Tuesday, 19 November 2019

The Value of Arts-based Learning

[This article was written for a brochure ‘10 Years, Barbican Guildhall Creative Learning’ published in November 2019)

(In this article I’ve made some words ‘bold’. They are, if you like ‘key words’ which I think are important in helping us understand what the arts are, what they’re for and why they’re important’. )

I’ll begin with some questions: 

how do we know about the world around us? 
how do we know who we are? 
how do we know about how we fit into the world about us? 
how do we know how we think? 
how do we get to know about how others think? 
how do know about how our forbears thought about these things?

These are important matters. If we don’t ask them, we are passive; we accept what is given to us; we hand over our rights as human beings to others. If we look at those questions we can see that they are about our survival, about how we might co-operate to survive and about the meaning of what we are doing here. 

Science helps us with some of these questions. It does this by coming up with hypotheses (what ifs),  testing them and if they appear to be valid, seeing if doing the same tests again we come up with the same results. The results of the sciences have produced the world we see and use. The arts come up with hypotheses too but in general the arts are much less interested in seeing if these what-ifs are ‘valid’.  And the arts are mostly not very bothered about whether exactly the same results turn up again and again. In fact, they are usually more interested in results being different rather than the same.

The arts may not start off by trying to answer that list of questions. It may be that the answers start to happen when we produce art, take part in it, or ‘receive’ it in some way or another as an audience. 

How do they do that? 
And what do we mean by ‘the arts’ anyway?

The core idea with the arts is some kind of making or doing. The making and doing will nearly always involve producing something new, and it will nearly always involve taking something that is already there and changing it. The phrase we can use for that is ‘transforming sources’ and this connects us to ‘change’. But what do we change? That depends on which kind of art! 

Dance changes the body. We change the shape or speed or rhythm of our bodies or the amount of space we take up - and much more - when we dance. 

To make music we change sound using scraping, tapping, blowing, plucking or changing our vocal cords. 

To paint or draw we change pens, brushes, paints, pencils, paper, canvasses. 

To sculpt we change stone and plaster and other materials. To make other visual art pieces we can assemble objects - humanly made or found in nature. 

To write, we change language and express this with our voices, computers, pens, paper. 

To design, we change design tools and materials to come up with shapes that can be used to construct things. 
To make films we use machines to capture sounds and images and string them together in sequences. And so on.

This tells us that one of the thing we do when we practise the arts is we play with the materials we change. Some might call that ‘investigating’ materials. We investigate paint, we investigate language, say. This helps us to find out what is possible. What is possible to make and do with the ‘stuff’ that we are changing?  (‘Possibility’ is an important word in the arts too.)

Every time we take part in the arts, we start with something that is already there. We learn from what has gone before, whether that’s the materials we use, the stuff we find, or what other artists have made before us. As we get to work, we learn things about ourselves like ‘what is possible to make or do - given I am who I am?’ ‘what is possible for this group of people to do - given that the group is this particular group?’ 

This means that at the core of the arts are discoveries: discoveries about what the ‘stuff’ we are using can do, and what we can do as individuals or together.  

This is exciting: it’s about our potential as human beings: our potential to think, to imagine, to be, to do and to make. It’s about how we can extend our minds and bodies beyond what they did yesterday. 

So if we go back to those questions I began with, we can see that it’s through experimenting with the ‘stuff’ we use that we can indeed begin to find some answers:

How do we know about the world around us? - If we play with ‘stuff’ we find out how it works, what shapes we can make with it, how fast or far or glittery or wobbly or smooth it can be - that’s about the ‘qualities’ of materials.  (And much more of course!) 

How do we know who we are? - If we play with stuff we find out what kind of people we are, how confident, how sad, how angry, how careful we are (And much more!)

How do we know about how we fit into the world about us? - If we play with stuff we can relate what we do to what others are doing and how they do it. 

How do we know how we think?  - As we make and do the arts we can listen to ourselves thinking. As we say to ourselves, ‘I’ll try that, I’ll experiment with that, we can also ‘monitor’ ourselves thinking, or remember how we were thinking as we were making and doing later, after we have finished the work of art. Memory is often important in art: the memories we use as we make the art, the memories of making the art, the memories of other people’s art.  These memories are a major part of who we are, and how we behave in the world. Taking part in the arts helps us find out what these memories mean, what matters, what’s good, what’s sore, what’s bad, what’s warm.

How do we get to know about how others think? If we work with others, we co-operate through listening to others and hearing back from others what they think about what we say and do. 

How do know about how our forbears thought about these things? If we look and hear and study the works of others we get insights into how people thought about all these things before us, whether that’s from something made yesterday or 3000 years ago. 

Over many years I’ve worked with the Barbican Guildhall arts team with thousands of children. We’ve explored many of the arts: painting, sculpture, poetry, stories, music, video. This has nearly always involved working in several art forms at the same time, often being an audience one moment and then making something new in another medium. This takes us to that all-important word ‘interpretation’. How might we ‘interpret’ some photos by writing poems? How might we ‘interpret’ the stories of our families’ lives by making models? This is a form of concealed abstract thought: picking out elements in one art form that we can express in another, finding themes common to both but expressed in different ways. 

All this work has involved huge amounts of co-operation with artists from many genres working together to enable children to see the possible, saying in effect:‘you can match what we try to do by trying to do things too.’ 

Teachers and parents who see their children over time have told us many times that they have seen their children feel excited and fulfilled by this kind of work. It is a way of thinking about yourself as a producer, a co-operator, a person looking for possibilities, looking for what can be done with the ‘stuff’ they’re working on. 

This tells us something profound: when we change the ‘stuff’ we use, we change ourselves

I’ve been very lucky in my life because from the time I was very young to now, I’ve had time and space in my life to both be an ‘audience’ to the arts  in theatres, art galleries, cinemas, or with books and listening to stories and songs but also to make the arts that suit me - poetry, plays and stories. I ‘use’ the arts to help me understand the world and to help me understand other people to help me understand myself, and to help me see myself in the world. 

For the last 45 years or so I’ve also been lucky enough to have had the pleasure of helping children make and do the kinds of things that I’ve been doing. I’ve seen them discover possibilities about themselves and my work at the Barbican Guildhall Creative Learning has been a huge part of that. It has affected what I write, how I write and how I work with children.  

Friday, 25 October 2019

3. Alice in Wonderland - The Ditch

'I would like to see these scribes,' Alice said to Mr Comings-and-Goings, 'where are they?'
'I sent them to the House,' Mr Comings-and-Goings replied eagerly.
'Let's go,' said Alice.

Together they scurried down a straight, wide road till they got to an old, tired palace full of corridors and uniformed servants. 
'We go into the gallery,' said Mr Comings-and-Goings. 'I sit up here so that I can signal to Johnson what he has to say.'
'Doesn't he know himself?' Alice asked.
'Of course not,' said Mr Comings-and-Goings contemptuously. 

The moment he opened the door into the gallery, Alice heard and felt a great roar and babble of voices. She looked down and saw hundreds of people all talking at the same time, waving bits of paper, standing up and sitting down, snorting and snoring, sneering and jeering, slapping and clapping. Some were making sheep noises, others pointed and performed exaggerated nodding movements. Others shook their heads and smacked the palms of their hands on to their faces. Yet more made repeated appeals to the ceiling or beyond to the heavens. 

Alice looked more closely and she saw the sneery cat Mogg, who was stretched out along one of the benches waving a paw in a languid sort of a way. Nearby was Johnson the dog who was shouting even louder than everyone else. 
She caught him saying, 'And I would suggest to you, quo quis quint, nevertheless...er....er...quint quis quo.'
The brought huge roars of approval from the people behind him.

'Why are they doing all that...all that...?' Alice's voice petered out as she tried to think of a word to describe what she was looking at.
'Don't you think it's marvellous?' Mr Comings-and-Goings said, with his eyes gleaming.
'No,' said Alice, 'not really.'
'Oh well,' he said, 'you wouldn't understand. The worse it gets in here, the more Johnson can say that he's saving us.'
Alice was still puzzled.
'We keep saying it's a "zombie parliament",' Mr Comings-and-Goings shouted over the top of the noise, 'and my dog Johnson is going to save the country from the zombie. It's marvellous,' and he clapped his hands together like an excited child.
'Can we go now?' Alice said, 'I thought we were going to meet the scribes.'
'Well actually,' Mr Comings-and-Goings said, 'one or two of them are just sitting further down the line from us, but most of them are waiting in the Lobby for me to give them some Anonymous Sauce,' and he pointed down to the big Anonymous Sauce bottle in his bag.

As they got up to leave, Alice heard amidst the din a louder shout from one side of the House shouting, 'The Ditch! The Ditch!'

'Why are they saying that?' Alice asked.
'Oh  you don't want to know that,' said Mr Comings-and-Goings.
'But I do,' Alice said in her usual curious way. 

When they reached the Lobby, the scribes rushed up to Mr Comings-and-Goings like eager chickens clustering round a farmer at feeding time. He responded by handing them the Anonymous Sauce and they soon drank it up, apart from one who, like the group in the House, kept saying, 'The Ditch! The Ditch!'

Alice went over to her. 
'Excuse me,' Alice said, 'what is this ditch? Where is it?'
'Aha,' said the woman, 'it's actually not a ditch. I mean, it's a ditch that is both a ditch and not a ditch at the same time.'
'Can we go there?' said Alice.
'In a way, yes, and in a way, not.'

The woman led Alice out of the House and very soon they got to a sort of a drain or gutter.
The woman pointed at it.
'Is that the ditch?' Alice asked.
'It's "a" ditch,' the woman replied.
'I see,' said Alice which in all truth wasn't true. 
'When might it be "the" ditch, then?' Alice asked again.
'October 31st 2019,' said the woman very clearly.
Alice looked closely at it.
'What will happen then?' she asked.
'Johnson is going to come along, lie down in it and die.'
'Oh,' said Alice suddenly feeling sad for Johnson. 
'No, no, no, no need to sound sad,' said the woman, 'it's never going to be a ditch. It never was.'
Alice really was confused now.

Just then, a bunch of the scribes rushed past, with Anonymous Sauce round their mouths, shouting 'Zombie parliament! Zombie parliament!'
Alice watched them.
'Don't they want to know about the ditch?' she said.
'Not any more,' the woman said, 'the ditch was yesterday.'

Alice stood and wondered. The ditch was going to be October 31st but it was also yesterday. 

How very, very confusing, she thought. 

Thursday, 24 October 2019

Reflections on difference between Johnson and Corbyn in PMQs,

Johnson displays all the mannerisms of someone who had a lot of space and time to learn a particular way of performing . He extends sentences through repetition and illustration, full of 'fillers' like 'er...er' delivered in non-hesitant way as if even the 'er' has authority. He is happy to string 'oral formulas' together - long established rhetorical devices and mannerisms that he would have learned in debating societies at school and university. At the heart of all this is a kind of role-play. He imagined himself being the speaker and performer he is now, and role-played it for many years. We might call it 'entitlement' - and it is - but the entitlement is brought about through a kind of play, playing with what he thought he could become. One indication it's a 'play' is that one of the routines of debating societies in posh schools is that you're encouraged to take up positions you don't believe in: you just play at it, for that particular debate - and then switch.

Corbyn, on the other hand, clearly doesn't behave as if this particular kind of debate is what he's done a lot of. His tradition of speaking in public is the meeting, single speeches, trying to convince people of a particular way of thinking, a particular politics. A combination of him and his team are pursuing a line that what Corbyn should do at PMQs is just patiently make points. He should be as accurate as possible, citing examples and statistics. This is essentially legalistic in tone and method and though it is in its own way 'performative' it isn't the kind of performance that comes from speechifying as combat between posh boys, and the 'debating society'. Corbyn's use of words and speech comes from the idea that you speak from conviction or belief and not from role-playing.

Just to be clear, none of what I'm saying here is necessarily about 'effectiveness'. They are observations about why their two methods are so different.

Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Alice in Wonderland at Number 10 - the Sauce


In fact, Alice changed her mind, and before leaving found herself alone in the room with the ever-furious Mr Comings-and-Goings. Her eyes drifted towards the table where she was surprised to see a large bottle full of some kind of liquid.

Oh, she thought to herself, I wonder if this is anything like that peculiar drink I had before. She looked to see if this bottle also had a label on it saying, 'Drink me' . Yes it did, but this time the bottle bore another label, saying: 'Anonymous Sauce'.

That's funny, she thought, the sauce bottles at home say 'Stokenchurch and Wilmslow Olde Englishe Sauce', but this one just says 'Anonymous'.

She reached out for the bottle, but Mr Comings-and-Goings spotted what she was doing and said with a rather alarming tone of voice, 'That's for the scribes, not you.'

'Can I try some,' said Alice, 'after all, it does say, "Drink me" on it?'

'O very well,' said Mr Comings-and-Goings, 'I firmly believe people should do what they want.'

'Do you?' said Alice.

'No,' said Mr Comings-and-Goings.

Alice reached forward again, took the bottle into her hand, opened it and sipped a tiny amount. It had a strange, tangy taste but even as she had that thought, something stranger started to happen: she heard herself say things that she didn't think.

'...it's been revealed that Mr Dominic Grievous Bodily Harm, who had been at the Party, eats children...'

'Why did I say that?' Alice said interrupting herself.

'I did tell you that it was meant for the scribes,' Mr Comings-and-Goings said with a knowing smile.

She wondered who these scribes were and asked him so in her usual direct way.

'Here!' he said crossly and pressed a button on a box at his side. A voice came out of it speaking in clipped but confident tones.

'...it's been revealed that Mr Dominic Grievous Bodily Harm, who had been at the Party, eats children...' the voice said.

Alice could hardly believe her ears. Wasn't this what she had just said? She glanced back towards Mr Comings-and-Goings.

He was still smiling but was now looking with great fondness at the Anonymous Sauce.

'It's like playing a musical instrument,' he said more to himself than to Alice, 'we feed them the Sauce, they say the words...'

"Well, I shall tell them,' said Alice, 'I will warn them that they are saying things that they don't think. And it's just you and whoever cooked this Sauce who are doing this.'

'And who, in the whole wide world will believe you or will care?' said Mr Comings-and-Goings, 'you really are a foolish little girl.'

I'm not, thought Alice, I really am not, and resolved to find these scribes and tell them what was going on.

Alice in Wonderland visits Number 10

Alice walked on.

In front of her was a door with a number on it: 10. She knocked and  an invisible man pulled the door open. The moment she was inside she heard shouting and being curious, she put her head round the door frame of the nearest room. 

An extremely angry man, who she would later hear was Mr Comings-and-Goings, was screaming at a large white dog. This was Johnson, the house dog at Number 10. 

'You shouldn't have mentioned ditches!' Mr Comings-and-Goings was yelling at Johnson, 'Why did you talk about ditches?'

'Mea culpa non cupola,' said Johnson blearily, whilst keeping a firm eye on a rather splendid steak and mushroom pie that was sitting on the sideboard. 

'O what does that mean?' said Alice brightly.

'How should I know?' said Mr Comings-and-Goings furiously.

'It means...' said Johnson sidling ever nearer to the pie, 'my fault but not my domed ceiling.'

'But that doesn't make sense,' said Alice crossly.

'That's the point,' said Mr Comings-and-Goings. 'Whenever he gibbers away with that stuff, all the scribes over there think that he's the most brilliant dog that ever barked. That's all that matters.'

'Are you entering him for some sort of competition? I love competitions,' Alice said, her eyes shining with expectation.

'Yes,' snapped Mr Comings-and-Goings, 'and we've got a lot of work to do getting him cleaned up in time for it. He's been pole dancing.'

'But...' Alice started to say but she was interrupted by Mr Comings-and-Goings:

'Enough questions. I don't like answering questions. If you want to ask questions I have other people to do that.'

At that, a tall, thin, cat with a sneery look on its face, appeared from behind the Grandfather Clock. 

'Who is this nosy, little girl?' said the sneery cat.

'I don't know and I don't care,' said Mr Comings-and-Goings as he tapped the barometer on the wall and saying what sounded to Alice like very rude words.

'Who are you?' said the sneery cat directly to Alice.

'I'm Alice,' said Alice looking back at him, 'and who are you?'

'I am Mogg,' said the sneery cat, 'for I am the cat that purrs beautifully.'

'Cats do,' said Alice, 'there's no need to say that as if you're special.'

'What an odious little specimen, you are,' said Mogg.

They were interrupted by a very loud bell. 

'Get up!' shouted Mr Comings-and-Goings to Johnson. 'You've got to go to the House. If you lose this one, you're for the ditch.'

'Can I take that rather delicious-looking pie with me?' said Johnson mournfully.

'No!' screamed Mr Comings-and-Goings and pushed Johnson out the door and he was followed soon after by the sneery Mogg. 

I think I'll follow them, thought Alice. 

And she did. 

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

'The Explorer' by Katherine Rundell - a review

'The Explorer' by Katherine Rundell is a story about four children who crash into the Amazon 'jungle', survive, meet a lone 'explorer' living in an ancient deserted 'city', leave and very briefly meet up many years later as adults.

It's in some ways a very appealing, tension-filled novel, in which we very soon care about the fate of the children with events seen from the point of view of the older boy, Fred. It seems to have been treated in the children's book world as a 'good book'. Stylistically, there are some intriguing things about the way it's written: odd, quirky dialogue, sudden surprises and shocks, and a particularly odd and intriguing character with the 'explorer'. It's both an adventure and a mystery.

What happens if we chart or map the story using two theories: intertextuality and the notion of the 'colonial gaze'? Intertextuality is not an objective method. You can (perhaps should) use it in order to pursue how it is 'I' react to a story. If I do that, then as I read the book, I found links, memories and reminders of many other texts: 'Swiss Family Robinson', Narnia, Famous Five, 'Lord of the Flies', 'Northern Lights', 'Heart of Darkness' and Genesis - The Garden of Eden story. That is, the motifs, dramatic moments or scenes in the book had echoes (for me) in these other stories. The structure of the story involves the children falling out of the sky, separated from their parents or carers, thrown together, in a 'jungle' - an unknown (to them) place, uninhabited by humans but full of creatures some friendly, some dangerous (to them). One creature is 'attached' to them - a sloth. They meet a strange unknowable man who gives them knowledge but is also judgemental, giving a knowing commentary on them, and the world. We discover that his son died and this changed him. He passes on crucial knowledge which enables them to escape - though this escape is not a banishment. Even so, he urges them to do it. This strange man lives in some sense beyond what is known, though they have reached him through finding a map - also a kind of knowledge. It is possible to see the book as these 'innocent' children finding 'knowledge' which then leads to their exit from a kind of Eden, apparently untouched by humans other than the odd signs from the 'explorer'. He incidentally forbids them to go to his inner sanctum - an instruction they disobey. 

For me, then there are the motifs of the fiction that I mentioned but the overriding myth working in the novel is the Garden of Eden story with its core idea of innocence and knowledge. The motif overall seems to be the 'Robinsonnade' of the enforced departure of the 'western' person/people, the managing or coping with the hostile environment of the 'uninhabited' or nearly uninhabited world and the return from it through the ingenuity of the western protagonist.

If we put the notion of the 'colonial gaze' into the picture, we see that all events in the book are seen in narrative terms through the eyes of Fred, the older boy. Other points of view are revealed to us through dialogue, ie what people say. When we ask the questions of any passage 'who sees', 'who speaks' (ie 'point of view') this shows us who sees what. This is what carries the 'ideology' of the book, the ideas and attitudes of what is sometimes called the 'implied author'. (We don't know if it's the 'author's intention'.) This seeing and saying can be called a 'gaze'. Who does this gaze belong to: white European or post-Columban children and a man. The 'nature' being looked at is uninhabited but invaded by these people and treated as hostile. Clearly, this is not the only gaze available in fiction and I found it strange that it's uninhabited, an echo from the colonial era of treating whole swathes of the earth's surface as 'terra nullius' even though it was in fact inhabited. This territory (in the book) is then occupied, traversed, and treated ultimately as 'belonging' to at the very least the 'explorer' who is trying to keep it secret from the rest of the world but also for him, as if he is the person entitled to guard it, own it even. He has the arcane knowledge needed to tame it and work it to his benefit. 

For me, the book has as its core two guiding myths: the Garden of Eden and the 'colonial gaze' of western entitlement. As an adult reader in 2019, this made me uncomfortable, even as I was 'attracted' to the story and 'cared' about the fates of the children and intrigued by the 'explorer'. 

Tuesday, 3 September 2019

Sensational leak: the Dear Boris letters - in full

Dear Dominic

Slightly snaggy: seems the swines have spotted that you don't have a membo card. I know a guy in Belgravia who's got an engraving biz who could knock you up something dated 1996. Needs must. Eat this note.

Magnus avocado in solipsis


Dear Boris

Your pathetic party is full of snivelling worms. I heard Hammond on the BBC (Marxist-Leninist). He should be sectioned or beheaded. Do it. There's too much dead wood in the ranks. Lop it off. Remember what I said: eat or be eaten.


Dear Dave

Are you in the country or on hols? Was remembering a chat I had with old Boffo who told me that while you were in college you had a tendency to leave a silent sentinel in the bogs for Matron to flush. Was minded it of it this week.

Solo excrementum in perpetua


Dear Boris

David is not doing letters, emails or phone calls at the moment. He's got a frightfully huge autumn coming up doing promos for his autobiog. and is taking a break-ette before the storm. We're all well. Who are you married to now?


Dear Boris

I am aware that you are avoiding engagement with the likes of the Channel 4 News Asian gentleman, you should, nevertheless, point out the advantages of leaving. I, for one, always mention the forthcoming cheapness of footwear.

Damocles Roma ludo

Jacob R-M

Dear Boris

Did you catch me on telly? Hope so. I kept to Dominic's script word for word so I hope you were pleased with it. I'm also doing my best with the face thing: keeping it cheery. Hope you spotted that. I didn't leak the wotsit when I was doing Defence. Really.



Dear Williamson

Don't snivel. I had a fag at Eton whose job was to tie my shoelaces and if I so much as reminded him that I like double-bows, would burst into a stream of apologetic mutterings. Awful creep. Remember, it's strength through joy.

In domine non cluedo


Cher Monsieur Barnier

Je suis dans le merde. Je desire que vous pr├ętendez en public que nous avons beaucoup de plans et discussions. Dans le future il est possible que je aide vous en business (wink wink, as we say en Anglais).

Anglia magna Anglia prima,


Dear Mr Johnson

Thank you for your kind letter. I will decline your offer of some financial advantage in the event of my deceiving the British public that useful discussions are taking place. I wish you and your colleagues a pleasant day in your Parliament.



Dear Boris

I don't want to sound in any way like some kind of superior head girl but from where I'm sitting (watching the tennis, actually), it rather does look as if you've lost your majority. Careless, or what? Whoops.

Best wishes


Dear Theresa

Last time I was ticked off like that was when Matron found me smoking banana skins behind the Music block. I can tell you for nothing that I've brought turbocharged grit and steel to this whole Brexit matter, not your dog's brexit.

In domine dominic


Dear Boris

Stuff the traitor who's buggered off. I warned you before that your shitty party is stuffed full of inferior genetic material. Eva Peron didn't need crap like that.