Monday, 17 November 2014

In praise of the WI

Battleaxe is feeling especially warm towards the WI sisterhood because our Hastings Ore WI Winter Bazaar was so successful - we raised over £1,300.
     Such events are massive feats of enterprise and organisation for everyone concerned.  We are better off than most WIs because we have 70 members - a big enough pool to find volunteers willing to help with all the background and front-line tasks.
    We had to publicise the event, make things, donate things, collect things, price and display things, carry stuff about, be places on time, make and serve teas, wash up, sell on stalls, clear up again, and deal with the money.... and what amazes me is how willingly, cheerfully and effectively we all do it, and how well people work together.
Busy Bazaar
    It was the same with the jumble sale we had back in August. One minute the hall was like a chaotic battleground, absolutely full of stuff, within 30 minutes the place was empty, all cleared up, as if we'd never been there.
    A few years ago, Battleaxe would never have dreamed of joining the WI. There were no WI groups near us in Birmingham, and I only had vague perceptions about jam, cakes, knitting, elderly tweed-clad country ladies, with a bit of Calender Girls thrown in.
    It has only just occurred to me what a protected life we lived then.  Even though we were slap in the middle of one of the most ethnically, culturally and economically diverse cities in the UK, we inhabited an enclave of educated, professional, left-wing, Guardian-reading types who worked in education, academia, public service or the arts. Although we left the enclave to work and travel, our social circle was people just like ourselves.
    Life in Hastings is very different. It is much smaller, and there are no such enclaves, just a random mix of all sorts of people living in our off-the-wall, slightly isolated town by the sea.  When Philosopher and I arrived here, we knew nobody, and I set out to find ways to meet others. There are three WI groups here, and I thought I'd give it a go. I chose Hastings Ore as the middle ground between what I perceived as the radical and the traditional. In addition, it is the nearest, meeting in Christ Church Hall just up the road in Ore Village.
    There is a bit of jam making, some knitting and far too much cake eating, but lots of other things too, and I really enjoy it.
    I was going to say we are a very diverse bunch, but then I'd have to qualify that. We are not diverse ethnically, as Hastings is very 'white' compared with Birmingham, nor do we have women from the big council estates. However, compared with what I am used to, in terms of background, interests, family and living circumstances, education, politics, age, job history, we are pretty varied. What unites us, apart from our gender, is a desire to enjoy ourselves and to widen our horizons.
     I've made some excellent friends. Our WI is quite new, and informal and friendly in style. We are growing rapidly, and have just had to put a cap on membership numbers to stop ourselves ballooning out of control.
Womanly arts.....
    Battleaxe does not really do the womanly arts of cooking, knitting and sewing, but that doesn't seem to matter much - there are plenty of other things. I walk, I belong to the book group, we go on outings, and I've tried to help boost our profile by entering a couple of WI competitions with bits of writing. One was a total failure - I think it was too rude and dirty for the Sussex judges, and my entry was described as 'weak' and 'unconvincing', but the other, a poem about 'What My WI means to me', went so far in the other direction it left everyone, including me, stunned. First, the poem won the East Sussex heat of the Lady Denman Cup competition. This cup is awarded to one woman nationally each year in a particular field of creativity. Then I heard I had won the whole thing. I have to go and collect the cup next year at the WI Centenary AGM at the Royal Albert Hall.
Walking at Rye Harbour 
Garden visit
     I was fingered for the Committee quite soon after joining - honestly, I didn't Battleaxe my way forward or anything. Then it happened that Jan, our founder President became ill, and I became Acting President in her place. Fortunately the jobs I've done in the past involved plenty of speaking to groups, and the biggest job of the President is to manage the monthly meetings where nearly 60 excitable and talkative women get together, and I can manage that OK.
     At our AGM earlier this week Jan stood down (she'll be back on the Committee after Christmas), and I have become President in her place.
Busy meetings....
     I hope I'll manage OK. I'm quite a new WI person, and as yet, I find the national and regional WI set up a bit hard to understand. Nationally, the WI is enormous, with around 212,00 members. Our 'local' office is in Hailsham, which is a long way for anyone to travel, particularly if you don't have a car, and a large percentage of our subscription money goes to maintain this set-up. They arrange courses, which few of us can go to, and outings, some of which are very expensive, for example the Christmas trip to Leeds Castle, at £29.00 per head. I can't see many women from the Ore Downs Farm estate signing up for that.
     So far, I see central WI as pretty much white middle class, with perhaps more needing to be done to encourage women from different ethnic and social backgrounds. We don't even collect monitoring information on our membership forms. However, I have a lot to learn, and there is clearly something in the culture and ethos of the WI which is incredibly powerful. I can't see our group of women doing so well without the WI banner.
     Battleaxe was never identified as having leadership potential. At school, I was quietly rebellious, and was never even blackboard monitor, let alone form captain or prefect.  Sure, as an adult I ran a company, but didn't enjoy that too much - but maybe only a complete masochist would enjoy leading not only staff but a team of management consultants, which is what I had to do. They were either barking mad, maverick and uncontrollable, convinced they could do my job much better than me or, in some cases, all three at once. (I'm pretty sure none of them are reading this....)
     With the WI, it feels very different. The others are supportive rather than trying to saw your legs off the whole time. My fellow committee members work very hard, and lots of others muck in to make things happen. I know they'll be there for me.
     Indeed, Battleaxe herself has to go into hospital next week for an operation - not life-threatening, but not what you want. In a future blog, I'll be able to give the insiders view of the Conquest Hospital. So far, I've been impressed.  Hopefully, I should recover quite quickly, and it will only briefly affect my new role as Leader of Women..........

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Backstage at Glyndebourne and Motown in Eastbourne - cultural extremes!

Well, Battleaxe certainly gets about. I've been on a backstage tour at Glyndebourne, followed by an outing to the Congress Theatre to see the Motown show, 'Dancing in the Streets'.
     The Glyndebourne visit was arranged for us by our old friends Bob and Alison, who now live in Horsham.
     It was the first true crisp and frosty autumn morning we have had, and the drive over there was very pretty.
A lovely Sussex morning
     Although the other two had been to the opera at Glyndebourne, Philosopher and I have never been before, and we didn't know what to expect. Reading the blurb, it was clear that our companions on the tour were likely to be elderly - they warned us of steps etc. Realistically, we thought, for able-bodied people, just how many steps can you have in a theatre, unless we were going to be shinning up the ladders to the fly-tower?
     Indeed, when we assembled in the Old Green Room for coffee, many were indeed elderly. We were asking each other how long it will be before we stop going to cultural events and feeling ourselves to be some of the youngest there? Where are the young people to take over from the oldsters?
The old Green Room at Glyndebourne
     Anyway, the woman leading the tour was very good indeed, nipping any bores in the bud, and leading us around just at the right pace. There were a couple of potential bores - 'Of course, when I was with Opera North we....' and  'I can well remember doing flying changes in the wings in Buxton...' etc.
     I hadn't realised the theatre was rebuilt in the early 90s - the wood-finished auditorium gives it a look of Birmingham's Symphony Hall, which is the same age. We went and stood on the stage. Somewhat unwisely with Battleaxe in earshot, our guide said 'Sing something, then you can say you have sung on the stage at Glyndebourne'.
Looking down from the stage
     The first thing that came into my head was 'Che faro senza Euridice' from Gluck's Orfeo, quickly followed by a rapid shift right up the voice register to 'Voi che Sapete', from the Marriage of Figaro. Deciding that opera was totally out if I couldn't even decide what sort of voice to use, my mind went blank, then filled with 'My Old Man said Follow the Van'. That is what I sang, getting plenty of odd looks and videoed by Philosopher until the woman told me off for going too near the front edge of the stage..... The video is available to view on receipt of large sums of money.
     The backstage area is enormous and very impressive. We looked round there, then at the rehearsal rooms, went up and inspected the dressing rooms - very functional looking, a bit like cabins on a ferry boat. We looked at props and costumes - interesting, because contrary to popular belief, the lead singers must have tiny waists - not large ladies at all. Then we climbed up to the upper circle of the theatre and inspected the lights. It was all good stuff.

In the wings

Prompt corner

Back stage
No fat ladies singing round here...
  Bob and Alison told us that you don't have to go to the actual summer festival, you can go to cheaper, lower-key productions of the touring operas in September/October.We will go next year.
     We finished the outing with an excellent lunch at a really good pub, the Ram at Firle.
      In the evening, something completely different. A WI outing to 'Dancing in the Streets' at the Congress in Eastbourne.  We went there all together on a coach. Again, I hadn't a clue what to expect and I'd never even been to the Congress. It is absolutely huge - much bigger than the White Rock, and that is barn-like enough. At first it looked a bit dubious because the theatre was barely two-thirds full.

     But when the show started - wow!  There was a really good band, and four blokes who all sang and danced incredibly well. Four Tops - check. Temptations - check, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder - they did them all, and absolutely brilliantly. Three girls, also very good - Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas - oh yes. We managed to stay in our seats for the first half, albeit singing along and clapping, but at the interval some of us found an empty row and danced and sang ourselves senseless for the whole of the second half.  By the end, the whole place was on its feet.  From our lofty dance platform at the back of the raised stalls we were directly in the sight-line of the blokes on the stage, and were trying to follow their classic 60s Motown dance routines. It was a complete, uncomplicated, uplifting laugh.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Folkestone Triennial and Chapman Brothers at the Jerwood

An artistic interlude after last week's theatricals.... Our old friends Sue and Graham came down from Birmingham to Folkestone to see the Triennial, and we drove over on Friday to meet them there and bring them back to Hastings for the weekend.
   It started out a bit pear-shaped. The main road was blocked both ways out by Brookland, and the journey took us a stressful one hour forty-five minutes instead of the pleasant journey along the coast road we had planned for - it was a gorgeously sunny, warm day.
   However, we eventually got to Folkestone, and parked down by the harbour. It was all looking very bright....
Sunny Folkestone - Grand Burstin Hotel in the background
   The Triennial is a festival of public art, and there were strange installations all over the town. Graham is a lecturer in art theory and fine art at the University of Stafford, and clearly is interested in such things. Fortunately they had already been on a massive walk all around the town before we arrived, so we only saw a few bits - readers of this blog will know that Battleaxe struggles with conceptual art.
   Folkestone is a strange mixture of a place. We've been several times.
   The Leas, up on the top of the cliffs, is a reminder of the town's great days as a destination for the upper classes.  One time we had a coffee in the Grand Hotel - talk about a total package of faded grandeur. I fully intend to stay there, but you can only book suites, not rooms per night. I love to imagine the local people, noses pressed to the glass of the 'Monkey House' Palm Court, watching King Edward VII in his 'monkey-suit', engaging in 'monkey business' with Mrs Keppel.
The Grand Hotel, Folkestone

   The old harbour area has been regenerated, as has the nearby 'Creative Quarter' - a few little streets with various arty crafty shops, eateries and galleries. It is a good barometer of the true state of the economy to observe the changing tenancies of these places, and the numbers of empty premises. As of Friday, I would read slight, and very precarious, recovery.....
    Much of the rest of the town, including the derelict docks area at sea-level, is grim. Levels of deprivation must be high.
    Talking of grim, Sue and Graham had just spent the night in the huge Grand Burstin Hotel by the harbour. It must have been busy when the ferry port operated, and is an impressive building - a 60s version of the Marine Court ocean-liner style. Oh boy, is it shabby now, and not in a good way. The public areas were like a working men's club, smelling of grease and loo-cleaner, and I couldn't believe this notice for hand-sanitizer outside the dining-room. It clearly caters for low-rent coach parties and probably asylum seekers.
Whatever kind of hotel is that?

    Anyway, we had a look at a few bits of art. One new building I liked, the Quarterhouse arts centre. It had a quotation from Yoko Ono on a mirror in the bar upstairs.
The Quarterhouse - with arty thing on top

Yoko Ono.....
    One installation consisted of what looked like a plastic bag of dog poo stuck in a tree. What was that about?
     I quite liked a fish and chip shop, where there were tanks of fish, whose droppings created fertiliser to grow hydroponic potatoes, and even pea plants for the mushy peas. Fish creating their own chips....

More art.....
     We went for a late lunch to the much-hyped Rocksalt, booked to show our friends a good time. It started off fine. The setting is perfect, with lovely views of the harbour from our table, but the longer the meal went on the slower the service got, until in the end we all got ratty waiting for our puddings.  The staff were none too pleasant either, and at the end a waitress stood over us repeating pointedly and faintly menacingly, 'the service charge is optional'... The food was OK, but a bit bland. I wouldn't walk across hot coals for it.
Perfect view from Rocksalt

     So, back in Hastings, the next day we went down to the Jerwood to view the new exhibition, those naughty, naughty Hastings bad boys the Chapman Brothers' 'In the realms of the unmentionable'.
     The first thing that struck me was that it actually wasn't very naughty or nasty at all. I expected it to be much ruder.  Are those naughty boys losing their touch? Is Battleaxe's shockability old and jaded?  In the first room there were huge glass cases, 'The Sum of all Evil'  containing thousands and thousands of little figures doing grisly things, some of whom were Nazi soldiers, some skeletons with Nazi helmets, lots of pink bodies, Ronald McDonalds etc. I always like looking at little model things, and it was quite fun, a cross between a model village and Hieronymus Bosch brought to life, but Nazis seemed a bit old hat to me.
'The Sum of all Evil'

      One piece of the wall blurb talked of swastikas as 'bankrupt forms'. If they are indeed bankrupt, why bother going round that particular symbolic Wrekin yet again?

      Then there was a big bronze with maggoty skulls, a wall of Goya-type engravings with naughty stuff superimposed on top, some old portraits with scabby rashes added to the faces, a 'children's room' with a lowered ceiling and a painting signed 'A Hitler', and some anatomical-looking bronze/ceramic things together with a couple of mannequins with no eyes.
      The exhibition has had rave reviews. As so often with these things, I felt the naughtiness was just about getting a rise out of us viewers, rather than making any serious point. Perhaps it isn't supposed to be serious. I don't know, and frankly, I don't particularly care.
      They could do maggoty much more nastily - how about some real maggots feeding on something nasty? Trouble is, they'd hatch into flies......