We set up the Inspiration Exchange in Hull, as part of the #ReROOTed weekender, celebrating the legacy of Hull Time Based Art’s Running Out Of Time Festival. A busy weekend of work from a brilliant range of artists, of different generations of performance art – from current Leeds Beckett University Performance students, to iconic artists like Alistair MacLennan, who I was lucky enough to share a space with.
Humber Street Gallery had set up a pop-up space, further along from and opposite their main space. It was a sunny weekend and Humber Street was busy with the festival crowd and regular punters there for the coffee, tapas, cakes and ceramics rather than the live art. Which meant a nicely diverse audience.
I was scheduled to do a mini, 2-hour Exchange, followed by a 30 minute break and then a short summing up performance. But that’s not how it turned out. Here’s the story of the day.
We opened a few minutes early, as we were ready and it seemed a shame to miss the families who were peering in to find out what was on.
I swapped DONALD BUILT A SWIMMING POOL (AND PHYLLIS SAW HIM)
For JIM THE VACUUM MAN
A mum, dad and daughter sat down, and though the mum suggested several possibilities the daughter rejected them all, and asked for the story of Donald and Phyllis. Afterwards there was discussion as to who would tell me a story back. Perhaps the daughter could tell me about sharks? (She loves sharks.) But in the end the mum decided to tell a story, which she told as much to her daughter, cuddled up next to her, as to me.
Mum’s Grandmother Doris used to be a Charlady in nice, big house in Cottingham. One day a door to door salesman – who we would later know to be called Jim – turned up, trying to sell them a vacuum cleaner. But the vacuum cleaner was still a relatively recent invention and people didn’t really know what they were or that they needed them, so Doris sent Jim away.
Undeterred, Jim came back the following day, wondering if they would like to buy a vacuum cleaner and was sent away again.
By the fifth day that Jim turned up on the doorstep, two things had become apparent: Jim was not a very good vacuum cleaner salesman (he hadn’t yet, and never would, sell a vacuum cleaner), and he wasn’t really there as a salesman. The following week Doris and Jim went for dinner together. And a year later they were getting married.
“And what’s amazing about that,” Mum said to her daughter, “is that if Jim hadn’t been so persistent, or if Doris, your Great-Grandma, had said no, then I wouldn’t exist, and neither would you.”
Then Dad gave us the title, to make it a whole family contribution.
I swapped MOTHER’S LOVE
For A BROKEN HEART CAN BE FIXED
Ellie is eleven. She’s had 17 major operations so far, six of them on her heart. That’s 56 hours of open heart surgery. We worked out that if that was all put together and they started now (Saturday lunchtime) they wouldn’t be finished until Monday tea.
Ellie’s mum and dad told me that damaged hearts are the number 1 birth defect in the world, and end up killing twice as many children as all childhood cancers combined. Ellie was born with three major problems with her heart:
1. Transposition of the Major Arteries
2. A Double-Outlet Right Ventricle
3. “There’s a technical term for it, but basically it’s a big hole in her heart. It could be worse though. Some kids are born with just half a heart. You’ve got a friend with only half a heart, haven’t you Ellie?”
They’d picked this up at the 12-week scan of course, so they knew it was coming. Ellie’s first heart op was when she was just 21 days old.
“But you look fine now, Ellie,” I said, “are you all fixed?”
“Yes!” she smiled.
“Well…” said Mum and Dad, “no…”
“Oh yeah,” continued Ellie, “I do need a new pacemaker, actually, and then when I’m about thirteen, I’ll need a whole new heart.”
Writing this up, 24 hours later, what I remember most about Ellie is how cheerful she was, how much she smiled during our conversation.
I swapped THE BROKEN TAXI METER
For THE SERIAL NUMBER
Mr. Stockey the history teacher tells his students about when he was at college, and they had a visit from a holocaust survivor. He told them about his experience, about surviving the camps and his life since then.
After his talk the students asked him questions. Mr. Stockey had asked him about the number tattooed onto his wrist. Why had he never had it removed?
“Because,” said the man, “it’s a reminder. My life is pretty good now, but even when it’s a bad day, I can look at that tattoo and remember that my life is always better than that time.”
I swapped LETTING GIRLS BE
For EVERYTHING HAPPENS FOR A REASON
When she was seventeen / eighteen Michelle was at college on a Tourism course. They were all on a field trip to Hollingworth Lake, which included rowing across the middle of the lake itself. An argument about who got one or two oars got out of hand – a stand up shouting match between Michelle and another (male) student, which resulted in Michelle going overboard.
The water was cold, dark and deep. Telling this story to her daughter years later, Michelle admitted that she was having a tough time in her life at that point, and part of her, in the water, struggling to breathe, sinking down, felt like giving up. Wouldn’t it be easier not to struggle?
And then, she clearly heard a voice in her head. “Michelle! Michelle! Wake up!” She could see the light, and she kicked her legs, and she found the surface. The other distraught students pulled her from the water, took her to hospital.
B., Michelle’s daughter, told me, “Two weeks later, she found out she was pregnant. So she got back in touch with my dad, who she’d actually split up with, and they got back together.”
B. tells me she’s not in touch with her mum anymore, but she loves this story. She first heard it when she was about six, and would regularly ask her mum to tell it to her again throughout her childhood and teenage years.
I had to ask. “When she found out she was pregnant, how pregnant was she? More than two weeks? Were you inside her when she was in the water?”
“I don’t know,” said B. “Maybe.”
I swapped JIM THE VACUUM MAN
For DEAD DOG IN A SUITCASE
A story about unlikely misfortune and teenage tenacity. Remember when you were a teenager and you forgot to water the plants, or feed the goldfish, or the hamster? Well…
T. was dog-sitting for her neighbours whilst they were on holiday. And one morning the dog was dead. She didn’t know what to do. So she called the family on holiday to tell them the bad news. They told her that she had to get the dog to the vet.
It was a big dog. So she lifted it into a (wheeled) suitcase, and then struggled down on to the underground with it.
Trying to manoeuvre the suitcase up the escalator the other end, two lads offered to help. Noting that the suitcase was very heavy, they wondered what had she got in there? Not wanting to reveal the truth, T. said, “Oh, some electrical stuff.”
At the top of the escalator she turned round to find that the lads had disappeared, taking their haul of “electrical stuff” with them.
The mum of one of T.’s friends told me this story. We imagined what would have happened next: T. having to phone the family and explain what had happened, that the dead dog had been stolen, and the two lads opening the suitcase and discovering what they had actually acquired…
I swapped THE SERIAL NUMBER
He was in the Navy in ’65, and in the climbing club. They watched a film about Chris Bonnington climbing in the Andes, specifically the Torres del Paine.
40 years later, he finally got there himself.
He was on a cycling trip around South America. Thinking he was about 120km away, the locals recommended a short cut that would take 50km off the journey – down a road they were still cutting out of the rock. Not yet suitable for cars, but on a bike he’d be fine. Midway along this track he found himself cycling between two lines of pink cable. It must be to mark the useable bit of track, he thought, until he reached the point where the cables ended in the crates they had been unspooled from, stencilled with the words CORDÓN DETONANTE.
As he neared then end of the track, the clouds dropped. Was he really going to get there, after 40 years, on the one day per year that had no visibility? But as the road ended, the clouds peeled back “like the lid of a sardine tin” and he saw it. Torres del Paine. Where the Andes come to an end. And he cried.
“Google it, if you get the chance,” he told me, “It’s beautiful.” So I did.
I swapped DEAD DOG IN A SUITCASE
For A BUDGIE’S TUMOR IN MY MOUTH
Amidst several un-repeatable stories about working as a veterinary nurse, a story about a first ever autopsy as a student nurse, performed on the titular budgie, with too much manual pressure, resulting in the titular mishap. My favourite detail, though, was how when they were busy in surgery, and the waiting room was full, rather than go out to explain that they were running behind, they would just find an excuse to send someone out front, still in their overalls, hands raised, covered in blood…
I swapped TAKE AWAY THE SCAFFOLDING
For A PINT AND A QUARTER OF GUINNESS
She used to avoid calling herself a musician. She could play the flute well, but she had a fear of improvisation. But she was invited along to a Gypsy Jazz Jam Session by a (now ex-) boyfriend.
They would set out playing a well-known theme, and then they (all men, the rest of them) would begin to exchange nods, eye signals, and off they would go, taking the lead in turns, and she would sit off to one side, looking at the floor, not making eye contact, just playing along on her flute.
Until one week, she made the leap, she took a chance, looked up, and took the lead. There was something different that week that gave her the courage. It could have been a number of things, but looking back, she thinks it was probably the one and a quarter pints of Guinness she had drunk…
I swapped I’M GOING ANYWAY
For SOMETHING WILL TURN UP
A story about sticking it out.
He agreed with a friend to rent a new studio together – but then the friend dropped out, after he’d signed the lease. Then he had to move house, and had lots of other stuff to do. After a few months of renting the studio, he realised that he’d been to there less than 72 hours in total – whilst paying more than his new mortgage to rent it. He said to friends that it wasn’t sustainable. Unless something changed, he’d have to get rid of the studio, and that would mean getting rid of lots of kit, which would mean not being able to remount several older pieces of work.
That night in the pub he got talking to a guy who asked him if he knew of anyone who had some studio space. And the following week he got the email asking him to re-mount one of those older pieces of work…
I swapped PATAGONIA
Panama is an isthmus – a narrow bridge of land – that has a disproportionately big influence on the planet. It’s emergence (about 3 million years ago?) separated the Pacific from the Atlantic, and caused the appearance of the North Atlantic Drift – arguably making the Northern Hemisphere habitable for humans.
Panama connects the two Americas, North and South. But Panama itself runs East – West. It is bisected by the Panama Canal, which in turn runs North - South, and connects the cultures of the Pacific and the Carribbean.
We began to talk about the political influence of this comparatively small country and the canal that runs across it, but we ran out of time… it’s a complex and fascinating place.
A group of four women gathered at the table, shortly followed by two men who I knew had travelled some distance to be there. In theory I should have been planning a quick summing up at this point, but it seemed more in keeping with the feel of the day to keep going. We carried on, running a sort of team ‘chain-reaction’ story-choosing-and-telling process for the last few stories.
I swapped EVERYTHING HAPPENS FOR A REASON
For THAT HOUSE SAVED MY LIFE
Moving house meant having to find a new doctor. After registering the family, E.’s Mum was offered a free screening, a service that was being extended to women aged 40 – 50, just in that area.
She wasn’t sure she could be bothered – the parking would be a bit of a hassle. But the family said she should go, and Dad drove her in and dropped her off. They found 3rd-stage breast cancer and operated the following week, saving her life.
I swapped A BROKEN HEART CAN BE FIXED
For THE GOAT WHISPERER
A volunteering adventure in Tanzania. After a terrifying, near-death experience with a charging elephant, the volunteers returned to the nearby village. C., who tells me this story, can do a remarkably convincing impression of a goat (she proved it to us all in the Exchange). So convincing, in fact, that goats would bleat back.
The children of the village could see she was upset about the encounter with the elephant. They took her hand and led her out to bleat at the goats for them, as they found it so funny, and because they could tell she needed the distraction… a small act of kindness.
I swapped AN ESCAPED LUNATIC ON CANNOCK CHASE
For SAINSBURY’S ARE NOT MY KIND OF PEOPLE
U. got a new job at a well known supermarket, who she felt, of all the supermarkets, was the most ‘her sort of people’. (Other supermarkets are available).
Her shifts started at 7am, which meant at 6.30am walk to work, when it was still dark and the streets were nearly empty. One morning a man (who she recognised), ran at her, chasing her down the street. She’d wondered before what would happen in a situation like this – how she would respond, how she would behave? She’s “not a quiet person” normally, would she scream and shout?
So what surprised her on this occasion, and what she remembers most strongly, is the quiet. She was silent. Her body just ran. No shouting, no wasting of breath. She was a good runner. She could beat him. Her body knew what to do.
U. asked her manager if she could change her shifts so she didn’t have to do the early walk to work. They told her to turn up as rota’d or hand in her notice. Perhaps Sainsbury’s weren’t her sort of people after all. She quit.
A couple of days later, her friend E.’s mum gave her a rape alarm as a present – a small act of kindness and concern.
U.’s story was clearly a response to the ESCAPED LUNATIC story – the right story to tell. But as a group we asked ourselves where the inspiration in the story was? Then we realised. As well as the kindness and the spirit: her body knew what to do.
I swapped THE LNG LAGOS & THE DEAD JELLYFISH
For CUTTING SOLDIERS
L.’s Mum had him so young (seventeen) that he was lucky enough to know all of his great grandparents as a child. His Nanna still lived with her parents, in fact.
By the time he was 10, his Nanna was caring for his Great-Nanna at home. Great-Nanna would often get up and offer to help, coming through to the kitchen to try to assist with the cooking. Nanna’s repeated refrain was that no, she would be alright, “go back to your chair.”
One tea time L. is helping his Nanna make boiled eggs and toast, when Great-Nanna comes through and offers to help. But this evening is different, and instead of sending her back to her chair, Nanna says yes, you can help, “you can cut the toast into soldiers.”
L. and his Nanna return to the boling pans of water, and it is only when they have taken the eggs out that they turn to to see Great Nanna’s handiwork. She’s been sitting at the table, meticulously cutting detailed soldier silhouettes out of the slices of toast.
Nanna and ten year old L. were delighted, and the memory still brings grown up L. great joy.
By this point we were half an hour past our finish time, so we had to wrap it up. Thanks to everyone who came in and told a story and/or listened to one.