personal highlights included two of my favourites from the new record (“Chekhov’s Hangnail” and “Goldman’s Detective Agency”), alongside Courting Strong’s “Present, Tense”, and the ever wonderful “1967, I Miss You, I’m Lonely”.
Whether it is by virtue of their determinedly DIY ethos, or a symptom of the changing face of the music industry (one cannot help but feel that were this a decade or so ago they would have been beguiled with, and engulfed by, an enormous recording deal long before now), Martha have emerged as one of the most consistently interesting and staggeringly complete bands in the country. That the nature of their progress to this point means that we still have the opportunity to watch them play in small rooms (rather than the enormous venues which are clearly their destiny) is a gift to music fans everywhere, and one I urge you to seize if you have the chance. You might not get it again.
Any review ought to be balanced by the mention of both positives and negatives, so I’ll end this one with my two biggest criticisms of Martha’s performance. The set was too short, and they’re not playing again tomorrow. Come back soon Martha, I can’t wait to make it time number four.
RICHARD CALLAGHAN explains why Sunderland’s bid to be the 2021 UK City of Culture will be a great boost for both the city and the whole North East region.
Before I tell you about why I believe Sunderland becoming UK City of Culture in 2021 would be great not just for the city but for the region, I have to declare an interest.
As much as I would love to be able to make a living writing for esteemed publications such as this, I’m afraid I’ve actually got a day job working for the Sunderland City of Culture bid. Admittedly, this makes me less than impartial on this subject, but I can honestly say that, even if I wasn’t being paid to say it, I’d still think that City of Culture would be a great thing for the North East.
The UK City of Culture competition was founded following the success of Liverpool’s year as European Capital of Culture in 2008. Culture had effected a transformative change upon Liverpool, the argument went, just as it had on Glasgow in 1990. Why should UK cities wait another twenty years to feel the effect again? The idea of the UK competition was that rather than seeing this boost once every few decades, it could be felt every four years instead.
Derry-Londonderry was the first city to win the title, being named UK City of Culture for 2013. If you’ve not already heard them, I’ll give you a quick run down of the numbers: 48 new start-up businesses as a result of their year. 25% rise in hotel occupancy in the first six months, with May to September the highest the city had ever seen. £5 back for every £1 of public money spent. £100m invested in the city through cultural programming and infrastructure. These are real numbers, real impacts.
Hull will take the title of City of Culture next year. The city’s already feeling the effects. Look at any newspaper, watch the six o’clock news, check out whichever news site you prefer. There are already world class artists coming to work in Hull, ready to make great art in the city next year. I’ve got family in Hull, which has meant I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for that unfashionable city on the Humber. It is, like Sunderland, significantly nicer than people who’ve never been there think it’s going to be. And, with the boost from City of Culture, with next year’s prize on the horizon, it’s a city metamorphosing. Go to Hull today and what you’ll see is a place getting ready to transform itself, a civic chrysalis preparing for its year as the national butterfly.
All of the economic impacts are great. Much needed, much welcomed in the North East. But for me, the power of the City of Culture, the reason why it would be so fantastic both for the city and the region, goes beyond the economy. The North East is a fantastic place. We all know this. It’s the place I was born, the place I’ve lived most of my life, the place I’ve chosen to raise my family. It is my home. The North East, as a place, is profoundly important to me.
Yet, too often, the perception of those from outside the region is of a post-industrial wasteland, of economic deprivation, of somewhere we’d all leave if only we could. It’s a destructive narrative, one that must be argued against for two reasons. First, it makes it harder to attract skilled people to the North East, harder to attract businesses, harder to attract investment. Why would you want to move to a cultural backwater, or an economic sinkhole? Why would you want to come somewhere everybody else wants to leave?
That’s the first reason, but for me it matters less than the second. The second reason is this. That narrative, the story we’re told about the North East, affects the way that we feel about ourselves. If the North East is a failed place, then the only people here are failures. If it’s somewhere everybody wants to leave, then the only people who stay are the people who have to. Because they’re not good enough for somewhere else. Because they couldn’t make it in Manchester, couldn’t hack it in London. They’ve settled for second best, accepted their lot. What that story says about us, all of us, is that we haven’t made a choice. We’re here because nobody else wants us.
Well, my friends, I’ve made a choice. I wouldn’t live in London if you paid me. For all its faults, for all its failures, I love the North East. There is nowhere else I’d rather live, nowhere else I’d rather raise my daughter. It’s a beautiful place, vibrant and exciting, with a fascinating history and a wonderful story to tell. That, for me, is the power of City of Culture. It’s an opportunity, a chance to tell a different story about the place, about ourselves. To make the argument for all of us who’ve chosen to be here because we want to be. The renaissance in Newcastle and Gateshead in the last two decades has begun to shift that narrative for Tyneside, but it’s time for the rest of the North East to see that kind of change.
If Sunderland becomes UK City of Culture in 2021, it’ll boost the region’s economy. It’ll attract national and international news coverage. It’ll bring world class art and world class artists into Sunderland’s communities, and offer people opportunities they’d never otherwise have. But it’ll go beyond that. It’ll help to change that story. It’ll mean that when people think of Sunderland, of the North East, they’ll not just be thinking “Post-industrial wasteland with three crap football teams,” they’ll be thinking, “They’ve got the Turner Prize there this year. They’ve got brilliant art exhibitions, groundbreaking theatre, fantastic concerts. They’ve got amazing events. They’ve still got three crap football teams (because some things never change).” That’s why I think Sunderland 2021 is important. That’s why I’m excited about it. And that’s why I think you should be excited about it too.
Sunderland musician Ross Millard talks to RICHARD CALLAGHAN about his Edinburgh Fringe debut
Ross Millard is looking relaxed. Surprisingly relaxed, in fact, given that he’s one third (just about, more on that later) of one of more than three and a half thousand shows at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. Guitarist for the Futureheads and Frankie & The Heartstrings, Ross is making his Fringe debut in a show about music, why people stop playing it, and why it’s great when they start again. I sat down with Ross, and asked him about the show, the relationship to the audience, and his first experience of the Edinburgh Fringe.
Putting The Band Back Together features Ross Millard, Maria Crocker and Alex Elliott. It is directed by Annie Rigby. Writer, Chloe Daykin.
RC: So, what’s Putting The Band Back Together about?
RM: Annie’s chosen to describe it as part gig, part poignant show about reconnecting with a one-time obsession in your life. In our case it’s music but it transfers to anything that you’ve had a passion for but which has dissipated.
The original inspiration for the story was Mark Lloyd who was a Northern Stage actor diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, and with the rest of the time he had left the main thing he wanted to do was put his old band back together. And he did it, and they did gigs at Washington Arts Centre and places like that. Alex and Annie were very close with Mark and they wanted to sort of honour that story because it’s quite an important message in life, at the heart of it all what’s your passion? What do you want to do above everything else? But that story’s offset with some quite wild interpretative moments with other people’s experiences about music. And then there’s the House Band element as well.
RC: For those who haven’t seen the show yet, could you just explain the House Band?
RM: So every day at three o’clock at Summerhall we meet up with anybody who’s coming along to the show who plays any instrument, a little bit or a lot, and we’ve got a rehearsal room booked and we go off for three quarters of an hour and run through some tunes and then they get up and they’re part of the show. So far we’ve had quite a good variety, we’ve had a flautist, drummers, keyboard players, quite a few guitarists, singers, people are getting in touch constantly and the band’s different every day, which is great for us.
At the heart of the message it’s that it’s not about ability, it’s not about getting bogged down in the minutiae of being great, it’s just about doing it, and if that’s the message of the play we couldn’t really have that without the House Band.
As an audience member, perhaps even subconsciously, you’re willing them to do well. But there’s a fine line to walk, because people have paid their money and they want to see a quality show, I don’t want to do something where people come along and the theatre element is great but the music falls apart. It’s about trying to arrange it so that people can still contribute regardless of their ability, and so that the show remains strong.
Yesterday we had a guy who contacted us out of the blue, plays keys, he said “I’ve got tickets for the show with my wife, I play keyboards very occasionally, jazz, and it’s going to blow my wife’s mind if I just get up and become part of the House Band without her knowing about it.” So he told her he was at a meeting, and came along to the rehearsal, and her jaw just dropped when he stood up and joined the band. And it was a thrill, you know, for him to be part of that. A big deal to be up on stage, to perform, it’s easy to forget that not everyone does that on a regular basis. It’s a big deal.
RC: You’re used to performing, to playing in bands, but this must be a different experience.
RM: I’ve tried to treat the audience at our thing the way I’d treat the audience at a normal show, and I think you’ve got to hope there’s strength in the story or in the overall experience, and that people take something away at the end. Getting a theatre audience on side isn’t like getting a gig audience on side, it’s more difficult, because you’ve got less opportunity to engage with the audience.
RC: The Fringe is famously a fairly unrelenting experience, why have you chosen to do it?
RM: When I got approached to get involved it was completely out of the blue, but I really wanted to come and play music, and this is an opportunity to still write music, still play, and I couldn’t really say no. It’s flattering as well, somebody coming and saying ‘do you want to write the songs for this show’, too right, yeah.
I think you’ve got to accept that it’s a different experience to playing in a band, and I’m just trying to have my eyes as wide open as I can and take as much in as possible. I’ve enjoyed doing this work and it’s something I’d probably like to do more of, but if that’s going to happen I need to understand the machinations of it and the way that it works.
RC: The devising process for the show involved a lot of work in Sunderland with the Cultural Spring, how did you find that?
RM: The thing that totally terrified us was the workshop, participatory element, because I’ve never done any teaching before, never really had to get large groups of people to do something I want them to do, apart from in Hounds of Love. It’s not quite the same. So that was terrifying for me, really uncomfortable, but as the months have gone by we’ve got to know each other more and more, we’ve got a big band there, and I’ve grown to really enjoy doing it. We’ve got a good chemistry between us all, everybody’s really friendly, we know a lot about each other now, and it feels more like a normal band. Up here we’ve got 45 minutes to make that happen, so I’m really glad we’ve had all those months of preparation in Sunderland because it’s changed my approach here.
RC: If you could describe the show?
RM: It’s quite life affirming and fun, and that strikes me as important. That’s quite a political thing to say, I think, that now more than ever the most important thing is to say ‘what is it that you care about? Let’s go for that, let’s try and embrace that a bit more’.
Annie’s always made these kind of feelgood, life affirming positive shows, and in terms of her work it’s very much consistent with that, it’s an Unfolding Theatre show, she’s got an identity and an aesthetic and I think sometimes you come into a project and there need to be some parameters and some rules to follow, because otherwise you never get anywhere because it doesn’t know what it wants to be.
RC: And finally, what will you take away from this year’s Fringe?
RM: I think I’ll take a little bit more knowledge in terms of how live theatre works, how much of a connect or disconnect there can be with the audience. Personally, if I want to write more music or songs for shows, I know I’m not always going to be in them. I was quite surprised to end up in this. I didn’t really expect that in a million years, but it’s been a great experience, a really democratic process to be involved in, and I know that lots of people don’t work like that. But I think I’ve come away with a much better idea of what works and what doesn’t, how much more economical you have to be with what you’re saying and the way you’re saying it. In a gig you can give backstory, you can introduce things, you can do whatever you like. But in this you’ve not always got that opportunity, sometimes you have to sum up a scene in a short piece of music, or just a song. That context, that knowledge of how a show like this works, that’s really important.
Putting the Band Back Together is part of the Northern Stage programme at Summerhall, Edinburgh (Venue 26, 16:50) until August 27th (not 17, 24). The show will then return to the North East for performances at Arts Centre Washington 0191 561 3455 (September 22nd) and Newcastle’s Northern Stage Tel 0191 230 5151 (September 28, 29, 30).
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