Thursday, 29 June 2017

Reflections on Branwell Bronte

Monday just gone was the bicentenary of Branwell Bronte, brother of of the famous Bronte sisters.
Those who know me, know that for most of the last two years, and for a not inconsiderable part of the years immediately preceding,  my life has been largely taken up by Branwell and his work - both his creative work, and his professional endeavours, including the years spent on the railways at Sowerby Bridge and Luddenden Foot, which formed the inspiration for my film, A Humble Station? Branwell Bronte's Calder Valley Years

Themed around Juliet Barker's acclaimed biography The Brontes, the film brings together contemporary Calder Valley artists, writers and residents to celebrate his local, and wider, legacy. I have written of the film elsewhere on this site, but suffice to say for here that its completion has been the summit of two tremendously industrious years on behalf of myself and my co-filmmaker Alan Wrigley, who filmed and edited A Humble Station?, and who wrote an original suite of majestic music for the film, as well as a beautiful song performed by Sowerby Bridge based singer and musician Amy-Rose Atkinson.  While Branwell's reputation as a heavy drinking black sheep of the family, and the tragedy of his early death, are well known, we wanted to re-focus public eyes on some of the lesser known aspects of his life, such as his poetry and paintings - and the film also centrally features railways and their significance to Branwell 


And interviews and poetry from Juliet Barker, Ann Dinsdale of The Bronte Parsonage, and artists such as actor and writer Caroline Lamb:

 and award winning poet Steve Nash, author of the Caterpillar Poetry collection The Calder Valley Codex: well as taking in interviews with other local people, such as at Luddenden's Lord Nelson, the 18th Century inn which Branwell frequented (and where he enjoyed the company of poets and musicians, taking advantage of the library which shared the premises, and was the first lending library in the Ridings area)

 ...while being, we hope, an apt tribute to the valley, its history and landscapes.

Branwell was born in Thornton, now part of Bradford, and, having launched the film in Halifax, it was here in the town of his birth that I brought it on the eve of his bicentenary.

The film was broadcast at St James Church, opposite the site of the original Bell Chapel, at which Branwell's father Patrick ministered from 1815 to 1820.


On the Branwell's bicentenary its self, we took the film to Haworth, where of course Branwell and his family lived for most of their lives.  I called in to raise a birthday drink for Branwell at his former haunt, The Black Bull:

...though I have no doubt he would have been disappointed in me for it was only a black coffee.



 The attractively patterned carpet at The Black Bull:

 And the carpet as Branwell would have known it:

Unexpectedly, at the top of a staircase in the Bull, can be found Branwell's old chair,  which - to quote poet Genevieve L Walsh in the film - "has a real shipwreck-like quality about it."

Tourists come in all shapes and sizes to Haworth:

 From the Black Bull, the Parsonage is only a short walk through the churchyard, and was a pefect location for the screening of A Humble Station? on Branwell Bronte's birthday.

 It is always a joy to visit the Parsonage, and to take a look at one of my favourites of Branwell's paintings - a copy of a picture by American painter Washington Allston, Jacob's Dream.

The original:

Branwell's version, in the Parsonage:

The Parsonage is currently host to a wonderful exhibition featuring clothes and props from Sally Wainwright's recent BBC Bronte drama To Walk Invisible, and Branwell's old room - featured in my film - is set out as it might have been when he was there.

But what was especially touching about the day, was that the Parsonage had arranged for staff and volunteers to plant a rose bush specially chosen for Branwell:

 I will be taking A Humble Station? on the road throughout summer and autumn, with our next screenings due to be listed on this site and  very soon.  A dvd will be available by the end of the year.  There are also continued activities planned here and further afield to continue the celebrations of Branwell's legacy.  But for my part, I think I will leave it for Branwell himself to have the final say, in one of my favourites of his poems.

Amid the world's wide din around
I hear from far a solemn sound
that says Remember Me

I when I heard it sat amid
The bustle of a town like room
Neath skies with smoke-stained vapours hid,
By windows made to show their gloom-
The desk that held my ledger book
Beneath the thundering rattle shook
Of engines passing by
The bustle of the approaching train
Was all I hoped to rouse the brain
Or startle apathy.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Next Screening of my film A Humble Station? - Thornton, 25th June 2017

Place: St James Church, Thornton, Bradford, BD13 3AB, 
Tickets £2.50 payable on door.

Second screening of A Humble Station? Branwell's Calder Valley Years - in his birth town of Thornton on the eve of Branwell's bicentenary (stay tuned for news of our Parsonage plans for that)

Great to see you in Thornton if you can make it!


A Humble Station? Branwell Brontes Calder Valley Years - Film

 My film A Humble Station? Branwell Brontes Calder Valley Years, produced by myself and Alan Wrigley as Deep Lock Productions, premiered at Halifax Central Library last Thursday, and I am delighted to report that it was seen by around 70 people.   

It was great to see so many people celebrating Branwell's Calder Valley legacy, and we were thrilled to do so with Calderdale Libraries, who generously accommodated us for "a magnificent evening," as one viewer described it.  

Actor and writer Caroline Lamb, who appears in the film, told us " I thoroughly enjoyed A Humble Station? and expect great things for it. The cinematography was astonishing and the presenting style excellent.  I thought the film was superb and I'm very glad I came to see it." 

   Caroline Lamb in A Humble Station?

 The film, which explores Branwell's years working at railway stations in the area, as well as featuring any of his poems and paintings, features interviews and readings from Bronte biographer Juliet Barker, Ann Dinsdale of the Bronte Parsonage, and many Calder Valley writers, artists and residents, including poet Steve Nash:

 Performance poet Genevieve L Walsh: 

 Artist Julia Ogden:

and was hailed by Halifax poet Ross Kightly as "A triumph!  Branwell in his rightful context - mind and heart."

Ross Kightly. 

In the film, I try to piece together an idea of Branwell's literary and artistic side, as distinct from the "black sheep" image which has dominated his reputation for so long, while assessing their legacies in the context of the contemporary Calder Valley arts scene, along the way exploring several of Branwell's old haunts, including the Lord Nelson, an 18th Century pub at Luddenden   

 and with the help of cameraman Alan, who has also written an original score for the film, shine a light on some of the beauty and hidden history of the Calder Valley

We plan to show the film next at St James Church Thornton this Sunday, and at the Bronte Parsonage on Monday - see this website for details

7pm, St James Church, BD13 3AB, Tickets £2.50 payable on door.

photos c. Alan Wrigley, except #2 & #7  - c. SZ.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Searching At Rock Bottom

On Sunday I attended the opening of a new exhibition - Searching for Peace in Poona - at the ArtsMill, Hebden Bridge, curated by Alison Darbrough and featuring poetry by Madhuri ZK Ewing, along with sketches by Cyril Mount, and excerpts from his journals.  Madhuri, who was born in California,  lived for 30 years in India, and her poems at the exhibition reflect on the days she spent living in ashrams in Poona and in Oregon, and form the theme of her latest collection, The Poona Poems.

I bought a small gift card from Madhuri, patterned in swirling colours like rain-swept blossoms, and the exhibition provided a brief oasis of tranquility as I try, and fail, to make any sense of a fraught world.  After the nastiest election in living memory, I find myself in the odd position of being one of only six or seven people in the Disunited Kingdom who voted for someone other than Conservative or Labour, and looking on from a distance at the contrasting fortunes of those parties.  Both "main" parties are currently tainted morally, and I was hoping that as neither could be said to have "won" the election, and as the last week has produced no resolution, it might be a chance for both to replace their leaders.  After all, many were keen to stress they were voting for a party rather than a leader - most Labour candidates did not feature Corbyn in their literature, and some, including my own Labour MP, were essentially anti-Corbynites.  But instead, we look sure to endure a further few years of polarized tittle-tattle between two sour-faced leaders and their parties.

 The arts world has, as ever taken well defined sides in these times of discord, and the poetry environment has become increasingly dominated by narrowing narratives. Nationally, I have noticed a growing trend of sensational arguments without evidence, and a tide of generalization and intolerance towards certain groups and races expressed in readings and boycotts, and sometimes cannot help but feel the world of poetry is no longer a place for me.
In a few days' time, my film A Humble Station? Branwell Bronte's Calder Valley Years - premieres at Halifax central Library and when I think of my own faltering starts in poetry and publishing, my struggles to hold down an ordinary job without becoming, like Branwell, tangled up by bureaucracy and regulations, I can't help but draw parallels between myself and the beleaguered Branwell, whose afternoons as a clerk on the Leeds and Manchester Railway were often interrupted by impromptu wanders around the local countryside. Branwell was a keen student of nature, and also loved geology - indeed was known to traipse the country around Sowerby Bridge with the vicar Sutcliffe Sowden, inspecting the geology of the area, which reminds me of how, when asked as a child what I would most like to be when I grew up, I would often answer "a geologist."  Intoxicated by the arrays of stones donated to me by an eccentric and well traveled friend of my mother, I would pore over amethysts and malachite, quartz pebbles and small fossil-like rocks, dreaming their histories and folklore.  Perhaps, instead of poetry, I ought to have stuck to the world of stones.

It was in this mindset that I took the train yesterday to my home city of Leeds, bound for another exhibition, this one being a Degree show at my Alma mater, Leeds College of Art and Design, from the Printed Textiles and Surface Patterns course, taught by my friend Emma Hayward.

Emma and I were students at the college between 1997-99 - the last A-Level cohort of the Twentieth Century - and I paced the pavements around Blenheim Terrace under the gaze of the University which surveys the vicinity like an enormous god carved out of white seashells feeling an odd confluence of being "back in the moment" while simultaneously aware of the glaring passing of the years.  Studying English and Theatre Studies, I had been determined to attend the Art College because of its reputation, and the closing years of the century were a wonderful time to have done so. I left school the day John Major was replaced in government by Tony Blair's New Labour, and it is very easy to forget now the optimism of that period, and the profound sense of being present on the cusp of genuine, positive global transformation.  When I first hit a sort of rock bottom in my life around this time last year, I could not focus on anything approaching poetry or creativity, but it has been an up-and-down roller-coaster since then, and I have often found myself coming to new understandings or perceptions of the past through the prism of poetry.  Flicking through my unpublished poems this morning, I came across this piece, written about a decade ago, which recalls the long hot summer of 1997, and the merge into autumn:


Bees puffed up with pollen
skimmed the thorns and lavender,
sunbeams split the flags, melted tar
and glazed each window pane in light.

At night we sat out on the wall
or strolled through air fizzing with summer
talking of exams and colleges
and why the latest war was wrong.

Autumn crept in like a spider on the skirting board
as the mornings slipped into a silky shiver of thick-crusted frost
diamond white and piercing as fresh mint.

 I am  an infrequent visitor to Leeds now, and it has altered so much in the last few years that it is like visiting a foreign city.  The area around the University was mainly vibrant and friendly, full of international students, and the exhibition was beautifully laid out and full of diverse designs for fashions, wallpapers, and furnishings. There were exhibits arrayed like batiks, citrus-coloured fabrics hung with silvery insects, bumblebees, and birds of paradise.  Geometric media looking like the works of Gerhard Richter woven in felt.  Majestic tapestries of rainforest scenes or supernatural, sci-fi landscapes.
It is nearly ten years since I last visited the college, so I spent some time browsing around and drinking in the painful nostalgia which reminded me of the irreversible differences between the dreams of twenty years ago, and the harsher realities of today.

 After calling at some bars drenched in the ghosts of yesterday, I passed through the department stores, which seemed to have shrunk and felt more like depressed thrift stores, assistants gazing glumly into space.  There is little time for luxury in Maggie May's Britain, and the ubiquity of hulking half-finished structures for planned new precincts was offset by boarded up shops, half derelict arcades, and empty pubs.  I found my way to the cavernous Dark Arches, a network of tunnels cut beneath the railway and alongside the Leeds Liverpool Canal, where throughout most of the early 90's my mother ran craft stalls at the market-cum-bazaar, and where later in that decade I worked in a shop selling Indian fashions, statues, "legal highs" and jewellery.  Bathed in incense and 1960's music, we were one of a swathe of international shops along the cave-like row of bohemian units, now all gutted out and left for dead - or, worse, turned into car parks.
I walked past the disgusting burger bars, which stank of death and slavering families fat on their own greed.  I passed supermarkets whose entrances were patrolled by guards, and I wondered what had happened to the world when the average Tesco Extra required the presence of security.  I passed through myriad crowds of people plugged into devices, talking seemingly to themselves, and I noticed that apart from a single Waterstones and HMV, all the book and music shops appeared to have gone. None of the gay bars was yet open, but I found a minute coffee shop on Vicar Lane, and watched through the window as a sad succession of single mums, puffed-out pensioners, stressed businesspeople, gamboling Africans, young lovers, students in slashed clothes, a homeless man with a dog, went traipsing by, while behind me through the speakers Nick Cave was singing his beautiful way through Into My Arms.  Rain was slowly streaking the window as a humid afternoon lapsed into evening.

Back on the street, I ambled around Briggate, and found much of the city centre a sterile facade - a glut of chain stores and bland cafes.  I was oddly relieved to find the outskirts of the city were still very working class and defiantly unchanged by the march of modernity. The market was crawling with bad-tempered looking gangs, and as I dodged the drunks along the decaying sprawl of Kirkgate, past its crumbling pubs, dank alleys, betting shops and the neon seediness of Amusement Arcades, I felt just as likely to be jumped or mugged as I had done twenty years back, which strangely cheered me up.

I left Leeds in the rainy twilight, just as the railway station with its escalators stretched and revolving like the limbs of some schizophrenic insect, was filling with the rush hour crush.  At such times, the station becomes a place devoid of all humanity - a stinking pit of selfishness and haste as the zombied mass of a people physically and emotionally destroyed by offices and banks come pummeling through the concourse and onto the cold platforms and bridges, ranged above our heads like the bars of a space-age prison.
I sat beside a woman in Islamic garb, our bodies separated only by the thin borders of man-made clothes, but the, equally man-made, gulf between us stretching farther and more insurmountably than any wall.  A sense of absolute isolation was inescapable as the train drifted through the bricked-up fringes of south Leeds, blocks of flats jutting above the skeletons of long-abandoned factories, the glass checkerboards of riverside apartments oozing golden light onto the drizzle-prinked waters of the Aire.  Industrial estates trailed out into waste-ground.  The lights of the city faded as we shunted through the council estates of Bramely and Armley, and towards the smaller town of Pudsey, the car park of its flagship shopping precinct studded with innumerable cars, roofs glistening in the rain.
Drifting in and out of sleep, I was no further to resolving my sense of disconnection from the world of poetry, or of finding my place amid its unwritten rules, hierarchies and structures. Making this journey away from the city of my birth, back towards the place I cannot yet call "home," images wheeled through my mind, of the fantastical tableaux and rainforest birds of the textile exhibition, images of the old Leeds with its hippy shops and evening markets, images of depleted towns and shut down shops, empty arcades and broken homes and lonely people, and images of India, and the art work in the mill, of my friend Madhuri, her cards, her pictures, and her poems.
Geologist, by Madhuri ZK Ewing.

At rock-bottom is love.
At rock-top is rock.
Deeper are weeds.
Weedlets and weed-roots.
Scrap, scrabble layers.
Peel each’s skin.
At rock-bottom is love.

Do not see it
until you bang your chin
on glaciated substrata
of warmstuff laughing.
Doubt yourself and everything.
Wait, and be dusted with dust
like powdered sugar on crust.

Rock-bottom is love –
you’ll not find it, or if you do
you’ll have to give it up
a thousand thirsty times.
Thirst like bones in bracken,
like bones on racks.

It’ll find you –
or so say they.  They
but here am I in the leaf-woods
wanting.  Damp with heat.
Panting.  I see leaves, shagged carpets of them
beneath the trees.  Oh geologist,
at rock-bottom is love.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Celebrating the Sounds of the Irish Harp

At last October's Morley Arts Festival, I was joined by actor and writer Caroline Lamb for a performance of our poetry and drama event Exploring the Brontes, together with harpist Berni Byrne, who provided music on the Irish Harp.  Bernie has since joined us for several other ETB events, as well as introducing my recent UNESCO poetry event with exquisite music on the same beautiful instrument, and on listening further to her music on Berni's Soundcloud page ( I have grown increasingly interested in the harp, its history, and the majestic music it creates.

My association with Berni began, as most good artistic partnerships do, in an undertakers.

Having advertised the Bronte event back in the summer as featuring live music on a related theme, I neglected to ensure the certainty of one small component of that feature: the enlisting of an actual musician to play it.  I know many musicians, but nobody was free on the evening in question, and as the weeks and months peeled by, with no instrumentalist apparent, and drawing on my experiences of helping to run festivals and coordinate events, I became increasingly blase - insisting to any doubters that a musician would indeed be found.  Such was my external flippency - inside I had begun to accept the terrifying likelihood that I would have to renege on my announcement, and conduct the event sans musique. 
It was only a few days before the scheduled event that, working one afternoon at Morley Library, I was informed by a colleague returning from her lunch hour that she had cut short her break in order to tell me about the harpist playing down the road at the funeral directors.  When I arrived at the premises, Berni was playing gently in the corner by the window, and as I stood and listened, surrounded by the quaintly beguiling funeral advertisements, I immediately knew that I simply had to recruit her for the performance.

 Berni's performances on the harp that evening featured some wonderfully delicate and evocative Irish traditional music, including the elegiac Gort na Mona, the lyrical and impressionistic Roisin Dubh, sounding to me like a blissful blend of  Debussy and mediaeval folk, and the English piece The Rose.  Bernie concluded with a beautiful piece called Resting Chair, which followed my descriptions of the sad decline and death of Branwell Bronte, but earlier in her suite she had played the rousing Trumpet Voluntary, which became a standard of her set during the further performances she gave with Caroline and I - a piece which always makes me think of the principled and stoic Patrick Bronte ministering to his congregation at St Michael and All Angels, Haworth.


After the event, surviving the maelstrom of Leeds City Station with its hordes of yelling revelers, I was delighted to see three familiar faces along the side of a carriage:

All through my journey, as the train slid through darkened miles of industrial estates, cemeteries and rained-on rows of council flats, Berni's harp seemed to twine through my drowsy mind, hovering somewhere between a dreamy sleep and being tugged back awake by the coarse cries of fellow passengers.  As I gazed along the concrete fringes of Bradford, its tower blocks and abandoned mills, the long tongue of the railway tracks slurping through weedy waste-ground and past steep-banked quarries, the harp blended sweetly in my mind like a rich, hypnotic wine. We trundled into Halifax, and from there to Sowerby Bridge, nestling in the night like a nest of soft, dim light.  By the time I stepped onto the platform, the autumnal night had hardened into icy cold. Stars sliced  through the blackness like the beaks of silver birds, a mellow moon lighting my path along the canal bridge and alleyways towards home.  In my bag, were the three poems, or rather three parts of one combined poem, which I had written on the train in between my drifting in and out of sleep, reflecting the images and feelings evoked by Berni's music from the Irish Harp.


Sounds of Ireland,
Age-old folk fantasias,
Athenry evenings
candled by a lucent swathe
of starlight-sugared moonbeams,
nights of bat-flight,
moonlit eaves,
steeples stabbing sunsets,
cattle lowing in the fields.


Sound of forest mornings
ruby leaves, green sleeves
of meadow-grasses,
lavender, gorse-jeweled dawns
as sunlight sharpens,
briar, thorn
in the valley's russet mists.


Music of the oak,
tingling garlands of the lovelorn heart,
sweet song of the nightingale,
lilac sunrise singeing ether
in soft inviting fire,
blended melodies,
a heathered serenade,
a natural, inner light.